Now, isn’t it clever of Fiona Dunbar to have her birthday on World Book Day? I’m very pleased to have persuaded her to answer my Bookwitch profile questions. I suspected she’d be quite good at it, and she is. Just the right blend of interesting and amusing.
Here she is, the birthday girl:
How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?
One. I was in my mid-twenties, and I made a full-colour dummy picture book called Phineas and Dan in Ice-Cream Land. Phineas was a bear and Dan was a rat. Ice Cream Land was a secret, Dahl-esque fantasy world, very hard to find. You had to meet a badger called Frank at a pub called the Duck & Orange, after which there’s something to do with lawnmowers and kite-flying. The book was full of awful puns like ‘Sundae is a very special day in Ice-Cream Land’. A family friend, writer and illustrator Wendy Smith, introduced me to Caroline Roberts, who was then commissioning editor at Hutchinson. She was very nice about Phineas & Dan, then suggested I write something else. When I did the something else (You’ll Never Guess), she took it on.
Best place for inspiration?
There’s this boring stretch of road between my house and where the shops are. Its magic is in its boringness. Walking to the shops is the thing I do when I get stuck, and it’s interesting how it’s always right around that spot that Stuff Happens. Also: bed. 3am.
Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?
I write under my real name. I would consider writing under a pseudonym, if circumstances dictated it. My alter-ego, Ona Bindfrau, is always on at me to have a go, but she’s a pain in the bum so I try to ignore her.
What would you never write about?
Dragons. I have nothing whatsoever to add to the canon of dragon-related literature. NOTHING.
Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?
Well, Ed Miliband was a bit unexpected. I met him at the Doncaster Book Awards a few years ago, back when he was the ‘other brother’. I made small talk with him about kids and books and stuff, which in retrospect was a massive missed opportunity. I should have asked him how much he hated being the ‘other brother’, and did he have any plans to wreak his revenge?
Which of your characters would you most like to be?
Gosh, I don’t think I want to be any of them, really. They all have a bit of a hard time – certainly all my main protagonists do. I think probably Kitty Slade is the one I’d least like to be: I’d hate it if I saw ghosts wherever I went. I would actually go insane. I suppose I’d quite like to be Elsie Silk – a grown-up version. Elsie knows exactly what she wants and she goes for it. She isn’t intimidated by anyone or anything, and she’s extremely creative. She’s way more assertive than I’ve ever been. She has real chutzpah.
Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?
Well, that would depend on who made it. It would have to be someone who ‘gets’ me. Lots of my readers have told me they think the Silk Sisters trilogy would make an awesome movie, and I have to say I agree with them. Visually, it would be spectacular, and I think it would be an interesting project because it’s a bit like a kids’ version of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror TV series – there is actually direct overlap in some of our ideas. Then as well as the dystopian aspect there’s the fantasy one, with Rorie morphing into other people. So it wouldn’t be cheap to make, but it would be awesome, if I do say so myself. Three books, one film: opposite of The Hobbit. Also, the book I’m writing at the moment *is* a film, as well as a novel. I feel so strongly about this, I’m doing the screenplay as well. I want Gurinder Chadha to direct it.
What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?
“What car do you drive?” That’s probably quite a common one – sorry. Can’t think of anything outlandish.
Do you have any unexpected skills?
I’m an amazing dancer. I probably look absurd at my age, throwing myself around to Nirvana, James Brown, Fatboy Slim… Don’t care. I LOVE to dance. I do it all by myself if I feel like it. I’m like a Whirling Dervish – I reach another spiritual plane when I dance. It’s a shame more people my age don’t do it, really.
The Famous Five or Narnia?
Ooh, that is a hard one! The obvious answer would be Famous Five, because I’ve cited that as an influence for the Kitty Slade stories. But…oh! Narnia! In literary terms there is no comparison. I think ultimately I would have to choose Narnia, because of the imaginative scope. I don’t think the characters are much more interesting that Blyton’s, but I do think I have been more influenced by Lewis’s stories overall. And the imagery!
Who is your most favourite Swede?
(Quickly Googles ‘famous Swedes’…) Well, it would be too obvious to say Astrid Lindgren, so I won’t – and in any case, much as I love Pippi Longstocking, those weren’t formative stories in my childhood as, alas, no one ever gave them to me. And I haven’t read her other books. So I’ll go for film director Lasse Hallström – mainly on the basis of My Life As A Dog, which I absolutely love. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is superb as well. Unfortunately not all his ventures have been so successful (some very so-so novel adaptations, though I applaud his choices) and he can be a bit sentimental. But it was either him or Bergman, and the latter’s a bit heavy-going for me. Although can I please have Max von Sydow as my Second Favourite Swede? Or even joint first? He’s magnificent. And incredibly, has stayed exactly the same age for about thirty years.
How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?
Alphabetically, but also in categories: fiction (adult novels), fiction (kids’), short stories, non-fiction (art), non-fiction (history/politics), mythology, poetry, plays, my books, books by friends. There is, um, some overlap in there. And to be honest it’s mainly the adult novels I keep in strict alphabetical order. I think I would disappear up my own backside if I tried to do the same with all the others. DON’T understand people who organize them by colour of the spines. I mean, really, is there anyone outside of Elle Decoration magazine who actually does that?? Oh, and most of my books live upstairs; the living room is a social space. I love being an enigma to people who feel the need to judge you by the books you have on your shelves.
Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?
You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum, Captain Underpants, or anything by Jeremy Strong. But I would also tell his parents to stop fretting; my own son didn’t choose to entertain himself with book-reading at that age, and now (at 16) he’s reading everything, including some pretty challenging stuff. People attach too much importance to milestones.
If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?
Oh, come on! You can’t do that! *Sigh*. OK, I guess it would have to be reading. I could make up stories in my head. I could memorise them and pass them on orally. But really, in the great scheme of things, what do my stories amount to, when there are all those amazing books out there? Not a lot. Nope: couldn’t get by without reading. I’d shrivel up and waste away.
Well, I look forward to the dragon trilogy by Ona Bindfrau. They will be the dragon books to out-dragon all others. And I suppose we can allow an extra helping of Swede. Max von Sydow is magnificent, and exactly the same age he’s always been.