She looks a little lonely standing on the platform, scanning the train for a witch she has never met, so I wave to Debi Gliori through the train doors, to indicate that I am me, so to speak. Debi is easy to recognise despite that dreadful lie she told me in her email as we set up our meeting; ‘It was an impostor you found on Go Ogle. A previous wrinkle-free self who probably could still fit into a size ten. Twelve years on, we’re now running Debi OSX version 50.1.27.’ I had googled her to see what she looks like, and she tried to make out I’d not find that – very nice looking – woman when we finally meet. Well, that’s who I did find on that platform, and if I interviewed the wrong Debi Gliori, then that’s nothing to do with me.
After a short tour through the almost Scandinavian countryside east of Edinburgh, we arrive at GlioriSchloss, and within minutes I know more about the inside of Debi’s fridge and freezer than I ought to, having sat down in the ‘wrong’ spot in her kitchen. I end up getting the milk for the tea and the coffee, and have a lovely hunt through for the Italian homemade ice cream we have with pudding.
I admire her AGA, which looks very cool, except it’s quite hot, of course. ‘I’m so not cool’ she says, ‘that AGA is my dirty little secret.’ Debi says jokingly that they’ll have to move, to avoid being AGA owners, ‘but I love my shed, and I did tidy it up a month ago. It’s very hard being tidy. I can’t be bothered.’
Something I have realised from listening to Debi on Meet the Author, is that the G in Gliori is silent. It makes it easier to pronounce, but it’s hard to unlearn years of G-lioring. She says that sometimes in schools she is greeted with the phrase ‘Good Morning, Mrs Ravioli’, which she finds hilarious.
‘Do you speak Italian?’
‘Not really. My grandparents came from Italy in the late 1930s. My grandfather used to sell ice cream off the back of a donkey cart. My father had lots of siblings, and they were very poor. He was the one who went to college, and became a teacher.’ I remark that she has not got a strong Glaswegian accent. ‘My mum was determined I wasn’t going to speak like “that”. I always give Titus and Pandora a sort of west coast twang.’ I say I can only think ‘Billy Connolly’ when I think of her Loch creature. ‘Yes, or Rab C Nesbitt.’ Debi tries to read her books in accents when going into schools, but the trouble is it takes an hour to explain what she is about to read. ‘You go in cold to schools, sometimes the classes are too young. They are very, very frank about how much they don’t like you.’
I say I reckon the books really are for adults.
Debi tells me that after my recent blog post on her fifth Pure Dead Magic book, she read on, and counted five ‘bloody hells’ in quick succession. ‘Titus swears like a trooper in that book. I ran into a woman in a signing queue up in Shetland, who said “Oh, we love this in my reading group!” She was convinced they’re adult books.’
I compare her first PDM with Artemis Fowl, which also has an adult feel to it.
‘Artemis Fowl is sheer genius. I was having a pint of Guinness with Eoin Colfer, and he was telling me all about his idea for mad fairies and leprechaun units, and I wondered where the heck he was going with his wayward plot! I adore him, he makes me fall about laughing, he is a genius.
Sometimes a series takes time to get going. An author needs to get to know their characters. It’s only through years of living with these characters, that you get to know their preferences and their deepest, darkest secrets, and their personalities start to come out. The less I steered, the more rounded the characters became.’
I mention that to start with I was disappointed in Baci’s lack of skill in being a witch.
‘She’s the only one who comes out and says she’s a witch, but she’s rubbish!’ Debi laughs.
With my Harry Potter hat on, I have to admit that I had considered Mrs MacLachlan a bit of a Dumbledore figure, taking care of everyone, making sure everything’s all right in the end. And then it is not!
‘That book (the fourth) just about finished me off, actually. I don’t plan when I write. Complete heresy; you go into primary schools and say you don’t plan…’
Philip Pullman and his dislike of planning creep into the conversation, and the photographer says how Pullman claims he ‘never has any idea of what is going to happen, so why should anyone else?’ And then he hastens to put his customary Pullman question to Debi, ‘What do you think of him? Have you met him?’
