Questions, Questions

Does anyone really have a family as unusual as Carnaby’s?

Yes in fact, everyone probably does – even you. Scratch the surface of any family and you will uncover its peculiarities. Your relatives are just as interesting as Carnaby’s. Even if it’s Auntie Jean nodding off over her Thursday night packet of peanuts, there’s a story to tell. Who amuses whom? Who infuriates everybody? What happens when an unexpected visitor drops in? Consider how in families, we drive one another bananas but still want to spend time together. Families have their own ways of communicating and doing things. They are like mini civilizations that have evolved behind closed doors; partially removed from the outside world.

What made you want to write about all this weird stuff?

I love observing people and places and settings and things. As a child, I was quite slow to start writing, compared to my brother and sister, but I stored everything up in the back of my mind. When I eventually found time to write, all these ideas popped out, often in a fairly random way. The result was a mixture of characters, impressions and ‘what ifs’. It is the ‘what ifs’ that make life so endlessly entertaining.

Why is the book set in Morocco?

The world is a fascinating, mixed up place. I like to think of us all as a sort of human soup of various ingredients. At any given time, you never quite know which morsel will bubble up to the surface. It could be a chunk of chicken but it could just as easily be a lump of leek. For the Carnaby stories, Morocco was the lump of leek, plus her dad is working on the sequel to the film Casablanca. (A very romantic film that makes dads feel protective and mums say ‘I can’t bear it: it’s just too sad, Richard.’)

Why did you call your characters these names?

The names seemed to suit them. There are some even nuttier names coming up in a few of the later stories.

Which of your characters are you most like?

My son would tell you that I am most like Aunt Amelia because he thinks I am eccentric, but actually my Aunt Amina, who is more wonderful than I could ever sum up in one single character, already takes that place in the family. I think there is a little of me in many of the characters. The tumbling twins are quite similar to my brother and I, who are twins (I am 5 minutes older, which is worth pointing out as any twin will know). We were once a squabbling pantomime horse and he did once get me to jump out of a tree (although he still denies this).

How about the other characters?

My older sister, who is rather brilliant, very resourceful and extremely kind had a childhood love of slugs, so she’s the most like Aunt Maud, as slugs are quite like leeches (although slightly less sucky). She also happens to know at least five facts about virtually every illness imaginable.

Is your husband more like Carnaby's dad or more like Carter’s dad?

He has the good points of each but few of the bad points.

Are your younger characters based on your children or children you know?

My daughter Bee is very like Flo – she tends to absorb discarded items of clothing and add them to her already complex wardrobe. She used to crawl around in a nappy, swimming goggles, a bath plug and three or four hats. My son Archie is most like Carter, as he is good in a crisis, fantastic at fixing things, and he endlessly humors his sister. My nephew collects information, just like Oxford and can already sing Happy Birthday in four languages (he’s working on another four). And my niece is a smart observer just like Carnaby – she also has only two names so she must be very well balanced.

How do you know how a character will behave?

That’s part of the fun, I never quite know how a relative will behave until he or she has met the others. Some parts are easy because stories are almost literal recordings of how my own flamboyant and often rather eccentric relations behaved. Other parts are developments of what could have happened had we crammed all of these colourful personalities into our house at one time.

Which character is your favourite?

It would have to be Carnaby’s dad, who despite the scowling exterior has a heart of gold. His quiet dedication to his work and his level–headedness makes it possible for everyone else to behave in such an extraordinary manner. That’s not to say that he might not have his own wild side, read on and you may see it coming out in some unexpected ways.

Do you rewrite?

Constantly. I rework, rehash, add a character here, remove one here or there. I even take the stories that I wrote for grown-ups and adapt them for children, and vice versa. The language may vary accordingly, but often the content remains remarkably similar. For me, storytelling is all about reworking and restyling, like telling a tale around a campfire. I believe that even the most familiar yarn should be embellished, truncated or lengthened morphed, turned upside down, turned inside out and turned back to front. A good story can be tailored at will, discussed at length or listened to with one ear by a toddler who would rather have a packet of sweets. Stories are ever malleable and that is why I love them so much.

