Hilary McKay – ‘Most people are very nice’

The more you like someone, the scarier interviewing them becomes. Hilary McKay writes wonderful books. She emails beautifully. I suppose I could simply have invited her round anyway, but why would she want to come? In fact, I don’t know what possessed Hilary to drive all the way from Derbyshire to share her thoughts with me, and with you. But she did.

After giving me some truly gorgeous flowers, Hilary looks round the living room and comments on the paintings, and asks if all the books are going to Scotland (if and when we move).

‘Most of them. Is there anything you’d like?’

We laugh, and Hilary says ‘Where are you getting rid of them to? Libraries?’

‘I don’t think libraries want them. Even Oxfam might bin them.’

‘They might like them for road fill. You don’t know.’

‘Yes, you and your famous road fill… Let’s start with the road fill. You’re so very modest. You’re the only author I know who says “oh, don’t bother reading my books. Let’s put them to use under a motorway.”’

‘Well, you know. They’re written for a purpose, which isn’t necessarily to be read…’

I laugh, ‘Yeah.’

‘… and really, I’m not very fond of them myself.’

‘Why not?’

‘If I read them, I never do re-read them, but if I am forced to read a section, I would always prefer to rewrite it.’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t think that’s uncommon, actually. They’re quite introverted, which I don’t admire. I can see they’re well written, that’s all.’

‘Hmm, OK. Are you aware how much your peers admire your writing?’

‘I measure admiration in income, and my income is very low. I have a nice, supportive editor. That helps. And people like you help, enormously. That’s about it, really.’

‘Your name is one of the few that comes up when children’s writers talk about who they admire.’

‘That’s nice of them, but I can’t imagine why. And it doesn’t translate into sales.’

‘No, not necessarily.’

‘Not at all, but that’s not an uncommon experience. Newspapers can review a book very kindly, but it makes little difference to me, who has to put apples in the bowl, and send kids to university, as you know.’

‘So do reviews not help at all?’

‘Reviews help a lot,’ Hilary is suddenly transformed into passion, ‘because I wouldn’t write books if people like you didn’t say “that’s OK.” I would just stop. So thank you. I really am grateful. Reviews help my self esteem. I don’t know how they help sales. To be honest, I don’t know what does. Being charismatic and getting yourself out there. I’m not and I don’t, so, you know…

But I do keep doing it, and people keep asking me to do a few more. We are in a deep recession. I was talking to another children’s author last night, and she was saying very similar things. We were being quite honest about what we were earning. She’s a very well thought of author. A very good writer, and she might as well be doing other things.’

‘You’re very nice in your books; you don’t have many horrible characters, and you don’t kill off the parents unnecessarily.’

‘I kill them as fast as possible,’ Hilary says sweetly, ‘or else I make them useless.’

‘Yeah, useless is fine, but you don’t kill so much…’

‘No, not so much. I think in the old days it was easier to kill.’ Hilary’s mobile makes a noise. ‘Oh sorry, that’s me.’

‘There’s much goodness in your books. Why do you keep everything so nice?’

‘It’s a good question, Ann. I think,’ she perks up noticeably, ‘most people are very nice, actually. I’ve met very few villains in my life. I’ve met a few people I don’t like, but most people are extremely nice.’

‘Yes.’

‘And these are supposed to be real life stories, about real life people. I’ve never come across an evil person. Have you? I write about what people really eat, and where they really live. I write about what people are really like, and in my experience most people are very kind to most people.’

‘Mm.’

‘I do have stupid and arrogant people in my books…’

‘You draw the slightly iffy characters in. Like David.’

‘I loved David! He’s one of my favourites.’

‘Instead of kicking them out, letting something dreadful happen to them.’

‘Oh, that’s a very simplistic thing to do. I don’t think that’s how real life works.’

‘It’s so sweet. The Cassons; they keep collecting people, don’t they?’

‘They would be very boring, just one family and no outsiders, so you have to give them friends or they wouldn’t be normal people. And their friends are going to be a mixture. David was a… he wasn’t really a bully, but he was led into bullying, by someone with a weak nature. There are people like that, and I think a lot of people who are going the wrong way are all too glad to see a way out of it, to be honest.’