‘I met him very briefly at the book festival in Edinburgh. He sort of said ‘Hi Debi’ and that was it. What I do like is that he occasionally writes in the Guardian and he wrote a piece that I cut out and have kept and quoted from extensively, about how looking for ideas is a little like going out fishing at night, you push your boat out in the dark, you have your little lantern, and he talks about the amazing creatures you pull out from the depths, and I just thought “Yes! He has nailed that down so well.” It was beautiful. I read Northern Lights to Ben, who is now 22, and then I read The Subtle Knife with him, and it was the last book I ever read to Ben, because then he was actually 14, and he said “Mum, you don’t have to read me a story at bedtime” and I didn’t read the third one… and I haven’t read it yet, and I know I’ll have to. Pullman is very good on the subject of writing, except I did take issue when he said that plumbers do not have plumbers block, and joiners do not have joiners block. I think Philip has never had depression, or any kind of writer’s block. It’d be nice if he could understand that the condition actually exists; that people suffer from it.’
We discuss the need for cheerful colours to deal with the darkness in Scotland. ‘I found Edinburgh such a forbidding place, when I first came here. Very presbyterian, no nice cheap cafés.’ And then we move on to the Edinburgh run, which this January took place in a gale. It was so cold she ‘nearly died. I will never do that again. I’ve never been up Ben Nevis. Horrible path.’ Debi’s partner Michael laughs. He does that a lot. Michael is the hill walker in the family. Debi says ‘when I gave up smoking I finally saw the point of hill walking, though I get stuck on anything slightly vertiginous. Once on a walk I heard this voice of Mrs MacLachlan in my head “now, dear”. It was wonderful having that voice when I needed it. She got me off the path. Wonder what a psychiatrist would say about people who don’t exist, helping me off dodgy places on hills?’
We’re still eating Debi’s wonderful lunch, so the conversation skips from the bad quality of paint brushes used in schools, via meeting people from blogs (I’m her first, it seems), a gay Buddhist knitter in Chicago, keeping her chilli oil in a gin bottle and microwaving ice cream that is too hard.
Trying to get back to serious stuff like talking about books, I say how fascinated I am by Debi’s ‘Scottish spellings’. They help a lot with hearing the accent of the character, for those of us less exposed to Scottish accents on a daily basis. Apparently the US editions had to come with glossaries. ‘I had such fun with the glossary’, she says and tells a complex story about explaining y-fronts to an American. ‘Two countries divided by a common language. In the US, the first book was to be published on 11th September 2001. There were boxes with big labels saying “Not to be opened until the 11th September.” It was horrendous. I was supposed to go over a week afterwards. I wrote to all the librarians there to apologise. It was all a bit grim.’
She suggests we continue talking in the shed, or her international shedquarters, as she calls it. The photographer mutters to himself ‘They have bookshelves above their door frames. I approve of bookshelves above door frames.’ ‘You ought to see the rear room’, Debi suggests.
There is a large, inflatable crocodile in her shed. ‘No home should be without one. I wrote about Tock before I bought the crocodile.’ Taking care not to pour coffee over her artwork, Debi says ‘I’m still doing the Witch Baby illustrations. I have about 140, and thought it’d be 145, but it will be more like 180.’ Debi praises the woman who does the page layout in her books. ‘She does wonderful things; you end up with a picture going down the middle. I don’t get to communicate directly with her. I’m not quite sure if the publishers are protecting her from rampaging illustrator, or what.’
I ask about the fancy light bulbs over her drawing table; ‘I always seem to be doing picture books in the winter, hence the daylight bulbs which are incredible. Blue bulbs correct the light balance, yellow bulbs are too warm. It’s crazy, I worry about the light bulbs but run an AGA.’
‘You’ve got such a good way with words, but I’ve read somewhere that you consider yourself an illustrator first?’
‘It really depends what I’m working on. When I was doing the Pure Dead series I found myself saying, I really prefer writing. I was really enjoying the writing, but now I’ve finished them and am doing Witch Baby. When I’m writing I can’t wait to get to the illustrations. I love doing those pictures. They’ve taken a lot longer than anticipated. The first book ended up taking two years, rather than four to five months, which is what the publishers had in mind, so now of course everything is galloping to try and catch up. In an ideal world I would try and run the pictures and the text together, because I think the texts improve by having the two things coming out of nowhere together. It’s not an ideal world, and we are in a bit of a hurry, so the story comes first, and then I do the pictures.’
