Vivian’s agents are Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.

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Vivian French

Vivian French Scotsman interview

The Scotsman

January 9, 2009

by Lee Randall

WIMPISH AND WEEDY, YOUNG Vivian French wasn’t a “fitter inner”, as she puts it. “I had rather small feet and a rather large head and I would fall down a lot. The way my father would keep me walking was that we’d make up rhymes together. He’d make up a line and I had to do the next one.”

Her talent for invention endured, and after careers as an actor and a storyteller, French published her first children’s book in 1990. She has since published roughly 200 bestselling books for children of all ages, with sales of well over a million (figures aren’t her strong suit), including the wildly popular Tiara Club series, and Tales from the Five Kingdoms, featuring Trueheart Grace Gillypot, a cheeky bat named Marlon and the loveable troll Gubble, whose head has an inconvenient way of bouncing off his neck now and then.

French, born on the border of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, is that rare adult who shows excitement by yelping “Yay!”, without sounding annoying or childish. Her enthusiasm for life is infectious, and the same warmth pervades her books – even her villains reveal their humanity, while her good guys are not so angelic as to induce nausea.

Despite being the daughter of a headmaster, she hated school and was even asked to leave Cheltenham Ladies College. With considerable scorn, she explains: “It was founded on the basis of sarcasm and excellence in education. They called my dad in – this was a long time ago – and said they were worried about me. I floated around in a world of my own. And I hated games. I was always the one picking daisies around the outskirts.”

Does she write to comfort the lonely child that she was? “I think I write for the child I would have liked to have been, a confident child who has lots of friends and is quite practical. If anything happened, I just stood and flapped my arms. It was a long time before anyone realised I was very short-sighted, and I did live in a kind of a mist.”

French credits her dad with firing her love of stories and storytelling. In addition to their walking poetry slams, he read to his brood nightly – French had an older brother, now deceased, and has another brother, five years her junior, upon whom she bases some of her characters. “My father particularly read us fairy tales. I read those, and a lot of SPCK books. They were terribly virtuous.”

What appealed most, she says, was the acting side of storytelling, though she’s quick to point out that the listener is as integral to the tale as the person – or theatrical troupe – doing the telling.

After toying with the lure of the open road and becoming a long-distance lorry driver, she went to university to study English, but spent more time off campus acting than in the library swotting. And she got married.

“I got married because another student asked me and he was a really good director and I was too polite to say no. The way I was brought up, if somebody asked if you’d like a piece of cake you said, ‘Yes, that’d be lovely,’ even if you hated it. I got a pretty lousy degree, and moved to London and got a job at what was then the National Book League, now the Book Trust, working for the information centre.”

She was more likely to chat with the public about their favourite books than research their queries, and was soon out of work. By this time she’d had the first of her four daughters, Alice, and reconnected with an old school friend who suggested she start acting.

She joined a theatrical troupe and began touring universities, coming to the Edinburgh Fringe in around 1968. “My generation was the changeover generation. We were into the Sixties big time and really did believe love would conquer all and anything was possible, and here’s a flower. I can actually remember giving people sunflowers – with a straight face – and people taking them with a straight face! Incredible.”

Her marriage foundered and she secured a job with the Robert Cooper Theatre company, which came with an Equity card, so the idea of applying to drama school seemed redundant. Instead, enlisting her mum as a babysitter, French spent weekdays touring schools, rushing home on weekends and holidays to be with Alice.

It sounds a mad existence. “Talk about usage and abusage of actors! We had to do one play for infants and one for juniors. The latter being a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast of four! We doubled up on the roles and had to go behind screens to change and small children would come up and go, ‘I can see your knickers!’

“Bits had been rewritten. So it was, ‘Hello, my name is Puck and I’ve come to give you all good luck,’ and you had to go very fast on the good luck bit because older kids would improvise in the front row. It taught me an awful lot about crowd control. Once you’ve had a whole lot of kids launching themselves onstage, you learn that you have to fix them with a basilisk eye, a cross between Joyce Grenfell and Hitler.”

Together with a bloke who’d once been a “flinglet”, she started Blackbird Productions and, along the way, met her second husband, Derek.

