An image with a photo of author Abi Elphinstone standing in front of a collage of the sea. There are images of purple crabs, the book cover of The Worst Witch and Wuthering Heights, and 21 Questions in graphic text.
21 Questions

‘Don’t look sideways. Look ahead, write the best book you can’: 21 Questions with Abi Elphinstone

The author of Saving Neverland on serving Roald Dahl pasta, dreaming of being a Blue Peter presenter and arm wrestling with fellow author Piers Torday.

Writing a modern sequel to a children’s classic from the start of the 20th century is no small feat. But bestselling author Abi Elphinstone took on the task and has brought Peter Pan and Neverland firmly into the 21st century.

In Saving Neverland, we’re taken back to Number 14 Darlington Road which the Pennydrop family has recently moved into. Martha Pennydrop is 10 years old and desperate to grow up and leave behind all childish fun and magic. But when she and her younger brother Scruff discover a draw filled with mysterious gold dust in their new house, they’re catapulted onto an adventure most could only dream of.

To celebrate the release of her new book, we caught up with Abi to ask her our 21 questions about life and literature. Below, she shares her love for courageous female characters, writing in the Norwegian fjords, and swimming in REALLY cold water.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Kate DiCamillo for humour. Katherine Rundell for beautiful sentences. Michelle Paver for plot and atmospheric settings. David Almond for making the ordinary extraordinary.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy. I loved that the heroine, Mildred Hubble, was hopeless at the things that don’t really matter (brushing her hair, tying her shoelaces, and being on time) but brilliant at the things that do (being brave and loyal and saying yes to adventures).

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

At secondary school, I giggled and chatted my way through every single lesson; the teachers claimed I was ‘unteachable’ and ‘prone to spasmodic outbursts of silliness’. But my English teacher, Mrs Johnson, was enthralling. She brought stories to life for me and one, in particular, blew me away as a teenager: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The heroine was unhinged but brilliant, the setting was beautiful but wild and the plot was, for the most part, deeply tragic which probably appealed to my teenage sense of melodrama.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which I read as a child. The heroine, Lyra Belacqua, showed me that girls can be just as courageous as boys, adults, and even armoured polar bears.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside of being an author?

'Don’t look sideways. There will always be writers doing better than you and writers doing worse.'

I’ve had a lot of jobs but I’m not sure any of them have been that strange: cleaner in a hotel, dinner lady in a school, a chef in a ski chalet, TV researcher, PR manager for a chocolate company, English teacher in a secondary school…

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Don’t look sideways. There will always be writers doing better than you and writers doing worse so looking sideways will either make you feel inadequate or arrogant. Look ahead, write the best book you can, and don’t spend too much time on social media. And never give up in the face of rejection. It took me seven years, three failed books, and a whopping 96 rejection letters from literary agents to get my first book deal.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Tell Me A Dragon by Jackie Morris – because my kids beg me to read it every night at the moment! They love the idea that every child in the world has a dragon of their own and every dragon is different.

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A Blue Peter presenter. Apparently, you get to bounce on a trampoline while answering interview questions.

What makes you happiest?

My family. And the wild.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Swimming in really cold water. I live on the east coast of Scotland and the sea here is freeeeeeeeeeezing but plunging in makes you feel great (afterwards).

What is your ideal writing scenario?

My husband’s ancestors are Norwegian (apparently one of them invented the fish finger…) and every summer we go out to a hut in the Norwegian fjords. We eat what we catch: crabs, mussels, cod, and mackerel – and I love writing on the rocks there, looking out at the sea.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author experience?

I once had an arm-wrestling competition with bestselling children’s author, Piers Torday – and won.

'I once had an arm-wrestling competition with Piers Torday – and won.'

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Roald Dahl. And I’d serve him Nonna Tonda’s tortiglioni with Tuscan sausage and broccoli filaro. I don’t even know what half those ingredients are but Nonna Tonda does the most delicious pasta deliveries and with three kids under five years old at home, I’m short on time so cooking’s on the backburner…

What’s your biggest fear?

Sharks. And I find hamsters disproportionately terrifying. I think it’s something to do with their tiny feet…

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I’d love to fly.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?


Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

If it’s Lindt’s extra creamy milk chocolate, then chocolate. If it’s wotsits, then crisps.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Skellig by David Almond is up there.

What inspired you to write your new book?

When Puffin Books asked me if I’d like to write a modern sequel to Peter Pan my first thought was that I didn’t have time. Puffin were keen for a first draft in the same year I was set to move house (three times) and have my third baby. But then I re-read J. M. Barrie’s classic story and on discovering that the book ends with Wendy Darling’s daughter saying Peter has asked her to go back to Neverland to do his spring cleaning, I realised there was most definitely time for a story. Especially one that would tell young girls they can go to Neverland to slay pirates, solve riddles and save the day – rather than just hopping across to do the housework…

Saving Neverland by Abi Elphinstone is out now.

Image at top: Flynn Shore for Penguin

Sign up to the Puffin newsletter

Stories, ideas and giveaways to help you spark young imaginations