‘How long does one picture take to do?’
‘I’ll show you. It depends on the picture; some of them will actually take a whole day. Because it’s Halloween, all the pictures are dark, so there’s a hell of a lot to cross-hatch (darken), which takes forever. This is Daisy and the dinosaur. That sort of thing will take half a day.
By the way, you were very right to say on the blog that Toad is a nice character, because she is. She’s the best of the witches, but I think I’m redeeming the Chin.’
‘I wondered whether they were coming round?’
‘They are coming round. I noticed this in the third book. Mr Harukashi is determined to pursue the Chin, and is winning her over little by little. A little romance. I think he sees her better qualities. Love will redeem them all in the end. I don’t know how I’ll the redeem the Nose. She is quite irredeemably awful, but we’ll get there.’
‘How many books will there be?’
‘Only four books. They haven’t asked for more, and given the current economic climate, who knows? I did ask, because it’s actually quite important to know if I’m going to go on and do more, because then I can stretch the whole plot. They said, we have to wait and see how the third book sells, but by then it’s too late.’
‘Witch Baby and Damp are very similar?’
‘Oh, yes, for sure.’ Debi moves down to her sofa. ‘This is for snoozing on,’ she laughs. ‘Sometimes I will collapse on the couch in the afternoon and have a twenty minute nap.
Damp and Witch Baby are very similar. When I got to the end of the six books – the “Dead Books” – I missed them all. I really did. I missed all the characters. I missed Mrs MacLachlan, but I also really missed Damp.’
‘Yes, she’s grown on me.’
‘She’s the same age as my youngest daughter was when I wrote it. Fourteen months. We had just emerged from that long dark tunnel of sleep deprivation. To keep ourselves sane we would give her a voice, like “What do you have to do to get room service in this place?” I didn’t realise at the beginning that Damp was important, but it’s there on the first page: “Too young to speak, their owner wondered if this one could change nappies and sing the right kind of lullaby to hush a witch baby to sleep.” Did I know at some subconscious level when I began to write that? She really comes into her own in the last book; it’s her big starring role.
The story is concluded by the last book. I left myself one or two un-ravellings so that I can re-enter if…’
‘So there could be more?’
‘There could be more, but it depends entirely on the publisher. They are Random House books, so I couldn’t take them somewhere else. Being allowed to write six was a tremendous privilege.’
‘How did you get to six? Did you plan more than one book at a time?’
‘I finished the first one, and put it away in a drawer. I came back to it two months later and tightened it up, and then I asked my agent if she would sell it, and she came back to me and said “Wonderful news, darling. I’ve got a three book deal!” And I didn’t even know if I could write another one! I was scheduled to write one a year, and the first three were relatively easy to do. Then I got to the end and I thought, well I haven’t really wrapped it up. There are quite a few dangling things, mainly the Chronostone. I invented the damned stone in book three, and then it was obvious you had to get rid of it, because it was trouble. So between not having wrapped up the Chronostone, and also the characters who I’d lived with for four years, I thought “I don’t want to stop. I know there are more stories to be told.”
So I went back to Random House and said “How would you feel about another three?” and because at that point the first two were doing very well, they said “We’ll write you three blank contracts,” so I was really lucky. The first one, Deep Trouble was hellish to write; much harder to write than I ever thought. Before I started writing it Random said “Could you possibly come up with just a very rough synopsis for where you are heading?” and I had no idea. What I put down on paper bore no relation whatsoever to the books, but it kept somebody happy. So the first one was pretty tricky to write, but it made the two subsequent ones a lot easier. I liked Deep Trouble. I couldn’t believe I’d done that to Mrs MacLachlan! Where did that come from? That was as much of a shock to me, and I had people come up to me at book festivals and say “How could you do it?’ I don’t know. I tried to read from the book when I went on tour, with Damp saying goodbye to Mrs MacLachlan and I ended up in tears in front of the audience. I’m not going to do that again! I can’t read it. Too sad.’
I compare it to Dumbledore’s fate. ‘I thought something will work out. The thread into the freezer will make it all right.’
