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Much-loved children and adult’s author, Anne Fine, who brought us Mrs Doubtfire and Crummy, Mummy and Me, is Trivial Pursuits’ Childhood Hero of the Week. Anne won the 1992 Carnegie Medal in Literature for Flour Babies and was made the 2nd ever Childrens Laureate in 2001, succeeding Quentin Blake in the role.

She talks to Beenie Langley about pencils, writer’s block and why Mrs Doubtfire, the movie “lacked acid”…

Computer, type writer or pen and paper?

I often write in bed in the morning, before the email and the phone start up. I’ll use pencil and paper for that. I do use a computer once I’m up, and I tend to correct on that as well. I use pencil and paper on trains and in hotels. Basically, I suppose, I don’t use laptops so if I’m not in front of my own desk computer screen, I revert to pencil.

Do you prefer writing for adults or children? 

No preference.  Ideas for children’s books – especially the ones for younger children – come more often. I find adult novels far more intellectually and emotionally demanding. They leave me feeling like chewed string, even when they are comedies. (They are all black comedies.) But I like whatever I am doing.

How do you think up a storyline?

I don’t. I usually start with a situation that interests me. The characters grow under the pen over the months I’m writing, and I let the story take care of itself. I very rarely know the end of a novel when I begin to write it.

Do you name mean characters in your books after people you don’t like?

No. But I have slipped up once or twice unthinkingly shoving a nearby name into a novel, then forgetting to change it at the end. Quite a few of the characters in one of my novels shared the surnames of people in my old babysitting cooperative in Edinburgh. And one or two of them did mention it more than once…..

Which of your own books are you most proud of?

In a funny way, my second adult novel, Taking the Devil’s Advice.  I think it’s very hard to write about divorce with total sympathy for both characters. I got the idea because I had read Troyat’s Biography of Tolstoy, in which he is a saint and his wife a pest, and then Anne Edwards, which casts quite a different slant. I was freshly divorced myself, and I decided to try an account of the breakdown of my own relationship. It’s madly fictionalised. But the emotional core mirrors the truth of my first marriage.

 Do you get writer’s block and if so, how the heck do you get rid of it?

I wouldn’t bother to try. If a book’s not grasping to be written, why bother? There are enough about. And dry periods are marvellous for sorting out the house, painting walls, clearing out files, hemming the curtains, etc etc.

What were your first thoughts when you were made Children’s Laureate?

I was of course flattered to be asked. And I had two projects I had longed to do for some time. Firstly, the poetry collections A SHAME TO MISS, 1, 2 and 3 because I worried that so many young people were only being offered doggerel to try to attract them to poetry. I still think the three collections, one for each age group (5-8, 8-12 and 13 plus) feature some of the most wonderful and accessible poems ever written for children or adults.

My second project, freely downloadable freshly designed modern bookplates for people of all ages (see www.myhomelibrary.org  ) has been a great success. Parents, children and educationalists all over the world continue to use it to encourage children to gather their own home libraries. 

Did part of your Laureate job description read: ‘Must wear laurel wreath when writing’

I didn’t get time to write a thing while I was Laureate. I had a lot of projects on. Booktrust hadn’t started protecting the laureate. And I seemed expected to give talks on a million separate topics. It was the most demanding two years of my life, and my accountant actually queried whether I had really, really, been on that many train rides. I enjoyed it. I’m proud of my achievements. But I wouldn’t do it again. As soon as it was over, I sat down and wrote The More the Merrier in no time at all. And the joy of being out of harness shows all through it, I reckon.

Did you like the Hollywood film of your very famous book, Madame Doubtfire – or did they ruin it (starting with the title change)?

The title change didn’t bother me. What works on the page doesn’t always work in film. I expected there to be massive changes. I’m a take-the-money-and-run author, vis a vis films.  (However, if they moved a comma in the book, I would kill them.) It’s not my sort of film. Too soft, too sentimental, not at all as acid as the book. But then again, at that time both Sally Field and Robin Williams only played ‘nice’ characters. My parents in the book were not that nice. So I thought the film was a bit odd. If the parents were both such reasonable people, why not go into therapy?  But there you go…  I thought Robin William’s actual comedy performance was excellent. And I think that people like it because the children in the film are not brats.

What is your favourite book?

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. She has such understanding of her characters motivation and emotions. And the novel has such a massive sweep.

Do you have a trivial pursuit?

No, if you don’t count walking a dog, or reading in bed and the bath, and all that stuff.

Have you ever said to anyone ‘If Madame Doubtfire was in charge of Hogwarts, Voldemort wouldn’t have made it past the Borders’?

No. I admit I only ever read one and half of theHarryPotters. I think I reckoned I would end up reading them all later to my grandchildren. As it happens, they all read them themselves. But I guess Madame Doubtfire could run a moonprobe if she chose, so I expect it’s true.

The Book of the Banshee is my favourite of your books because my elder [then bolshy, teenage] sister reminded me rather a lot of Estelle.  I’ve always wanted to thank you for giving me some great comebacks – and making me wish I was Will, Estelle’s long suffering brother.  Being a girl though, this didn’t go down all that well at school… [not really a question admittedly, but please do comment if you feel like it]

I am so thrilled to hear you say this. The Book of the Banshee is one of my very favourites. I don’t think my tempestuous elder daughter would mind, after all these years, if I admitted that Estelle was based on her, than many of the arguments were pretty well verbatim, and that ‘Brigadier’ Warren, to whom the book is dedicated, is my partner, who was a rock throughout. The chapter in the school cloakroom, when Mum and Chopper’s dad are complaining about their teenagers is pretty well to a T. the dinner party grumbles of our friends over a couple of months, hastily scribbled down.  I had no child who mirrors ‘Muffy’. She’s entirely fictional. And I don’t have a Will. But my younger daughter had to show exemplary patience at tiresome and exhausting times, so there’s a lot of her self-restraint in Will. I’m glad you loved it. I’m glad you found it a comfort. There’s nothing more valuable than the right book at the right time for the right person. I’m so proud it was mine! Thanks for telling me.

Please bear in mind there might be just a little judgment with this one: Do you own or use….a kindle? *bashes at keyboard when writing the odious word*

I don’t have a kindle. I see the advantage, given weight restrictions on planes. (On any plane to Seattle, EVERYONE has a kindle – all high tech.) But then again, the number of times I have sat in a plane with a delay taking off, or docking at the end, and all the kindle readers have to sit and wait, and I can still read a tatty paperback.  I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker recently. Two medievals admiring a book. “Nice, but as long as there are readers, there will be scrolls.”  Enough to make you think….

Trivial Pursuits would like to thank Anne Fine for so kindly taking the time to talk to us.

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