‘They want to be given a chance.’

‘Yes, it is a world of second chances. I do believe that very strongly. I’m writing for a very young age group, and I think if I wrote adult books… I would like to write adult books,’ Hilary sighs but sounds quite determined, ‘actually, I might do that, and then you could go darker… I’m not very good at writing people off completely, because it always seems like a “what if?” possibility.’

‘Yes, that’s why I prefer children’s books. You don’t have to be quite as dark as people are in adult books.’

‘Yes!’  She is enthusiastic. ‘I can have a dark book, but you have to remember your children and your friends and family read your books. You have to remember that.’

‘I was thinking that as the eldest of four sisters, does that mean that you are the Cassons?’

‘No, we were more The Exiles.’

‘OK. I’ve only got the second Exiles book, so thought I shall hang on for the first book, before I start.’

‘Yes, hang on for the first one. But really, it was the first book I wrote. It’s very flawed. I haven’t read it for over twenty years.’

‘You have to say that, because whenever we look at what we’ve done ourselves, badly knitted jumper or whatever, it looks dreadful and you do notice your mistakes.’

‘No, no. I remember hauling it together with my lovely editor at the time. It would have been a far worse book if she hadn’t been there. It was a first attempt.’

‘What do you think made them take you on?’

‘I don’t know. I was very lucky. The very first book won the Guardian children’s fiction prize, with Rachel Anderson. Do you know Rachel?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘She wrote Paper Faces, and she won it joint with me. That was a very good start for me. I was lucky. They loved the characters and they liked the jokes. The plot was rubbish and we had to rewrite at least a third of it to make it hang together. I can still see the joins very strongly, you know. And there’s a few untied ends that would annoy me if I read it again.’

‘I missed The Exiles. Back then, I hadn’t started reading children’s books again. I caught up a few years later.’

‘After this interview, can I ask you some questions?’

‘Yes.’

‘Thank you.’

I laugh. ‘It’s really awful being asked questions.’

‘I know. But at least I won’t record them and write them down.’

‘You seem to have a liking for names beginning with the letter C?’

‘Casson, Cornwallis, you’re right. And Conroy as well! Conroy is an old family name, because I was very stupid when I started writing. My sister said to me “don’t you use me in any of your books,” and I said “no, I won’t,” and she got very cross and said “you didn’t even change my birthday!”’ We laugh at this. ‘That’s how naïve I was. Conroy is my grandparents’ name. I knew a family called the Cassons, and they were a nice family. I just pinched their name. Cornwallis is a good Cornish name.’

‘Yeah, sometimes you like the sound or the look of certain letters and I wondered if you had a fondness for Cs.’

‘I do think I have a fondness for Cs, because I like Catherine spelled with a C, so you’re right.’

‘Mm, Caddy.’

‘That’s true.’

‘You’re not Eve, and you’re not Caddy.’

‘Not at all. No, I’m not any of them.’

‘Would you like to be?’

‘No, I wouldn’t. I would be Bill. I would be always clearing off and leaving them. I can see his point of view all too clearly. I think they must be very irritating to live with.’

‘I checked on your blog, and there hasn’t been all that much happening.’

‘No, I get very bored with them,’ she sighs. ‘They’ve grown up, you see.’

‘I saw that even Buttercup is six.’

‘Yes, he must be because Rose is the same age as my daughter. Three months older.’

‘But Bill has hung around since then?’

‘He does hang around. I don’t think he’s got the guts to go, to be perfectly frank. He’s not a heroic character in any sense.’

‘I’m just surprised he could actually manage to do a few practical things, when he did turn up.’

‘He did, didn’t he?’ Hilary sounds surprised at this. ‘I don’t think he could do it for a long time, though. He’s not a real person.’

‘OK.’

Hilary laughs.

‘There are a lot of sisters here, the Cassons and the Conroys. Are they anything to do with you and your sisters, or the sisterhood you have with your eight university friends?’

