I can see Liz Kessler’s curly hair over the hedge, as I peer through the window to see if it’s Liz’s car that’s just parked outside. We’ve agreed to meet at ‘witch headquarters’, as Liz is still living in her camper van, and my kitchen table is bigger than hers. A few years ago Liz entered our lives by charming my daughter Helen with her Emily Windsnap books, and just the fact that a normally quiet girl would immediately chat up an adult she’d never met before, says a lot about Liz’s approachability. The big smile on her face as she stands on our doorstep is the same.
As the ‘veggiebox’ soup heats up, Liz starts chatting to Helen about her GCSEs, about Art and her future Sixth form college, where Liz reckons she knows someone. She has lived locally for years, and when we first encountered Liz she lived on a canal boat, so I ask where it was moored. Sounds like we must have walked past it from time to time, when walking along a nearby canal.
Liz lived on her boat for eleven years until she bought a house, which is now on the market again. After ‘living in a van and travelling round Europe, we’re moving to Cornwall.’
‘I think I’ve heard St Ives mentioned?’
‘Yes, we just made an offer on a house (the deal fell through, but they have since found another house to buy) which was accepted.’ She laughs happily, saying ‘this was meant to be happening next spring.’
In case I forget to do the polite hostess thing while talking to Liz, I have positioned both Helen and her brother Ian in the kitchen with us, and Ian rattles off a long list of drinks for Liz to choose. Liz laughs and asks for a ‘medium’ squash and asks him if he works in Starbucks. She mentions her Starbucks challenge, where you manage to order your drink without any supplementary information, ‘where you’ve covered everything, and they can’t ask you any more questions.’
‘Chocolate on top?’ says Ian.
‘So why did you decide on St Ives?’
‘I don’t want to live in Manchester any more, really. We didn’t know where we wanted to live. We wanted to live somewhere by the sea. I said to Laura, “let’s just pack up, travel, see if along our travels we might find a place to live”. I thought it was going to be somewhere abroad, probably Spain. My Mum lives in Spain. I thought that would happen, but actually, I found that after a while, much as I love it – it’s a culture thing – you don’t belong. I wasn’t even homesick for Manchester; it was England. It’s weird. So doing the van thing was great, because there were a few places where I might have leapt in, but after a couple of weeks you’ve changed your mind. We had always thought of St Ives; it’s creative and arty and beautiful, it’s a community, but it’s a bit quirky. I was already into sailing, but we took up surfing this year, and it’s got both! It’s got a great beach exposed to the Atlantic for surfing, and it’s got a sheltered harbour where they go out sailing. It’s just got everything, and is slightly warmer than Manchester.’
‘So are house prices OK down there?’
‘House prices are bonkers, depending on what you want to do. All these cute, gorgeous little cottages, and if you go for a holiday then they are beautiful, but for buying, they’ve got no light, they’ve got tiny rooms, they’ve got no garden, no outside in the summer. The house we’ve seen is a sort of compromise, it’s up the hill, out of town.’
Liz pauses to compliment me on the soup, and Helen pipes up that it has fennel in it, this being our latest family joke.
‘Don’t mention fennel or I’ll go off it. I spent a summer pulling fennel out of the ground on a farm, when I was at university. Put me off it forever.’
‘Laura and I have both got houses, and St Ives is more expensive, but if everything was to go wrong, if for any reason it didn’t work out, then we open a café, or run writing courses. We’ve both got things to fall back on. At the moment we’re hoping to keep things like this for a little while. Over the year of travelling Laura has driven the van, and she has cooked the meals. She’s done the washing and the shopping, and while she’s done that, I’ve been writing my book, and then we can both go out. It balances really well, she sort of takes care of the stuff that gets in the way of writing, and then I can do my work.’
‘It’s the dream isn’t it? The one that we all have.’
‘It’s lovely, it really works.
‘Are you planning any further Emily Windsnap books?’
‘At the moment I’m on, let me think, I always get the contracts two at a time. So there was Emily 1 and 2, then Emily 3 and Philippa 1, and then there was Philippa 2 and another book that is coming out in a couple of years, actually. Then Emily 4 and Philippa 3. I’ve just started doing the third Philippa Fisher book, and between that and a book I’ve not yet written, which comes out after both of those, then I’m up to date with contracts. I hope by then I’m given another one.’
‘It sounds like you’re several books ahead. Lots of people at the moment are worried if there is another contract coming at all.’
