Dear Anne, thank you for visiting me on “Veronika Asks”! If you could describe yourself – and your books – with three adjectives…
Me: Impatient, curious, restless
My books: Cruel, funny, unsettling
What are you working on right now?
A comedy for children of 8-11 – the third in my Mountfield Family Series (following on from The More the Merrier, and Eating Things on Sticks).
How did you come to writing? Can you remember the first story you’ve ever written?
At Northampton High School for Girls, in the upper thirds, I and my best friend Gillian wrote a book called Agatha the Witch. We took turns to write chapters in a French Vocabulary book, and the English teacher allowed us to read each episode out on Monday mornings at the beginning of our lesson. Alas, the book has been lost, and I can remember nothing of the story.
How did you break into the publishing world? How much time did you spend looking for an agent or publisher?
I didn’t even know about agents. I sent my first book off to two publishers. The first sent it back saying they did not publish children’s books (clearly, I’d never heard of the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book, either). The second sent a really positive letter, regretting that my book wasn’t quite right for their list. I thought she was just being polite, and threw the typescript under my bed. Two years later I fished it out to submit it for the Guardian/Puffin Kestrel Award, and was runner up after Jan Mark. Both our careers started with that prize because, at the prize ceremony, the agent Gina Pollinger asked if she could represent me. She sold the book to Methuen Children’s Books a few months later. So I am a huge fan of competitions.
Your views on the evolution of the publishing market: was it easier – or, on the contrary, more difficult – to get published in the 80’s and 90’s? What do you think of ebooks? Are paperbacks meant to die?
I truly have no idea about the first book – though I do believe that a really, really first rate first book will still finally find a publisher. But I do guess that since established novelists are finding it harder and harder to get almost automatic publication of further works, it must be more difficult than ever to find a first publisher. It’s obvious that ebooks are storming away (tellingly, this year I took a flight from Manchester to Los Angeles, on which most readers had printed books; then a further flight up to Seattle on which the majority of readers were reading from screens). I don’t for a moment think paperbacks will die. But I do suspect they will turn much more into Print on Demand, because of the total collapse of the range in bookshops.
Authors often complain about editors “butchering” their manuscripts. What about you? Do you have complaints or did you get used to it?
When I was much younger, I had a copy editor for my third book (The Stone Menagerie) whose plan was clearly to rewrite my book in the way she herself would have written it. Luckily the commissioning editor took my side. I take enormous care to edit myself as well as I can before I submit anything, and so my in-house editors tend to go very easy, and I appreciate their input as it usually airbrushes out mistakes and infelicities and therefore improves the book. Currently I am delighted with the skills of the editors in all of the publishing houses I use (that, I admit, is unusual; but it is true. I don’t know if I’m currently just lucky). I do hear horror stories. On the other hand, I read so many books that seem to me to cry out for stricter editing that I might be on the publisher’s side more often than many of my author friends might imagine….
Do you pay attention to bad reviews? How do you handle criticism?
If it’s dishonest (misquoting, axe-grinding etc), stupid (e.g. “I did not like this book because I did not like anyone in it”) or wrong (“Children don’t want to read about this sort of thing”) then I have learned to ignore it. If it puts a finger on a real weakness in your book that you yourself were trying to pretend wasn’t there, it really hurts. Since they are so much longer and can therefore be more thoughtful, I tend to find the foreign reviews – particularly of my adult novels – well worth reading and often useful.
Did you improve your writing skills (attending classes or reading special books)?
No. But I did have superb English teachers at school. And I do read a lot of excellent novels.
What is a typical working day for Anne Fine?
Wake up. Make tea. Back to bed. Press ahead (pencil and rubber). Drain teapot. Get up. Breakfast. Walk dog. Type up earlier scribblings on computer. Correct, correct, correct. Quick lunch. Walk dog. Do office work. Read in bath. Supper. Walk dog. Go to bed.
A typical ‘event’ day is just alarm clocks, trains, rain, clockwatching, heavy bag carrying, more trains. (Grim.)
Could you describe “the making of a novel”?
Not really. Before I start, I have a sort of vision of what the book will be like. The instant I begin, the work seems to depart entirely from my mental template. I struggle through. Surprisingly, at the end, I can often look back and the book mirrors my original intention far more than I would have thought possible.
Do you have writing secrets or tips for aspiring authors?
Guess the maximum length of the book. Keep a chart of thousands of words written (like a child’s chart of days to the end of term). It takes so long to finish a book that it is encouraging to cross the stages to the end off one by one. It reminds you the task is finite.
You are a fellow of the “Royal Society of Literature”. What was your reaction? Did you use Byron’s pen or Dickens’ quill to inscribe your name on the official roll?
I took it as a tremendous compliment. I used Byron’s pen.
Do you have a favorite book among your own works?
Of the adult novels I love Raking the Ashes best. And for the books for younger people, it’s a toss up between How To Write Really Badly and Up on Cloud Nine (both for personal, rather than literary reasons).
The famous movie “Mrs. Doubtfire” is based on your satirical novel ‘Madame Doubtfire”. Were you involved in the making of the movie?
Not at all. I don’t really like working with other people much, so I left the whole thing to the film makers. All I asked was that they would not make the children bratty, and they did indulge me in that.
Are you satisfied with the result?
If a book has paid off your mortgage, it’s rude to criticize – especially if you yourself chose to have nothing to do with it. Let’s just say it’s not the film I would have made. The tone and the circumstances of the book are very different. Essentially, the filmmakers paid for the ‘ex-husband dressing up as his own children’s nanny’ idea – and a few of my jokes (And if I’d made the film, probably no one would ever have heard of it).
Finally, my favorite off-topic question: you’ve found £100, how will you use that money?
Half to Sight Savers (I dread, absolutely dread, perhaps one day not being able to read). And half going out for dinner.
What about your plans?
As usual, I plan to take a few weeks off, go on holiday with Richard, lounge on a beach, etc etc. As usual, I have started another comedy for young children.
Movie & TV Show: McCabe and Mrs Miller. Have I Got News for You
Place to write: Bed
Motto: Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.
Idol: Andrew Carnegie
“Tea or Coffee?”
Tea or Coffee? Tea (except mid morning, when coffee).
Saturday night. Disco & Restaurant or Home, Books & DVDs? Disco & Restaurant
Going on holidays. Beach or Mountains? Beach
Sleepy Little Town or Crazy Megapolis? I say megapolis because I already live in a sleepy little town and really, really fancy a change.
Pick a DVD: Comedy or Drama? Comedy
Like To Travel or Hate to Move? Hate to move.
Sport Lover or Couch Potato? Couch potato
Leader or Follower? Well, I’m bossy. So Leader, I suppose (though I’d hate to have to do it).
Shy or Easy-going? Easy-going.
Serious or Funny? Strangely, serious. But I’ll fall in love with anyone who can make me laugh.
Thank you, Anne!
Anne Fine’s official website: http://annefine.co.uk/