Ep 176 Meet Lauren Child, author of the ‘Charlie and Lola’ and ‘Ruby Redfort’ series.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 176 of So you want to be a writer: How an author wrote a novel via email and what to do when your story stalls. Discover how to get into corporate writing. Meet the spectacularly successful Lauren Child, author of the Charlie and Lola and Ruby Redfort series! Plus: your chance to WIN all 6 books in the Ruby Redfort series!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Shoutout of the Week
From Shelldu:

I’m a long time listener to this podcast and absolutely love every one. No only do I learn heaps from Val and Al’s chatter (and always have a few good laughs) as they discuss interesting topics and articles, the author interviews always inspire me to keep at my own writing craft. When I eventually publish my YA novel, I will attribute some of my success to this fantastic podcast and the constant inspiration you provide. Thanks ladies!

Thanks, Shelldu!

Show Notes

How I Wrote My Novel in Gmail

Warning: Are You at Risk of a Story Collapse?

Ask Valerie: How can I get into corporate writing?

Mapmaker Chronicles: Race to the End of the World

Writer in Residence

Lauren Child 

Lauren Child is a multi-million-copy bestselling author, illustrator and TV producer.

Described by The Independent as “so good it’s exhilarating”, Lauren Child first introduced the character of Ruby Redfort in her three award-winning Clarice Bean novels (Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble and Clarice Bean Don’t Look Now).

Lauren is also the author of the phenomenally successful Charlie and Lola books, as well as Associate Producer on the TV show of the same name. Her books have been translated into dozens of languages around the world and she has won many prizes, including the Smarties Prize (four times), the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Red House Children’s Book Award.

Visit Lauren’s website

Follow Lauren on Facebook

Platform Building Tip

Shire Writer’s Festival

Competition

WIN: All SIX books in Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort series

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

So, Lauren, thanks for joining us today.

Lauren

My pleasure.

Valerie

Now, you’ve written picture books, as well as novels. But let’s just start with your most recent book, which is the sixth book in the Ruby Redfort series, Blink and You Die. For those readers who haven’t read the book yet, or the series yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Lauren

Which one? All of the whole series, do you mean? Are you talking about?

Valerie

Maybe just a little snapshot of the series, and then specifically…

Lauren

The series?

Valerie

Yeah.

Lauren

And then the final one. Okay. Well, they’re about a 13-year-old American school kid who is very, very bright and brilliant at creating codes and decoding codes. And she gets recruited by this secret agency who live underneath the city or their office is underneath the city of Twinford, where this child lives. And it all has to be completely secret. No one is to know about this life that she’s leading, she’s leading this double life.

So it’s a lot about how she keeps that secret, and how she has to carry on going to school, and she has to carry on hanging out with her friends, and doing all the normal sorts of things that you would do – and yet has this sort of life and death job going on. So a job that involves really ridiculous things like walking up a skyscraper, and investigating all of these things, and doing kung fu and parkour.

And so there’s a very kind of silly and exaggerated side to it, but hopefully it does keep you on the edge of your seat. And then there’s all these codes in it that you can decode if you’ve got the wherewithal to do it.

Valerie

Yes. Now you first started writing about the character Ruby Redfort some years ago, before the series started in fact. So can you tell us how that evolved? And how she ended up with her own hugely successful series?

Lauren

Yes. What happened was, I’d written Clarice Bean as a picture book. And then they were getting longer and longer, these picture books. And my editor suggested that I write fiction.

So I started writing a Clarice Bean book called Utterly Me, and Clarice Bean is a sort of… She’s a child who thinks in a very particular way, so they were all written in her stream of consciousness. So she can ramble on about all kind of things. And so they’re lovely to write.

But I needed something to underpin Clarice, and so I brought in this device of having her compare her reality with this seemingly much more exciting fictional world. And I decided to make it as ridiculous as possible. I wanted to write about something that her teacher might think is totally pointless in terms of value of reading.

