I have a brief dyslexic moment as I try to find the Q I Building in Oxford. I know it’s opposite Exeter college, but as usual when I go anywhere, the place is covered in scaffolding, rendering it almost invisible. Jumping through the likeliest door, I enquire if I’m in the I Q Building! I’m not only corrected, but told that “the lady” is waiting for me inside on the right. And I’m usually never late… Aargh. At least I’m not wearing blue. Though it could be that it’s only for herself that Mary doesn’t care for blue. And purple is close enough to blue to be a potential problem. So, I don’t ask.
Mary Hoffman isn’t alone, as she’s got her eldest daughter Rhiannon Lassiter with her while waiting. Two authors for the price of one. Rhiannon is very friendly, and at last I get the surname situation cleared up. Between them the family does appear to have a surplus of surnames, but all is made crystal clear. Though it’s good to find that she is like any daughter towards her mother, when pointing out to Mary that she’s not reading the menu properly. Before leaving us to talk, Rhiannon also offers to strangle the girl with the high pitched laughter in the next room. I like a person who can deal with a problem. I must hasten to add that she doesn’t actually strangle anyone.
Before our meeting I’ve been reassuring myself with some similarities between us. Mary’s family has a railway background, like mine. She was apparently a late car driver, and I’m so late I’ve not started yet. But then I don’t live in a converted barn, which sounds very appealing. And she’s a long standing vegetarian, and has been a good source for advice on where to eat in Oxford. Although with tea I discover Mary drinks Darjeeling, and I’m more Earl Grey. No lemon for either of us.
Mary is exactly as I had imagined, very friendly and very professional. I first came into contact with her in 2006 when I offered her a couple of interviews for Armadillo Magazine. Without batting an eyelid she said yes to both, and didn’t even ask to see them first. That’s what I call courage. And it was after reading the first one that Mary said maybe I could interview her one day, which I feel is taking duty and politeness a step further than absolutely necessary.
Having written close to a hundred books, Mary is probably best known for the ones about Amazing Grace. These books made it onto Laura Bush’s list of best children’s books a couple of years ago. The most recent book about Grace came last year and is called Princess Grace. Unlike its title it’s anything but a typical princess story, and Mary is quite anti-pink. Mary felt so strongly about this business with princesses, that she wrote an article for the Guardian about it at the time.
The Stravaganza series is the other group of books Mary is famous for. The first three form a trilogy, which is already out, and it will be joined by a fourth book this July. It will eventually be followed by a fifth volume. Each Stravaganza story features a different city in Talia, which is a kind of parallel Italy, and the cities bear a lot of resemblance to Venice and Florence and all the other grand Italian places. Mary reckons she could easily write twelve Stravaganza books if invited to do so.
The books are set partly in North London, where a few teenagers find themselves falling asleep at home as usual, only to wake up in 16th century Talia. They all have something they are particularly good at, and this something turns out to be crucial in whatever adventure they have in their Talian city. The stories are a marvellous mix of ordinary (sort of) life in London, and some really extraordinary circumstances in Talia, with romance and excitement, and some good old villainous enemies.
The series is very popular and attracts readers of all ages, although Mary says her typical reader is a 14-year-old girl called Laura. Her fans email her a lot, and their favourite question is whether the character of Luciano is based on a real boy. I suspect if he was, there’d be a veritable pilgrimage to find him. Most of the girls inquire if they “can audition for the part of Arianna” if there’s a film, because Luciano would be “really fit”. I reckon the Stravaganza series would make excellent films, but so far Mary “can’t get anyone to take it”, which is a shame. Fingers crossed that this will change.
Germany and the Nordic countries seem to be especially keen on the Stravaganza books. Maybe that’s the reason I like them so much as well. Though I never thought to join the kind of reader who sees more in a book than the author intended, but this time I’ve fallen into a trap. Early on in City of Stars there’s a mention of the film Four Weddings And A Funeral. Towards the end of the book there are indeed plans for four weddings and there is a funeral. And then it turns out that Mary had no idea! She didn’t plan it. I’d say it was her subconscious.
When book four, City of Secrets, is published this summer, the earlier ones will be re-issued with new covers. They look very attractive, and proves that Mary writes about really beautiful teenagers. Who knows, if sales are good maybe we can see even more than the currently planned five Stravaganza books.