‘I had a dream,’ she giggles, ‘when I was writing that book, and it was the weirdest thing. I dreamt I was a highborn Roman and I was going along a road which slaves were building and there was one woman, quite an old woman, building this road and I sort of stopped my retinue and said “that one”, and went over to speak to her. I lifted up her chin and said “You’re Amelia” and she said “Yes I am” and I woke up and I thought, I’ve just met Strega-Nonna!’ She hoots with laughter.
‘It was really hard (to go to writing younger fiction). I had about two years in the wilderness trying to find a voice for Witch Baby, and trying to build a family around Witch Baby, but I think I got there. I’m very fond of the MacRaes. I love them. Quite ordinary people, who have got this one extraordinary child.’
‘You don’t see much of the parents, but you need to have parents.’
‘Some people don’t. Some people dispatch their parents.’
‘I know, but on the other hand, you’ve got a very small child.’
I say that Debi’s novels remind me a lot of Terry Pratchett’s.
‘That’s hugely complimentary. I loved his Johnny and the Dead. It used to almost make me cry with laughter. I haven’t been able to connect with Discworld. I have a huge respect for him; I think the man is a genius, but Discworld has passed me by. But Tiffany Aching, I adore those, The Wee Free Men.’
‘It can be pointless coming up with labels, but PDM is almost hard-boiled crime, isn’t it?’
‘Can’t you tell what I was reading when I was writing that? I can. A touch of Ian Rankin, a spot of John Connolly. We do read a lot of crime, occasionally a bit of hard-boiled crime.’
‘The first book; I just thought “fantasy and witches”, no doubt far too influenced by Harry Potter, but it’s crime, really, isn’t it?’
‘It’s all there, science fiction, an awful lot of romance. I’m a soppy person, there’s a lot of Scotland as well, travel writing.’
‘I know.’ She giggles. ‘Poor Ben.’
‘That must go over the heads of young readers?’
‘Of course it does, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes children will write to me and say “and my mum loves them, too”.
Tarantella’s daughters and Rand? It was very handy way of disposing of Rand. The boy had to go.’
‘What about “Ikey Yarr” as a joke, then?’
‘What a bad pun! Thank heavens, somebody does read it. That’s the wardrobe from Ikea. Sorry, I’m really pathetic. When I was writing these books, every night Michael would get the gin and peanuts out, and I’d get to bad puns like that, and would start laughing. He’d say “you are a sad case. You find your own jokes really funny”. And I did. Ikey Yarr.’
I say that I started out thinking she has four children, but have found Debi seems to have five.
‘One stepson, but I’ve never not counted him as one of the children.’
‘Are you compensating for being an only child?’
‘Definitely. As an only child I can see that that is quite a grievous burden to place on a child, in terms of you’re the sole source of your parents hopes. When my Mum died, what I found really hard was not having any siblings I can say “Do you remember when?” to. My lot are going to have an amazing time, all of them together. They will have a full pool of cross references. It’s quite wonderful for me, just to listen to them, because they don’t need me there. They have this fantastic relationship, not always perfect, but just to hear them all interact, is absolutely brilliant. I’m the cook, you know, the bottle washer. At times I feel like Babette; I’m just producing all these meals and putting them all together, and listening to the stories they tell.’
‘Five children might be easier than two?’
‘I think so. We are a composite family, and when Michael was talking earlier about the ceiling coming down, and doors slamming, it was when we initially knitted our family together. Some terrible door slamming went on. Through time they have realised we are very much a family. We are now more permanent than the families they came from and if all goes well, we’ll remain a family till we keel over. Your children can just forget about you, take you for granted completely, in the way that they should, and run their own lives.’
‘Tell me about your weekends away.’