‘Yes, probably. I have some very good friends who are like sisters to me, and I have three sisters, so I’m used to female interactions. We do talk to each other a lot, write to each other.’

‘What made you pick something like botany and zoology at university?’

‘It was always my hobby, and my dearest love is natural history and the environment. Nowadays I’d go into environmental sciences; in those days it was biology, botany, zoology, which sounded fine until you got on to dissections and things like that. I came here because I loved it and now I’m cutting it up, you know?’

‘Yes.’

‘All my friends, all of the eight, were in the arts faculty, and they used to take me to their lectures, so in the end I did English. It was a lot more flexible. The English professor was very kind and I ended up in his tutorial group, and he let me take the exams. So wasn’t I lucky?

I should really have gone and done that [English], but you don’t know when you are 16 or 17. Also my father didn’t like people not studying science. It wasn’t until my fourth sister got to university that he agreed that anybody could do a degree that wasn’t a science degree. He loved books, and he was a very well read person, but he was self-educated and he thought if you wanted to get on, you did sciences and then you did the arts for fun.’

‘Has your degree been useful in what you are doing now?’

‘Now? Yes, it has been very useful. I read a lot of English I wouldn’t have read, very old English. So that was useful. Botany and zoology kept me alive. I work with the local wildlife trust, so I still keep that going. And my first job was in a laboratory.’

‘That’s interesting. I did wonder how come you dreamed of writing, with your science background, but now that you’ve told me about the English I understand.’

‘By third year I was doing more English than the rest. I was basically bunking off, doing the arts. I dropped marine biology when we got to live dissections. They were too tough.’

‘I can sympathise with that.’

‘It’s probably illegal now, because they were on quite big animals. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I sort of batted in both courts. I went and did a PGCE and I thought “I don’t want to teach either” and I had to get a job, so I worked in laboratories doing chemistry, which I quite liked. I would still be doing it now if I hadn’t written books. It was useful because I couldn’t have got a lab job without science in my degree, and I couldn’t have written books without doing English. I think I did OK in the end.’

‘I read somewhere that you started writing after you had the children. Was that a “finally! I can do some writing now” moment?’

‘Does it say that? I started before I had the children. We lived in the Lake District, in a remote little village. I was working at the village pub, but I needed more money, and so I talked about it to my friend, and she said “well, you can write letters, so why don’t you write books?” We always wrote a great deal to each other. So I did write a book and that was The Exiles. I think I could have done it for a hobby if I hadn’t had children, and a full time job. Something had to go, so I let the science go, because you can’t let the children go… ‘

‘I just wondered whether the books or the children came first. What did it feel like when you were told you’d won the Whitbread?’

‘What did it feel like? Did they tell me? Oh, I’m mixing it up with something else…’

‘You’ve clearly won too many awards.’

‘Not very many awards at all. Oh, yes, I was pleased. It was on my son’s tenth birthday, and I was annoyed about that, to be honest. I think I got some money as well. They come to your house and they make films of you. Which I found intrusive, and didn’t enjoy. The Smarties was a nice one to win. It’s judged by children, and it was a lovely friendly awards ceremony. And the Guardian was gorgeous to win, because it was people I admired, and it was the first time.

I remember being blown away when I went. It was the 20th year of the prize and they had lots of past winners there. Joan Aiken was there. It was the first time I met her. And who wrote, oh his name has gone out of my head; it was about a highwayman and he rewrote Shakespeare. He’s dead now. Think hard, think hard. He wrote The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris.’

‘I don’t know that one.’

‘Oh, it’s a brilliant book! Leon Garfield!’

‘Oh, right.’

‘He was there and he was very kind to me and made me feel like a real writer. You haven’t read Leon Garfield? You’ve missed a treat. He was one of the world names of children’s writers, he was the Philip Pullman of the time. Absolutely crystalline, beautiful English, and so funny. He was a real shining star. And Joan Aiken took the trouble to talk to me and that meant a lot to me.’

‘I can understand that. To change the subject completely, do you need to do research?’