This April Mary’s stand-alone book The Falconer’s Knot is out in paperback, after having been shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize last year. It’s another story set in historical Italy, and features both romance and plenty of murders. Mary’s next historical novel is called Troubadour, and should be out in June 2009.
It is quite obvious that Mary is very, very keen on Italy and the Italian language and Italian art. I wanted to know when she started learning Italian, and the need for it appears to have arisen from a holiday romance when Mary was fourteen, where she and her admirer, who looked like Michaelangelo’s David, had to try and get by in French and Latin. While at Cambridge later on, Mary chose to do some work on Italian literature, so spent a month in Florence. She had lessons in the mornings and “I’d wander round the city and look at art every afternoon”. As Mary puts it, “it had an effect on the rest of my life”. Needless to say, Mary has A-level Italian by now, and attends Italian literature classes in Oxford for the seventh year.
This should turn out handy for a new task Mary has coming; on an international committee, in Italy, to discuss current children’s books. She doesn’t know much more than that and says with some concern “I feel I should have asked”.
That’s not the only thing Mary has signed up for. She’s been invited to be one of the judges for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, which will mean that she has to read sixteen books in a short period of time. Mary hopes she will already have read some of them, and anyway “I have to read for Armadillo”. This is the online magazine about children’s books that she runs with Rhiannon.
Mary reckons she suffers from “freelance syndrome”, which means “not saying no”. There’s also an International Reading Association Congress in Atlanta this spring. “I know I can do it”, she says, but “I’m going to have a very light summer”.
Photo by Jess Barber
I’ve been amazed at all the work Mary does, and have wondered what possessed her to start Armadillo Magazine. “Sheer idiocy” she says when I ask. She uses four to six days, unpaid, on each issue of Armadillo, which comes quarterly. It started as a traditional magazine on paper, but five years ago Mary and Rhiannon shifted it to being online. It’s in its “tenth year and it may well be our last … unless a miracle happens”.
Let’s hope Mary is wrong. With a star studded cast of well known authors reviewing over fifty titles for each issue, and with articles and interviews, Armadillo has a function to fill in the children’s books world. One place where Mary gets ideas for Armadillo, is the Bologna fair for children’s books. Unlike most other writers Mary pays for it herself, as she has more than one publisher, and it leaves her free to cover for Armadillo while she’s there.
She breaks off the interviewing at this point and starts asking me questions instead, and hands out plenty of advice. Mary’s comment on hearing that I blog most days is that “it sounds like another thing I shouldn’t be looking at”, meaning she can’t afford any more regular distractions. I can’t say I blame her, and who wouldn’t get addicted to bookwitch? Mary finds that the “majority of (her) time is not spent writing”. She moans a bit about proofs which turn up late, forcing her to work at the weekend as well, since she usually has “another book to write during the week’. Then there’s things like consultations on book jackets, which take time.
I enjoy Mary’s own blog, which appears on her website, perhaps once every two weeks or so. Unlike most of the material on the website which is aimed at her young fans, the blog is more adult, and I ask who she writes it for. “I write the blog for myself, … it’s terribly random”. But she tells the story of her German editor who read the news about City of Secrets on her blog, and emailed Mary about it straightaway, and was able to make a decision much faster than Mary’s English editor.
I can’t resist asking Mary for a quote on Philip Pullman for my teenage son. Unlike some authors who are quick to throw out some flippant comment, Mary gives it a lot of thought. “I like The Subtle Knife; it’s my favourite”, and she says “he’s done a wonderful thing for fantasy fiction, and will undoubtedly do more”.
Meeting with Mary without a child present to do it for me, I sink low enough to ask that most childish of questions. The one about money. I don’t ask how much she earns, nor even what children often do to get round the problem, by asking what car she drives, but I just want to know if she can live off her writing. Stupid question; of course she can.
Mary’s most immediate plans are “going to Stratford to see all the History plays back-to-back in four days”. That sounds like fun, but hardly restful. I believe Mary must need a fairly hectic lifestyle. We exchange business cards, and I have to admire Mary’s for its efficiency, having two sides; one for herself and one for Armadillo.
As we say goodbye, we’ve walked some way towards the car park where Mary left her car. Before heading off she makes sure I’m not lost; that I know where I am. I do. Low IQ or otherwise.