‘We go when we can. It’s not every weekend. When we first patched our children together into one big family, Michael was an estate gardener, and we had a tied house. It was a lovely wee house, he was very happy in his job and I was happy in mine. Then we both hit forty, and we realised everyone else that we knew had houses and mortgages and deep responsibilities, and here we were still living the hippy life style. There was a little bit of money around from my Mr Bear books, enough to scrape together a deposit for a house. We were reading the local paper one day and there was this huge house over on the west coast going for what’d buy you a garage in London. We thought we could buy a ruin and because we were living in a tied house we could very slowly do it up over time. To cut a long story short, we went to see the house and fell in love. It had thirteen rooms and it had 57 windows, because I counted. I went, “whoa, this is absolutely amazing”, and Michael said “look at the size of the rooms! It’s going to cost a fortune. Oh, look at the view”. The day we went to look at it I’d just finished the first Pure Dead Magic, and I thought “it’s my StregaSchloss! I have to have it.” We underbid and got it. The first weekend Michael carried me over the threshold to this ruinous house.
One of the first things we did was to get the bedrooms ready for the children, so we could each have a room, because in the tied house, the boys were in almost like portakabins in the back garden, and the girls were sharing a bedroom. We thought the kids can have a bedroom each, so we went in to peel off wallpaper and I thought “what’s that mushroom?” Riddled with dry rot. The survey missed that. We go over at weekends, and occasionally we try to forget it’s all a ruin, and just have a really good time. Sometimes we go there and do a foray of DIY, so it’s a mixed blessing. It’s the nearest thing to a pension fund we’ve got. It’s beautiful. I love it.
One of the good things is when I get there, all of this just falls away. Completely and totally. And because it’s quite big and echoey, my fiddle playing sounds fine. It’s like the Carnegie Hall. I actually sound good for a change. It’s a house that is absolutely stashed full of memories.’
‘Talking about roof repairs and things, are the Strega-Borgias rich or poor?’
‘They have things they could sell. The house is an investment. They are us, really. When Michael’s job as estate gardener finished, instead of paying him redundancy pay they just gave him lots of antiques, most of which were falling apart, but of course we had a place to put them because we had this huge house. So when times get hard here, Michael will sort of say, “well we can always sell the big wardrobe.” We don’t actually have a big chandelier with the Chronostone hiding, but we can live in hope. I don’t think the Strega-Borgias have money. In common with an awful lot of Highland estate owners they have a fantastic amount of resources, but not the wherewithal to keep it up.’
We talk about the Strega-Borgias’ staff, especially the cook Marie Bain; how the family sneak round cooking in secret, so she won’t notice and get upset. ‘The only trained nanny I’ve ever had was when Ben was a tiny tot, and I was married to an American. I was desperate, trying to get published and I was very close to getting there. Ben came along and I thought I don’t really want to stop working because I’m getting somewhere here, so when Ben was two, I started working full time in my wee shed again, and I employed a nanny. My husband would not pay, saying “we don’t need one”, but I said “I need one”. “Well if you need one sweetheart, you pay for one”, so I did. The nanny earned more than I did. For five years the bank manager propped me up because he actually believed in what I was doing. He said “you’re mad, but I think you’ll probably make a go of it”. The nanny was wonderful. Worth every penny. I remember I used to feel bereft on a Friday afternoon when she went home. She was like a wee sister. I was very unhappily married, and she was the one really bright thing in our lives.’
‘How long have you and Michael been together?’
‘Thirteen years. A long time. I was married for ten. I know that my ex-husband is now really happy, and I’m really happy. Neither of us were bad or evil people; we were just totally unsuited.’
I want to know how much Debi’s signed hardback velvet books are worth. I’ve read that she has a stash of velvet books somewhere.
‘I hope I didn’t say that! There are probably more signed books than there are unsigned ones. You go on eBay and you discover the books you’ve lovingly signed to individuals. I have no idea what they are worth. Not very much. I think there was a peak when there was going to be a film made by Universal. When I did a signing, I would see people at the back of the queue with multiple copies. I love winding people up, so would ask if they had “lots of relatives?” Somebody on the internet had said “she will always do a doodle”. People would come up and say “can you do a doodle”, and I’d say “no, I did five years at art college. I will do you a drawing!” I’m one of those whose queues take forever, I’m just really slow signing. If you spend too long, you’ll get lynched, especially in Edinburgh.’
We talk about attending the Edinburgh book festival, and Debi feels the need to see what’s new and to see people. ‘You feel you’re getting stale. You polish your act by going to see what other people do.’
‘Do you have authors friends?’
