Author Q&A: Jacqueline Wilson

We Are The Beaker Girls
(Doubleday Childrens, £12.99)

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We were really lucky to be picked to get to interview one of the most famous and fabulous children’s authors when she visited Manchester with the latest book in her Tracy Beaker series.

Jacqueline Wilson was kind and she spoke really gently. When we asked her the questions she answered them in great detail.

It was a very early start for us both on a Saturday. We had to be at the school gates for 8.30am and then had a quick trip into the centre of Manchester.

We had both been to the Central Library before on school visits. On those trips we looked around and got to read some books but this time it was bit more important.

We were a bit nervous about meeting her. We had read her books but had not seen her before.

She had lots of jewellery – three bracelets and a large necklace with a cross on it and lots of rings on her fingers. She was really kind, she listened to us really carefully and she was interested in our questions.

When she isn’t writing, she likes to swim, read, take her dog for a walk and go on the beach. When asked how she would inspire us to become writers, she said we should read all the time, study and learn how to write. She told us her biggest achievement is her daughter.

What inspired you to become a writer?

I loved making up stories even before I could read. I just had a few picture books and I liked to look at a few pictures and sometimes I could remember the words and if I couldn’t I would just make up my own. Then as soon as I learnt to write I started writing lots of stories. There were no computers or tablets when I was your age so I just hand-wrote everything. Right from when I was young, that was always what I wanted to do so I got to be very lucky.

Which of the characters that you created is your favourite?

I have written 111 books now and trying to remember them all is quite difficult, but I think there are two characters who are my favourites. One is Hetty Feather, who’s a Victorian girl, and one is Tracy Beaker, who was 10 when I first started writing about her, but now she is a mum herself and the new stories about her are written by her daughter, Jess. Well, it’s me really, pretending to be Jess.

How old were you when you wrote your first book and what did you write about?

I said once that I wrote my first book when I was nine, but it was only 20 pages long. It was about the sort of children I write about nowadays – they were part of a big family. I was an only child and so I always liked to make up big families because that’s what I wanted to be a part of, but they all had their little problems and worries and I’ve still got that little book at home. The first book I actually had published was a quite a small book for young children and I suppose I was about 23 then with a little girl of my own.

Where did you get the inspiration from for Tracy Beaker?

With Tracy, I saw a feature in the newspaper about children in children’s homes needing to be fostered and there were all these photographs of real children. I thought, I wonder what it would feel like to be in the paper like this. I thought it would be worth it if you get to find a wonderful foster parent and find your forever home, but pretty embarrassing if all your school friends see it and tease you about it. So I thought I’d like to write this sort of story and just as soon as I thought it I got this idea of this rather fierce and determined little girl, and I thought, that’s the one – it’ll be Tracy.

What is the first book that made you cry and why?

Perhaps I’m quite hard hearted – I can’t remember any book making me cry. However, when I am writing my own books, mostly I’m in control and know what I’m doing, but I did write a book quite a while ago called The Illustrated Mum where the girl telling the story has a lot of frightening things happen to her and she is very, very worried about her mum. I didn’t exactly sob, but I felt very kind of watery-eyed as I was writing that part.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I did but because I didn’t come from a very posh home and my mum and dad thought I was silly wanting to be a writer I did have some sort of plan B. I always had short hair, though I longed to have long hair like yours, and I used to think that maybe if I don’t make it as a writer then I could be a hairdresser. I had friends with long hair and at playtimes I would always beg them to let me style their hair. As I got older, I loved libraries and bookshops so I thought if I don’t make it as a writer myself I could maybe train to be a librarian. I could work in a beautiful library like this one, or I could go and work in a book shop – really, something to do with books.

What is your favourite moment in the latest Tracy Beaker book?

Any of the bits where Tracy  and Jess get together and have a cuddle. I like all the fun scenes between them – there are some funny bits in it that amuse me and I hope they will amuse children. I also like how Jess meets up with a rather fierce person who’s not always very nice to her, but she manages to be sensible and kind and I think in the book she grows up a bit and she learns to sort things out, and she makes a lovely new friend.

How long did it take you to write the Beaker Girls?

