Jacqueline Wilson interview
“I’m very alarmed,” says the famous woman sitting next to me at the Covent Garden Hotel. “The bullying, the distressing roles, the crying, all makes you so anxious for those children. It’s compulsive, but very disturbing.”
Jacqueline Wilson could almost be talking about her own fiction but she is in fact considering the Channel Four programme Boys and Girls Alone which has been causing so much controversy this month. Wilson, who is referred to, hurtfully, in some middle-class households as “the devil woman” has published the second part of her autobiography, My Secret Diary. It sounds more suggestive to the adult ear than it is; like her books, it contains an utterly unpretentious story about a young girl, born the year after the War ended, and her problems with dating, dancing, dreams and friends. Her passion for writing has made her Britain’s best-selling children’s author, with over 90 novels to her name, and our former Children’s Laureate . A heroine to a generation of children between 8 and 13, she is also almost as reviled by some parents as another popular British author, Enid Blyton.
The hostility to her work is a little puzzling, because her fiction (unlike Blyton’s) is free from racism, sexism or any other kind of liberal bugbear. Her stories are about children in moderately difficult circumstances – with parents who quarrel, or don’t have enough money, or with friends who bully them, for instance. Standard fare, perhaps, but the difference is that these children live, as the author herself once did, in council flats and go to state schools. Some, like her most famous creation Tracy Beaker, are the bully not the bullied. One or two even die.
“Some people think they know what my books are about when they haven’t read them,” Wilson says, her friendly face creasing in distress. “They feel I’m in favour of bad behaviour or swearing. Some even think I write about drugs. If you check my books, there’s nothing of that kind. Mostly, my books are about outsiders, kids who don’t fit in. I feel they’re quite moral tales, although they do show that there are things even loving parents can’t always protect children from. Children recognise the truth of that.”
If you read her two volumes of autobiography, Jacky Daydream and My Secret Diary, it’s obvious where many strands in her work come from. Her civil servant father and book-keeper mother married “too young”, and not happily; Jacky was an only child, whose desire to write was fuelled by loneliness (though she was increasingly blessed with the kind of friendships which she describes so well in her fiction) and love of reading. Her second volume outlines her private struggles to look nice despite disastrous hair-dos and clothes, and ends with her finally meeting a nice boy at fifteen on holiday; but it also describes a humiliating row between her parents in the presence of her best friend, in which both mother and father stormed out of the car, leaving them alone for several minutes.
“It’s a bit like walking a tightrope, picking and choosing what to say about real people,” she observes. (Her mother Biddy, who never reads her books, is still alive.) “I didn’t want to write a misery memoir – whimpering is not elegant. Also, as a mature adult, I can see the black humour.”
She wasn’t beautiful, rich or popular. Her father was prone to rages. Her diaries, faithfully reproduced, could be those of any mildly bookish teenager discovering the Brontes, film, and the “crass stupidity and insensitivity” of a teacher who shouted at a poor girl in her class who came to school in grubby bedroom slippers. Unlike her own daughter Emma (now a Reader in French at Cambridge, to her immense pride) she failed at school, and her one regret is not having had further education. Yet at 17, just after this volume ends, she submitted stories to DC Thomson that were good enough for her to get a job as a journalist , leave her family and move to Dundee.
“It was very good for my confidence, and as a way of making different friends,” she says. “I was very poor – I had £2.15 left after rent – and at first I was so homesick I’d go into the Dundee Woolworths just because it smelt the same as the one near home! But I knew that I didn’t want to be a typist.”
Jackie, the girls’ magazine that most women in middle age remember with affection, was named after her when the publishers were searching for a new title; she contributed about 65 articles for it, often doubling up as a teenage model for knitting patterns. Her burning desire to write is what made her remarkable long before her success; and what is not often noticed is that her own books consistently point her readers towards other good books in this realist vein, from I Capture the Castle to Billy Liar .