Why do you use so many odd words?

When I was young, I often muddled up my words. I probably still do. This made me realise that if you treat words kindly and with humour, they will quite happily stand-in for one another. When they do, people will often still get the sense that you are trying to convey. In fact, they may get a more vivid account than had you employed the words in a more conventional way. As a word muddler, I’ll certainly never be an English teacher, but I hope that the Carnaby stories show that words needn’t always be taken too seriously.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

I wanted to create a series of books that was unusual – both in content and in apperance. As far as budget allows, I have cut holes in them, added details, inclusions and illustrations, mixed in definitions and hidden text and tried to make the Carnaby series memorable and exciting. I know that it makes no economic sense to offer all of these elements. I suspect that a publisher would have talked sense into me, limited the budget and paired me with an illustrator who was mainstream. I think that would have spoilt all the fun.

Why do you write for children?

When I was growing up, my father told my brother, sister and I stories that were so filled with extraordinary possibilities and wacky ideas that we used to imagine all sorts of different worlds and adventures and we always had a few preposterous plans bubbling away. Whether it was growing fields full of giant tomato plants, living in a series of disused rail tunnels, or packing up our aged Land Rover and setting off on a road trip to Afghanistan, we had something to get excited about. These crackpot schemes rarely came to fruition but we loved the planning. This combination of reality and make-believe made me realise how important it is for us all to have inspiration of an extraordinary and colourful kind. I think that influences such as these help us realise that almost anything is possible. A story, after all, is told for the retelling, just as a situation may be replayed and adapted in any number of ways. There are endless possibilities – both in life and in stories.

Will you write for adults too?

I actually do write for adults too, but at the moment I prefer to concentrate on these children’s stories.

How is writing for children different to writing for adults?

I have never really seen much of a difference between the writing I do for children, and the writing I do for grown-ups. It all comes out as writing. I actually started my career as a journalist, working for a television news agency. I wrote about wars and demonstrations and bus crashes and the occasional funny piece, such as Clifford the squirrel with the wooden leg or Elvis’ face found in half a tomato. Later when my husband and I left journalism to run a traditional British food-shop, I wrote press releases and publicity and copious notes on odd customers, strange suppliers and endangered foods. When people ask me why I have not written before, I answer that I have been writing one thing or another all my life.

Are you serious when you write?

I try never to take myself too seriously when writing, as I think that storytelling is about having fun and engaging with your audience. Language is something to play with, not to use to show off.

Why do you love writing so much?

To write a good story you have to have a good imagination, a potato is at the end of the day, a potato to everyone, but to some people it could be a tuber, with a whole world locked inside it. To others it will simply remain a potato.

I especially like writing for children because I have to work to keep their attention. A scene has to come instantly alive. I have found that the more preposterous it is, the faster children are hooked. If my central character were a pepper pot he would need to find a soul mate in a salt pot that sneezes when she inhales pepper. It just makes sense that way. I prefer not to over simplify, as I think that a child’s imagination will make something of even complex stories. Kids are tough critics, though, if they are getting nothing out of a story, they’ll drop it like a squished frog. (Thinking about it, they are more likely to lengthily examine a squished frog).

Why do you use so many idioms and so much slang if you are writing for children?

Idioms and slang can conjure up absurd visual images in the split second that one has a child’s attention. A phrase like: ‘He’s batteries not included’ says much more to me than: ‘He’s a bit strange.’ I am a great fan of slang and idioms, which I see as a shortcut to communication within groups. They make language vibrant, ever changing and perfectly suited to families.

Families are, after all, tiny social groups. We are all little tribes, which are developing our own rites of passage, means of communication, rituals and understandings. The family is the first group or club to which a child belongs and it most often remains the most important. Ask yourself what words or phrases are used uniquely or repeatedly within your own family? It could be the word used for a child’s favourite toy or blanket, or it could be a description of an emotional state, such as tiredness or over excitement. There are likely to be a few catch phrases that bind you together as a family. These are shortcuts to understanding – just like slang.

