I’ve been travelling recently, meeting new people along the road with all the introductions and casual chit-chat that entails, and of course that includes the dreaded question “What do you do?”
I usually answer (feeling a bit fraudulent, because really this is only one of the things I do) “I’m a writer”.
“Really? That’s so interesting!” they cry. “That’s so much more interesting than my job. What kind of writer?”
“Novels and stories…” I hesitate, not really wanting to say the next bit, but what can I do, I’m a truthful person “…for children and teenagers.”
That’s when some of those people who thought my job was more interesting than theirs switch off. It’s as if I’ve cheated them. I’m not really a writer. I’m more like a primary school assistant maybe, or a child-minder – one of those jobs that is not respected in this country.
“How lovely,” they say, insincerely. “But you’re not JK Rowling, are you.” Or they frown and ask accusingly, as if I must only be in it for the easy money, or because it’s easy, “Why do you write for children?”
I only get this reaction in the UK. In other countries, people tend to be much more positive. But I’ve also noticed that in totalitarian countries like China and Russia, it makes me ‘safe’. Writers in general are to be feared, journalists even more so (I used to travel as a journalist). People are hesitant to talk to me. But say I am a children’s writer and all those fears and inhibitions vanish. If I write for children I must be a good and kind, honest and completely harmless person.
And yet I still feel I am taken seriously in a way I’m often not in the UK. In China, people told me there is no literature at all for children, and all of them grew up reading just a few Chinese classics like Journey to the West. Come and write books for Chinese children, they invited. We have nothing to read to our kids, no tradition of bedtime stories. That seemed so sad to me. And they felt it was sad, this great lack in their own lives, and this yearning to give their own children what they never had.
In Britain, everyone says something about Harry Potter.
In Britain, people ask “Should I have heard of you?”
Fellow writers, how the hell do you answer that question?*
On my latest trip round Scotland I’ve been put firmly in my place by a lady who lives next door to Julia Donaldson. An elderly Norwegian gentleman recited his poetry to me. Two delighted Italians demanded that I write my name down so they can look me up later and tell everyone they gave a famous author a lift (they’re going to be so disappointed if they do look me up). A lovely lady, mistaking my statement of fact for an expression of wishful thinking, told me she hoped all my dreams of being a children’s writer came true. And one Scottish university professor told me I was doing an important job.
Stick at it, he said. It’s so hard for kids today to find a space where they can really concentrate and be alone, at the same time as escaping into and thoroughly inhabiting the other worlds of fiction, with all their peoples and relationships and landscapes and habits… The books you write give them that space, if they want to find it.
I think that was one of the nicest responses I’ve ever had.
*I'll be travelling again when this is posted but will try and check your comments - I really do want to hear your answers!