JeanneWillis_byJustineStoddartdelilah_darling_is_in_the_libraryThis is my interview with Jeanne Willis.

Which experiences and personality traits have really helped you? Being a somewhat over-protected, under-indulged child born to cautious parents who never travelled further than Frinton, writing was a form of escapism that began at a very early age. We had no T.V until I was nine and apart from a few stuffed toys and lots of stationery that my father (who was a teacher) brought home from manning the stock cupboard at school, very few toys. It was a bonus in some ways, as I was largely left to make my own entertainment in my room or the garden which I did with gusto. I didn’t notice any lack of privilege at all at the time and was never bored. It taught me to delight in little things; stones with holes in being evidence of fairies, watching craneflies hatch from their leather jackets with my nose pressed to the lawn, collecting mini-beasts to go in my ever-expanding bedroom zoo. I performed shows in my bedroom to an audience of assorted teddy bears when forced to ‘rest’ after lunch, based either on my own rather pompous poems or those in a slim volume of poetry I owned called “For Your Delight.” I wrote a comic which my sister illustrated, which we produced by hand for the other kids in the neighbourhood with colouring competitions and handmade prizes. I even had a collection of cacti for which I invented personalities and named them after the Roman gods I’d discovered in my grandfather’s old encyclopedia. A strange child, but never a dull moment in my imagination. I am still easily amused on my own doorstep. As an adult, working as an copywriter taught me to keep my writing short and succinct and to think of Big Ideas – perfect training for picture book writing.

Who inspired you to start writing? My endearing relationship with my grandad was a positive inspiration. He looked after me when my mother went to work, picked me up from school etc and often told me wonderful stories about his time as a soldier in Africa. He did magic tricks with his tie-pin, span plates, went on long walks with me, pushing my dolls pram when I couldn’t be bothered, brought me plasticine and animal cards, always had toffees in his pockets and sang army songs when I walked on my stilts. He was the best friend a peculiar little girl could have and unlike my other relatives who seemed to prefer my pretty feminine sister, he was always on my side and listened to my stories with proper attention and glee. He also had a typewriter- which we didn’t have at home- and I would spend hours typing up my books while he played the piano. He appears mysteriously in some form in almost everything I write, though I often don’t realise until afterwards. Immortal Grandad.

What inspired you to write this book? I was asked by my editor at Puffin to write something about a feisty little girl based on an illustration of a character done by Rosie Reeve. I struggled for a bit, then I remembered that when small, I reinvented myself several time in order to impress my classmates at infant school – I made up my own rules to excuse any short comings (eg, tripping over a skipping rope was ‘deliberate” and how it was meant to be done) I claimed that I could play the bagpipes, I sang hymns in a ‘foreign language’ of my own invention, I told everyone I owned a bear, a chimpanzee and a lion. I showed them ordinary things I’d found and gave them extraordinary explanations- a ring pull was part of a spaceship, a fissure in a stone was a fossil dragon. I told them that my real name was Geoffrey. They all believed me and spurred on, the thin line between fiction and fact became blurred and believed it myself – just like Delilah Darling. Do that as an adult and they section you- unless you’re an author!

Were the characters based on anyone? Delilah is me, except that she had a French nanny and a brother. I always wanted a brother and as my editor had a little boy called Rafe, he became Smallboy in the stories. Mrs Woolly Hat was based on a neighbour of mine – a marvellous, eccentric actress, completely away with the fairies, who used to babysit my own children and was not unlike grandad in her own child-like way and instinctively knew how to amuse them.

What are your favourite images in the book? The fold-out map of Jafrica – or is it Smindia? Wherever it was, I went there in my head frequently and still do. Being as someone ‘forgot’ to put it on the map, no one can go there but me so I’ve never had to put up with tourists and I remain in charge of my own kingdom.

Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? The Natural History Museum is my favourite building. I love all the terracotta carvings, the specimens – I’ve even been round the back and seen things the public never see. There are specimens brought back by Darwin. Long, extinct creatures, Creatures people thought were extinct but aren’t. The evolution of Man. Each has a story to tell. A million stories under one roof.

What do you do in your spare time? I do what I did when I was six. I collect insects. I fish for tadpoles, catch caterpillars and watch them morph. I am fascinated by metamorphosis. I plant seeds. I dig ponds and wait for newt to come. I read non-fiction to inspire new stories. I work out escape routes if an Alien Big Cat should wander onto my territory – not as crazy as it sounds, my sister has seen the Surrey Puma. I make models of fictional bugs out of twigs. I arrange flowers. I collect interesting natural things, such as shedded snake skins and little bones that I find when I’m digging at my allotment. And I write stories. I don’t consider it work. What I rarely do is read fiction. I am possibly the most ill-read author ever.

What are your favourite tools, gadgets and products? I have a stationery fetish – if you want to make me happy, buy me a notebook or some pencils and pens and a ream of luxurious paper. Not sellotape though- I have a bad relationship with its elusive end. I also love haberdashery – thread and fabric, felt, elastic and craft scraps. I can’t knit or sew very well, but I can make things from that. Add to that, gardening tools – in particular my hand trowel, canes and string and there is nothing as satisfying as nicely-balanced red watering can.

What are you working on next? About sixteen different books in various stages of production. Some are still in my head, some are in note form, some are lingering with publishers, others are at the printers and some have just been published. I was hoping to write a new short novel soon but I’m struggling to clear my decks.

What is something that people might be surprised to know about you? That I’m the Queen of Whimbuctoo.

Read my review of ‘Delilah Darling is in the Library’ here.

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