Geraldine McCaughrean: Surfing the sea of stories

Who is the finest female children's writer in Britain today? Nicholas Tucker meets Geraldine McCaughrean and is spellbound by a truly magical imagination

Thursday 20 October 2011 13:12

"Where do your stories come from?" is one of those irritating questions facing any author. But in Geraldine McCaughrean's case, it is impossible not to wonder how and why she has managed to cover so much fictional ground in more than 130 books, written in less than 20 years. Ancient China, the Wild West, 18th-century pirates, South America, medieval Britain... you name it, she has probably written a novel about it.

There are also poetry, plays, picture books and retellings of history, fairy story and myth, with the Odyssey now in its sixth McCaughrean version. Far from this literary profligacy leading to a decline in quality, she consistently hits the highest standards. Three times winner of the Whitbread Children's Book Award, winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, McCaughrean is a rare literary treasure. To read her is to take a journey into an imagination that knows no bounds. Now translated into 27 languages, she is without doubt one of the finest children's novelists writing anywhere in the world.

So what about that other female children's writer, whose latest book has enjoyed even more than the usual fanfare? "Mention to a taxi driver that you're a children's author, and he instantly says, 'Suppose you'd like to be the next JK Rowling!''' she replies. "Well, no, because that's quite a treadmill she's built herself. But it just goes to show the impact she has made: 'Rowling, Bringer of Good Things', turning up as regularly as Halley's Comet to set the world a-shiver. Who would have thought ten years ago that a children's author could do that?

"God bless her for the happiness she's given her readers. Selfishly, I just wish she'd write thinner books and leave some room in bookshops for other titles. I hate, too, the tired PR wail of 'Is this the next Harry Potter?'; 'Is this the next JK?' Nobody says about a shooting star, 'Could this be the next Halley's Comet?'"

McCaughrean lives in a pretty Berkshire riverside house in Great Shefford with her 15-year-old daughter, Ailsa, already a promising novelist and actress, and her husband, John, a former naval officer. Interviewing her can feel something of an intrusion, given that she would prefer to be writing rather than talking. But she still comes over as hospitable and fully attentive, with only a few backward glances to the study where her latest book waits begging to be written.

She thrusts one page of her forthcoming novel The White Darkness at me before we start. It describes the feelings of Sym, adolescent heroine of the novel (due from Oxford in early September). "Inside my head I'm as articulate as anything, look," runs this passage. "But try and get out a thought and it's like pushing raw potatoes through a sieve. There are things roaming around inside my head as clever as Theseus in the Labyrinth. It's just that nobody ever gave them the necessary piece of string, so they'll never find their way out."

This, McCaughrean assures me, is exactly how she feels about herself. How such a witty and attractive person retains such thoughts is still something of a mystery, despite various clues reaching back into her childhood. Born in Enfield, North London, in 1951, the daughter of a fireman and a shy teacher mother, McCaughrean shared her home with an older brother and sister who both had brilliant careers at school. "My brother, whom I adored, typed out a children's book illustrated by himself... at the age of 14. My sister, with whom I always shared a double bed, had that effortless superiority of someone six years older and anxious to show it. But we were each as shy as voles. It seemed safer to keep to each other's company." All three children used to haunt the public library. Long imaginary games were played privately or with one another, often fuelled by the novels that they were reading.

Which is how McCaughrean got into writing. Day-dreaming so much of the time, it seemed a logical step to write down the stories with which she entertained herself. That way, "I could go somewhere else and be someone else who wasn't me." Secondary education at Enfield County Grammar School was a sad disappointment, with each day tinged by fear of not being liked, not understanding and, worst of all, failing exams.

Staying on to the sixth form, despite discouragement, she took two 'A' levels and went on to be a secretary before eventually training as a teacher. This too was not a success: "I wept my way through teaching practice." So it was a relief to work for a part-works publisher, where she was soon allowed to contribute some of the stories forever swirling around in her head. With confidence creeping back, her first long novel after a succession of shorter works, A Little Lower than the Angels, won the Whitbread Award in 1987.

Set in medieval Britain, this gripping story describes how the golden-haired stonemason's apprentice Gabriel runs away from his brutal master to join a troupe of travelling players performing Bible stories on a pageant cart. Biblical themes recurred in McCaughrean's 2004 Whitbread-winning novel, Not the End of the World. Set on the Ark, it portrays Noah as a bigoted cultist, with Ham and Shem his ruthless henchmen. It takes Noah's wife Ama to understand that no genuinely loving Deity could ever countenance the carnage caused by the great flood, described in pitiless detail and with strong overtones of the recent tsunami. Daughter Timna, and the two children she saves from drowning, escape to build a better world than anything that her deluded father seems likely to create. As in all McCaughrean's books, reaching a more or less happy ending is part of the package. She has no time for unresolved gloom.

Not the End of the World is still a dark novel, possibly reflecting the fact that, half way through, McCaughrean found she could no longer write. "I always thought writer's block was something that prats used as an easy excuse for not doing any work. But suddenly I literally could not put pen to paper. It was horrible." Battling through depression, strengthened by the slogan "Not a day without a line", embroidered by her mother and pinned to the wall, she finally finished the book after a pause of three years.

She also regained her peace of mind, and wants everyone to know this. "Do let me assert what a blithe, happy, skipping, carefree, laughing, hair-tossing, type of bon viveur I really am. That's the image I am now going to cultivate, since I am so sick of reading what a maundering, dismal, paranoid, suicidal, manic depressive I am. Best job in the world, and apparently I'm still too eaten up with self-hatred to look an interviewer in the eye."

Not this interviewer: I have met McCaughrean many times before without ever guessing there were bad moments as well as many good ones in her writing life. But she does remain caught up with her discontented teenage self, a version of which also features in the unforgettable The White Darkness. Outwardly diffident, 14-year-old Sym has a rich, inward life largely composed of imaginary conversations with her hero and soulmate Captain Oates, who famously gave up his life on Scott's doomed Antarctic adventure. Adventures that start as comic end up as darkly threatening but, all through these fraught times, Sym remains in conversation with Oates.

McCaughrean always avoids the didactic authorial voice and allows readers plenty of room for their own imaginative input. "You need to be able to climb into a narrative and zip it up under your chin. You need to be able to see through the eyes of the hero, smell what he's smelling, hear what he's hearing." Interest is also maintained by non-stop plotting. This presents no problem to a writer with such an extraordinarily fecund imagination.

She does more research now than with A Little Lower than the Angels, which - astonishingly - was written off the top of her head. Today there are card index files, but these are usually thrown out once they have become too bulky and oppressive. She is then free to get on with what she does best: acquainting herself with the various people and places currently thronging her imagination, and then writing about them.

Her novels bear out the advice once given to her by her mother: "Never boil your cabbage twice, dear." So with the possible exception of her sunniest story, Stop the Train, McCaughrean has no intention of writing any sequels to her widely divergent works: "What's the point? When a book's finished, it's finished."

Biography: Geraldine McCaughrean

Born in Enfield in 1951, Geraldine McCaughrean graduated in education at Christ Church, Canterbury, but never taught. Working for a publisher, she began contributing her own stories to part-works before writing her first novel, A Little Lower than the Angels. This won the Whitbread Children's Book Award for 1987; A Pack of Lies won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award for 1988. She also gained Whitbread awards for Gold Dust and, in 2004, Not the End of the World. Her next novel, The White Darkness, appears from Oxford in a month. In March, she was chosen by Great Ormond Street Hospital to write the official sequel for Peter Pan. She lives in Berkshire with her husband and daughter.

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