For a winner of the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Prize, the Smarties Grand Prize and overall winner with children for The Demon Headmaster, Gillian Cross is unnecessarily but refreshingly modest. She is unpretentious about her work and speaks neither as ‘a great writer’ nor as someone who ‘just loves kids’ (though both are true). She sees herself as lucky, not in terms of her success, but in terms of how her life has shaped itself without too many conscious decisions having to be made. No angst about career versus children or choices of lifestyle. She talks about her work plainly but with suppressed passion and humour, a conjunction which matches her books neatly.
Gillian’s modesty would make it all too easy to underestimate both her ability and her professionalism about her writing. Having married as a student and taken her finals after the birth of her first son, she has always managed to combine writing with children – and knows no other life. She got a First at Oxford (which she brushes aside claiming that it was only because all her friends had left and she could therefore concentrate on the work) and did a D.Phil at Sussex immediately after, thinking she might be an academic.
With that behind her and two young children, Gillian became secretary of the Lewes Children’s Book Group. ‘The organiser was terribly keen. You can imagine, the Lewes Children’s Book Group was tremendously nice. I went to a meeting and I suddenly thought it’s time I did something.’ (As if she hadn’t been doing anything before.) And what she did was start writing.
The Children’s Book Group was her first encounter with the contemporary children’s book scene but Gillian had always kept in touch with children’s books which she puts down to the fact that ‘I didn’t have much of a gap between being a teenager and having small children.’ But it was reading K M Peyton’s The Beethoven Medal which really inspired her. ‘I can remember coming to the surface at the end, dazed and blinking. As though a door had opened. It made me realise that a novel has at heart to be a good story and that was what I wanted to write.’
And, after that, there was no stopping her. ‘I wrote in ear plugs so I wouldn’t be distracted by the television. I wrote a dreadful book that I hawked about a bit and nobody wanted, but I went on writing. Once I’d written one I knew that was what I wanted to do. But I wrote five before anything got accepted.’
Now that takes persistence and a certain amount of self-confidence. For all her modesty, Gillian gives the impression of being a very sure person. She puts much of her ability to write – and to go on writing – down to having done a D.Phil. ‘I think the thing that made writing books possible for me was writing a thesis. Pacing is the thing that stops people writing a book. They can’t understand imaginatively what it’s like to do that. You can say to people that it takes nine months to write a book and they can say “yes, yes” but they can’t relate that to their experiences when they sit down to write and so they can’t do it.’
Gillian has clearly never had any problems with the self-discipline that writing involves, though she says it was her husband Martin who really got her organised to get published. ‘After the fourth book which nobody wanted, Martin said, “You must make a chart of the books you have written and who you’ve sent them to and work it out properly.” It certainly helped.’ As it happens, two novels were accepted simultaneously: The Runaway by Methuen and The Iron Way by Oxford University Press. Both were published in 1979 and Gillian went on writing. ‘It takes me about nine months to write each of the big books.’ Nine months in which she works on a particular title, researching, drafting, ‘tweaking’ and writing the final copy. She tries to plan it so that a title will be finished by July in time for the school holidays but, obviously, that is not always possible. ‘I’m known to complain about having to go to Majorca – and I never get any sympathy.’
‘I write for my own satisfaction. I get a kind of notion about what I’ll write.’ Her ideas and inspirations are many and varied which is why her books are always so different from each other. ‘Where I start from depends on what I am doing. The idea for The Demon Headmaster, which is by far my most successful book with children, came from the bit in Save our School where Clipper writes about the wicked headmaster. Our daughter, Elizabeth, who was nine, said “I really like the story of Clipper’s about the Headmaster. It’s much better than the sort of books you write. Why don’t you write a story about a wicked headmaster?” And she went on and on about it. Then David Fickling rang and said, “Why don’t you write a really gripping book. A rousing yarn. Something that eight to twelves would like.” And I thought, I know what my eight to twelve really wants. And that’s what got me started.’
But, it wasn’t all plain sailing. When she had written The Demon Headmaster she discovered that she’d woven two books in together. One, which later became the basis of Twin and Super-Twin, had to be extracted leaving The Demon Headmaster to become the book we now know:
‘But his eyes were not pink. They were large and luminous, and a peculiar sea-green colour. She had never seen eyes like them before, and she found herself staring into them. Staring and staring.
“Funny you should be so tired,” he said, softly. “So early in the morning.”
She opened her mouth to say that she was not tired, but, to her surprise, she yawned instead.
“So tired,” crooned the Headmaster, his huge, extraordinary eyes fixed on her face. “You can hardly move your arms and legs. You are so tired, so tired. You feel your head begin to nod and slowly, slowly your eyes are starting to close. So tired and sleepy.”‘
‘Once I’d thought of the hypnotism I couldn’t believe that nobody had thought of it before. It seemed so obvious.’ Gillian laughs almost guiltily about this but with an element of triumph, too.
