Jacqueline Wilson: It’s ok not to be perfect

Characters such as Tracy Beaker might find themselves in difficult family situations, but that sense of reality is part of the appeal for Jacqueline Wilson’s millions of young readers as she gets set to publish her new novel, Wave Me Goodbye, writes Esther McCarthy.

Jacqueline Wilson was raised in a small flat on a council estate, but knew she wanted to be a writer from the age of seven.

Jacqueline Wilson has a very early childhood memory of secretly creating stories for her own entertainment, only to be caught out by her parents. It taught her a lesson that she’s kept throughout her professional life, she reveals.

“We lived in a very small flat, I’m an only child so it was just my parents and me. I remember I locked myself in the loo, and was having some long involved imaginary game.

"I heard giggling outside, I opened the door and there were both my parents, listening, absolutely spluttering with laughter because I’d been muttering in different voices. I felt so humiliated and embarrassed. That was very clever because it taught me to play it in my head.

“Afterwards I’d be sitting there, looking gormless but actually playing the game inside my head. And in a way, that is what a writer does. Certainly by the time I was six, I knew very much that I wanted to be a writer,” says the 71-year-old who was raised in Bath, Somerset.

She has been creating stories ever since, becoming one of the most-read in children’s literature. Her books, often dealing in subjects like adoption, illness or family strife, are passed on by generations because they feel real.

A survey in 2010 revealed Wilson’s books were lent 5,000 times a day in British libraries — more than JK Rowling or Dan Brown. Novels like The Story of Tracy Beaker, about a troublesome 10-year-old in a children’s home; and The Illustrated Mum, about a colourful mother with a flashy temper, have been republished and sold all over the world.

But growing up in an industrial, post-World War II Britain, Wilson dared not imagine she could pursue a career as an author.

“Everybody thought I was silly. I was brought up on a council estate, my parents had left school when they were 15, certainly not a single person that I knew had ever had what I would call a career. They had jobs, but not a career. I remember my mum saying to me: ‘Don’t be so silly, nobody that we know would ever get a book published’.

“My mum’s ambition for me was to have an office job, not a factory or shop job. But certainly the idea of writing books wasn’t something that she ever thought possible.”

A breakthrough came when she submitted stories to the highly successful teenage magazine, Jackie, and was offered a job as a junior journalist aged 17. She spent two years there learning about writing and the disciplines that success entailed.

One of the most common questions they would get from teenagers at this point in the early 1960s was: ‘How far should I go with my boyfriend?’

“It’s so strange the influence it had — every sort of girl read Jackie, and brothers and boyfriends. I’m sure now it would strike us all, and certainly young girls, as rather quaint. They were quite moral.”

Wilson dabbled in crime fiction before turning to children’s books. In the years since, her writing has been as prolific as it is successful — she has penned over 100 books in all.

Wilson has a great sense of empathy in her stories and has spoken about retreating from her parents’ frequent rows at home. Like many couples, they married quickly during the war and then found they had little in common.

“Nothing terrible happened to me as a child. But if you grow up in a home where your parents really don’t like each other very much, there’s a tension there and you don’t really feel relaxed and cosy all the time.

“Also I think children in some ways are a little bit more anxious now, particularly teenagers. Under pressure to look beautiful, to be able to achieve, to get heaps of people liking whatever you’ve just posted on your social media site.

"I want to be sympathetic to people, because it can be quite difficult, but then I also think that your early teens are a very turbulent time. I mean my own childhood diaries… I could be so bubbling over one minute and so in the depths of despair the next.”

When we meet, she has spent the morning beguiling children with her stories at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, where she spent the weekend as guest curator. She is still smiling at the inventive questions the children asked her, including who her ideal dinner party guests would be.

They included Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte (so they could go to the ladies room and say of Charles: “Ooh isn’t he scary?”), the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (“I’d like him to come because he had a wombat”) and an Irishman, “Graham Norton, who I absolutely adore and I’ve been lucky enough to meet three times”.

Dani Harmer in the role of the troubled Tracy Beaker in the BBC TV adaptation.

It’s safe to say she could comfortably retire from writing, but it is such a part of who she is that she can’t even consider it. A new book, Wave Me Goodbye — about a girl relocated to the English countryside during World War II — is on the way.

“I’ve been writing so long I can’t imagine not writing. In fact, I came to Dublin yesterday and I managed to do my writing in the morning before then. I didn’t take my computer with me because I tried to travel light.

“And this morning, I’m missing it already. I’m feeling a little… you know when you oversleep and you just don’t feel right? I like to have that hour at least, just still sitting up in bed but writing. If I’ve got between 500 and 1000 words done, then I’m good for the day.

“I think those two years of journalism training, from 17-19 were very good for me, because you can’t really say to your editor: ‘Oh I don’t feel like it today’ or ‘The words just won’t come’. That taught me to get my act together, to get it done.”

You get the sense she has a thirst for words. She is an avid reader and went back to study for her English A-Levels at the age of 40.

“I had to leave school at 16 because that’s what people of my background did. My ex-husband, he left school at 15. Between us we managed to have a very bright daughter. My daughter got a scholarship and went on to do astronomically well in her O-Levels. She’s a professor now.

“My ex-husband, who was a policeman, decided to do a part-time law degree. I thought, lookie here — I don’t want to be the thick one of the family,” she jokes. “When I sat down to write the exam — and I had been writing professionally all this time — I looked at the paper.

“My hand was shaking, and for one terrible minute I couldn’t think of a thing to say. But I managed to do it, and I managed to do well.”

  • Wave Me Goodbye will be published in May



More From The Irish Examiner