Q&A: 'I keep thinking it's time to retire then something comes to mind and off I go..' says author Anne Fine
Author Anne Fine has twice won the Carnegie Medal, Britain’s most prestigious children's book award, and has two Whitbread Awards, along with many other regional and foreign prizes. Twice voted Children’s Author of the Year, she was Children’s Laureate from 2001 to 2003, when she was also awarded an OBE for services to children’s literature and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her work is translated into 45 languages. Her novel Goggle-Eyes was adapted for the BBC and Madame Doubtfire became a hit for Twentieth Century Fox as Mrs Doubtfire, starring Robin Williams. Anne has two daughters and four grandchildren and has lived in Barnard Castle with her partner, botanist Richard Warren, for 30 years.
You studied history and politics at university – did you have another career path in mind at the time or had a love for writing already instilled itself in you?
I never thought of being a writer, though I enjoyed the masses of creative writing we'd done through school (not like now!).
In fact, the last English exam I took was O level. But I’m grateful for that now, because I come at writing entirely free-style.
The university choice was a petulant mistake. I was set to read Spanish at Kings, but it turned out I was six months too young for them.
Rather than wait, I more or less stuck a pin in a list of courses.
For years, I didn’t think I’d got much out of it, but something must have seeped in because it’s led me to write about a good many socio-political matters, especially for children.
When you started out, was it difficult to find a publisher for your work?
Not nearly as difficult as it would be now!
Back then, if an editor took to what you’d written, they had the clout to publish it.
Now that the marketers and bean-counters have taken over, it’s a committee decision, with many trip wires on the way.
I wrote my first book holed up in a freezing flat with a small baby, entered it for the Guardian/Kestrel competition and it was the runner up.
The UK’s most prestigious children’s book agent had been on the judging panel and took me on. So I was very, very lucky. My career path, though, was a very slow build.
These days, I’d have been dropped after the second or third book, as publishers no longer have that sort of patience. Now it’s high sales, or out.
Do you treat writing like a job – do you write to deadlines; have a daily routine etc? Or do you have a more relaxed approach?
I’m very relaxed about it. If I’m stuck, I’m stuck and I’ll go and clean the kitchen or pay the bills.
But I am hard working, so when it’s going fine I stick at it. One thing I learned at school was how to concentrate. I know when I am, and when I’m not; and if I’m not, I’ll knock off.
I’m intrigued by authors who write exactly 750 or 1000 words a day. Some days I just go backwards.
But since I never sign a contract until a book’s finished, I never, ever have to work under time pressure. I’d just hate that.
You are known for your children’s books, but you have written a number of novels for an adult audience – is the approach the same for both? How does writing for adults differ from that for children?
For children, I use the old journalists’ dictum: never underestimate the reader’s intelligence and never over-estimate their knowledge.
Certain things have to be surreptitiously woven in because you’re often taking a child into an area of life that’s completely foreign to them.
With adults, you can assume they’ve been on more or less the same journey through life as you have. Not much needs explaining. And you can take the gloves off if you’re writing about emotionally hard things.
With children, it’s quite important, I think, to be somewhat protective. I’ve little time for authors who mistake emotional manipulation for good writing.
How does one become Children’s Laureate?
The short list is drawn up in smoke-filled rooms by experienced people round children’s literature and illustration such as reviewers, librarians, publishers, educationalists, academics.
Some very good authors are extremely shy, and would hate the job.
Others are too disorganised by nature.
It’s fine that they might go round with their woollies unravelling behind them, but they would never respond to emails or be where they should be on time.
Laureates are always being asked to pronounce on things by journalists and some wouldn’t care to put their heads above the parapets that way.
So it’s a bit like one of those honours from the Queen – you’re asked beforehand whether, if you were offered it, you would accept.
What were the highlights of your tenure?
The work for blind and seriously visually impaired children. I bullied J K Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman and myself into donating enough to kick off a brilliant lending library project for Clearvision project.org, which has grown and grown.
Angus Forsyth (here in Barney) was generous enough with his time to make a marvellously intriguing tactile wall for the blind children of Linden Lodge School.
It looks like a bus shelter and the children swarm round it.
The main project, though, was persuading every children’s illustrator to provide a new, modern, freely downloadable bookplate for the website bookplates.uk.
I also gave endless talks and lectures, resulting in my accountant even querying the number of travel ticket claims.
Given how different children and young people are in today’s connected hi-tech world, have you had to adapt to writing for this new audience?
I always thought that, though childhood changed, children themselves didn’t. I’m no longer sure of that.
The way so many live now leaves almost no room for solitude and self-reflection. They’re relentlessly getting feedback on the tiniest things that happen.
Since social media bores me stupid, I can’t keep up with the zeitgeist and I’m not alone in this.
Plenty of older authors now write historical or futuristic novels, or sci-fi or cli-fi (climate change dystopias) because we can no longer reflect how modern children experience the day-to-day world.
I expect, in the end, we’ll mostly all throw in the towel for good.
You have been writing for the best part of 50 years and have just released your latest book – what inspires you to keep writing?
I keep thinking that I’ve had enough and it’s time to retire. But I get bored so quickly. Then something I really would like to explore comes to mind, and off I go again.
From a writing point of view, have you found the past 12 months a creative period, or has it been difficult to work during the various lockdowns?
I’m going to be honest. I’ve loved it. I haven’t been on a train since last March. And yes, I did get started on something new, which I’m revising right now.
You’ve travelled widely – what first brought you to Teesdale... and what made you stay?
I came for a weekend years before, and loved the look of it. Richard and I were glad to leave Edinburgh when the last child finished school.
We house hunted nearer our old folk in the Midlands and the south but that all seemed so horribly built up and busy and pressured.
So we wandered back north. Then I suddenly remembered: why not Barnard Castle?
As for why stay, who wouldn’t?
Richard enjoys the countryside and I’ve had to spend more time in other countries and cities than I’d ever have chosen. It’s always a joy to get home.
You’ve received a number of awards over the years – is recognition important to an author?
It’s certainly cheering. Kingsley Amis said that awards are wonderful, just so long as you’re the one winning them.
You only have to sit on a couple of judging panels to realise what a lottery they can be and, frankly, how much log-rolling goes on (though mercifully that’s very rare in the children's book sector).
Also, writing’s a solitary business and publishing can be a bit like dropping pennies down a well and never hearing a splash.
Prizes confirm that someone’s read your stuff and thinks it good.
Where can people find out more about your work?
My own website is www.annefine.co.uk.
The bookplates can be found at bookplates.uk (formerly myhome library.org). And information about the brailled picture books is at Clearvision project.org.