I entered Jean Ure’s house to find myself vigorously welcomed by something resembling a pack of fox hounds, although readers of Jean’s books will know that if she were anywhere near a hound pack it would be to wave a banner in protest at the killing of animals for sport. Jean, her husband Leonard, six dogs and two cats live in a 300-year-old house in suburban Croydon, close to a railway station – Jean’s concern for environmental issues extends to a refusal to drive, so she relies on public transport to reach the conferences and school book weeks she attends regularly.
Upstairs is a room devoted to music – another of Jean’s absorbing interests which is often reflected in her writing – with outsize speakers, a sofa and floor cushions so the dogs can listen in comfort, too. Jean’s study is on the ground floor, furnished with an impressive table (found on a tip years ago and carried home), a walnut desk and shelves overflowing with books. On the desk are heaps of correspondence and ten or so brand-new books which Jean is about to register for Public Lending Right – by the end of this year she’ll have published five new titles, and there are others newly issued in paperback or reprinted. A glass-fronted cabinet is entirely filled with Jean’s books – five shelves full, jammed tight, with newcomers waiting for space. Readers of BfK will know how prolific Jean is as a children’s author, covering the whole range from first readers to challenging teenage novels. They may not realise she has other identities, too; there are at least three other names represented on the shelves, including Sarah McCulloch, writer of Georgian romances, who appeared in the early eighties. ‘After having my first book published while I was still at school, I was desperate to be a professional writer,’ Jean explained. To earn a living she translated Sven Hassel’s novels from the French, tried her hand at various short-term jobs and then decided to write historical novels for adults. ‘I enjoyed writing the Sarah McCulloch books because I could pretend to be Jane Austen, but I’ve no desire to go back to it now. There were endless battles with editors over what I could and couldn’t put in the books. There’s far more freedom in writing for teenagers – I can’t think of a single subject you couldn’t tackle if you handled it carefully.’
Jean certainly doesn’t shrink from taking on controversial subjects, as a quick trawl through her recent teenage output will testify: homosexuality in Play Nimrod for Him; society’s treatment of the elderly and jobless in A Place to Scream; a teenager’s death from cancer in One Green Leaf; government secrecy and deception in Plague 99 which won the Lancashire Book Award. ‘I don’t want to preach, but I do want people to question their own beliefs and prejudices.’
Although she doesn’t write with didactic intent, there is certainly no doubt as to where her sympathies lie on the subject of animal rights. Reviewers have occasionally objected to this, but discussing it we agree that a novelist rarely presents a topic neutrally; fiction is much more likely to show the difficulties and grey areas which confront a character who tries to make a stand. Jean’s novels don’t suggest simple answers to tidy problems and even the strongest-minded characters may not find it easy to stick to their principles. Always Sebastian, a sequel to If It Weren’t for Sebastian, shows that the animal rights issue isn’t just a matter of black versus white; Maggie, heroine of the earlier novel and now a mother, suffers from compassion fatigue in the face of her daughter’s realism and Sebastian’s illegal exploits. Increasingly, Jean’s own commitment to animal welfare – she’s a campaigner for Animal Aid and the National Anti-Vivisection Society – finds its way into her books, even when not an issue; Judith in Dreaming of Larry, for example, is a vegetarian, and the heroine of the new thriller, Faces at the Window, has very definite views.
Jean says that food can be a difficult ingredient in her books; ‘I couldn’t write about people eating meat, not characters I like, so I either have to make them vegetarian or avoid mentioning what they eat.’ From her visits to schools – sometimes to represent the views of the Vegetarian Society rather than as an author – Jean is encouraged to find many young people share her concern for the environment and for the humane treatment of animals.
Social realism is always a feature of her writing, even when her subject is the traditional teenage fare of friendships, school and romance. The characters’ backgrounds are always convincing: an early novel, A Proper Little Nooryeff, which deals with the embarrassment of an unwilling male ballet dancer, draws clear distinctions between the home lives of working-class Jamie and his partner, Anita, and the relative expectations of their parents. Characters from differing backgrounds also come together in The Other Side of the Fence in which Richard leaves his affluent right-wing parents after a row and teams up with Bonny, a streetwise and amoral survivor; the outlook of each is broadened by the unlikely pairing.
I’d supposed the teenage novel was Jean’s preferred genre, but she told me that writing for the younger age groups brings her a different kind of satisfaction. ‘I like the ideas I can explore in a teenage novel, but with the younger books there’s a conciseness that pleases me. Also, I can be happier!’ She’s written extensively for this age range with popular titles including Wizard in the Woods and Jo in the Middle. A recent book for the 9-12 age group, The Children Next Door, has, unusually for Jean, a ghostly element. I commented that all her books, regardless of intended readership, are very skilfully paced. She attributes this to her years of experience in writing for the adult market.