‘I think it’s largely working with Orion; I think the culture of the place is very much they want their writers to be their writers, and I have the security of knowing that they keep wanting to give me contracts, and they have the security of knowing that I’m not hawking my books around. It’s a monogamous relationship. At the moment they seem to be happy to keep publishing the books, and you know,they don’t have posters on the side of double decker buses,’ says Liz and laughs, ‘but I do feel happy with the level of marketing.’
Ian jumps in, asking ‘How much do they encourage you to sort of stockpile work ahead of schedule? Are you a few books ahead of what’s available in the shops?’
‘Their general view is that they like to publish one book a year, although it’s different this year. With my books because they’re a series, they like keeping that continuity, and when I started Philippa Fisher, they really wanted three books, and I think they quite like knowing for the short term future what they’ll be getting, and I like that as well. Especially as I was at Scattered Authors (SAS) in Coventry a few weeks ago, and there was a lot of talk about people struggling to get a contract, and not having this on-going, rolling contract. The majority don’t seem to have that, and it made me quite aware that working with Orion is brilliant, you know.’
‘I believe that you helped Katherine Langrish with her first book. What sort of help?’
‘Yeah, “I discovered Katherine Langrish!” I used to work for Cornerstones, do you know them? It’s an editorial advisory agency. Helen Corner; her role was looking at the slushpile, and she just basically felt there were so many books she had to say no to, so she set up Cornerstones. It’s an agency where people can send their manuscripts, and she has lots of readers, like a published author or an editor, and they give a really thorough report on how they feel a book could be improved, and she set up Kid’s Corner, which I took over running. I got a phone call from Kath, saying I’ve got this manuscript I’m on the verge of giving up on. No one’s interested, So I said send me the first few pages. I read it and I was blown away by it. I had a few suggestions, not a lot, and then I said, “this is really good. Can I forward it to my agent, who is Catherine Clark?” She then she did a bit more work with it and sent it out and it was a major auction, with a major book deal.’
‘I thought her third book was extremely good.’
‘Oh, yeah, she’s a very good friend, and she’s a lovely person. Kath now does work for Cornerstones. Her writing and my writing is so different, which is why we give each other lots of feedback on each other’s work. Every single word in her book is like it was handpicked, and she is brilliant. Yes, Katherine Langrish is my achievement!’ Liz laughs.
‘Have you considered writing a book with her?’ asks Ian.
‘Ah, wow! No, I never have! Thank you. Do you know Lee Weatherly? She was the first children’s writer who I became friends with, and she had quite a role in getting me published. We used to email each other every day, and we did have an idea of writing a book together, and every couple of years one of us will say, when are we going to do that book?’
‘Which one of you came up with fairies first, you or Lee?’
‘Well I was writing my book, and Lee was really nervous about telling me, because we’re kind of writing buddies as well, showing each other our work. Lee and I used to give each other feedback the whole time, and I’d started my book and she said “Look, I’ve got this idea of fairies, and they are totally different from yours.” It’s absolutely fine. Hers are the more traditional kind, a bit younger, and a bit more fairy-like.’
‘Yes, hers are very small. I don’t think I’d actually visualised quite such a small fairy until I read her book.’
‘They’re very sweet. The books are really charming. When we’ve had the SAS gatherings, there have been times when me and Lee and Linda Chapman have been sitting together; the pink, sparkly group. Though I don’t think my fairies are especially pink. There’s such a big pink market isn’t there?’
‘Your style in both series is everyday, ordinary life, but with that fantasy touch, with mermaids and fairies all over the place.’
‘It’s really nice that you said that, that’s exactly how I try to write.’
‘Sort of magic realism for children?’ Ian asks.
‘Wish fulfilment. When I was little one of my favourite books used to be Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair, and I very often would sit hoping it could happen to me.’
‘Now, for a very practical aspect here; what happens when Emily changes from girl to mermaid and back? Does she wear a t-shirt when she is a mermaid?’
‘Hmm. The other question is how Emily came into existence…’
‘Yes, that was going to be next.’
‘The whole process of “my t-shirt disappeared, but this happened and this happened”, became so cumbersome. I think it might have been my editor, who said “look forget it, it just happens”. From below the waist she becomes a mermaid. It’s magic. If you accept the fact that she becomes a mermaid, you have to accept the fact that it happens. She always seems to still have her top on, and she has had her denim jacket on occasion. Wouldn’t it be wet when she gets out of the water? It just happens. Her shoes disappear and they magically come back.’ We giggle over this.
