Novelist Jacqueline Wilson is one of the nation’s favourite authors, having created some of the most loveable and memorable characters in modern literature, including Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather. Jacqueline has now published over 100 books which are cherished by young readers across the globe. She has sold millions of books worldwide – in the UK alone the total now stands at over 40 million. Her latest, a new Hetty Feather novel, was published this autumn.
Born in Bath, Jacqueline spent most of her childhood in Kingston-upon-Thames. She always wanted to be a writer and wrote her first ‘novel’ when she was nine. As a teenager she started work for a magazine publishing company and then went on to work as a journalist on Jackie magazine (which she was told was named after her) before turning to writing novels full-time. In 2002 Jacqueline was awarded the OBE for services to literacy in schools and from 2005 to 2007 she was the Children’s Laureate. In 2008 she became Dame Jacqueline Wilson.
Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather is set to appear at the Theatre Royal Bath from Tuesday 9th to Saturday 13th January. Thrillingly brought to life by director Sally Cookson and playwright Emma Reeves – who also adapted Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker series for television – the tale of plucky Hetty Feather enjoyed huge success on stage in the West End and features circus skills, aerial artistry, original songs and live music.
What was your original inspiration for the character of Hetty Feather?
Normally I make up everything myself and get my own ideas but this time the Foundling Museum in London had very sweetly made me something called a Foundling Fellow and I’d done some special work for them. I agreed to do some events for them and they said: ‘Of course what we’d really like you to do is write a novel about a Foundling child.’ I thought: ‘That’s so not what I usually do. I’ve never written a historical novel before.’ But the suggestion haunted me and within weeks I had the character, I had the plot and everything, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing a book as much as I did with Hetty Feather. I thought it was going to be a one-off but there have been various extra books in a kind of series and Hetty Feather’s Christmas has just come out. There’s been a television adaptation and this absolutely wonderful stage version which I’ve been to see goodness knows how many times. I just love the production and I’m so pleased now that it’s the original cast coming back again. ‘God bless Hetty’ is what I say!
What can fans expect from the stage production?
You don’t have to have any knowledge whatsoever about the character or about the Foundling Hospital. What I’d like to stress is that it’s very much a family play in that adults have always said ‘Ooh, I thought I was just coming along to have a gentle doze during something for the kiddies’ but they get just as involved – and laugh and indeed cry – as much as the children. And any brothers who think ‘I’m not coming along because Jacqueline Wilson is for girls’ find that it’s just as much a boys’ play too. There’s comedy, there’s real pathos, there’s all sorts of really astonishing acrobatics, there’s lovely music; it’s the entire package. I’m so lucky because I didn’t do anything; I just said ‘Yes, you can turn it into a play’ because I had great faith in the producer, having seen some of his other productions. I knew Emma Reeves, who wrote the stage adaptation, and I was thrilled to bits to have Sally Cookson direct it because these are Sally’s years now. She’s really come into her own and has productions on at the National Theatre and everything. I couldn’t have been luckier.
What does Benji Bower’s music add to the show?
I have to say that the music is so wonderful and so clever in using folk tunes and a plaintiveness to bring out the emotion, but there’s jolly things in there too. I’m particularly charmed now by the fact that originally when the children were coming into the auditorium, with all the buzz and excitement, the little band decided to play a few tunes to amuse the audience. I don’t know exactly who started it off but together they sang the Jackie Jackie song using titles of my books in the lyrics. It’s a very catchy song but I didn’t know they’d done it so when I first went into the theatre, whichever one it was, and they started singing it I almost burst into tears – I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Very excitingly it was released as a single in December so I recently took part in my very first pop video, but I assure you I’m not singing and I’m not dancing, I sort of sit at a desk writing and let everybody else do it. I never thought in my long and rather surprising career that I would actually have a pop single, but there we go!
What do you feel makes Hetty Feather the perfect treat for all the family?
To start with it’s not just set in a bleak institution, although I think children get a huge thrill out of the very fierce matron and the injustice of the way some of the Foundlings are treated. But there are brilliant circus scenes, which are thrilling and very funny too, and there’s Hetty’s little girlhood in the country, where she’s climbing trees and jumping around with her older foster brother. There are all the things that children like to do but possibly nowadays don’t experience. It’s colourful, it’s magical, it’s got that extra special element to it, so I think it works perfectly as a family treat. And as I say, it’s not just for girls. The character of Jem is a lovely, bold, funny character and there are Foundling brothers too who are very amusing. What I’ve found a huge relief is that these are adults playing children and sometimes that doesn’t work and it’s embarrassing but within the first minute the actors make you absolutely believe that yes, they are these children. It just works.
What are you most excited about the Hetty Feather show returning to your hometown of Bath?
It’s a delight for me because although I was indeed born in Bath I left when I was a toddler, when I was nearly two years old I think, but I’ve gone back quite a few times and was at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival not long ago. It’s such a lovely, exciting place and I was given an honorary doctorate from Bath University so there’s another pleasant connection there. My parents actually met in the Pump Rooms in Bath during the war, got married, had me and lived in digs before moving to Kingston. When I was in my teens my father drove me to Bath to show me where I lived when I was a baby but unfortunately it had just been pulled down. It’s funny because very literal-minded, very little children when they hear I was born in Bath they always think ‘In the bath?’
When you return to Bath what are your must-dos?