But aren’t all these strange ways of describing things going to confuse everyone?

I believe that to really appreciate language, it helps to love words; relishing the way they ‘sound’ and ‘feel’ to you. You can almost mentally suck a word or phrase, like a boiled sweet. Slurp away and you will get far more out of language than its simple meaning. You don’t have to know what is in a boiled sweet to find it delicious; a word is the same, or a sentence or even a whole paragraph. You can revel in it without knowing what it literally means. Frankly, it could mean anything you want it to mean if you are getting so much pleasure out of it. If you want to go on to explore the exact meaning of a word that is even better. That is why I have added definitions for some of the longer or more unusual words. The idea is that the reader who is interested enough will seek out the definitions, by using the magnifying card included in the book. Readers happy to let unfamiliar words remain gobbledygook are welcome to make up their own meanings. Their versions of the story are limitless and are equally valid as my own.

What is the point of nonsense?

Growing up, we were exposed to a fair bit of adult company, in which stories were told and retold and anecdotes were traded. Some of the content was too complex for us to take in but as children we grasped and retained the absurd. If birds flew upside down and forks grew on trees we were all ears, no matter how convoluted the tale became after that. We absorbed the ritual of the telling, the atmosphere, the sound and the timbre of the teller’s voice.

I believe that hot-housing children to achieve a certain vocabulary by a certain age can deter some of them from falling in love with language. Levels and word lists are fine but these needn’t be rigidly enforced. After all, if the average six-year-old child has acquired a 10,000-word vocabulary, why shouldn’t he or she slip in the odd delicious word, like ‘globule’ or ‘ninnyhammer?’ Equally, why shouldn’t a seven-year-old child say ‘Bandicoot’ instead of Christmas? The chances are that he or she won’t be stuck thinking that Bandicoot is the real word for Christmas aged sixteen, or even aged eight.

Why do you care if words become obsolete?

I care because I love the fact that so many words are out there just waiting to be used. In schools, with good reason, we learn so much about endangered animals and habitats and endangered tribes but we know very little about endangered words. English is a particularly rich language that is a patchwork of global influences gleaned from friends and foes, trade routes, and former colonies. I find it odd that children’s literature repeatedly makes up nonsense words when there are already so many intriguing or amazing words slipping out of use. I am hoping that Carnaby and her Great Uninvited can reuse and recycle some of those on the endangered list.

Why is your punctuation so all over the place?

For many of the same reasons as why I use slang and idioms. I think that the shifting or temporary relocation of a punctuation mark can open the door to a whole new realm of possibilities.
Consider this old favourite:
Let’s eat, Mum.
Let’s eat Mum.

I know which one would grab my attention first as a child.

Changing the sense of a sentence through punctuation can be a bit like getting on the wrong bus and finding that you rather like Putney on a rainy afternoon when you thought you were going to experience Sunday in Staines.

For years, I used to say Hozel-ock when I referred to a well-known brand of garden hose. It was only after almost a decade of marriage that my husband patiently pointed out to me that the name was meant to be said: Hoze-lock.

I still think Hozel-ock sounds more interesting.

Where do you live?

I live in Morocco, which sort of happened by a mistake. It started when our car blew up on a French motorway, leading us to buy an old London taxi as a replacement. It seemed such a comfortable way to travel that we set-off for Casablanca. We loved it so much that we decided to stay, and now we split our time between Morocco and England. In Casablanca, we have ten tiny tortoises, (yes, they are real) ducks of varying attractiveness, (I am sorry to say that a couple of them are really very ugly) and too many cockroaches to count. The cockroaches are less welcome and less attractive than the other members of the menagerie (even uglier than the ugliest duck), but we are trying our best to love them.

In England we live on an old Dutch grain barge called JoJa. We still drive the cab both in Casablanca and London. In England people try to get in at traffic lights and in Morocco people think it is a Rolls Royce.