‘And the inter species sex?’
‘Haha. But they take human form. Anyway, not going there. Nobody has ever had any issue with the ‘mixed’ children. I’ve had a few emails from people who were “disappointed to read the word damn”. All of them have been in America, so I contacted my US publishers and said let’s change it in the next reprint. So I’ve been able to write back and say, “I don’t agree with you, but I will get it changed.” I have had one letter to say “I’m contacting my local schools and local libraries to get your books withdrawn. Because of that word. And we’ve had a bit of a Santa Claus-gate. We had a bit of an issue with Father Christmas, because a girl in Philippa Fisher said he didn’t exist. That was in England. The American version didn’t even have that, they just took it out, saying “we’re not having that”. There is a conversation between Philippa and her friend Charlotte, how Father Christmas was her father and the tooth fairy was her mother. In the very next chapter she discovers fairies do exist, so I don’t think I am saying Father Christmas doesn’t exist, but actually, maybe he does.’
Steering the conversation away from this ‘Easter Bunny mode’, Ian asks ‘what’s your view on the age-banding?’
‘I’m such a wishy-washy, sitting on the fence, type of person. There was this uproar, and I didn’t have any strong feelings on it, and thankfully I don’t think my publishers were dreadfully keen to put anything on, anyway. There are pros and cons, and whenever I hear someone argue I always agree with them… My books are age-banded in America. A lot of parents don’t know where to start, and I think bookshops don’t either. I think my covers are beautiful, and I absolutely love them, but you know, there’s no way that a boy is going to say “can I have the one with the pink sparkly mermaid on the cover?”, but there’s adventures and shipwrecks, and Emily’s a tomboy mermaid.’
‘Have you been to Bermuda?’
‘Yes, I have. I take my research very seriously,’ she says and giggles. ‘I’ve got this thing when I’m writing a book about needing to, at some point, be in the right place. With Emily Windsnap it’s largely to be near the sea, a lot. With the second Philippa Fisher I went off to forests and woods, and Emily 3 was inspired by St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. I went to stay in a hotel directly opposite it. For the second (Emily) book I knew from the start it was going to be set in the Bermuda triangle, and I just thought, I wonder if I could go to Bermuda? My Dad knew this couple who were living in Bermuda at the time, and they said to come and stay. They took me round the whole island. I went out snorkelling, and afterwards I took out my notebook and wrote down everything I’d seen. There’s a lot in that book that is absolutely from there.’
‘Yes, it felt real.’
‘It was. The fish and the sand, and the sea. Though I didn’t see the Kraken.’
I mention how a couple of years ago I had never heard of the Kraken, or the poem, and how it’s turned up in so much fiction since then.
‘Tennyson’s poem? I’d never heard of it either. I just found it.There’s one (Kraken) in Michelle Lovric’s book. She’s got her debut children’s book out. We did a little thing together with Orion the other week, so we met up and it was nice.’
‘Do you do a lot of events?’
‘I’m not one of these writers who go into lots of schools for a fee, but I do do publicity events with bookshops. Because there’s two books coming out for me this year, Orion are going to concentrate the marketing around Emily 4, as the more established series, so we’re not doing a big thing for Philippa 2, but I wanted to do something, so we’ve got a three week book tour. Bookshops, but not schools. I’m a bit lazy.’ Liz laughs. ‘Greedy with my time. I’ve set up a brand new website that’s interactive and which I think is fab, to compensate for not being around in person.’
‘Yes, it’s a bit like Lee’s; you’ve got to chase things around.’
‘I love the style of Lee’s. There’s a few around like that, and I just wanted to work with the designer who created it. I think she’s brilliant, and we went all out to have lots of things on it, like games.’
‘Do you think your website increases contact with your readers, and sales?’ asks Ian.
‘It went live in August last year, just before I went away. There’s somewhere you can send links to the website to a friend, and you can play games, but one of the things that I think is a good idea, is all the emails I get through the website, which I put into a folder. Then they automatically go on my list to send out newsletters to. I’ve now got about 600 in there, so they’re likely to be my 600 most fervent fans, who’ve actually taken the trouble to write to me. I’ve had so many more emails; I used to get probably three or four a week, and now I get about fifteen or twenty. Except now my computer died, so… you never know.
‘What’s your typical fan like?’
