I began writing stories in primary school, using exercise books stolen from the classroom stationery cupboard. I’ve always loved stories but, growing up a long time ago in a small town in Africa, books for children were expensive and not readily available and so, when I ran out of my own, my friends’ books and library books to read, I wrote and illustrated my own stories and poems.
I loved Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, and this illustration comes from ‘Belinda Joy at The Towers’. (Unfortunately it’s copied in black & white so you can’t see the green dresses, trees and grass which are still vivid in the original.) Ironically, Belinda’s first letter home reads ‘Dearest Mum and Dad, I love it here …’ My boarding school sagas stopped when I actually went to boarding school some 200 miles away in Salisbury (Harare), aged 11. The reality was so awful, so very different from what I’d read about, that I rather lost faith in stories, and these stories in particular.
What amuses me, looking back on them, is the sorts of activities I gave my characters. My elder sister’s wedding was mixed up with ice skating (the most exotic thing I could imagine from tropical Zimbabwe!) and playing tennis – both sports played within a couple of pages. Clearly I had no real concept of climate or geography, but at least I was still making use of my own observations and experiences!
Another huge favourite was The Magic Faraway Tree, which has influenced me throughout my writing career. I was always on the edge of my chair waiting for the characters to be trapped when the land at the top of the tree moved on, taking them with it – as it inevitably did! I realise now how powerful was the influence of these novels, as most of my stories are about finding a home, trying to fit in and to belong somewhere. And pervading most of my writing is my early indoctrination in all things English.
In the Shalott trilogy, five teenagers find themselves trapped in medieval Camelot after fooling around with a Virtual Reality programme (shades of The Magic Faraway Tree!) In the Janna Mysteries (now released as the Janna Chronicles) Janna is left alone and abandoned in 12th century England at the time of the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. And, exploring my love of magic and fantasy, history and legend, are tales of ghosts (Ghost Boy & A Ring Through Time, both set partly in Australia’s past) and my latest novels (for adults) I, Morgana and The Once & Future Camelot, which are a partial rewriting of Arthurian legend – and what came after!
My biggest regret is that my loss of faith in telling stories lasted through my teenage years and through my early married life, and it was only in my forties that I once again found the joy of creating characters and writing their stories. But my early childhood reading, perhaps combined with my experience as a migrant coming to Australia shortly after I was married, has left an indelible mark. Thanks to Enid Blyton’s stories I learned to read at an early age and also discovered the joy of writing stories of my own – a blessing, but also a warning, perhaps, to be careful what you choose for your own children and grandchildren to read!
Although it took me a long time to recover the joy of writing stories and to take my ‘hobby’ seriously, I’ve discovered that my imaginary life is sometimes far more real (and rewarding) than my real life as I travel to far off lands and become the person I’d like to be (depending on which character I’m writing!)