‘I always fancied myself as a writer. I always enjoyed writing at school. It was the thing I was good at,’ says Mary Hooper with delightful and rather unexpected candour since, in most other respects she is quite reticent and very modest.
With almost 100 titles to her name, Mary certainly is good at writing and luckily for her many readers she still loves it as much as she did at school and she is as busy with it as ever researching and writing a book a year as well as cramming in school visits and appearances at festivals.
But Mary is not just good at writing; she is brilliant at understanding her readers and communicating directly with them. Whether writing for a younger audience or for her most favoured pre-teen and teen audience, Mary knows exactly how to connect with them. All her books bustle along with a great sense of pace whether the adventure is on a huge scale as in some of her more recent historical novels or on the intimate and domestic scale of her delightful stories about the loveable and feisty Katie who appears first as a reluctant bridesmaid.
And it is not just the action that holds the readers. Mary creates excellent characters all of whom, whatever the setting, whatever the period, show resourcefulness and spirit that hold the reader’s attention and inspire them.
Who are these readers? Well, without apology, Mary does acknowledge that her books are for girls and that she doesn’t even really try to write for boys although she is, of course, quite happy for boys to come and find them. ‘I do a lot of talks in schools for girls but I don’t really talk to boys…’ she admits.
Mary’s most recent titles and her forthcoming Fallen Grace have historical settings but she first made a name for herself as a writer with a contemporary novel dealing without nonsense and in a simple and direct way with the most complex of all dilemmas: an unwanted teenage pregnancy. Published in 1999, Megan tells the roller coaster experiences of 15-year-old Megan’s life once she realises that she is pregnant. Mary gently explores all the possible points of view, all the pressures that Megan is under, all the conflicting emotions which she goes through; she never preaches and, above all, she never judges. That is a remarkable achievement and it is no surprise that Megan was named best teenage book of the year at the North East Book Awards in that year. Its ability to hold readers hasn’t diminished. ‘A teacher said, “It is a rite of passage for our year 8s. They all read it,”’ Mary says without any sense of boasting, just acknowledging the reach the book still has.
Most authors, with such success on their hands, would stick with it so it is impossible not to ask Mary why, having done two equally successful follow-ups to Megan as well as Zara, Amy and Holly among others, she turned to the past for inspiration. ‘After 20 years and about 15 or 20 teenage books I couldn’t think of anything more to say about contemporary life,’ Mary says apparently without any regret, later adding that how you get rid of the mobile phone and everyone being in constant touch with everyone else was too complicated to be bothered with. ‘I realised that the teenage dilemmas were much the same at any point but that with historical novels the background can be far more exciting. You’ve got the big events like the Great Plague or the Fire of London but also just little things like kidnappings which you just can’t do in modern times.’
But when Mary talks about her historical novels, it is clear that there is more to it than the feeling that she has mined the contemporary seam as deeply as she can. As she describes her inspiration for Fallen Grace and her current research for her forthcoming title, her passion for information about the past shines out. Since Fallen Grace features a 15-year-old who has just given birth to a dead baby, I had assumed that exploring how a teenage pregnancy would be dealt with at a different time would be one of Mary’s impulses for writing it. But no… ‘I’m going to get away from mothers and babies,’ Mary says – although she does concede that ‘if you are not going to have a big love story, you have to have a birth’.
Mary’s real inspiration for Fallen Grace came from her research. ‘I discovered the Necropolis railway,’ she tells me. ‘It ran from Waterloo to Brockwood and it had three classes for the mourning passengers and three classes for the coffins. Graveyards are anyway very gothic and compelling and I just loved the idea of Victorians wandering around the graves after their journey on the special train.’
The Necropolis railway was just one example of Mary’s extensive research. ‘I love doing the finding out of all the details,’ she says. ‘I immersed myself in the Victorians. They are easier to find out about than any other period partly because it is so well documented. Once you are in the character’s head in this world, it is easy to get going.’ Her major source was Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor which gives such graphic details, especially of the poverty of the time. ‘It is just so awful. There are just dead bodies left in rooms. It is not surprising that cholera was everywhere. Even Prince Albert died of cholera.’ Mary hoovers up the information and manages to fill her novels with nuggets of facts that bring the smells and sights of the past vividly to life without ever making the reader feel she has a card-index at her fingertips or that she is ‘telling’ them about the past; it is just the background against which the dramas of her stories take place.
Those dramas take a lot of planning and plotting. Here again, Mary is exceptionally skilled. ‘When I talk to children I tell them that knowing where to start is always hard. It is like having a big house with 16 doors and you are not sure which door to go in at. I usually make a false start and try one or two doors before I find the right one.’ But, once she has entered, Mary does have a clear plan of what will happen next. ‘I do always work out a plot before I begin. I get a piece of cardboard and divide it into as many chapters as I think it will be. I then sit down with the research and I put the point of each chapter onto the square with a post-it note. That means I can get the pace right.’ It all sounds very sure footed and scientific until Mary quickly adds, ‘And then I shuffle it about a bit and I usually change the lot as the story goes along…’
Writing across this huge canvas with its research and complex plotting is a far cry from how Mary’s career began. Having failed both the 11+ and the 13+, she went to the local school. ‘I left school at 14 – just before my 15th birthday. That was it. School ended, there was nothing more.’ Mary grew up in Barnes and on leaving school got a job as a window dresser in a shop near Oxford Street; ‘it was a little bit arty which was what I wanted’. Luckily for her, she progressed to an office job which sent her off on a one day a week typing course where she also joined a literature class and discovered Shakespeare, among other writers, for the first time.
But the love of writing that Mary had at school never died. It is, as she says, ‘how I do my thinking’ and, armed with the ability to type and having the time after her children were born, she began to submit stories to the then highly successful teen magazines such as Jackie, Blue Jeans, My Guy and Romeo. ‘I was lucky. I hit the right time. I was writing 1,000 words stories that ended in a snog. I got £14 for the first story I sold to Jackie. D C Thompson were very helpful and encouraged me to write more stories for them and then to write serials. Both were very good practice for writing a book.’ Such was Mary’s success that she was even asked to write the astrology column for Jackie. When I ask what skill was needed? She replies with the one word. ‘Imagination!’
Whether in what the stars may foretell or how her heroines’ lives unfold, Mary is never short of imagination and her ability to weave it so deftly with real historical events gives her many readers the delight of hugely entertaining and authentic adventures which bring the past vividly to life.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of the Guardian and the co-director of CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).
A selection of Mary Hooper’s books
(published by Bloomsbury in pbk, unless otherwise mentioned)
Fallen Grace, 978 0 7475 9913 5, £8.99 hbk
The Betrayal, 978 0 7475 9910 4, £6.99
At the House of the Magician, 978 0 7475 8886 3, £6.99
The Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose, 978 0 7475 7582 5, £6.99
Megan, 978 1 4088 0354 7, £6.99
Holly, 978 1 4088 0420 9, £6.99
Zara, 978 1 4088 0421 6, £6.99
Amy, 978 1 4088 0418 6, £6.99
Katie: The Revolting Bridesmaid, 978 0 7475 8611 1, £4.99
Newes from the Dead, Definitions, 978 1 86230 363 8, £6.99 pbk