Monday, 20 September 2021

Interview with Children's Author Gill Arbuthnott by Joan Lennon

Welcome to An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, Gill! 

Gill Arbuthnott

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and brought up in Edinburgh and went to James Gillespie’s High School: alma mater of Muriel Spark and thinly disguised in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Maybe something seeped into me there, because I always wanted to be a writer. It took a while though – I was a Biology teacher for 30 years, which hadn’t been part of the plan, but paid the mortgage while I tried to get published. I managed that in 2003, when Floris Books published my first novel, The Chaos Clock. Since then, I’ve managed to average a book a year, with a mixture of picture books, novels, popular science and history titles, all for children and young adults.

September is an exciting month for you, isn’t it?

It certainly is! Due to the vagaries of publishing and covid-related delays, I have two books being published this month and one in October, so it’s definitely a vintage year for me. From Shore to Ocean Floor (Big Picture Press) is a history of undersea exploration; Microbe Wars (Templar Books) is all about microbes and how they affect us. (Not only in a bad way, like covid, but all the good things they do for us.) And next month will bring The Amazing Life of Mary, Queen of Scots: Fact-tastic Stories from Scotland's History (Young Kelpies).

You started off writing fiction, but your recent books are non-fiction. How different is the writing process?

Not as different as you would think. I like to write non-fiction by finding the stories in it, rather than simply assembling facts. If you can bring in the personalities of the people involved it makes it far more engaging. This is something I learned during all those years of teaching: text books tell you about discoveries, but seldom about the people who made them. I found that my pupils were much more interested when it became clear that scientists were people too, with flaws and eccentricities and families of their own.

Design and illustration are very important for children’s non-fiction. How does that affect the job of writing the text?

I’m lucky enough to work with some great design departments and wonderful illustrators and I’m in awe of all of them. I don’t have any artistic talent whatsoever (just ask any of my former pupils about the diagrams I drew on the board…). I am gradually getting better at thinking in a more visual way about what will appear on a double page spread, which is how most of these books are organised. Occasionally, I even make a suggestion if I think a particular illustration would help to explain a tricky concept. I still find it astonishing to see my words brought to life in such a stunning way.

What are you most looking forward to, as the country gets back to something more normal after the pandemic?

Getting back into schools to talk directly to pupils and do science workshops, both of which are great fun. I usually do a fair bit of that, and I really miss it. Getting feedback from pupils is enormously helpful in improving my writing and giving me ideas for what to write next.

And what is next?

Aha… It’s still a secret!

To find out more about Gill and her books, visit

No comments: