I was born in Birmingham, near the Cadbury’s chocolate factory, and I grew up in Gray’s Inn, central London, in Raymond Buildings. My family (my parents, my younger brother and I) lived there because both my parents were lawyers. When I was around age five they separated and later divorced.
I was badly bullied at school because I was different from other children. I had trouble tying my shoes, and coordinating my clothes, and I had no idea what C-A-T spelled once the teacher took away the picture. My brain was said to be a sieve rather than a sponge – I was the child who lost the information rather than retained it.
I stayed in kindergarten until I was really too old to be there and finally was asked to leave the school. This became a pattern that repeated itself throughout my learning years.
At eleven I was told I was word-blind. This was before anyone mentioned the un-sayable, un-teachable, un-spellable word dyslexia, which, hey-ho, even to this day I can’t spell!
I eventually ended up in a school for maladjusted children because there was no other school that would take me. I suppose this was the equivalent of what now would be a school for kids with ASBOs. I had been classified as “unteachable” but at the age of fourteen, when everyone had given up hope, I learned to read.
The first book I read was “Wuthering Heights” and after that no one could stop me. My mother, bless her cotton socks, said that if I got five O-levels I could go to art school, and much to my teachers’ chagrin, I did just that. At art school I shot from the bottom to the top like a little rocket.
I left Central St. Martin’s Art School with a First Class Honours degree and then went to Newcastle University Theatre, where I worked as a theatre designer. One of the first shows I worked on was The Good Woman of Szechuan by Bertolt Brecht which transferred to the Royal Court Theatre.
After that I spent 15 years in the theatre, but gave up working as a set designer because I found my dyslexia to be a problem when drawing up technical plans for the sets. Instead I concentrated on costumes.
Ironically, when I went into writing, where I assumed my dyslexia would be a true disability, it turned out to be the start of something amazing. I was more than blessed to meet an editor, Judith Elliot, who was to play an important part in my journey to being a writer.
I strongly believe that dyslexia is like a Rubik’s Cube: it takes time to work out how to deal with it but once you do, it can be the most wonderful gift.
The problem with dyslexia for many young people – and I can identify with this – is that their confidence is so damaged by the negativity of their teachers and their peers that it takes a very strong character to come out of the educational system smiling.
Things I'm Often Asked
Are you writing a book at the moment?
Yes, I am currently writing a book called 'The Tindims of Rubbish Island' for children aged 5-8.
What are your favourite books?
I have so many: The Little Prince, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Paddington Bear. Also Holes by Louis Sachar, How We Live Now by Meg Rosoff, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens; not forgetting all of Angela Carter’s works.
Where do you get your ideas?
From everything and everywhere – books, music, theatre, people, conversations, paintings, buildings… I feel like I have a satellite dish on my head. But I have to think about the ideas a long time before they form properly.
Who is your favourite literary character?
What are your hobbies?
Walking the dogs, writing, reading, going to museums, drinking lots of coffee in cafes.
Do you have any children or animals?
I have three grown-up children and a miniature Yorkshire Terrier called Sparrow.
What’s your favourite music?
My taste’s very eclectic: I like Elbow, The Gorillaz, Dangermouse, Beethoven, Van Morrison, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell and Gogol Bordello… to name a few.
Do you have a favourite country or place in the world?
I love Paris, and I love France. And of course, I love England.
What 3 things would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
A beautiful dress, a good bottle of champagne, and my iPad.
Do you have any tips for young writers?
Keep telling yourself stories and don’t worry if you can’t write them down. Try to find your voice. Don’t be put off by anyone telling you that you can’t do something – believe in your dreams. Read lots of good books, or if reading’s tricky, listen to lots of audiobooks.
Which writers have had the greatest influence on your work?
Angela Carter and Charles Dickens. Raymond Carver, the Brothers Grimm. We also are living now in such a golden age of writing and are so blessed to be alive during this true Renaissance for children’s as well as adult literature.