“I met Jessica and Jemima’s dad through a lonely hearts ad I placed in Time Out. I didn’t actually meet him, I met his friend and he introduced me to this very nice man. So I married him. It was difficult touring with kids, so I joined a co-operative in London, based in Finchley. I was the drama worker. It was Thatcher territory and we were seen as dangerous because we were a co-operative, so if they had any events in the building we had to be vacated, in case we flew red knickers from the roof. It was very Seventies.”

Sadly, her marriage to Derek was ill-fated, but having learned her lesson with Alice’s dad, she took a calm look at her options. “Derek and I broke up in about 1982. We were going to a Christmas carol service and he said he’d met somebody else and she was having a baby. So we went and had to sing Away in a Manger…

“Now Derek and I are almost best friends – we have holidays together, our two families. I remember making a decision: either I can make a huge fuss about this or I can remain friends. I thought it would be really good for Jess and Jemima to have a father around. He’s a really nice guy and he and his wife Nina have such nice daughters. When the girls were little we’d go out all together, me and (my husband] Davy, Derek and Nina and Alice and Jess and Jemima and Cathleen and Edie and Nancy, and you’d see people looking at all these girls, trying to figure it out.”

For the record, Nancy is her daughter with Davy, her partner of the past 25 years. They met, French reveals with a giggle, because “he was left over from a party. We used to have great parties in London. After one party there was this guy lying on the sofa with his feet up, wearing white boots, and I remember thinking, those are quite cool. He looked a bit like Neil Young. That turned out to be Davy, and he never really went away again. “

The pair moved to Bristol on a whim, having heard you could get great big houses there for not a lot of money. And it was there that she befriended the poet Diana Hendry – who, like French, has since relocated to Edinburgh. Hendry inspired her to do more than just dabble in poetry and storytelling, and introduced her to an editor and illustrator. The rest, as they say, is publishing history.

Does she have any tips for aspiring children’s book authors? Don’t talk down to kids, is her first warning. “They’re people. My grandfather told me to treat everyone the same way and never be rude to anyone. Kids are really interesting. You never know what they’re going to say. It’s that unexpected quality and the way they respond to things. Once a child asked, ‘how many similes are there in your books?’” She hadn’t a clue, of course – numbers aren’t really her thing. Luckily for us, stories are.

The Tales from the Five Kingdoms series by Vivian French, illustrated by Ross Collins, are published by Walker Book. Bag of Bones is the second in the series that began with The Robe of Skulls.

The Robe of Skulls

April 2, 2008

The Robe of Skulls won the Stockton Children’s Book of the Year Award for 2008.

It is shortlisted for the 2008 Royal Mail award for children’s books in Scotland and for the Southwark Book Award 2008.

Vivian French interview – Robe of Skulls

June 1, 2007

You are an incredibly prolific writer, having written around 200 children’s books of all different types and for all age ranges. How does The Robe of Skulls compare to your previous books? Is it the first you’ve written in the fairy tale/fantasy genre? What do you think accounts for the extreme diversity of your works overall?

I have written other fairy tales — and a long time ago I wrote some fantasy/fairy-tale plays — but I think The Robe of Skulls is a first in many ways. I’ve used all the stories I read and loved as a little girl and mixed them up with some new ideas and — I hope — humor. It’s the first book I’ve written where I really felt I was having fun each time I sat down to write.

As for the diversity of my work, I guess I’m interested in a whole lot of different things, and I just love people and finding out their likes and dislikes and how they tick. (Isn’t this called being nosy? I’d prefer to say I’m permanently curious . . . but take your pick.) I can get really excited by worms (I’m writing about them just now) in the same way that I love to try to make the emotions work in a picture book or write about little princesses at a princess academy. I’d go mad if I always wrote the same type of book for the same age range — I really need diversity to keep the ideas coming. Or maybe the ideas are diverse? I’m not sure which way it happens, but I do have to keep writing. I get extremely crabby if I go for more than a couple of days without sitting down at my computer. Ask my family!

What were your favorite books or authors as a child?