Because we have this debate going on, it’s always going on in the UK, about what is worth reading and what isn’t worth reading. And it always frustrates me because I think any book that you enjoy reading is worth reading. So I wanted Clarice Bean to be reading this series that her teacher very much disapproves of, but actually she is able to prove the worth of it, and why this book is so brilliant and what it can teach you. So that’s really where Ruby came from. And it was written in this, as I say, very exaggerated adventure style.

And then what happened was I started getting letters from Clarice Bean readers saying are these Ruby Redfort books real? A real series? And then we got a letter from this librarian in Kentucky in the US saying this child keeps coming in and asking if she can get a copy of the Ruby Redfort book and does it actually exist? And so my publisher and I thought, oh that would be a really good thing to make them real. Because there’s something rather exciting about the idea of a fiction in a fiction and to make that real, so you can actually read what Clarice is reading. So that’s really how it all came about.

Valerie

Wow. And she sounds like she has such a cracking good time. Do you also? Do you kind of live vicariously, through Ruby, the things that you wish you would have done when you were 13?

Lauren

Yeah. I think it’s a book that I would have very much enjoyed reading. Which isn’t really surprising. Because I think probably every writer, you’re writing something that you feel strongly about and you want to explore as an idea. And I think she’s a character that, like Clarice, I would aspire to be. And I wish I could do all the things that she does.

Valerie

And you, in the Ruby Redfort series, there’s a lot of code cracking involved which you’ve mentioned. Now, how did that come about? Is that something you’re interested, like, how did writing about that, or including that come about? Is that something that you’re interested in personally? And what did you have to do to get the codes right? Make sure that the codes worked, and stuff?

Lauren

Well, first of all it happened because I’d written myself into a corner when I was writing the Ruby extract in Clarice Bean. And nothing had to make any sense. And I would just say how amazing this child was and that she could crack codes and make codes. And I could write anything because none of it had to join up.

But then when I was writing the fiction, I realised they needed to be very convincing, and very good. And I love thriller and crime as a genre, anyway. And so I wanted the book to really work and be quite compelling and taxing, as well, to understand. And you really have to concentrate on what Ruby’s talking about in order to decode things. I wanted it to be fiendishly difficult. Because if they’re not well then you’d say, oh well, is she really that clever?

And so I spoke to this maths professor, and he’s really the most brilliant man, called Marcus du Sautoy, and I asked him if he would write the codes for me. because I wanted them to be really interesting as well. And they all had to work in different ways, because they’re all based on the different senses. And so he’s the one he wrote them.

And I am interested. I’m very interested in codes. Not that I have any kind of ability to decipher them, but I think that a lot of us are fascinated with, because it’s all about secrets, and messages, and puzzles. And also there’s been so much talk about the Enigma Code, particularly recently. Because of all the anniversary of the second world war and things. So it’s really been very much in our news, and I think children get fascinated in what’s going on in the world now, and then you can look back and you can see how powerful codes were in history.

Valerie

It certainly is a lot of fun. It was kind of handy that you knew a code making professor of mathematics in your life!

Lauren

Well, I didn’t know him!

Valerie

Oh, you didn’t?

Lauren

I didn’t know him at all, no. It’s just that he’s on television. And he’s brilliant on the radio and on TV back home. And what I did know about him is that he’s very interested in explaining maths to children. And communicating with children, and taking that barrier or sort of fear away from them. And so I knew that there was a good chance that he might take part in this. And it was my publisher who, she didn’t know him, but I think he works with Fourth Estate, I think. So I think there was some connection.

Valerie

And so you also illustrate some books. Did you start off as a writer or illustrator?

Lauren

I really, I started off, I suppose naturally I was an illustrator. And I learned to write because it was very hard to get any illustration work without generating something as well. I think it’s quite a hard thing to break into it, illustration. Because people have their pet people that they like working with. And I can understand that, because it’s a big leap for a writer to take a chance on a new illustrator.