‘Yes, I do. I have to have everything right. It drives me mad… doesn’t it drive you mad when you find an inaccuracy in a book?’

‘Yes, but I just feel you write about normal life…’

‘But there are still facts in normal life. What was I researching recently? I was writing about a bird, and I had to know when it lays its eggs when they’re young. You have to know it. You have to do it properly.’

‘I agree. I just thought “what is there in your books that needs researching?”’

‘Every fact. I’m not writing fantasy so it has to be true. You have to have the same distance from the house to London that there is in your head, and you have to draw a plan of the house.’

‘Where do the Cassons live?’

‘I’m not sure. It’s north of Nottingham, but it’s not Sheffield. It’s perhaps my nearest big town which is Chesterfield, but larger. The library is the same. There’s a flat roof which I used.’

‘As large as that? Because I’d visualised something a lot smaller.’

‘Had you? I suppose because they only have their own small circuit… It’s a big town with two or three good schools as well as where they go. I always wrote about very nice places. With The Exiles they are in nice places most of the time and I thought “I wonder if you can write about people living an almost magically pleasant life in an ugly place?” If you live in it,  there are still beautiful things if you look for them.

It’s like you very seldom meet a boring person, I find. Everybody has at least one interesting thing to tell you. So I deliberately set them somewhere I didn’t like to live myself, to see if things could still be beautiful. That sounds very posy, doesn’t it? A bit pretentious. It was to give myself hope as much as everybody else.’

‘I don’t think it even seems all that unpleasant.’

‘Don’t you? It always seems very gritty and rubbishy.’

‘In my mind it’s sort of neutral, not paradise, but…’

‘It’s not nice in my head. I know the street where they live.’

‘Maybe it’s that the warmth from the people shines through.’

We end up discussing where we live now.

‘I never meant to end up where we are,’ Hilary says. ‘There are some very nice people, and there are some nice places where I live. In fact, it’s very beautiful, in a boring kind of way.’

‘You must have the Peak District outside your door.’

‘Oh yes. You can walk into the most beautiful countryside. But there aren’t any theatres. There isn’t a bookshop. I hate that.’

‘Where is your nearest bookshop?’

‘There’s one at Cromford and one independent bookshop. Mostly second hand bookshops. Small rooms, lined with books. It’s good and it will get you any book, but you really have to know your way around. I am glad to have it, but it could be bigger. Then there’s a Waterstones in Chesterfield. Where’s your nearest bookshop?’

I decide this is as good a point as any to stop the interview, and call for tea to be served. I don’t want to take Hilary up on her suggestion that we go and visit ‘my’ bookshop. It would be so undignified for this kind Whitbread-Guardian prize-Smarties prize winner to be thrown out of a shop selling her books, and all because of the company she keeps.

We take our tea outside and Hilary, who has had no lunch, demolishes my odd, but newly baked scones. The weather is barely of the sitting outside kind, but we put up with it for as long as we can, almost not noticing for all the chatting we do. She pays me the compliment of forgetting the time, which of course means Hilary feels she has to apologise for staying too long.

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8 responses to “Hilary McKay – ‘Most people are very nice’

  1. Pingback: A writers’ writer | Bookwitch

  2. Hilary sounds as completely adorable as her books, Saffy’s Angel being our particular favourite.

  3. Careful! She’ll hear you.

  4. I enjoyed reading this so much. Hilary McKay is one of my favourite writers and it always disappoints me how few of her books are regularly stocked on bookshop shelves. The Casson family stories are a wonder and it’s lovely to see someone else acknowledge her talents. Thanks for this!

  5. Wonderful. I love Hilary McKay’s books and she once wrote me a very kind note.

  6. I meant I say but pressed post too soon that she sounds so very nice and kind which was the impression I got when she wrote to me.

  7. Pingback: News and more from this week in the world of children’s literature | Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?

  8. What a lovely interview – I could almost smell the scones! It gives encouragement, but I’m not sure why – perhaps because Hilary sounds so unpretentious. I think she should try that adult book very soon.

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