Anything with words in it. I was a compulsive reader, and I was extremely lucky because both my parents and my grandparents had walls stacked high with books. Some were very old: I happily read loads of ancient religious tracts and stories written for children in the 1900s and before; most of the children died terrible — but noble — deaths, as far as I can remember. Also, my father went to the library every week to choose more books for me and my two brothers; he read to us every night, so we got to know most of the children’s classics that were around in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. I loved The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland.

My favorite books? One was a book that belonged to my mother. It was published in the 1920s, and it was called The Dawn Child, by Beryl Irving, and it was a truly amazing fantasy story. I also read and reread any fairy-tales I could get my hands on — Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, Perrault, the Arabian Nights . . . I couldn’t get enough of them. I wasn’t really aware of authors until I was about ten or so, when I discovered Dickens — and he’s still a massive favorite.

How did you come up with the idea for The Robe of Skulls? Was there any particular inspiration, and how did the story evolve into the finished book?

I’d written — well, half written — a very bad book, and my editor and I agreed it wasn’t working. I deleted the whole thing and said I’d start again, but I couldn’t think of a single idea. I was getting really desperate, but one day I was in my kitchen and I heard a voice on the TV in the room next door saying, “Evil. I would say the answer is something to do with evil.” It was a very distinctive voice (belonging to the wonderful Geraldine McKewen, but I didn’t know that then), and it reminded me of a play I’d seen a long long time ago. In my head I could see the woman with this amazing voice wearing a long black velvet dress and sweeping across the stage in front of a castle, or something like a castle . . . and I thought, That’s it! I’m going to write a story about someone evil who longs for a new black velvet dress. And then, of course, I had to think of all the people who got in her way, and the story evolved from there.

In what ways does your background as a storyteller and actor affect your writing?

I’m obsessive about the sound of words and sentences; I always, always read everything out loud over and over again to make sure it flows and the cadences are right and the story feels as comfortable to tell as to listen to. And I do love using different voices; I always know what kind of voice a character has, even if I’m not entirely sure what he or she looks like — that’s for the illustrator to decide. Actually, I know how they move as well — if they shuffle or limp or stride. I think that goes back to my time as an actor.

How did Ross Collins’s illustrations for The Robe of Skulls compare with your visions of the
characters and settings?

Ross is my hero. When I was asked who would be my ideal illustrator, I said either Aubrey Beardsley or Ross. Beardsley was kind of out of the picture (having died in 1898), and I don’t think he could have done better than Ross anyway. As I said, I don’t have much of a visual picture of the characters and settings — my part is to give them movement and voices and thoughts and feelings. Ross illustrates them and there they are, and I could never imagine them any other way after I’ve seen his drawings.

The characters in The Robe of Skulls have such unique personalities and voices. Did you have any particular inspiration in creating any of them? Do you have a favorite character?

Lady Lamorna was inspired by Geraldine McKewen’s voice. (If anyone ever wants to make a film of Robe, I’d like to point out that Geraldine M. would make a startlingly wonderful Lady L.) Foyce came about because I was bullied at school by someone named Jane Foyce. She was incredibly beautiful, and I actually admired her hugely, but she was so like Foyce — mean and nasty, with a heart as hard as a frying pan. At least she was when she was ten. She’s probably delightful now. And Gubble? He just appeared out of nowhere once I’d thought of his name. My favorite character is either Gubble or Marlon the bat. Marlon was meant to be a minor character, but he refused point-blank to play second fiddle and took over. He’s now doing exactly the same in the next book.

Does that mean there’s a sequel to The Robe of Skulls in the works?

Yes — The Bag of Bones. It took a while to fall into the right shape, but Marlon’s sorting it out for me. Never underestimate the power of a determined bat.

Have you ever gone to extreme lengths to obtain a piece of clothing?

I did once go from shop to shop to shop all over London looking for a dress I’d seen in a magazine. It took me absolutely ages to find it, and I was so thrilled when I finally tracked it down . . . but I think I only ever wore it at my twentieth birthday party. It was impossible to walk in, and I kept falling over. Not the best way to appear cool and sophisticated and impress the boy of your dreams. He went off with my friend.

The Robe of Skulls
by Vivian French – illustrated by Ross Collins
ISBN: 978-0-7636-3531-2
July 2008
Candlewick Press
www.candlewick.com