So I suppose that’s why I started doing my own books. And then I find it easier, actually, illustrating my own work. Because I’ve had a chance to sit with it and I know what things are going to look like. Whereas if you take on someone else’s book, you have to work your way into their mind.

Valerie

So you’ve got the successful Ruby Redfort series, which was born out of Clarice Bean. And prior to that you had the phenomenally successful picture books, the Charlie and Lola picture books, which were not only bestsellers, but also made into television. Now picture books are often considered by people as fairly simple kind of things. What do you think, though…? But I think they’re anything but simple for one that really works, that is. What do you think are the essential elements of a picture book? For it to work?

Lauren

I suppose if I look at the picture books that I love, then they often have a depth to them that you might not consciously realise is there. So, you know, I can think of a lot of books, like Not Now, Bernard by David Mckee, which is really… It’s deceptively simple. It’s very, very funny, and it’s all about a boy telling his parents, trying to explain to his parents that there’s a monster, I think it’s in the garden or something, and he keeps telling them, and they keep being too busy and saying, oh, just go off and play.

And finally the monster eats Bernard. And still the parents don’t notice. And instead of – there’s no more Bernard – so they tell the monster that it’s time for bed. And the last picture, I think, is the monster sitting in bed in his pyjamas, in Bernard’s pyjamas.

And I love that. Because actually it is a very, very funny story and it’s very appealing to children and adults. But it’s also saying the way adults sometimes just don’t take enough notice of what children are trying to tell them. And they think they know best. And they don’t always know best. And I love that book, because it’s on the child’s side.

And I think there are so many books like that. I think, another one is, well, John Burningham’s books I think are absolutely brilliant. And a book like Granpa which is talking about the death of a grandparent, and the way it explains it really beautifully, and understands and lets the child sit with that problem, rather than be overly cheerful. And I think we’re always sort of avoiding saying things to children, which is way more frightening than actually explaining things properly. So I think that that book explored grief and loss really beautifully.

Valerie

When you’re writing novel-length things, like the Ruby Redfort series, how do you approach that? Can you just give us a little bit of an overview of your creative process in the sense that do you set aside a certain time of day that’s dedicated to writing? Do you try to achieve a certain number of words or hours, or anything like that? Is it a set five days a week? How does that actually look on a practical level? Like, your daily writing routine?

Lauren

I wish I could say I have one. I know of these writers, like Stephen King, who seems to get up, write his 2000 words, or however many words he writes, and then finishes by lunch time and goes for a walk.

I wish I was like that. I’m not. I’m just not like that.

And I think it’s partly because there are so many other things that I have to do. And so I tend to work every day. And certainly writing a novel, because those novels are very, very long, I work as many days as I can. But then there are other things that you have to do – answer emails, do promotion, all the domestic things you have to do as well, collect your daughter from school. And so I don’t have a sort of set very rigid schedule of work. I just work when I can work.

And what I did find writing Ruby is as I would get towards the end of a book, I would work through the night, because that allowed me to work without wretched emails and telephone calls and things coming in. Because even if you don’t answer them, even if you don’t look at them, you know they’re there. And I find it very, very distracting.

And I would love it if I didn’t have to get involved with those sort of things, but I do. Because a publisher will send you a blurb for a catalogue and you have to approve it. And so you’re constantly stopping and starting. And so I’ve yet to find the best possible way of working and I certainly haven’t achieved that. But sometimes I go away and I’ve booked myself into a hotel for a few days just so nobody can contact me.

Valerie

Yes. But what I’d love to get a sense of is when you’re writing long novels, versus when you’re writing much, much, much, much, much shorter picture books, I’d just love to get a sense of the different way you approach it. Obviously, you have to complete so many more words with a novel. And do you plan it out? Like, okay, I’ve got to finish this in three months, and I’m going to achieve these sorts of milestones. How do they compare? Because they’re such different requirements.