Bath has many really good book shops, which is wonderful. I’ve had lovely times in the Fashion Museum and I also like to get out to the American Museum whenever I can. The spa bit itself has also been done-up and I hear it is now a wonderful destination but I haven’t been yet so that’s on my list of places to visit.
What has been your proudest moment since you embarked on a career as an author?
My very proudest moment was when my first book was published. The publication day seemed a bit flat because nothing really happened but I took myself up to London and thought ‘I’m going to celebrate’ because I’d wanted to have a book published for so long, right throughout my childhood. There used to be a rather stylish bookshop in Knightsbridge called Truslove and Hanson and I went in wanting to look at novels and maybe buy myself a book for a treat, then there on a table I saw my own book. I’d been quite realistic and thought ‘Nobody’s heard of me’. Also this was an adult crime novel and I knew crime novels didn’t usually get displayed out on tables but there it was. That was one of my most magical moments.
How was it being made a Dame in the 2008 New Years Honours list and who presented you with the accolade?
It was a wonderful feeling and I was really quite taken aback but also very pleased that a children’s author was chosen. I felt it wasn’t just for me personally, it was a nod to lots of children’s authors who go out regularly to schools and libraries and try very hard to encourage children to read. So I was very proud and I got The Queen, which was a big delight. I’d never really thought of myself as a royalist before but I saw how long she had to stand in what looked like rather uncomfortable shoes and managing a smile and a moment or two’s chat with each and every person. At the time she was, I would say, ten years older than my mother and I thought ‘My goodness, I know my mother wouldn’t have been capable of that’. I thought ‘You’re a woman with a great, steely determination’ and I loved the whole ceremony. They play jolly music while it’s all happening to make it less formal. Also one of the Queen’s equerries shows the gentleman how to bow but he also shows the ladies how to curtsey. It’s just a jolly occasion and very much more delightful than I’d imagined it to be.
You’ve now written an incredible 106 books. How do you manage to be so prolific?
I just feel compelled. It’s very strange because I could easily stop now. I’ve hopefully got enough money saved to last me and my loved ones, yet somehow the moment I’ve finished one book I have to start another. I think I’ve just gotten so used to writing and I miss it terribly if I haven’t got a book on the go because it’s what I like to think about when I’m taking the dog for a walk or doing something dreary like going round the supermarket. I’m leading an alternative life as well as my own perfectly nice but ordinary life. It means so much to me that I simply couldn’t imagine not writing now so as long as I can get words and characters on the page I’ll hopefully carry on.
Do you have a set way of working or does it vary depending on the book you’re writing?
What I like to do is write quite early in the morning. Not super-early, I’m not one of these 4am risers, but around 7-ish when I have to get up to let the dog out and feed the cat I make myself a cup of coffee, go back to bed and hunch up against the pillows with my laptop for a good hour or more. I also write during the day. I rewrite, I do endless emails and articles and things, but that first hour is the important bit where I’m writing new material. It just seems to work that way; the words just come without too much effort. [Laughs] I’m touching wood as I speak just in case I wake up tomorrow and I don’t have an idea in my head.
Hetty Feather is one of many beloved characters you’ve created. From chatting to fans, why do you feel Hetty is so popular?
I think it’s because she shows great spirit. I give her all sorts of difficulties and it must have been awful for the real Foundlings to be fostered in ordinary, jolly country families up until they were five or six and then to be sent to this bleak institution where they were fed and clothed and the girls were given an education as well as the boys but there was no love whatsoever, no fun, no larking about. It must have been so bleak and yet I make Hetty very fierce and very determined. She’s very compassionate too; she’s a loving girl but she’s feisty and she does conform to the possible myth that people with red hair have got tempers. She’s cheeky but not, I think, in a totally irritating and impertinent way. She’s the sort of child I’d love to have been but wasn’t. I’m very fond of her.
That said, is there any of you in the character?
I suppose I’ve got Hetty’s imagination. When she is going through a hard time she imagines things and pretends things, and I have a tendency to do that too. She gets very worked up about injustice and I suppose I do, but she’s definitely bolder than me.
You’ve said the Hetty Feather series is your favourite of all the books you’ve written. Why is that?
When you’re writing a historical book you’re not feeling anxious all the time. Hetty’s stories go from when she’s ten to when she’s sixteen and I don’t have to try and keep up with social media, current hairstyles and all the rest of it. She’s stuck in the Victorian age and as long as I do some reasonable research I am free to make up exactly what she likes and wants to do. I feel at home in the Victorian age. That isn’t to say I’m not happy to still write contemporary novels but I do find that more difficult, just to make sure that I’m keeping up. I’ve always been quite proud when children say ‘How do you know what it feels like to be a child now?’ I’ve always taken it for granted but in the last ten years it has been more of a struggle because the social media sites and electronic games that kids like bore me silly and I don’t really want to get involved. I like big, meaty dramatic situations and the past offers them to me on a plate.
Are you planning any more Hetty Feather adventures and what are you working on next?
Hetty Feather’s Christmas has just come out and it’s a fun, Christmassy book where I managed to find a way of getting Hetty out of the Foundling Hospital and enjoying one day experiencing one of those typical Victorian Christmases with fun and games, huge Christmas trees and so much food that you’re sort of lying on the carpet groaning afterwards. I thought I’d like her to experience that. The book after Hetty Feather’s Christmas is another Victorian one called Rose Rivers and Hetty does make a guest appearance in it. She bobs up all over the place.
Photo by and © James Jordan 2012