From elephants to evil headmasters: Gillian Cross at Our Lady's Abingdon

For an author who said she'd never write about animals, Gillian Cross’s research has taken her not only to meet a friendly elephant, but to encounter a not-so-friendly pack of wolves.

But you have to be prepared to be adaptable if you want to be a writer and sometimes ideas can just take hold, the author told an audience of Abingdon school children at Our Lady's Abingdon on Thursday September 27 as part of the school’s week-long reading festival.

Her book ‘The Great Elephant Chase’ is an historical adventure when children run away and embark on an epic journey across America – trying to hide an elephant.

She had the idea for a long while but kept rejecting it as she didn’t think writing about animals was something she could do, but the idea grew and then she had to discover not only how to write about an elephant, but to write about a country she’d never visited and what it was like over a hundred years ago.

For her research she didn’t make a single trip to the USA, but relied on historical societies sending her photographs and details to work from.

But when it came to writing about the elephant she decided she really wanted to be able to see one up close and to touch it to be able describe what it looked and felt like. So she ended up in London Zoo.

‘My favourite thing about writing is when I might have started writing, and I think about the book and then suddenly it will take off and I think 'I can do this and that' and the whole thing slots together like a jigsaw puzzle. I always also learn something important when I write and that’s how you get to understand people when you are writing about them.’

Even the Demon Headmaster series, for which she is probably best known, came from an original idea from her daughter, who then badgered her to write the book. ‘I hate people telling me what to write, but she went on and on about it,’ said Gillian.

Her daughter wanted her to write about an evil headmaster, but at first Gillian couldn’t see how it could work. It was only when Gillian had the idea of him hypnotising his pupils that the idea really took hold.

The books, which are also about the rebellion by the few children he can’t hypnotise, was made into a television series and was also published in many different countries.

She showed the children how the cover has evolved since the book was first printed – with more than ten different editions, each having a different cover look and got them to vote on their favourites.

Her favourite book of the 51 she has written is ‘Where I Belong’ set partly in Somalia and partly in London. Again, it is an adventure story, with a backdrop of the fashion industry and a Somali girl who is spotted to be a model.

With such an interesting approach and experience of writing her novels, we were keen to ask Gillian a few question - and she obliged!

Five Questions With...Gillian Cross's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I am between books. ‘After Tomorrow’ comes out next year which is about a time of economic collapse and English families have to flee to France as refugees. It’s an adventure story, but it came about because I started wondering what it would be like if people in this country had to go to another country as refugees.

2.    What’s the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Do not worry if it sounds silly, you can always go back and re-write, but when you first write something down it very often sounds stupid.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best thing about being a children’s writer is you are free to write what you want to write and not get tied to a particular thing. The worst thing is that many people think if you write for children you must write picture books, but I actually don’t think I could ever write a picture book.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I do go back to long hand if I get stuck – that and go back to where I thought the story was last working. That and drinking a lot of coffee.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough
Writing ‘Wolf’ because I really challenged myself and it was an experiment, but it made me feel I could really try different ways of telling stories.

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