When people talk about the new golden age in current children’s fiction, what they tend to think of is the fantasies of Rowling, Pullman and Horowitz. Jacqueline Wilson writes in the tradition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess, E. Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Her characters are modern children coping with poverty, envy, depression, divorce and powerlessness; if they find new strength, hope and happiness at the end it’s never of the fairy-tale kind. She is the custodian of their fears, not the repository of their dreams.
“I never built up a fantasy world, though I have written a book with magic in (Glubbslyme, about a girl who finds a 17th century witch’s familiar), early on. I do feel that if you reflect contemporary life your books are going to have a limit of about two generations before they fade away – like the Victorian author, Mrs. Molesworth, or even Noel Streatfeild. But what I hope my books do is help children feel they aren’t alone.”
All her novels use the first person, and it’s the sameness of Wilson’s narrative voice – artless, confiding, despondent – which critics find problematic, though children respond to it with insatiable enthusiasm. Each heroine finds herself with a different set of problems at home and school; some are young enough to just be starting sleep-overs, while others are adolescents falling in love. Knowing that she has the power to influence children makes her ultra cautious about every element of her story. She once dropped a reference to a child sniffing glue, on the advice of her editor, because even though she made it clear this was stupid and dangerous there was a risk a child would get the idea of copying it.
One of her best novels is The Illustrated Mum, about a girl coping with a manic depressive mother addicted to tattoos. Wilson herself knows what it’s like to count pennies. Emma was educated privately, but on a scholarship; it was when Jacqueline encountered the parents of her daughter’s school friends at home, commenting on the “terrible children from the council estate” where she herself grew up, that she got some of her richest material.
Wilson is the reverse of snippy, and gently amused by the recollection. Yet it is this consciousness of class, and the gap between what the more or less privileged child is offered which is possibly what middle-class parents most object to, not least because she refuses to show the child from a poor family as being automatically miserable and deprived: the columnist Rachel Johnson has described her own daughter’s perverse longing to live in a council flat after encountering the Wilson oeuvre. At the very least, she has achieved her ambition to make readers “see that other girls are exactly the same inside, even if they’re brought up differently.”
All of this has made Wilson herself financially successful to a degree that she could never have envisaged in her youth, where her parents squashed in one room of her grandparents’ flat in Lewisham until she was six. “When we got a council flat, my mum burst into tears because she was so happy, and had her own kitchen for the first time in her life.”
Divorced from her policeman husband, she lives not far from the council estate where she grew up in a big Victorian house in Kingston-upon-Thames. If you have a daughter, you will have encountered not just her books but her brand – the pencil cases and duvets, all illustrated in the same bold, brightly-coloured way by Nick Sharratt. When I tell her that I’ve met boys who complain about her “girly” pink covers and say they’d like her to write about their sex more often (she has written two), she laughs and says that she doesn’t feel confident about tackling a boy from the inside.
Ideas, she says, “just pop into my head”, and she still writes them in notebooks (despite increasing arthritis) because otherwise she gets “bored and fidgety”. She deeply dislikes the way primary school children are taught to plan stories out in advance in creative writing exercises, saying tartly: “it’s not as if they’re drafting a report!” (typically, she qualifies this by saying that “planning can still help you not run out of time.”) Her writing is so compulsive that, until recently, she was producing two novels a year, selling over 25 million books in the UK alone. At 63, she became ill last year with heart problems, and needed a pacemaker fitted. She shows me the small neat scar below her collarbone, (adding proudly,“my wonderful surgeon has a daughter who was a fan”) and reveals that six months of convalescence encouraged her to write her first historical novel, Hetty Feather, set in the 1880s, inspired by having become a Fellow of the Thomas Coram Foundling Museum.
“She’s a fierce, feisty creature but very much one of my heroines,” she says beaming. “I thought it would be a bit of a challenge, but I love the period and thought, I’ll give it a go.”
This very modest, very British willingness to “give it a go” is the secret of her success. Her seven huge silver rings, her smart ankle boots, cropped silvery hair and zest for life make her at once ageless, stylish and fabulous. Yet it is because she has preserved within her the vivid memory of exactly what it feels like to be none of these things that she has earned the love of a nation.