But, although this creation was so successful, Gillian did not stick with it – partly because, for her, the fantasy premise was hard to control and she did not feel totally confident with it and partly because other ideas crowded in. A visit to Cragside in Northumberland inspired Roscoe’s Leap. Gillian had intended to include something about hydraulics in the book but when she came to do the research she found that she couldn’t understand it because she didn’t know enough maths. Instead she married the impact of Cragside with detail about mechanical toys.
Place is always important to her but her prize-winning books have come from quite different inspirations:
.. and the thing leaped out of the shadows – mouth open vast, black, slavering – its red eyes glaring and its hot, foul breath strong on her face – huge and grey, with the wolf legs kicking free of the human clothing – all animal, all beast – and no time to think of Nan or what to do or how to avoid the stained, curving, murderous teeth and the blackness that came rushing, rushing, rushing, no time and no defence and nothing to do except scream and scream and screamandscreamandSCREAM-‘
Gillian won the 1990 Carnegie medal for Wolf which has been frequently and highly praised for the power of its many-layered storytelling. She thinks the idea for writing a book about wolves came from a suggestion ‘that it would be dead good and lucrative to write a book about werewolves’. She quickly discovered that it might be, but not for her. Instead, ‘it started with the bit at the beginning where Cassy wakes up and it had a general feel of wolfishness and that it had something to do with her father. And I knew it would involve danger, serious danger.’ The plot and the power of it came later.
Gillian rarely plots a book before she starts – except in what she calls her ‘little books’ which have to be carefully worked out if the story is to fit the length. She even wrote a grid for The Tree House. For her ‘plots evolve out of situations’. Even The Great Elephant Chase with its enormous canvas was not worked out in detail, although she knew very well some of the things she wanted to include. The force behind the book was Cissie. ‘I’ve always had her. I’ve had her for years kicking around, waiting to go in a book. And then I thought, I’ll put her in there.’
Similarly, in Chartbreak she had the voice of Janis in her head long before she wrote the book. ‘I know nothing about pop music but I had to write this book.’ Gillian makes the idea of an external, almost spiritual force directing the writing seem surprisingly natural. And yet, even with these two forceful heroines, Gillian worries about her ability to describe characters. ‘It’s more the interaction between the characters than any particular one that really matters to me. People always think that you must have strong characters and that’s sort of right. And clearly you don’t want to have such weedy characters that nobody can remember who they are. But actually, what children do is to identify, so you need the main character not to be too obviously unlike the reader.’
Gillian gives the impression of having been changed remarkably little by the tremendous success of both Wolf and The Great Elephant Chase. She never refers to the awards she has won and it would feel almost vulgar to do so.
Mostly she still stays at home – writing. And, with a brick wall only a few feet from her study window, it’s clear she doesn’t want or like to be distracted by casual interruptions. About once a month she goes on a school or library visit because ‘it stops you feeling sentimental about children in groups’ and because writing is lonely. For the rest, she has two children still at home and is actively involved in the life of her village, something quite separate from her writing.
With so much success stacked up behind her you’d think writing the next book would be easier. Not so. Gillian says it takes her longer to write now than it did when she started, that the writing is slower. Nor does the success of a previous title convince her about the viability of the current one. ‘I’m now at the stage with the book I’m writing at the moment where it seems impossible that I shall ever write it. When I say that to Martin, he says “That’s what you always say” which ought to be terribly comforting but isn’t really because you always feel that it’ll never happen again.’ Luckily, she laughs as she says it. Maybe she doesn’t quite believe that it won’t.
Details of the books mentioned:
The Demon Headmaster, Puffin, 0 14 031643 3, £3.50 pbk
The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, Puffin, 014 0369910, £3.50 pbk (April 1995). In hardback this title is called Hunky Parker is Watching You, Oxford, 0 19 271705 7, £8.99
The Iron Way, Oxford, 0 19 271642 5, £4.00 pbk
Save Our School, Mammoth, 0 7497 05914, £2.99 pbk
Twin and Super-Twin, ill. M Bradley, Puffin, 0 14 034825 5, £3.50 pbk
Roscoe’s Leap, Oxford, 0 19 271557 7, £6.95; Puffin, 0 14 034013 0, £3.50 pbk
The Tree House, ill. Paul Howard, Mammoth, 0 74971767 X, £2.99 pbk
The Great Elephant Chase, Oxford, 0 19 271672 7, £8.95; Puffin, 0 14 0363610, £3.99 pbk
Chartbreak, Oxford, 0 19 271508 9, £6.95; Puffin, 0 14 032458 5, £3.99 pbk
Wolf, Oxford, 0 19 271633 6, £7.95; Puffin, 0 14 034826 3, £3.50 pbk
New World, Oxford, 0 19 271723 5, £9.99 (see back page of BfK 90 for a full review of this title)
The Runaway is now out of print