‘I don’t really have any friends! My closest friend here is Lindsey Fraser. She’s now a literary agent, but I first met her when she ran Scottish Book Trust with Katherine Ross. Viv French. I’m really fond of her, but don’t know her very well. When I get together with other authors before book festivals and events, we all have such a good time. I tend to find them very easy company, and we all have stuff in common. Eoin (Colfer) is a good mate, but he’s a sort of good email mate. Really. I’m useless.’
My photographer says he’s ‘been admiring all your Tove Jansson books.’
‘I absolutely adore her. I grew up with her. I‘d completely forgotten quite how much I worshipped Comet in Moominland. I came upon it again as an adult reading it to my daughter, and realised how bloody good those books are. So now when I go to schools and children say “what’s your favourite book”, I’ll say Comet in Moominland, and they haven’t heard of Tove Jansson! How can this be? It was that letter at the beginning, she writes “Dear child”, and I felt she was writing to me. They’re wonderful, and they are so adult as well. She’s dealing with big stuff, in a beautiful fashion. You’d never catch her doing 145 illustrations. She’d do four and that’d be better.
I do find when you talk to children in schools, and you mention E Nesbit, and you say “have you read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase?”, and they go “what?”. Either I’m just so old and completely out of it, or else children are reading some very odd books.’
‘I wrote Joan Aiken a letter. I have a photocopy of her last despairing letter to her US copy-editor pinned up over my laptop. She was wonderful. Created some great characters. Some of the old books are so utterly brilliant. They don’t read old. I was really quite disheartened up in Aberdeen this week when speaking to children about what they like to read. All of their references were filmic or from the telly, and we didn’t have a point of reference because I don’t watch television. I had no idea what they were talking about, and they had no idea what I was talking about. Thank heavens I can draw, is all I can say, because that way we can actually talk about something.’
‘So you don’t watch any television?’
‘No, I’m very un-cool. I think we probably see a film every year if we’re lucky. And we don’t watch television. I can’t be bothered, I really can’t, but it makes me very dull company. I don’t get what people are on about. I remember when I got married to my American husband. The final episode of Twin Peaks was on and all his American relations were coming. So all my wedding guests disappeared off to watch this weird thing, which I didn’t get at all.’
It’s a short hop here to talk about owning lots of books, and people’s reactions to it. ‘Michael can build bookshelves, and he alphabetises his books. It’s one of the reasons I found him unbelievably attractive! That was my second question; “Are you good at shelving? Marry me!” I would love to have wall space to hang pictures, too. I quite like paintings. That’s why having a ruin on the west coast is a good thing.’
After chatting for hours I feel the need to point out that I hadn’t intended to sit down and never leave, so say I mustn’t sit here all day.
‘But it’s so pleasant!’
So we sink even lower, exchanging compliments, and gossip some more.
Debi says how great it is ‘when your children grow up and start reading crystallising books, and you can have these huge discussions with them.’
‘Do your children all read?’
‘Always. Widely and hugely’. She bought her law student son a pile of charity shop books for Christmas, but he left them behind when he went back. ‘He has no time to read other than law books, but the girls curl up with books in various corners of the house.’ Debi’s elder daughter can recognise a badly written book, but one which is still fun to read.
I’m reminded of poor Damp who lies awake, but is too small to go downstairs for a drink and a light read.
‘I can remember being small and wakeful and thinking “this is all wrong; I should be able to do what the grownups do.” Then you’re grownup and awake at three in the morning and you could get up and read, but you don’t.’
‘You were going to show us your book room.’
‘Yes, it’s quite photogenic,’ Debi says as she leads us back to the main house, after the photographer has levered me out of the couch in her shedquarters.
It’s only as we sit down to a final cup of tea and with the recording stopped that we stumble on to the subject of JK Rowling. Debi has met her a number of times, though not recently. She recalls meals together. And there was an incident at a launch in an art gallery, where JK inadvertently damaged a work of art with her handbag, which threatened to turn ugly until someone with a lot of common sense, as well as knowledge about art, defused the situation, by suggesting how to rescue the painting. So, nothing very tabloid worthy.
Then we gather up signed books – with drawings, not doodles – and are driven back to the deserted station, and get caught in a sudden shower, but Debi refuses to leave us, and gamely puts up with getting wet.
(Photos I Giles)