Where did you grow up?
I spent my early childhood in the green hills of the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, near where Nelson Mandela grew up and went to university. When I was seven, I could actually speak Xhosa with my little friends. I have forgotten nearly all of it now, but I can still do a Xhosa rain dance, which you do to encourage rain during a drought. I do not do this dance very often in England, where a ‘stop raining’ dance might be more useful. We used to roam around with the mountain goats, make animals out of mud on the river banks, and end up at the farm where we might be allowed to feed the lambs. It’s hard to imagine such freedom today, but I remember it clearly. I don’t know how we always knew when it was time to go home for dinner, though.
What is your earliest memory of writing/drawing?
I have been a writer as long as I can remember. I wrote a story called ‘A Misty Morning’ when I was about eight. It was full of poetic and mysterious images. A comic story I wrote at school about the early Dutch settlers in South Africa did not go down well at all. I was called into the Principal’s office to be told that history was a serious matter. I was also in a small earthquake, and once the school caught fire. All this gave me lots of great dramatic material for stories.
What inspired you to write/illustrate your first book?
When I was a journalist I travelled the world. I’ve always liked school, and sometimes I used to photograph the school children I saw on my travels. I enjoyed the way they looked so different, and yet I knew that the experience of school itself would be very similar. So when I was askedto write a book about the lives of children in different countries around the world, it seemed like a perfect fit.
Do you use your childhood as inspiration?
As a child I was a great dreamer and lived very much in my imagination. It still feels natural to me to look at a picture of a child in a different culture and imagine what their thoughts and feelings might be.
What books from your childhood have most influenced your work? What about adult titles?
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, is my all-time favourite. I think this is one of the best children’s books ever written. It is perfect, especially the ending. Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes is another one I read over and over. When I was 12, I read Gone with the Wind. My mother and I used to argue about Ashley and Rhett – I thought Ashley was feeble and Rhett was much more interesting.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books?
I love scuba diving, white water rafting and tennis, although I don’t do any of those very much. Cooking – I cook dinner every day, and I bake at weekends. I like the house to smell of banana bread. And I still like school – I take a lot of interest in my daughter’s school life.
Who are a couple of your favorite author/illustrators? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you?
Joan Didion is my favourite writer, because she never says too much, but what she says is sharp and true. Ann Tyler is another. Her style is gentle, but her feeling for people is so acute. I once read Breathing Lessons to my daughter when she was only 10. Something about those two old people bickering in their car just captivated her. Only Ann Tyler could do that.
What one or two words of advice would you give for young authors/illustrators?
The same advice as everyone gives. Write all the time – it’s a skill that gets better with practice, like any other, and you will only develop your own voice by using it a lot. And write about your own life, or things you see or read that make a powerful impression on you. You don’t need to make anything up – everyday things can be as surprising as any fantasy, and everyone’s way of seeing the world is original. Trust your own responses.