Best-selling author and former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson (MBE) is one of the 26 storytellers taking part in our 26 Characters project with The Story Museum. Ahead of the exhibition opening, she talks to Sophie Gordon about writing to rhythm, her inspirations and the importance of a good ending.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
Occasionally a fully-developed plot arrives unheralded in my mind, but much more often I will have a vague idea which will then lie dormant for quite a while – sometimes even for years. That’s because it’s very difficult, I find, to develop an idea into a proper story with twists and turns and a satisfying ending. A lot of this plot-development goes on in my head (specially when I’m in the bath or out for a walk), and it’s only when I’ve worked out exactly what is to happen that I sit down to write. Even then it’s not easy. A lot of crafting goes on, and sometimes I despair of saying what I want to say neatly in the rhythm which I’ve set myself. Lots of good bits get discarded if they won’t fit into a pattern. But I beaver away until I get there.
Who or what inspires your work? Authors and poets whom I admire, such as Edward Lear; William Shakespeare; E. Nesbit and Arnold Lobel (who wrote the wonderful Frog and Toad books). Also it helps that I have a very keen and supportive husband. And then sometimes ideas come from the illustrators or editors: “Please do a book about dragons!” “I’d love to illustrate something about a unicorn.”
You’ve written some of the best-loved children’s stories. What do you think children like so much about your stories and characters? I think it’s best to ask them! I feel that sort of question is a bit like asking an archer what it feels like to be struck by an arrow. Actually, I suspect that it is the parents as much as or more than the children who enjoy my stories, and I really like the knowledge that picture books are read aloud by grown-ups.
What’s in the pipeline at the moment? I’ve just seen the proofs of a book called “The Flying Bath”, with superb illustrations by the wonderful David Roberts. That will come out later this year, and so will a new collaboration with Axel Scheffler called “The Scarecrows’ Wedding”. I’ve also just finished writing a sequel to “What the Ladybird Heard” for Lydia Monks to illustrate. And I’m working on an essay about portraiture, for a catalogue to be published by the National Portrait Gallery in London. (This came about because there is a portrait of me in the gallery, recently painted by Peter Monkman.) As for the future… I still love writing songs and would like perhaps to write a musical or an opera, but am still mulling over ideas.
Any advice for aspiring children’s authors? My editor tells me that she often receives quite promising manuscripts which are let down by a weak ending. So I would advise people to take great care over endings, which should be satisfying and yet have an element of surprise.