It’s no wonder Jacqueline Wilson is such a prolific writer – the former Children’s Laureate speaks at a hundred miles an hour.
Keeping up with her is tricky, but she’d have no problem with all the crossings-out in this reporter’s notebook after we’ve passed a few minutes discussing her work.
She admits she’s one for making mistakes.
“If you look in my notebooks you will see how many crossings-out there are and how I can never write a perfect version first time,” she says, speaking to The Guide from her home in Kingston upon Thames, where she lives with a library-sized collection of books.
“No one will write good sentences straight off, it’s very unlikely. You have to feel your way through it and rewrite.”
It’s the response she gives to the thousands of requests for tips she receives from budding young writers who have read stories about Tracy Beaker, Hetty Feather or other characters from one of the more than 35 million books she has sold since she dedicated herself to writing children’s stories.
Isolated childhood The point she wants to make is that first-timers should welcome scribbled lines and red ink as part of the development process.
Wilson still works by longhand and types it all up on a computer. She edits as she goes, which means her notebooks are full of errors and phrases that need polishing.
“I don’t think I could write anything without going through the whole notebook process first. I suppose it’s the way I’ve always done things – and us writers get superstitious about changing the way we do things.”
Wilson is now an elder stateswoman of the publishing world. She’s won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, the 1999 Children’s Book Of The Year, the Smarties Medal and the Children’s Book Award, as well as being highly commended for the Carnegie Medal. And she’s now got a full-scale exhibition dedicated to her life and work.
“It’s the sort of exhibition I would have loved to have gone round when I was young and knew that I wanted to be a writer.
“I remember visiting the very poignant museum of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and when I saw her actual diary it was so amazing to see that it was there.
“Obviously, I’m not equating myself with the wonderful Anne Frank but it shows one advantage of being a technophobe, that as I write in little notebooks they are all there for children to look at.”
There’ll be more than just the recent notebooks on show. Old Woolworths exercise books in which Wilson used to scribble her ideas when she was a teenager will be dotted around a full-size recreation of her younger self’s bedroom.
“It’ll be a history lesson and intriguing to grannies with creative grandchildren,” she jokes.
Wilson was born in Bath and grew up in Kingston upon Thames. She was an only child and longed for elder brothers and sisters. She credits the isolation with sparking her imagination and remembers her situation as very different to children’s upbringings today.
“Life was so different then. Nowadays if you go into most girls’ bedrooms, even in humble homes, children have their own duvet covers with lots of fancy pink decoration.
“When I was a kid, the bedroom was sparse and plain and most kids now have a TV. We didn’t have a TV at all until I got a bit older and then it was certainly just a tiny set in the living room we’d gather round in awe.”
The exhibition, Daydreams And Diaries: The Story Of Jacqueline Wilson, was put together by Seven Stories in Newcastle, and Wilson was involved in its creation.
“They were asking me about when I was a kid and I remembered I had a tiny bedroom with one shelf of books that I loved to read and how I loved to write and draw. Then it occurred to me that that is what I do now, but what I do now in a slightly more luxurious surrounding. We had idea to recreate my council house bedroom from the 1960s so kids could see what I was like and then put together my writing room as it is now.”
Old dolls, pictures, toys and books – What Katie Did, Ballet Shoes, Little Women – that once sat on her one shelf and which she read and reread are all part of the interactive show, which also features games and dressing-up boxes.
“There is one of my many school notebooks where I grandly declared at the age of nine that I was going to write a novel in it. I was no infant phenomenon but it was very important indeed and I certainly had it in my head at that age.”
She says she is amazed by the number of children who get in touch with her saying they want to be writers.
“They say they have written another story about Tracy Beaker. They don’t always realise they have to make up their own characters!
“I think many children also think once you get published, you make a great fortune, but I do think it’s lovely that children really enjoy stories.”
Wilson left school at 16 and took a job writing for Jackie magazine before trying her hand at crime novels and asking Brighton-based illustrator Nick Sharratt to bring the words on the page to life. She says Sharratt was key because she didn’t want reluctant readers to be faced with big blocks of text and his input on Tracy Beaker helped her get her first big seller aged 46.
She suggests young writers keep a diary and get into the habit of writing every day. That she has been so successful without taking A-levels or going to university is something young people should note, but her own daughter is now a French professor at Cambridge and she says it’s important for children to stay in education as long as possible.
“This was in the 1960s where a lot of people decided to just jump straight from school into work. Back then if you were young and you had a bit of determination you would go a long way.
“I would always advise someone to complete their education but my route worked for me. I was thrilled to bits to get that job on Jackie. I thought it was wonderful training.
“It meant I learnt to write all sorts of different things and I was never too precious. If I wrote something and I thought it was wonderful then it was heavily edited. I learned not to mind.
“Also you couldn’t suddenly have writer’s block, you jolly well had to get on with it.”
Daydreams And Diaries: The Story Of Jacqueline Wilson will be at Hove Museum And Art Gallery, New Church Road, Hove, from Saturday, November 24 to Tuesday, April 30.
The exhibition is open Open Mon to Sat (except Weds) 10am to 5pm, Sun and bank holidays 2pm to 5pm, closed December 24, 26 and 31, and January 1, free. Call 03000 290900