Vivian French was best known in school for being extremely skinny and for talking a lot. At school she developed an attachment to words and later became an actor, then a storyteller, and finally a writer of children's books. She is the author of more than two hundred books. Ms. French lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has four grown daughters.
Viv! Please select from our selection of sparkling drinks, grab a tiara and sit yourself down. Welcome!
Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here, and I apologise most sincerely for my late arrival. Got a bit held up by a couple of nasty nasty deadlines on the tracks. So dead were they that they glowed like a long dead salmon ...
How long have you been writing for children? What is it about writing for that particular audience that you love so much?
Um. Depends on what you mean by writing for children (Don’t quibble, Sybil!!) I wrote a number of plays for adults to perform for kids way WAY back in the day (a couple were performed at the young Vic, but mostly they were used by touring companies) but my first children’s books were published in 1990. (Eeek! Ancient history, or what?) Why do I love writing for that particular audience? I’m not sure that I know. Maybe because I have so much freedom to try different things; I range wildly from very early years to young secondary, fiction and nonfiction, and I enjoy it all. Usually the book I love best is the one I’m currently working on. Incidentally, I’m told it’s bad for your career to dilly about like I do. Apparently it means ‘Viv can’t be classified.’ Is that so very bad?
You'll have to take that one up with Ms. Morgan ;) What's the best thing a child has said to you about one of your books?
That the words made pictures in their head so clearly that they didn’t need the story to be illustrated.
What would you like to say to those [ahem idiots ahem] out there who go 'Oh, yes, writing for children. Well, it's a lot easier that writing for adults, isn't it?'? You can be as flowery as you like!
Usually I have a rictus grin that I apply when this kind of remark gets made, but what I’d LIKE to say is, “Ho! Yes! You’re absolutely right. It’s just like being a surgeon. Tricky when it comes to adults, but kids? No probs. An eight year old with appenditis? A five year old with a hernia? Give it to me. I’ll whip it out.”
Tell us about The Tales of the Five Kingdoms.
Lordie lordie. Where do I start? It’s a series that begins with The Robe of Skulls. Lady Lamorna, an evil (well, moderately evil) sorceress wants a long black velvet dress ... but she hasn’t any cash, so she decides - with the somewhat dubious help of a troll, Gubble, to go in for blackmail ... and it all kicks off from there. There are Ancient Crones who are wise, and kings and queens who are anything BUT wise, and a scruffy prince called Marcus who ends up as the hero. And there’s Gracie Gillypot, who’s a Trueheart - and a bat called Marlon who thinks he’s Marlon Brando ... and that’s just in the first book. I’m on the edge of finishing the fifth, and that has giants (amiable, but it takes a remarkably long time for them to process information) and my nastiest villain yet - Fiddleduster Squint. He has a shadow that can slip away from him, and act as a spy ... and I’ve thrown in a few zombies, and have brought back Queen Bluebell; she’s one of the very few royals who enjoys adventure.
Which series have you enjoyed writing the most, and why?
The Tales from the Five Kingdoms.. I get depressed when I get near the end, and I’m dying to start on the next one. I’ll really miss them when they’re done and dusted. Why do I enjoy writing them? I can have fun, and play with ridiculous names (Mercy Grinder, Saturday Mousewater, Foyce Undershaft) and situations. (A house where the doors move up and down, a path with a mind of its own, a fiddle playing zombie ... ) Also I can write about feelings and emotions; will Gracie and Marcus end up together? What does it mean to be a Trueheart? And I guess I’m having a gentle investigation into the nature of good and evil.
Who is your favourite illustrator, and who [who you haven't yet worked with] would you like to collaborate with?
I LOVE working with illustrators and, hand on heart, I don’t have a favourite because they’re all so different. I’m lucky enough to tutor from time to time at Edinburgh College of Art in the Illustration Department, so I get to meet up and coming illustrators - and they’re sensational. Who would I like to collaborate with? I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve already worked with Barbara Firth and Charlotte Voake, and so many of the greats ... but I worship at the feet of Maurice Sendak. Not very likely, though. I’m a bit of a fan of Anthony Browne. That would be pretty amazing. Or Petr Horacek is a rising star ...
