Jacqueline Wilson: Just a girl's best friend

Jacqueline Wilson is now the most borrowed author in Britain. She talks to Christina Patterson about fame, families and her fear of failure
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Jacqueline Wilson's most recent book-signing lasted five hours. That's par for the course for a writer who recently overtook Catherine Cookson as the most borrowed author from public libraries in this country and who had four titles in the top 100 in the BBC's Big Read. She has sold more than 15 million copies of her books and looks set to sell many more. Not bad for a girl from a council estate in Kingston, Surrey, who started off in teenage magazines.

Jacqueline Wilson's most recent book-signing lasted five hours. That's par for the course for a writer who recently overtook Catherine Cookson as the most borrowed author from public libraries in this country and who had four titles in the top 100 in the BBC's Big Read. She has sold more than 15 million copies of her books and looks set to sell many more. Not bad for a girl from a council estate in Kingston, Surrey, who started off in teenage magazines.

This literary superstar, whose bright pink, orange and fluorescent green book covers scream out from the bookshelves of little girls' bedrooms all over the world, takes her coffee black. She takes her clothes black, too, in floaty, elegant layers that offer a suitably dramatic backdrop to her large collection of chunky silver rings. When she met Kathryn Webb, the winner of our recent review-writing competition, she was, Wilson says of herself, "a bit like the Goth granny". The 10-year-old, whom she met in the room at Waterstone's, Piccadilly that we're sitting in now, was "dressed all in black with silver bits". This is clearly a colour scheme that could become a mass trend.

Wilson's new novel, The Diamond Girls (Doubleday, £10.99), is also "black with silver bits". That's just the cover, though it could also apply to the content. Written in the voice of Dixie Diamond, the youngest of the four "Diamond girls", it tells the tale of an unconventional family whose move to a new council estate turns into a nightmare. Dixie, Rochelle, Jude and Martine live with their mother, Sue, an affectionate dreamer with a penchant for the tarot. When the wheel of fortune comes up, Sue decides it's time for a new home and a new start. Heavily pregnant with her fifth child (by a fifth father who is, like the others, absent from the narrative and their lives) she relies on her daughters and Bruce, a friend of one of her exes, to do the work. Within hours of arriving at their filthy, rat-infested new home, she goes into labour and the children are left to fend for themselves.

It is, as the jacket copy says,"tough on the outside, warm on the inside". Sometimes the Diamond girls yearn for an "ordinary mum who looks after us and a proper dad and a nice house". When Sue discovers that Martine, the eldest, is also pregnant, it triggers a family row. "Look at us," yells Martine, "stuck in this hideous house on the worst estate in England... Oh yeah, well done, Mum. You really know how to bring up a family... No wonder everyone calls you a slag." But Bruce unexpectedly leaps to her mother's defence. "Maybe you don't act like a little lady... But I do know one thing. Slags don't make good mums and you're a lovely mum to your kids".

It's a classic Wilson moment: a mini epiphany in which the conventions of happy families and parenting are turned on their head. As so often in Wilson's work, it's a compelling mix of gritty realism and warmth where the chaos is largely redeemed by love. "I love Diamond Girls" says Kathryn Webb in her review of the novel ( see page 22) "because it is all so real and emotional and there are so many things happening at once. You wouldn't be bored of it if you read it 67 times."

For some adult critics, once has been enough. Dreaming, perhaps, of days when children's books meant five on a bike in the countryside with lashings of scones, adventures and ginger beer, they have taken one look at Wilson's world of single mums, tattoos and trips to the pub and pursed their lips in a moue of Daily Mail disgust. "Some people have a very clear idea about my books without actually having read them," sighs Wilson. "They think they are much more outspoken than they are. Actually," she adds, "I think they're quite moral books."

She's right, of course, but it's also true that children with comfortable homes and happily married parents will be hard-pressed to find a mirror to their lives. Wilson herself had two parents who stuck around and loved her. Why is she so addicted to the non-nuclear set-up?

