How many books have you had published?
I have one book that's actually on the shelves, and two others that have been sold:
Child X, published June 2002 (David Fickling Books, Random House)
Alex Deftblade - first of a fantasy trilogy called The Stone Spiral - to be published November 2003 (David Fickling Books, Random House)
Work in progress: Gone, to be published 2004 by David Fickling Books, Random House
After Gone, I'll start work on the sequel to Alex. I plan to stagger my fantasy work with my 'real-life' fiction.
Did you write for fun when you were at school?
Always! Writing has been an important part of my life for almost literally as long as I can remember. I grew up surrounded by books, and wanted to create my own from an early age. One of my first memories, in fact, is of being four or five and writing and drawing my own picture book, about a fox and a horse. As I recall, the fox saved the horse from being sent off to the glue factory at the end, so you can see that even then, my stories were delightfully upbeat.
Then as a teenager, I'd write extremely tongue in cheek (a polite way of saying it) stories about all of our acquaintances and teachers, and pass out copies to all of my friends, who thought they were hysterically funny. Looking back, I suppose I'm lucky not to have been found out and expelled!
Have you always earned your living as a writer? If not, what else
have you done/do you still do?
In my twenties, I kicked about doing a number of jobs - this was back in the States, as I'm an American. I wanted to travel, so I did. I've worked at a hotel at the Grand Canyon, I've worked as a restaurant hostess at a ski resort (I had to ride a ski lift to get to work, and also ride it down again, since I didn't know how to ski), as a hotel front desk clerk, a gift shop clerk, a receptionist, a secretary, a PA
In terms of a career, writing is all I've ever wanted to do, and it was the constant through all of these jobs - I was writing up a storm as I did them. (Quite often on company time and on company computers.)
At the moment, I do freelance editorial/reading work to supplement my writing - reading authors' MSS and critiquing them.
When was your first book published and what was it called?
Child X, 2002
Was it difficult to get your first book published?
Not really, but there's a bit of a story behind that!
Child X is the first book I published, but not the first book I sold. Without going into too much history, Alex Deftblade was the first book I sold to David Fickling, several years ago now. At the time, I very much saw myself as a fantasy writer, and hadn't really considered writing realistic teenage fiction. But Alex was something of a problem child, and I ended up having to take it through some extensive rewrites. In the midst of these, I started writing Child X almost as a lark; I wasn't really even thinking about having it published. But David Fickling, my publisher, saw it and loved it, so I put Alex aside for six months and finished it - and hey presto, it came out first, and suddenly there's this whole other thread to my writing. And I'm delighted that it happened, because (as it turns out) I love writing realistic teenage fiction! My third book, Gone, is another one of these, though somewhat deeper and darker in tone than Child X.
Getting Alex published was a different matter! It was turned down by five agents before being taken on by Sam Boyce, who was then at A.P. Watt, and then was turned down by I think as many publishers. Sam has sadly left agenting, but I'll always be indebted to her, as she did a splendid bit of matchmaking when she submitted Alex to David Fickling. I've felt honoured to be on David's excellent list ever since.
Which is your favourite of your own books and why?
Each book is my favourite as I'm writing it. This sounds like such a pat answer, but it's true. If I don't feel passionately involved in what I'm working on, it just doesn't work. But Alex will always have a special place in my heart - I suppose the problem children always do!
Which is your favourite children's book written by someone else?
Too many to choose just one. Some favourites are:
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
Izzy, Willy Nilly, Cynthia Voigt
Jacob Have I Loved and The Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson
Tiger Eyes, Judy Blume
The Moomin series, Tove Jansson
The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on the book. Alex took years; Child X took about six months.
Do you use a computer or write first drafts long hand?
When I first get a story idea, I write my notes in long hand, but when I actually start to write, it's always on my trusty old laptop - usually at the dining table, where I have easy access to the CD player and the kettle. The writer's essential tools.
Do you have a writing routine or do you just write when you feel like it?
When I'm writing, I write first thing every morning, until I've done at least 1,000 words. This is usually about 3-4 hours. If I just wrote when I felt like it, I'm afraid I'd get very little work done, as true inspiration only strikes about twice a year! Most of writing is just getting into a routine and sticking to it.
Rewriting - do you love it or hate it?
Personally, I think rewriting is loads of fun. The hard work is over with, and now you can sit back and play around with your ideas. Like creating a mosaic - "Would this piece look better over here? Or here, perhaps If I trim this edge a bit, and move it about slightly there! Perfect." It's the fine-tuning once the bulk of the work is finished, and is something I can quite happily fiddle about with for ages.
Have you ever belonged to a writers' group? If so, did it help?
I've belonged to several, and would have to say it depends on the group. A small one that I was in for years was enormously helpful - we met every week and swapped our current chapters, tearing them to bits for each other. In a nice way, of course. A larger group that I was in for a while was much more competitive and ego-driven - not a very supportive atmosphere. I think that sort of thing is rare, thankfully - writers tend to be supportive of each other - but you do have to find the right group for you.
I'm not in a formal writers' group anymore, though I do have some lovely, supportive writing-friendships. It's invaluable (and very inspiring!) if you have a writing-friend who's on your wavelength, who'll read your work and be completely honest with you about it. We're often too close to our own work to see where the problem areas lie.
Do you have an agent?
Yes, I'm with Caroline Sheldon.
Why do you like writing for children?
I think we like to write what we most love to read. I've always had a deep love for children's fiction - once you're hooked on it, it's an addiction that lasts a lifetime. So when I started to write seriously, it's a form that felt very familiar and natural to me, like slipping on a cosy pair of slippers. There are other reasons, of course - the importance of writing worthwhile things to get children into reading; letting children know that someone understands the problems they're going through; letting them know that their difficult emotions are OK, and so on. All very important, and all true but nothing is so true as the selfish fact that I write for children because these are the stories I love, and it brings me great pleasure.
How do you get your ideas?
I get a lot of ideas from the news - truth really is stranger than fiction, and both Child X and Gone have their roots in real-life dramas. Other times I'll see an incident or image that just stays with me, waiting to make an appearance in a story. And the Idea-Fairy comes in handy, of course. Keep on her good side, and she will feed you irresistible ideas for years to come.
Do you draw the pictures for your books? If so, which comes first
- the words or the pictures.
I would love to be able to draw, but alas ! My books are for older kids, so aren't illustrated.
What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
Don't try to copy what's already out there - just write the stories that you're in love with, and forget about the market.
Are you willing to do author visits to schools?
I'm delighted to do author visits in the Hampshire/Berkshire area, and also in parts of London, if easily accessible by train from Basingstoke.
Contact Jan Powling at Speaking of Books, 9 Guildford Grove, Greenwich, London SE10 8JY (tel: 020 8692 4704)
Have you won any awards or prizes?
Child X is currently on two shortlists - the American Library Association have chosen it as one of their Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and it's also been shortlisted for the Leicester Teenage Book of the Year 2003 Award (shortlist of 5 books, chosen by 40 teenagers).
For a list of Lee's books in print click here