Lauren

I suppose with the picture book stories, I don’t write them in one go and I don’t sit down and try to write a whole story. I write the first bit of it. So if I have an idea for it, I’ll jot it down. And then I might keep revisiting it, and sometimes they’re revisited over a number of years. And then finally I know what I’m trying to say. So they get edited, and edited, and edited by me. And sometimes they change course, as well. So I think it’s going to be about one thing, and then it’s not. It’s about something completely different.

And sometimes I might, I think it was with the Hubert Horatio story, I just couldn’t quite think how to end it. And I remember reading it to a friend of mine, because I was just really stuck, and sometimes reading them out loud is really helpful. And he happened to be there, and he just came up with this really good idea that I needed to sort of bookend it with the child coming in with his cocoa and how it was still hot in the end. And it was just him saying that just completed the book. And so often, they are written in that way that it can go for years and years without me finding me an ending or a point to it.

With the novels, it’s very different. Because they are all contracted.

Valerie

Yes. You have no choice!

Lauren

I don’t have that freedom or luxury. They have to be written within a year. And probably it’s very lucky, because otherwise probably I’d be on book two of Ruby Redfort, because there’s always a better idea, and they’re really hard to do. And so I’d probably walk away from it.

But you’re right when you say do you figure out how many words you have to write in order to complete it. It’s terrifying. When you get to the last three months and you realise, oh I’ve still got 20,000 words to write! And that’s terrifying, because then you do the sum in your head of how many words you’re going to need to write per day, and given that there are some days where you erase absolutely everything you’ve written because it’s not good enough, that really puts pressure on you. But I think it’s probably the pressure that helps me get it done.

Valerie

With the novels, especially with something like a 13-year-old girl who is doing these exciting adventures and she’s contracted by an agency, with them, do you have a plot before you get to the end? Have you already plotted it out? Do you know what’s going to happen? Because you’ve got to involve all these codes and stuff like that. Or do you let things unfold as you write?

Lauren

I let things unfold.

Valerie

Really?

Lauren

Yep. I usually, well, I think I always wrote the prologue piece, so I always had a back in time piece and that just set the scene for me. And I would know what kind of code it was going to be. Not how the code would work, but I knew is it going it be a smell code, or is it going to be a taste code. So I decided that. And then I jotted down perhaps a few things that I might be interested in.

So I remember doing the poison book, and I remember thinking, oh I want to use snakes. Because I’d done lots and lots of research on snakes for an earlier book and I was really interested in it. And I thought, oh actually they’ll work, I took them out of the second book or the third book because I thought, oh yeah, they’re going to be really nice to use in the book about poison. And that had a taste code. And so there were lots of…

And then once you’ve got that in place, you can see all the things that might link up beautifully. And then I was researching things and TED talks and things, all about poison, and then up came this book about sugar and how some people see sugar as a poison because of some of the things it can do to your liver. And that was really interesting. And then you start following little chains of ideas and theory and thought.

It doesn’t necessarily mean everything gets used. Like, for example what I learned was that babies have got many more taste buds than adults, and they’re born with more tastebuds. And I always thought that the reason they rejected particular tastes is because their palate isn’t as sophisticated as ours, when in fact in a way it’s more sophisticated, because it’s got all of these little taste sensors. So they find everything much stronger than we do. So salty for them is really salty. And I just thought that was fascinating.

So lots and lots of ideas all starting to weave together without me consciously thinking about it. And then you look at your piece of paper and you think, oh those things join up and those things don’t, and so then I’ll just erase the things that just aren’t working. You have to be quite brutal if you work without a plot. Because it’s about letting the plot appear.

Valerie

It’s about letting what appear?

Lauren

A plot, sort of evolves in its own way.

Valerie

And so if you’ve got a character that does go on these adventures, like has to climb up the side of a building, or does parkour, what kind of level of research do you do on something like that?

Lauren

Quite a lot actually.

Valerie

Do you go and do parkour?

