As this is my debut year, I'm a newcomer to school visits. To my relief, I've found I really enjoy them, especially the question and answer sessions. Sometimes the children throw up new and interesting questions that really make you think. However, there are the perennials. I'm sure those of you doing school visits will recognise all of the following.
1) Where do ideas come from?
The classic, the groaner, the one you get not just once during a Q & A session, but often 2, 3 or 4 times, until the teacher steps in with a sigh: ‘Katie, Alex, Josh and Elly have already asked that question, Sam. Can you think of something new please?’
And yet, much as writers may dread this one, there’s a reason why it’s the number one question kids ask. It goes to the heart of what we, as writers do, and what they, as readers want to know.
Where does the magic come from? I haven’t got an answer for them and I tell them so: I simply don’t know. I can – and do – tell them how to make it easier for ideas to arrive and how to capture them so they don’t escape. But as far as I’m concerned, ideas are magic. They pop into your head when you’re cleaning the fridge or driving to catch a train, and I’m not sure I want to look too closely into that particular Pandora’s box for fear it might snap shut and never open again.
2) Is writing a book hard?
I love this one. I have it at least once in every session and when it arrives I mentally rub my hands. Yes! Hooray! Writing is hard. It’s very hard. And so, I point out (in the least worthy and moralising way I can) is everything that’s worth doing. Real achievement requires work. But it's also the most fun, the most exciting thing of all. And that sort of aspiration is what kids should be fed. Not pop-star-idol-candy-floss dreams. Which leads me on to the next three questions ...
3) Are you famous?
They do so want you to say yes. And I never know how to answer this one. Obviously, I’m not. But I am known for doing something reasonably well, or I wouldn’t be visiting their school. So I tell them that most writers aren’t ‘famous’ in the way that they mean, like pop stars. But that we are in a different way or we wouldn’t be talking to them. And it never feels like I get this one quite right. I’d love to know how other children’s writers deal with this question.
4) How much money to you make?
The incredulity, the disbelief on their faces when I tell them the average annual wage for a published writer according to the Society of Author’s latest census. It’s ...
5) If you aren’t famous or rich, and it’s such hard work, why do you do it?
And that is the question, isn’t it. Why do we? Well, most of us are obsessional (and probably masochistic). But that aside, it's because we have a need to tell stories and stories need an audience to live. So we do it in order to have readers like these children. And I'm always aware, on visits, of how privileged I am to be invited into a school or library to talk to readers about my books.
And now I want to cheat a bit and move from the five most common questions to one I’ve only had once, but which is my favourite question of all. It was asked by one perceptive young man during my first library visit.
Do you ever tell the truth?
And I was really stumped for a moment or two. ‘No,’ I said in the end. ‘I don’t. Everything I write is made up; I don’t use real life in my books; I don’t base my characters on people I know. So in one sense it is all a lie. But it’s all true too. I’m always asking questions about ‘real’ life when I’m writing. I think that’s what stories do.’
What a great question. I’m sure there will be more of them.