What was the best thing about writing this book? The best thing was suddenly having the idea for what to write about. David and I, with our two children, Joss and Kate, were standing high on some cliffs, looking down at a lighthouse when Joss noticed a fat wire running from the top of the cliff to the lighthouse. ‘Dad, what is that wire for?’ he asked. And David replied, ‘It’s for the lighthouse keeper’s lunch.’ I was wearing my best story-listening ears and I instantly thought. ‘That’s what I can write a story about.’ I grew up beside the sea in New Zealand so writing about lighthouses and other sea activities was writing about something that I loved.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up? When I was eight I wanted to be a bare back rider on a golden palomino horse in a circus. It was a bit of a problem being a little nervous of horses. Then I wanted to be a nurse but I realised that I’m not good at looking after people when they’re ill so that wasn’t suitable for me either.
What other jobs have you had? I began my working life as a teacher. There were only 15 children in my first class which was beside the sea on Banks Peninsula in New Zealand. It was a wonderful beginning to a short teaching life. Then I worked in a house-cum-bookshop in Auckland, New Zealand, run by Dorothy Butler who is a living legend of the New Zealand children’s book world. When we moved to England I was a school librarian and then worked as a family counsellor for many years.
What was the hardest part of writing the ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’? I hadn’t written stories since I was a child and then not very many, so believing that I could write a story took time and practice. Fortunately David had illustrated other writer’s stories so he knew more about the process of making a picture book than I did and that was very helpful.
What was the best part of writing ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’? Finding out that I could write the story, and then once the book was published, discovering that children enjoyed the story.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Once I had written this then I realised I could probably write more stories. I have loved reading since I was a young child so I was thrilled to think I could write books that other children might read. It also meant that for some of the week I could stay at home and write instead of going elsewhere to work.
What is the most creative interpretation based on ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’ you have seen or heard of? We are sent lots of books and stories written and illustrated by children. Many of these are quite extraordinary because they take the characters from the book and tell all sorts of other lighthouse keeper stories with fantastic illustrations. The other memorable event was seeing David Wood’s adaptation of the book as a musical play being performed by a few adults and lots of children at the Oxford Playhouse in 2000. As a present they made us a lighthouse keeper’s lunch in a basket.
What is something people might be surprised to know about you? That although I am a grandmother I can still play a ‘mean’ (but short) game of football with my grandson, Tomas. Soon he will be embarrassed by my fancy footwork but for now he is still impressed.
Which five people would you have over for dinner? My grandmother: she helped to bring me up but died before I knew her as an adult. Queen Elizabeth 1: a remarkable woman. John Burningham, perhaps my favourite illustrator (after David of course.) Robert Louis Stephenson and his uncles: because the Stephenson family built many lighthouses around Scotland thus saving countless lives. Charlotte Bronte: for writing ‘Jane Eyre’ which made such an impact when I was growing up. If I’m allowed I might also invite Pooh Bear and friends so I can laugh with them and enjoy some of Pooh’s honey which I know he’ll generously bring with him!
What are you working on next? ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’ was published in 1997 so I’ve had plenty of years to write other stories. There are now nine Lighthouse Keeper books and a number of other titles that are out of print. Over the last ten years I have written several picture books that have not been illustrated by David. Perhaps my favourites are another little series about Small Knight and George. I am working on several picture books at the moment but of course what they are about is a deep, dark secret.
Read my review of ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’ here.