Lauren

Well, I didn’t go that far. And I should have done, really. Because I met, I got in touch with somebody via a friend who was a hardened parkour practiser. And it was great for me because she was a woman in her 20s and she really was passionate about it. And so I interviewed her. Having watched a lot of it on YouTube until you get a sense of the beauty of it. It’s like watching ballet, almost.

And then I talked to her about how she felt when she’s doing it and all the theory and feeling behind it, because it’s quite a meditative thing. It’s not just about exercise or doing something for the sake of doing it. It’s about mind and body. And that really interested me, because it’s almost about not taking risks. It’s about doing something and being utterly prepared for it.

So it’s the absolute opposite of this other thing that’s got quite big now, crane hanging, and all of those things where you go and do something to go scare yourself or challenge yourself. And parkour is the absolute opposite of that.

And then she introduced me to this guy called Sebastien who was from Paris, and he’s credited with inventing parkour. And he and his friends began doing it in the housing estates of Paris. Because they didn’t have anywhere to play and it was a way of making a world for themselves in this concrete jungle. And it was fascinating talking to him.

So in that way, I did quite a lot of research. Because I wanted it to be really convincing. And I didn’t want a child to read it who practises parkour and think, well, that’s just not what it’s like.

Valerie

What’s some of the other interesting avenues that your research has taken you down?

Lauren

I think things like the gorilla test. I can’t remember which book it’s in now, I think it must have been Feel the Fear, and I was actually looking up something else. And my sister was helping me do some research, because she loves all of that. And we stumbled upon the gorilla test, which is how we get blind to things going on. Because we get distracted by something else and so we don’t notice something incredibly obvious moving in front of our eyes. And I thought that was a really interesting thing. And that was just a lucky stumbling upon something that then became the lynchpin for the entire book. So, yes, sometimes things happen like that.

Valerie

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Lauren

I’m working on a young fiction which is going to be very, very illustrated.

Valerie

Young as in what age?

Lauren

Oh, I guess, I suppose it just sort of depends on how the reader is, but probably 7 to 9 would be the core.

Valerie

And so it’s going to be very illustrated?

Lauren

Yeah. Highly, highly illustrated. Black and white.

Valerie

What do you need to do to change hats between something like Ruby Redfort and Charlie and Lola? Because obviously they’re completely different age groups. So what do you need to do to switch gears? Is there anything you do? Some people put on music, some people get in a different zone. What do you do?

Lauren

I don’t know. I’m just interested in both their worlds, I suppose. So it’s just a different thing that I really enjoy. So it doesn’t really feel like I need to do anything.

Valerie

Really?

Lauren

It’s very easy. I mean, when I first started Ruby, I’d listen to a lot of music. Just the music that felt like it would come from Ruby’s world. But now I don’t really need to do any of that. It’s just very easy to switch.

Valerie

How did you know that music would have come from Ruby’s world?

Lauren

I just feel it.

Valerie

Right.

Lauren

Yeah.

Valerie

Okay. And finally what’s your advice for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day, where they can say they have their own bestselling series of books? Or even just their first book out.

Lauren

What would I suggest they do in order to write?

Valerie

To improve their writing.

Lauren

Well, the obvious answer, and it’s genuine, is to read. Because by reading, you really understand all the different ways of writing.

And don’t be trapped into thinking you can’t write just because a particular way you’ve tried doesn’t suit you. Because there are so many different ways of telling a story, and writing a story.

I wrote Clarice Bean, which was my first book, by doing it like I’d always done it as a child, which is to write a comic. And so I started writing and drawing together. And that’s the way that I think it just allowed me to become confident as a writer and think that I could do it. And that’s what a picture book can be, quite a lot, because the writing and the pictures are sort of equally important. So I think that really helped me.

But there are so many other ways of writing a story. So I think it’s really about understanding that. I mean, watching films can also really help, too.

Valerie

Great advice. And good luck with the next thing that you’re working on.

Lauren

Thank you.

Valerie

We look forward to when it comes out. Thanks so much for your time, Lauren.

Lauren

Pleasure. Thank you. Bye bye.

 

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