Your play Baby Baby toured Scotland in 2009. That must have been really exciting. Are you working on any plays at the moment?
Oh and ho and hee hee hum. Yes, is the answer, but I’m WAY behind on a couple of scripts I should have finished last year. Such badness.
I loved that poem of yours which you read out in Edinburgh last year, the one that was published in Ambit. Could you perhaps share it with us? Do you write much poetry?
Not a great deal - I get a bit bashful about it as so many people are SO much better than I am. There was another poet reading on that occasion, you might remember, and she’s is amazingly good! And I don’t mean Susie, although I admire her very much. I do love rhyme, though. And I’m not being tricksy about your question; I’m just not quite sure which poem you mean as there were two from Ambit. (Two, and only two, it has to be said, although I think I had a few in another collection once. Long long ago. Before telephones were invented. Oh, and I DID have a poem read on the radio when I was six. Or seven?)
Shucks, Viv, stop it. I'll get that poem out of you later.
You leave such a bloody hectic life [writing plays, novels [over 200 published!], doing writing workshops, working at ECA]. Do you have a band of fairies helping you out? How do you manage to get yourself organised and make sure that you're able to write as well as doing everything else?
Organised???? Hollow laugh. If I wasn’t so ashamed of it I’d send you a photo of the hideous pit I work in. Tottering piles of books and papers and letters and junk and address books and old diaries - I’ve even got a second computer buried somewhere that I haven’t seen for quite a while. I do work very odd (and sometimes long) hours - luckily my long suffering daughters are all grown up, so they don’t need socks washing and so on (not that I was much good at that, actually, but it’s worked out well - they rebelled by being SUPER organised and efficient!!) and my amazing husband does most of the cooking. Just as well; left to my own devices I eat beans out of a tin while typing. (Or rice pudding. So nutritious. Not.) And I have no qualms about abandoning cleaning/ironing (what’s that?) /washing up if I need to do something important - like have lunch with a friend!
On our book forum we have The Book Tree, where members pick their favourite book and post it round to each other in a circle, writing the books they read as they go. In the end, everyone gets their own book back filled with comments from everyone else. If you could join in with out Book Tree, which book would you pick and why?
That’s such a great idea, but is it a favourite book in general or specific to the author? I’d probably choose Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall. I think it’s perfect. SO simple, so full of emotion, but never ever saccharine. For adults, I’d suggest Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. If it has to be one of mine, I guess it would be Singing to the Sun. It’s a collection of my own fairy tales, and I’m proud of at least one line. “Long long ago, before time was caught and kept in clocks ... ” [ Love it! ]
You and I love indie bookshops, especially The Edinburgh Bookshop. Could you give a shout out to indie booksellers and why you think they're important in the book world?
Oh wow. Where do I start? Indie bookshops are the Chelsea Flower Shows of the book world - so much on display that you never EVER see anywhere else. We need more more MORE!!
And, finally: what are your plans for the future?
I have to start a new series this month, called Cloudy Towers ... then there are the corrections on The Quake of Giants ... a picture book to write with the very VERY talented Catherine Rayner [yippee!]... at least two play scripts to finish (oh, the guilt!!) ... a new project with ECA to discuss ... and a knitted teacosy to finish. Oh, and a whole lot of early readers for Orion. I’d almost forgotten. And I have a sneaky suspicion I’ve forgotten something important, but I’m sure someone will remind me ... at least, I hope they will. If they read this, could they please tell me?
That looks like a lot, but it isn’t really. My agent gave me a spreadsheet (!!!) so I tick things off as I finish them. Well, I would if I could find the spreadsheet ...
All is not well in the crumbling castle high above the mountain village of Fracture. The sorceress Lady Lamorna has her heart set on a new robe. It is a very expensive new robe. To get the cash she will stop at nothing, including kidnapping, blackmail and more than a little black magic. But she reckons without the heroic Gracie Gillypot, not to mention a gallant if rather scruffy prince, two chatty bats, the wickedest stepsister ever, a troll with a grudge - and some very Ancient crones.
The Robe of Skulls and other Tales of the Five Kindgom books are available on Amazon.