About five to six months from when I had the first idea. Then I send it off. I always send it off to my illustrator Nick Sharratt first, just so he can see it, and then I send it off to my agent. Most authors have someone called an agent, who sells your work and guides you one way or another. She gets it and then she sends it off to my editor and the publishers. You know sometimes you’ve done a piece of work for a teacher and they say: “That’s OK but I really think you could have tried a bit harder and why don’t you have another go at doing it?” So far, touch wood, editors haven’t made me re-write it entirely, but sometimes there are bits and pieces where they say “No, Jacqueline, you could have tried harder here,” and make me do one or two bits all over again. The wonderful thing is, you can’t argue with your teachers, but when you are grown up you can argue with your editors and occasionally I say no, I really do need it to be this way, and mostly I win those battles.

What do you think I should do to become a great writer?

I think you should read lots and lots, not to copy anybody’s ideas but, simply, the more you read, the more it increases your vocabulary and you see how other people write and it just becomes more and more a natural thing to do. I suggest people who want to be writers keep a daily diary. Often you don’t feel like writing every day but if you can make yourself spend five minutes each day even when you really don’t want to be bothered it gets you into that regular writing habit. I do write nearly every day. I am a little bit mad – even on Christmas Day I will wake up bit early to get half an hour’s work done. If you wrote just for 10 minutes every single day then by the end of the year you would have written enough for a really quite chunky novel. You don’t have to write all day long every day because that would be tiring and so boring.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I like to read, I browse in bookshops and libraries, I like to swim and like to go to art galleries. I was here in Manchester quite recently and had a wonderful time in the art gallery. I have a dog so I also like to take him for walks. I live in the country and it’s near the seaside so we have a huge variety of walks to take, which he likes and I like.

What are your top writing tips?

If you’re writing for school it would be to make sure you have a beginning, a middle and an end, so you have to plan it out carefully. If you’re writing just for yourself then I would have a special notebook or bit on your tablet or your computer and just use it to think of a character, think of a situation and then just get started and see where it takes you. Enjoy exploring what happens.

Second, don’t get downcast when you read it through and it doesn’t work out the way it is supposed to. Sometimes you can work hard at it and when you are grown-up that’s what you have to do but when you are a child you can just think, never mind and go on to something else. That’s what I did.

Thirdly – keep your eyes open when you are wandering around. Sometimes I can be going down a street and there’s a child and there is something about them – maybe they’re sitting on the edge of the pavement looking fed-up – and you can think, why are they looking sad like that? What has happened to them? Or you might see some child coming into this library and running around noisily and nobody seems to be with them, telling them to calm down and be quiet, and you think, why? What are they doing there? Always notice things and they might spark you off writing.

Do you think you will continue writing books about Tracy Beaker?

I don’t know. At the end of this brand new book we see everything seems to be working out happily, but I am starting to wonder what happens next? If you write three books all connected do you know what it’s called? It’s called a trilogy. There’s just the two grown-up Tracy books at the moment, but there might be another one. However, I have already written another modern book about a slightly older girl coming out next year, and I am in the middle of writing a Victorian book about two girls, about your age. So there won’t be another Tracy and Jess book for a little while unless I really get my skates on.

What do you consider your greatest success?

If we are talking about me generally, I think my greatest success is my daughter, because I adore her and we are still very close. Having her was the very best bit of my life. Professionally, I’ve always wanted to be a writer and it is wonderful to have got this far, but I think my greatest success was maybe when I wrote my 100th book. That was a book called Opal Plumstead and it also dealt with historical things like the suffragette movement, where women decided to protest because they didn’t have any ability to vote in elections like are happening this week, and if you can’t vote you can’t change things and say who you want to represent you in parliament. You might have heard about what’s going on in parliament over the last couple of few years and I think it was an important subject and it was important for me to write about. I’ve done 100 books – now I’ve done 111. I certainly can say there’s no way I could ever manage 200 books so I don’t think I am going to set myself a target this time.

These were wonderful questions. You must have worked really hard preparing them. Over the years I have had a lot of journalists ask me a lot of questions and sometimes they are as beautifully prepared as you are and sometimes they really can’t think of a thing to ask or they ask things that aren’t really relevant. I would rate you 10 out of 10, both of you. Well done.

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