"I think," she replies, "I've always been automatically on the side of any person who's an odd one out or going through a bad time. So, it's just the way things happen. Sometimes," she adds, "people say: 'Why do you always write about unhappy or sad things?' And I do think, 'Oh gosh, do I?' and then I think through them and think: 'Yes, I do'. Each time I start a book I think yes, lighten up a bit. I don't know what it is about me... I'm a reasonably happy, cheerful sort of person and yet my kids do go through a hard time."

At a recent party, the host, the mother of a childhood friend of her daughter's, talked about "those dreadful children from the council estate". It was, she says, "by chance, the self-same council estate where I grew up. We thought," she adds, "that we were a cut above another council estate. We've all got different ideas of family life. For some mums, giving your kids a double portion of chips while you all cosy down on the sofa and watch a video is just as good as taking your child to ballet lessons and making sure they have carrot sticks instead of sweets. You can have very loving families who maybe do things that might not seem to be the wisest things, but somehow or other can muddle through."

It's a heart-warming view of human nature and one that clearly has massive popular appeal. In Wilson's work there is always a spark of redemption. In real life, of course, there is not. "Exactly," she says quietly. "If I were writing for older teenagers I might have a bleaker view of things. Writing for children, I feel yes, you can write about really worrying things, in as realistic a way as you possibly can. But I try hard to make them always end on a hopeful note... Although for many children, sadly, life is bleak and they're let down all over the place, I still want children to feel that somehow or other they can hang on in there."

Wilson's idiosyncratic mix of street cred and charm has won her not just an international following, but a string of awards. She has won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, the Smarties Prize and the Children's Book of the Year, and was awarded an OBE in 2002. Each new book is eagerly awaited not just by the critical establishment, but by millions of young fans around the world. How does she cope with this level of expectation? "There's never any security" she confesses. "That's the awful thing about writing. Once you've actually got there and you've done well, you're as insecure - if not more so - because inevitably you might write something that's not so good. I don't lie awake at night and obsess about it, but it is a bit of a worry."

Anxiety is, however, balanced by the pleasure of success. For many years, she says, "people within the children's book world knew who I was, but nobody else did". Ten years ago things started to "go up a gear" and five years ago they "went up into another gear altogether". It may, she confides, have had something to do with the break-up of her marriage. "Whether fate said: 'All right, Jacqueline, you've had a bit of a knock, so let's make things work out careerwise.' Who knows? But it gives you this enormous high when you get driven up to some bookshop and you see hordes of kids outside. It is" she adds "every middle-aged woman's dream, because mostly you're invisible."

It's just as well she likes it because there's no going back. Her five-hour signing in Weston-super-Mare was practically skiving. In Bournemouth this year, Wilson signed books for eight hours "without a loo break", a feat that's set to enter the Guinness Book of Records. It's hard to think of any other writer who has made such efforts to satisfy the needs of her fans. "All the time I'm signing," she says, "I'll talk to the child, ask their name, chat a bit. You don't stand in the queue all that time just to have your book signed and for it to be a 'next'."

Isn't it exhausting? And doesn't she get fed up? "Well," says Wilson after a pause. "I have twice been pursued into ladies' loos, which is embarrassing... Once I was in a changing room and I'd just managed to get my knickers on and this little girl came in with her mother and said 'Are you Jacqueline Wilson?' Mostly it's fine," declares the Goth granny of children's literature. "But when I'm on the loo or naked I prefer not to be recognised."

Biography: Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson was born in Bath in 1945, but spent most of her childhood in Kingston-on-Thames, where she still lives. She always wanted to be a writer and wrote her first "novel" when she was nine. As a teenager she started work as a journalist for teenage magazines including Jackie, which was named after her. She has been writing full-time all her adult life. She has written more than 80 books for children and has won many awards for her work, including the Smarties Prize and the Guardian Children's Fiction award. Four of her books were included in the BBC's Big Read top 100: Double Act, Girls in Love, Vicky Angel and The Story of Tracy Beaker. Jacqueline Wilson has sold more than 15 million books in the UK and was recently voted England's favourite children's author. Her new book, The Diamond Girls (Doubleday, £10.99), was published last week.