How many books have you had published?
8 novels. 5 picture books and many others picture book stories written for language development in Africa.
Did you write for fun when you were at school?
Yes, I wrote all the time… stories and plays. My first play was about French Huguenots living on a wine farm. I thought writing with a French accent and making them talk a lot about wine would make my play very sophisticated. Of course I couldn’t speak a word of French and knew nothing about wine. I was thirteen. But it seemed a good idea at the time. I played with paper dolls when I was young and I was always creating personae and stories for them. Somehow paper dolls seem to have more exciting lives than real dolls.
Have you always earned your living as a writer?
I trained as an art teacher and taught art for a while in schools and also ran my own pottery studio. I worked mostly in porcelain and enjoyed making my own glazes and clay bodies. It made me feel like an alchemist. Perhaps writing is just being an alchemist. You put things together, stir them all up and something magical and mysterious happens.
When was your first book published and what was it called?
In 1987. It was a teenage novel called A Sudden Summer about some squatter children living in the sand-dunes.
Was it difficult to get your first book published?
I think the market is far more difficult now. I entered a competition for teenage novels and it was short-listed. After some rewrites, it was published.
Which is your favourite of your own books and why?
I think your last book is always the favourite. My last one was Fish Note and Star Songs, (Simon & Schuster) which is a rather mysterious story. And I’ve just completed Eye of the Moon, the first of two Egyptian books set at the time of Nerfertiti, which was very exciting to write. I like the bravery of the girl characters in the story because I wasn’t particularly brave when I was growing up.
Which is your favourite children’s book written by someone else?
There are so many. I loved reading as a child. One of my favourites was about Pookie a rabbit with wings who scares off the woodcutters who are going to cut down the forest. I loved reading the Sid Fleischman books to sons because they were so funny. Right now I like The Sea-thing Child by Russell Hoban illustrated by Patrick Benson best as a picture book, and I like the gutsy way Celia Rees writes.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Who knows how long a story takes to brew while you’re on the tube or showering? I’ve written a prize-winning book in 6 weeks and another has taken 10 years. Now I try to finish a teenage novel in a year. Picture book stories are quicker to write but I like to leave them to infuse as they need very fine tuning. So even though they’re written quickly they still take about a year of tweaking and at the same time I’ll be working on a novel.
Do you use a computer or write first drafts long hand?
I would be useless without a computer as I change my work all the time. But sometimes when I’m really stuck, it does help to pick up a pencil. Paper and pencil have a way of unlocking creativity. Perhaps it’s to do with my childhood of drawing lying flat on the floor on my stomach. My father was a draughtman and I was brought up with blueprints and the smell of paper and lead pencil. I had my own draughtsboard and T-square by the time I was 5.
Do you have a writing routine or do you just write when you feel like it?
I work every day as long as I’ve had my coffee… or I’m not on holiday… but even then I’m working in my head with a camera and notebook.
Rewriting - do you love it or hate it?
There is something wonderfully wordy about playing about with words! I enjoy re-writing almost more than the writing process. Writing the first draft or getting the story out is tough. They say you should have three great scenes in a novel. These are the parts that are easiest to write when the words just flow. It’s the between that’s tough. So yes… re-writing afterwards, is a pleasure. It’s a chance to fine tune all the rough ideas. It’s also an opportunity to be true to the voice of a novel because you’ve distanced yourself slightly and can see the whole in perspective.
Have you ever belonged to a writers’ group? If so, did it help?
The SAS (Scattered Authors Society) which I’ve recently joined is closest to a writing group. We get together, talk about books and have workshops that are very helpful.
Do you have an agent?
Yes… Laura Cecil. I wouldn’t be able to function without her as I’m hopeless at any form of business. When I sold my first car, a little VW Beetle, a couple came to buy it for their student daughter, and I told them I’d never buy a car for a young person that had an engine in the back as there wouldn’t be any protection in a head-on collision. No… they didn’t buy the car! I think an agent does something that most writers are not very good at.
Why do you like writing for children?
I like the spontaneity of childhood when anything is possible.
How do you get your ideas?
I suppose intuitively writers are always observing and absorbing things without consciously trying. An old photograph, a Chinese exercise book I found in a market in Beijing. I love markets and second hand bookshops and the odd notes you find inside books. I take photographs whenever I travel. At the moment I’m filled with images of Siberia as I’ve recently been there.
Do you draw the pictures for your books?
No, but I work very closely with Jude Daly, who illustrates most of my picture books and I often cut the text back once her illustrations are complete.
What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
You won’t make a lot of money.
Are you willing to do author visits to schools?
I enjoy visiting schools and libraries not just to talk about my books but to work on other interesting projects like encouraging writing ability through visual literacy. When I do a workshop on a particular book I use images and ethnic music as well. I live in central London so prefer to work here but will travel to other parts of the country as well. Information on workshops as well as some helpful background for teachers particularly on Fish Notes and Star Songs is on my website: www.diannehofmeyr.com
Have you won any awards or prizes?
I’ve won the M-Net Award for Fiction, the Young Africa Award and a few others. Two books have been IBBY Honour Books (IBBY is the International Board of Books for Young Children). And a picture book has been part of a series that won the Japanese ASAHI Award for promoting reading.
For a list of Dianne Hofmeyr's books in print visit www.diannehofmeyr.com