Through conversations with readers, Jean has discovered teenagers seem to enjoy bleak endings; some have said they would have preferred David’s death in One Green Leaf to be directly portrayed, and that they wanted Gillian in A Place to Scream (already a frightening enough vision of Thatcher’s Britain taken to extremes) to be left completely without hope. In fact, once or twice Jean has given way to an editor who asked for something to be toned down, but she insisted on having her own way with Come Lucky April, the sequel to Plague 99. In this novel, which is concerned with the evolution of new communities following the devastating plague of the first book, Jean describes a society dominated by women, in which men are castrated as a measure of social control. ‘Miriam Hodgson, my editor at Methuen, didn’t think I ought to go as far as having them castrated, but without it a main point of the book would have been lost.’ (The book’s dedication is to ‘Miriam, who fought me womanfully every inch of the way’.) The balance between the need for communal safety on the one hand, and individual freedom on the other, is examined here and in the final part of the trilogy, Watchers at the Shrine, in which time has moved on but attitudes to women, in particular, have regressed. The trilogy wasn’t originally planned as such; the idea for the final part came about because Dennis Hamley, reviewing Come Lucky April in the Times Educational Supplement, wrote ‘the trilogy must be completed’. Jean needed no further encouragement to approach Miriam Hodgson with the idea for Watchers at the Shrine, which contrasts future societies organised along widely differing lines; one of the communities treats an antiquated nuclear power station as a religious shrine, without realising that it’s responsible for the outbreak of deformity among new babies. Chris Powling described this book, two BfK issues ago, as so compelling that he felt it should have been longer.
Although Jean’s name would certainly appear on any list of popular writers for teenagers, and in spite of her enviable position as a writer whose books are greeted enthusiastically by both reviewers and readers, she isn’t optimistic at present about the outlook for teenage fiction. ‘Writing for pre-teens is much more in demand. Teenage books just aren’t selling enough to make money, apart from horror stories. When I visit schools I may find that one or two teenagers read voraciously, but a lot of them don’t choose anything more demanding than “Point Horror” or “Babysitters’ Club”.’
When she’s at home, Jean writes for most of the day, between 9.30 and about 6.00, with frequent interruptions from dogs and the telephone. Although she usually has several books at different stages of production, she works intensively on one from start to finish, without breaking off to do something different. ‘It’s painful starting to write; that’s why I try to keep going once I’ve begun.’ Apart from the initial difficulty, she says that writing comes easily to her: ‘because most of it’s half-written in my head, or in the form of copious notes’. She showed me some pages of a first draft, hand-written on lined paper in a mixture of shorthand and longhand. ‘I always write my first draft by hand, and use a typewriter rather than a word processor. I type up each chapter as it’s finished, revising as I go. When the first draft is finished, I read it aloud and make more corrections. It’s very important to read aloud, to show up the faults.’ Does a writer of her experience ever get stuck, I wondered? ‘Not very often. If it does happen, it’s because the scene is wrong in some way, and I need to think of a different way to do it.’ Of her earlier books she says, ‘There are some parts I can read with pleasure, but looking back I often wish I could rewrite from the character point of view. The reward of writing is capturing characters on paper – feeling that you’ve done your duty by them, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.’
Many writers would feel that their most high-flown aspirations had been fulfilled if they achieved a fraction of Jean’s output. I asked whether she still had any particular writing ambitions. ‘Mainly to carry on writing about subjects that interest me or rouse me, or things I feel passionately about.’ There’s no doubt that she will. The safe in her office contains a wallet folder bulging with plans and notes for future novels – some sketchy, some outlined in detail, at least one she can’t wait to start. That glass-fronted bookcase is going to need an extension.
Photographs by Richard Mewton
Some of Jean Ure’s books:
Play Nimrod for Him, Bodley Head, 0 370 31184 1, £7.99; Red Fox, 0 09 985300 0, £2.99 pbk
A Place to Scream, Doubleday, 0 385 40013 6, £6.99 pbk
One Green Leaf, Bodley Head, 0 370 30784 4, £7.99; Corgi, 0 552 52506 5, £2.25 pbk
If It Weren’t for Sebastian, Red Fox, 0 09 960800 6, £3.50 pbk
Always Sebastian, Bodley Head, 0 370 31536 7, £7.99
Dreaming of Larry, Doubleday, 0 385 40011 X, £7.99; Corgi, 0 552 52615 0, £2.99 pbk
A Proper Little Nooryeff, Bodley Head, 0 370 30470 5, £7.99; Corgi, o 552 52711 4, £2.99 pbk
The Other Side of the Fence, Corgi, 0 552 52466 2, £2.99 pbk
Wizard in the Woods, Walker, 0 7445 1530 0, £7.99; 0 7445 1717 6, £3.50 pbk; Chivers Audio, £12.85
Jo in the Middle, Red Fox, 0 09 997730 3, £2.99 pbk
The Children Next Door, Deutsch, 0 590 54150 1, £5.99 pbk
Plague 99, Mammoth, 0 7497 0333 4, £2.99
Come Lucky April, Methuen, 0 416 15712 2, £9.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 1015 2, £2.99 pbk
Watchers at the Shrine, Methuen, 0 416 18824 9, £9.99
Faces at the Window, Corgi, 0 552 52790 4, £2.99 pbk