The illustrator and author of Where Bear? and Pom Pom reveals the real-life inspiration behind her beloved (and very grumpy) panda
What do you always carry with you whenever you travel?
I always have a notebook/sketchpad and pen or pencil with me, especially when I travel. It’s often in those moments gazing out of a train window that your next big idea will pop into your head. Also my phone, credit card and Bobbi Brown blusher.
What is your earliest reading memory?
Hmm, well it’s not exactly reading but I remember our living room being filled with extended family and I was sitting (aged about five, I think) on the sofa clutching a Famous Five book someone had bought me. It was way beyond my reading years but I was so thrilled to have an actual Famous Five book I sat pretending to read it. With the book upside down. Classic.
When did you know you wanted to write?
Well, initially I desperately wanted to be a detective! When I was about seven or eight, I longed to stumble across some smugglers or a stolen race horse like the Secret Seven always seemed to. Sadly, I never did. But this must have been the inspiration for my first novel, which I vaguely remember starting to write aged about eight. It was a murder mystery, obviously, and I wrote it on my new, rather snazzy, pastel palm tree clipboard.
With no crimes to solve, I shifted my focus to fashion, combined with some serious ideas I had about being a journalist, and I ended up doing a degree in fashion communication and promotion. My tutor was less than enthusiastic about the way I wrote, so I focused on the design side. She would probably roar with laughter to see me being described as a writer. I must confess, it makes me chuckle sometimes too – in a good way.
I think I had always hoped (ever since watching Little Women when I was tiny and idolising Jo) I would write, but didn't dare admit it. Once you admit something like that, then you have to try to make it happen, which is rather petrifying, but ever so exciting, too.
What are your influences/inspirations?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. A sweet wrapper, a song, a mood, someone you see in the street, a newspaper story, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open. Pom Pom was inspired by real-life events – a very lovely and sweet little girl was having a bit of a moment and stomping around the house telling everyone to ‘Go away!’ She was very persistent and eventually everyone did.
As soon as she realised she had succeeded, she got a bit worried and a bit sad. I found this incredibly endearing and a little bit funny, and the idea of Pom Pom Gets The Grumps came from that. It really reminded me how tough it is to be a toddler, all those new emotions and situations you have to try to fathom all the time. And if I'm honest I want to hurl myself on the floor and yell after 20 minutes in the supermarket, but as a ‘grown up’ I mask it and carry on to the biscuit aisle.
Saying all that, sometimes characters pop out of my head and into my sketchbook, completely out of the blue, with the hint of a story about them and it's up to me to try and winkle it out of them. That's what happened with Where Bear? I absentmindedly painted a polar bear in a dark wood and he looked a bit lost, and the story went from there.
Books and authors I’ve loved include…
The first book I remember really loving was Janet and Allan Ahlberg's Cops And Robbers. I loved all the detail in the illustrations, the little visual gags tucked away in the pictures for you to hunt out. And the main character’s scandalous behaviour was very exciting. I think the rhyme and repetition really added to the fun of it, ‘Ho! Ho!’ After that I loved Milly-Molly-Mandy, like a lovely, cosy, hand-knitted blanket. I dreamed of having days like hers, surrounded by her nearest and dearest. And there was a map at the front of the book. Who doesn't love a map at the front of a book?
After that is was detective stories all the way, The Secret Seven and Nancy Drew. These days I do love a Nancy Mitford.
What are you reading (or rereading) at the moment?
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I’ve only just started it but it’s wonderful. The relationship between the young girl and her grandmother is beautiful. I am really interested in those cross-generational relationships. There’s more room for fun when you take the responsible parent out of the picture.
Who is your favourite fictional character (one you didn’t create) and why?
Pippi Longstocking, for the sheer joy of her, and Clarice Bean, who is funny because she's true.
Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with and why?
Auntie Mame [from the novel by Patrick Dennis], because you know you’d have a fabulous time.
Which fictional location would you most like to visit and why?
Alconleigh, the Radlett’s family home in Nancy Mitford’s novels. So I could sit in the Hons' cupboard and listen in to all the gossip.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and what would you serve?
The cast of Modern Family in character. I’d cook something hearty and not particularly fancy, I think we’d keep it pretty casual!
Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…
Cluedo – I will take you down.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I try not to feel too guilty about pleasures, but I suppose a bag of Percy Pigs and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (ideally together) might fall into that category.
How do you prefer to write – by hand, typing?
Well, for getting ideas down and mapping them out I prefer hand. But for the actual process of writing I prefer typing as I can keep up with my brain more easily that way.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Peace and quiet (ish), and tea. LOTS of tea.
What’s the best thing about being a published author and illustrator?
There are so many lovely aspects of this job – the glow of seeing your book somewhere, working with supremely talented people, reading a nice review, visiting amazing festivals, bookshops and schools and getting to highlight causes close to your heart. But for me, the absolute best is when you see or hear of a child really loving your book.
I've been sent a recording of a little chap, who was still learning to speak let alone read, ‘reading’ Pom Pom with his daddy. You can hear how much he cares for Pom Pom and I must confess, I might have welled up when I heard it. A mummy recently told me her daughter loved Pom Pom so much she tried to climb inside the book. Children are honest, brutally so sometimes, so when you hear things like that you feel like you might burst. Super!
What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?
Write! Just sit down and write until you write something you like. I realise how ridiculously obvious that sounds but it's the truth. Sometimes ideas pop out of your head fully formed and sometimes there is just the core of an idea. Whichever way it happens, it will probably require editing and honing, rearranging and refining. Some days it feels almost easy and others it's like getting blood out of a stone, but whichever day you are having, keep writing and I am almost sure that at some point something good will appear.
I heard Noel Gallagher saying on Desert Island Discs that he believes songs are falling out of the sky all the time, you just have to be in the right place to catch them, so he writes every day, ready to catch! I take comfort in the fact that even geniuses have to work hard and consistently at it.
The greatest sentence you’ve written so far?
‘He was full of the fidgets and feeling fantastic!’
How do you celebrate finishing a book?
A quick bask in the glow of a job done (hopefully well) and then by tackling the hideous “to-do” list that has been growing as I’ve been ignoring everything else but the book I am finishing. Also I do try to do something nice with my daughter, a thank you to her for letting me get my head down and finish! A mooch round the shops, a nice exhibition, lunch or cinema type of a thing.
And finally, what’s the question (and answer to the question) no one has ever asked you but you wish they would?
Would you like this original William Nicholson oil painting? (Answer: yes, please)
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