How We Met: Sally Gardner & Dexter Fletcher

'Sharing moments in grief opens you up as a person'

Dexter Fletcher

Since his acting debut as Baby Face in Alan Parker's 1976 movie 'Bugsy Malone', Fletcher has appeared in a series of memorable film and TV roles, including Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' and the HBO series 'Band of Brothers'. He turned to directing in 2011 with the crime movie 'Wild Bill'. He lives in London with his wife.

Sally is very colourful. She has pink-dyed hair and wears these wacky, free-flowing clothes, each a different colour. That was my first impression when I met her at a party on Boxing Day about 11 or 12 years ago. It was at a beautiful home by the river Thames near Richmond, and it belonged to a mutual friend of ours, Maria [Björnson, the late theatre, ballet and opera designer].

Sally brought her twin teenage daughters, Freya and Lydia, to the party, and during a long river walk with all of them I worked out that her kids both went to the same school I had gone to, in London's Muswell Hill, and even shared the same teacher.

Sally has a wonderful way of expressing things. She's quite dyslexic so she's one of those people who finds creative ways of doing it: she's very visual and has a great storytelling ability, which makes her wonderful dinner company; she fills a room with that presence.

Sadly, not long after we met, Maria died unexpectedly, and it was a big shock to us all. In retrospect, though, her death changed the terms of my friendship with Sally. Sharing moments in grief – when you see people cry and then laughing at the ridiculousness of it all – opens you up as a person, and we began talking about bigger aspects of our lives.

I knew Sally was a children's author of course. I got hold of I, Coriander once she'd finished it and it was such a good read that two days later, I was finished. My friend was a screenwriter so I spoke to him about adapting it for a film. It was a wonderful idea, but it never came to fruition.

She's let me see her whole writing process. Sally has built this amazing super-shed at the bottom of her garden, complete with a day-bed. It's where she writes and researches and once inside, she's possessed by this manic energy to make her deadlines.

She's more of a planner than I am. I've grown up through instinct: being a child actor is where my roots are and I'm someone who gets in the moment and takes inspiration from what's around me. She's more of an extrovert too. She's so full of colour inside her that it bursts out. I could say that I was surprised that it took so long for Sally to win the Carnegie medal [which Gardner won last Wednesday] but it would sound like I was being ungrateful on her behalf. She's a prolific, wonderful children's writer with a beautiful imagination, and I'm so happy for her.

Sally Gardner

After working as a theatre designer, Gardner turned first to illustration and eventually to children's writing; her book 'I, Coriander' has sold more than two million copies in the UK. Her latest title, 'Maggot Moon', has just won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children's writing. She lives in London.

I particularly remember watching Dexter in Derek Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio, in which he played the painter as a young street ruffian, and thinking he looked drop-dead gorgeous. He had this big mound of curly hair, and such a presence.

We had a mutual friend – one of my dearest, called Maria – and we met at her place on Boxing Day in 2001. I was with my teenage kids who couldn't believe that Dexter Fletcher was there, and Dex was so funny and good with them. He's one of the warmest people I've met. Then, alas, a year later Maria died.

We didn't really bond until after Maria's death. She died on 13 December 2002 and had previously worked on a show in New York, so we decided to all go and see its opening night. It was a sad time but quite funny too, as I ended up sharing a New York hotel room with Dex and his wife Dalia, with me on the sofa: small spaces are great for bonding and I loved his ability to be very quick-humoured.

When we returned to the UK he and Dalia lived in Maria's house for a long time, as the will – and the estate – was a terrible mess, and they helped sort it out. Dalia and Dex didn't have a place to stay at the time, so it worked out well: Maria would have been thrilled.

After I wrote the book Lucy Willow, about a girl with green fingers, I said, "Dex, would you mind narrating it for the audio book?" and he said, "Oh Sal, but it's about a girl – it hasn't got a chap in it at all!" But I really wanted him to. I told him, "Everyone says I'm a writer for girls, but if you read it, it will have a more universal appeal." I was so proud of him when he did it; but he was so nervous. He read it beautifully and it's one of my favourite recordings.

He's a wonderful man and he's given me some good advice over the years – particularly during the time I was in a messy divorce. He'd say, "Get on and live your life – look forward rather than looking back; enjoy it."

He's had a lot of demons and a lot of trouble in the past [well-documented problems include financial troubles and drug addiction] but he's always managed to find himself in it all. It's difficult being a child star – and growing up, but unlike lots of child stars, Dex grew up to be a gorgeous man. He may do this cocky, friendly "I'm one of you guys" thing, but underneath he's got a razor-sharp brain: there's a lot more to be seen of Dexter Fletcher, as a director.

'Maggot Moon' (£10.99, Hot Key Books) is out now. For more: sallygardner.net

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