‘Between eight and ten and American. No, not necessarily American. The emails are mostly from America, which is just because it’s more sales, it’s a bigger country. I think a typical reader is probably between eight and twelve, and a girl. Of 700 emails, I’ve had less than ten from boys. Let’s pinpoint; she’s a ten-year-old girl who might be not the most popular girl at school, but certainly not the little loner in the corner, has an imagination, kind of relates to my characters.’
‘Do they stay with you, or do they grow away from your books? Do you need a constant new supply?’
‘They grow out of my books when they get too old for them. It’s not like Harry Potter, because you don’t grow up with the books. If someone now is eight or nine, there’s four or five books to read, but when you, Helen, were reading them, coming out once a year, you were a year older the next time. Once they’ve read one, they are reading the rest that are around. I have the impression they feed into each other for sales. I’m hoping that will carry on with Philippa Fisher. It has only just come out in paperback in England, and only just come out at all in America, but I’m hoping it’ll translate over. I think we’ve got enough in common.’
‘I hadn’t stopped to think about your American market, but it makes sense.’
‘If it weren’t for the American sales I wouldn’t be having this kind of lifestyle. And Germany. I’ve got a book tour in America in September. Should be fun. It’s just down the East Coast. I’m a bit scared!’ she laughs.
‘Who do you write your blog for?’
‘Oh, gosh, I don’t write my blog often enough…’
‘Sorry. I think I write it for my readers, with friends and family in the back of my mind. Yes, that’s what I do. Definitely. But you know, trying to get an internet connection, isn’t easy and it hasn’t been comfortable (in the van) compared to being in a house. And I end up getting a bad back and bad shoulders, then it’s emailing and all the buying a house in Cornwall… and then I think, “oh no, now I’ve got to put my blog on, and put up photos”, and we very rarely had a good enough internet connection, to last all the way to the end, so yes, it’s a big question mark for me, especially being back in England. What do I want the blog to actually be for? It might become more news about the books, than what I’m doing right now. I don’t get many comments. Most of my correspondence is from kids, they like the photos of the dog.
‘Was it difficult travelling with a dog? Do you have a dog passport?’
‘Yes, she’s got a dog passport. It was really nice, sometimes she provided some of the most stressful parts of the trip, but also some of the loveliest. I don’t feel a beach is as much fun without a dog.’
“How did you decide where to go?’
‘It had to be Europe, and we decided to aim for the Southern coast of Spain, because that was going to be the only place warm enough for the winter. We wanted sunshine. We left at the end of August, kind of meandered, spent some time in Cornwall first and then over to France and then down the East coast of Spain. By November we were on the Costa del Sol.’
‘I found out about it via Fiona Dunbar’s blog.’
‘Yes, she complains about my blog.’
‘She has links that shows when you last posted.’
‘Oh, does she?’
‘It will say Bookwitch 3 hours ago, Liz Kessler 3 weeks ago.’
‘I need to take it in hand a little bit and get on with it. The dead computer is not helping.’
‘Did you lose anything?’
‘I managed somehow or other to get all of my documents off, so I now have a little pen-drive, my most important possession in the world. It’s got everything on it. The guy who came to help to sort of officially read it its last rites, he was quite amazed I managed to do it. I used to keep all my emails, all my folders and everything, but that’s all gone. So I’ve got little girls, who have written to me and who are never going to get a reply, and that was the thing I spent hours trying to sort and couldn’t.’
‘Do you have time to reply to all emails?’
‘Yes, I do. I make sure I do, because it’s just so nice.’
‘How do you use Facebook?’
‘To me Facebook is 100% about real live people, friends, it’s not a work thing. I know quite a few people who use Facebook as a marketing tool, who add readers as friends, and I don’t have that at all. To me it’s somewhere where I put up photos for family to look at, from my travels and things. My website is quite interactive and there is a lot of me given out, and if I’m not careful I give too much information. Facebook for me is somewhere I don’t. I prefer to do things more quietly. Things you are involved in, find their way into your books anyway, without you realising.’
‘If you hadn’t been successful writing books, what do you reckon you’d be doing now?’
‘In real life? I trained as a journalist and as a teacher, so I’d like to think that I’d be a freelance magazine journalist.’
‘And in your dreams?’
‘Probably wildlife documentary maker, or something. Going off to amazing places, making films, something like that. Going down to Antarctica, into the ocean. I’d be the one who gets to do the undersea thing. Something that involves travelling round the world. Being paid, and filming.’
‘Any tips on up-and-coming authors?’, from Ian, wondering if Liz has found another Katherine Langrish.
