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Interview: Geraldine McCaughrean, author

07 December 2010

I was born a writer. It’s just that it was 28 years before I got paid for it. I worked as a secretary at Thames TV, then was persuaded to go and “improve myself”; so I trained as a teacher. My mother rightly observed that I would hate it as much as she did (owing to shyness). So I never taught, but got a job in publishing, first as a secretary, then a copy editor.

The world of children’s books is more frank, less glamorous, and clearer in saying what it wants. (It used to be less money-driven — no longer, sadly.) An adult author has to be presentable, interesting, glitzy even, which defeated me. But children’s authors get treated like honorary children, especially by the media.

I prefer adult audiences when I am giving talks, because largely they have chosen to be there.

Peter Pan in Scarlet, the sequel to J. M. Barrie’s book-of-the-play, sold all round the world; so it has to be my Number One. But then The Orchard Book of Greek Myths has stayed in print for nearly 20 years. My best play will, of course, be the next one I write.

I’ve written four nativity picture- books of sorts. The Jesse Tree is a fifth, I suppose, and, being for older readers, gave me more room to explore the transforming power of story. Mr Butterfield’s faith has ossified; the boy makes him re-experience the stories, and revives his joy in them. It’s up to the reader to decide if the boy is Christ paying him a visit.

I never knew about Jesse trees when I was young, and I don’t remember the Crusaders being big on Advent. My sister, a Reader, has in­troduced me to all sorts of things C of E. Interesting, isn’t it, that the Amer­icans are so keen on Hallowe’en and on Jesse trees?

I write adventure. The past is richer in danger, death, mayhem, and derring-do; so it is easier to set plausible adventure stories there. I also want to transport readers as far from the here and now as possible, and to put them in the shoes of people quite unlike those they meet from day to day. Those, I think, are the functions of my kind of fiction — escapism and close identification with someone like you but not like you.

Religion and love crop up a lot, naturally — I like tackling the big issues that affect everyone, young or old. Even adventure books need an emotional and moral (not moral­istic) element.

Collecting and retelling stories from around the world and from the past have given me a distaste for any exclusive religion, and, though I still favour Christianity over any other I have come across, I esteem God too vastly complex to be claimed, named, and mapped by any one explorer.

I wrote Doctor Faustus because I studied the Elizabethan and Jacobean era at college, and loved it. I love Marlowe’s rococo style and the grandeur of his imagination. Faustus is a mess of a play, thrown together in the wrong order, bits missing, and spoiled for a modern audience by unfunny farce. But Faustus himself achieves something of the splendour of Satan in Paradise Lost. I like Marlowe for implying the pursuit of knowledge is legitimate rather than a sin.

My earliest ambition was to be a horse, though I would have settled for being a North American Indian or a spy. Being a writer did not occur to me because in Norf London’s Enfeewd — Enfield: a lifelong un­fulfilled ambition has been to shed the accent — authors were even rarer than horses.

I don’t feel as if I have ever made a choice — just stepped out of the way of stampedes and tried not to bump into the furniture. Not true, of course. I suppose marriage is the greatest choice anyone makes. Mine gave me the courage to give up work and write full-time. That is, of course, the least of what it gave me.

My biggest regret is that my parents did not live to see me make a living out of writing, or to read many of my books. Dad would have ap­preciated The Jesse Tree. Mr Butterfield is named after his Sunday-school teacher, whose holiest dictum was: “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

I would like to be remembered by my friends as agreeable. I would like to be remembered by readers as a miasma of images, phrases, and excitement. There’s not a chance they’ll remember my impossible name.

I have had a few inspirational teachers along the way. One at college, Sister Jadwiga, a Dominican nun, who taught us to relish Webster, Sidney, Marlowe, the right sequential flow of written words — oh, and life, too.

The sermons at Blackfriars Priory in Oxford were the most thrilling by far, infused with spirituality. The one I heard from a young newbie Baptist minister, in which he argued that the pen was the most dangerous weapon in the world because it led to subversive thinking, did change me, in that I realised ministers aren’t always bright or right.

I always thought the Noah’s Ark story didn’t do God any favours as a character reference. The Hebrews should never have nicked that story from the Sumerians, or, if they did, they shouldn’t have changed the plot to the detriment of their own One God. I like Mark’s Gospel best, for its simplicity and directness.

I would never choose to go to the places where I set my books — too dangerous, too uncomfortable. Except perhaps the wine-dark sea of Odysseus, the cork woods of El Cid’s Portugal, or the chateaux of the Loire. I like sunshine: I can write in the sunshine, and wherever I can do that, I’m happy.

CRB checks enrage me, and this has nothing to do with the business of authors visiting schools. We are educating our children to think of all adults as sexual predators and potentially dangerous. Don’t tell me: “If it saves one child it’s worth it.” It won’t: crime will simply shift ground. Meanwhile, for a hundred per cent of children, we have sexualised childhood, poisoned their imaginations, and outlawed vital shows of affection.

My actress daughter brings me unalloyed happiness. She is my vicarious hold on a thrilling future full of brave deeds and grand achievements. I love being with her. She makes me laugh, and breathes new life into me.

I don’t have happy feelings about the immediate future, but every­thing is in a permanent state of change, and history rolls round with its inexorable swings and round­abouts, bread and circuses, Ages of Gold and ages of dross. I’m trying to take the long view.

My husband says I must choose him to be locked in a church with, but I say he’d get very grumpy with only pews to sit on. So I’ll choose John Donne, who was wildly ro­mantic, wildly sexy, very partial to imagery, and whose sermons could reputedly enthral people for hours at a time.

Geraldine McCaughrean was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Jesse Tree is published by Lion (£8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-7459-4935-2).

Job of the Week


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