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Interview with Gillian Cross

Gillian Cross was born near London and, for as long as she can remember, has loved books and stories. Her mother would make up stories for her. She specialised in English Literature at University. From a very early age, Gillian wanted to write books of her own. She has now published many children’s books with Oxford University Press, and won many prizes, including the Carnegie Medal, the Smarties Book Prize and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. She has been translated into over twelve languages worldwide. The Demon Headmaster books were adapted for BBC Children’s Television.

Do you believe in inspiration? If so, where do you think it comes from? What part, if any, does inspiration play in your writing process?

I wouldn’t call it inspiration, but I am constantly aware that lots of what I write comes from somewhere beyond the control of my conscious mind. I don’t think it comes from outside my mind altogether. It seems to be brewed up on some kind of mental back burner. That kind of writing has played a large part in most of my books. When I begin, I have to wait patiently for incidents and images to surface and that means that getting through the first draft is often very tough. After that, the whole process gets more conscious as I revise - which is more fun, but less exciting.

Do you have an agent? If so, did you get your agent before or after you published your first book? Does (s)he comment on your book before you send it off to a publisher?

I never used to have an agent, but I have one now — since the beginning of this year. It’s hard to say quite how we’re going to work together, because we’ve hardly started. I don’t know whether I’ll ever ask her to comment on a book before the editor sees it. What I really want her to do is guide me through the world of publishing, which seems to be changing all the time and getting more and more complicated.

How do you work with your editor(s)? What actually happens at that stage?

People work with editors in all kinds of ways. My way is to finish the book, as far as I can, before anyone else reads it. When I’ve done the best I can, I send it off to my editor who reads it and makes comments. The editor doesn’t tell me what to do, but the discussion always helps me to see how the book can be improved. Often, it’s only a matter of changing half a dozen sentences at various points in the book. It always amazes me how much difference that makes.

Do you find it easy to come up with plot ideas? Do you start with plot or character?

Sometimes a character comes first and sometimes it’s a place. Quite often it’s neither — just a little snippet of action, like the trailer for a film. I don’t usually sit down and try to think of plot ideas. The first notion for a book comes and hits me over the head and I find out the rest of the plot by writing the story. I do put quite a lot of time and effort into making sure the details work.

Do any of your characters remind you of anyone you know?

When I’ve finished a book, I sometimes look at one of the characters and think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit like so-and-so.’ But I’d never base a character on someone on purpose. I’d rather make them up.

Which of your characters are you yourself most like?

I didn’t know how to answer this, but Martin said, ‘You’re like them all, aren’t you?’ And he’s right, of course. In some way or another, they all come out of what I think and feel and how I see things. The character I identify with most is Janis Finch in Chartbreak, but I don’t think anyone who knew me would say that I was like her.

If you were a reviewer what three words would you choose to describe your writing?

I’d love to say ‘Thoughtful and exciting’ but I suspect that it would really be ‘Could do better.’ (At least, I hope I can do better. I’m always trying.)

What advice would you give to young writers? Which do you prefer writing, individual novels or a series of books?

I think people write in all kinds of different ways, but here are three bits of useful advice.
1. Write. And keep writing. That’s the best way of learning.
2. Enjoy what you’re writing — and then your readers are more likely to enjoy it too.
3. Don’t give up until you’ve done the best you can. If you know there’s something wrong, then find a way to fix it.
Oh, and it’s good to read a lot too, to stretch your ideas about what can be done, and how.
I quite like revisiting characters I’ve written about before, but I most enjoy writing individual novels, because I never know how they’re going to take off.

Thank you, Gillian Cross!

Read more interviews of leading authors by children.

YoungWriter was a magazine published from 1995 to 2003 by Kate Jones.
We here at Myst Ltd had the pleasure of producing the magazine for Kate.
Sadly, Kate passed away in 2010.