‘No, do you know, I went to an interview once for the job of creative writing teacher, and they did this interview with me and they asked questions like “who do you think is the author to watch at the moment,” and I don’t do stuff like that. To me doing writing is to help people to develop the craft of writing, not all this kind of fame of the moment. Nowadays I don’t read manuscripts, so I don’t know any of the unknown ones. I don’t read anywhere near as many children’s books as I used to. I generally read a lot of books, but just kind of easy mainstream popular fiction really.’ Liz says her sister favours War and Peace for light holiday reading. ‘I’d probably just give you a list of my friends, because I read theirs.’
Ian asks ‘Last book you read?’
‘What did I just finish? I started one, but what did I just finish? Jodi Picoult. The book before that was The Book Thief.’
Helen asks ‘What did you think of that?’
‘Brilliant. I read the kind of things you get on a campsite, travelling round Europe, so it’s a lot of Harlan Coben, Dean Koontz and things like that, nothing literary. And then I read The Book Thief and I loved it! I thought that it was going to be a bit gimmicky. The little quotes every now and then of facts. I found it really moving, and I loved the characters, I loved the mother who called everyone whatever it was in German.’
At this point I invite Ian to ask his standard question: ‘Could I ask you what you think of Philip Pullman?’
‘I only read the first, Northern Lights. Brilliant. He’s a bit more highbrow than me. I read it and remember thinking I’ve got to read the other two quickly. I had two days, and I whipped through it, but I could see it’s a really brilliant novel.’ We all laugh. ‘And that’s the end of that. I did meet him at a party. Tripped over him, actually, if that’s any help.’
‘I was at an authors’ conference, having breakfast at this long table, chatting to this guy opposite, and I said “what’s your name?” It was Michael Morpurgo! I think he was the Childrens’ Laureate at the time. People pointed out to me afterwards that that was OK, because you don’t recognise someone. But if you’d then said “and what kind of books do you write?”… I think there must be an awful lot of people who walk past JK Rowling.’
Over to Ian, a fount of knowledge, ‘She doesn’t look like that in the street, I can assure you. She looks very different.’
‘Where did you walk past her?’
‘On The Mound in Edinburgh.’
‘Did you? Wow!’
‘She looked a bit confused at the time, she was fiddling with her iPod. She just had the appearance of an Edinburgh rich mum, and there are so many of them in her environment, that you are not going to pick her out that easily.’
‘To me that’s a good thing. This is a culture of instant fame, you know like Britain’s Top Talent. Nice being able to hide, I think.’
‘Do you get recognised in the street?’
‘When I’ve done a school event, it’s happened a couple of times, and there was something in the local newspaper when a book came out, and I was recognised in the Open Late Saver up the road. And in Sainsbury’s in Hazel Grove. The best one was on an aeroplane, someone sitting in front of me, saying “are you Liz Kessler?” I’m much more likely to have someone say like they did the other day, “no one in my year has heard of you”. My friend Laura’s cousin’s children; one of them is a big fan and the other one saying “no one’s ever heard of you”. I get more excited about people who I know. If I’m in a school, and I see that they’ve got a book by a friend of mine. One of the most common questions is either have you met JK Rowling, or what other children’s authors do you know? As if I’m not enough on my own.’
Having polished off most of the grapes, Liz accepts Ian’s offer of tea, and he comments that hers is an easy choice.
‘Straightforward and simple, that’s me! Let me show you the cover of Philippa Fisher! I just love it, I think it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s my favourite of the lot.’
‘I like the butterfly’, says Helen.
‘It’s very important to the plot,’ replies Liz.
‘As you’d know if you’d stayed loyal…’ Liz laughs.
I produce my two Philippa Fisher books. ‘Actually I have two books here that haven’t been signed by you.’
‘Is it a first edition?’ asks Ian.
‘Hardback. There’s only one.’
Then we look at one of Helen’s Emily Windsnap books, which has been signed with thanks for the lovely present, and we rack our brains trying to remember what the gift might have been. We settle on some sort of handmade little mermaid, of which Liz seems to have been given a few, but she says she has kept them.
The conversation meanders on a bit, towards more gossipy subjects.
‘Did you know that…? asks Liz.
‘Yes, I did hear something about that,’ I say.
‘You’ll have to stop recording…’
It can be difficult to stop chatting sometimes. After a couple of hours, Liz really has to be somewhere else, or we could have gone on some more.
(Photos by H Giles)