An Interview with Brian Jacques
The Writer and His Editor Speak
Patricia Lee Gauch is the Editorial Director of Philomel Books, and has been working with Brian Jacques on the Redwall tales since their first publication here in the United States, more than ten years ago. Recently, she and Brian talked about his life as an author.
Patricia: Brian, there are so many things we could share, working together as we do, but there are some things your readers would like to know, I'm sure. For example, Brian, where do you write?
Brian: It's a corner of my garden, up near the angle of the wall. There's a lilac bush that grows there, a dwarf apple tree that grows next to it, and a little hut that I built for my granddaughter. Inside there is a little den, and that's where I go to write. That's where I go!
My son also built a nice extension to my house so that I can write there in bad weather. But I've been doing a bit of writing outside today and was just watching two bluetits and a little bluetit with his Mum and Dad feeding on some nuts. A robin red breast comes too, he feeds on the bits they drop.
P: I always think of you writing in one particular time of year, in March, April, and maybe May.
B: Well, I love to write around Easter, when spring is in full bloom, the earth is renewing itself, and it's getting towards summer and you get nice warm days. That's the time I like best, although I do like to write in the autumn as well, even though it can get a bit chilly and rainy in the autumn over here.
P: But you've been known to write out in your garden, even in the rain haven't you?
B: Oh yes, under the famous grouse umbrella! Sure, I just go back under the lilac bush!
P: Have you been writing longhand lately, or on your typewriter?
B: I've been using the typewriter a lot. I've found that when I've been writing for awhile, my longhand gets a bit sloppy, although I still write all my poems and rhymes and riddles longhand.
P: Do you set an amount of time out for yourself to write each day, Brian, or are you apt, when an idea comes to you, to just write and write until you are done? Do you let the idea carry you?
B: Well, what was happening was, I was sitting there, stuck to the chair, writing and running away with these ideas and sometimes producing up to 25 pages a day. I realized that wasn't good for my health, being there that long. So, now I say to myself, if I'm in no hurry, I'll write between 5 and 7 pages. If I can "see the stable door in sight," then I can do between 12 and 15 pages. But, what I do is leave myself time for other things now: take the dog out for a walk, go out to the shops, go down to the radio station, or go across to the School for the Blind. I feel better for that because you can just overdo writing.
P: Then writing becomes something other than a joy, you might as well do hard labor.
B: Yes, that's right.
P: Do the ideas for your stories start to come before you sit at the typewriter?
B: Oh yes! Halfway through the last book, I'll have an idea and think – isn't that a super idea for a book! And then I have to store that away. Sometimes I'm just champing at the bit to get through the other book.
P: Do you talk to anyone about it, or do you prefer to store it up until you're really ready for it to come out.
B: Oh no! I don't talk to anyone about a new idea. But, when I'm near the end of the book, I might say to my partner, Liz [Crampton], I had a lovely idea, and then I'll start to tell her about it. Then it's out and I've got to do it then.
P: Do your characters all have their roots in people you've known, Brian?
B: Oh yes, and especially the accents. All the different people I knew in the Merchant Marine – some of them are virtually unintelligible!
P: And your grandmother was Irish, right?
B: Yes, and so was my granddad. And my other two grandparents were French.
P: It's been very interesting to me how young people love the accents in your books. When we first did them, we were a little nervous about how much sanitizing of those accents we might need to do for American children. But the children here love the accents, they love imitating the foremoles, the shrews.
B: It gives me so much pleasure when you hear students in the schools in America trying to imitate the Somerset burr of old men in little English villages. I remember a time that I was in a school and a little lad came up to me just as the bell rung, and he said, "Hullo, old chap and how are you doing, what? what?" I said, "I'm doing just fine." And he said, "How was that for an English accent?" and I said, "Pretty dreadful!" He said, "Oh, rats!" and ran away!
P: Brian, authors have editors, we know that. What value have I been to you as an editor? What has been the most use to you? I know you don't always love my editorial comments on your manuscripts.
B: I take kindly to constructive criticism, and I've always found that your comments are sensible, if a bit nebulous! I do like reading your notes. And, you're not like other editors who write criticism, criticism, and criticism. What I like about your reaction, and what lightens it, is you write "Oh, look at this bit, I love this bit!" It is nice to receive compliments from an editor, it boosts your ego! And, being a friend, you know me as a person, you know my temperament and my ups and downs, lows and highs. It's nice to have somebody like that.
P: You've often said that you were a cut up and a card in class. You weren't escorted out of school at 14, but you weren't encouraged to stay on either. Yet the information you have is just endless and your sense of language and story is so strong. How did you this happen?
B: Well, I like to say that I was a student in the University of Life. I was running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Being on both sides, learning how to speak in polite company, but knowing how to speak on the street. Observing life, and above all reading. Of course reading books was an escape from life in the 1940s.
P: I can imagine that is true. Where did you read when you were little?
B: Well, Liverpool was devastated during World War II because it was a seaport – almost bombed flat. Everything was so dreary, so drab, and so heartbreaking! But, the public library still stood and you could sit in there, even if you had no money. It was nice and warm, because they had central heat, and all the books you liked. You could sit there and disappear into the pages of those books. There's a line in a poem that says:
Outside, there may be men on the dole
Selling papers and carrying coal
But in my mind I'd love to go
Sumatra, Java, Mandalay, wherever trade winds blow...
You know if you can go there from wartime Liverpool – there must be something right with books, isn't there?
P: Indeed! What feeds you as an author now, Brian? What's good for you? What are the meat and potatoes of being an author?
B: Several things – one, is that I never thought I'd be an author. It's like waking up one day and finding that you're a great tenor or director. You are something big in life – you're an author and you're successful. And then of course, the old stigma. There's money – I mean, I was poor all my life. I decided once I was an author, I'm not going to be poor anymore. And of course, there are the accolades. I don't worry so much about the prizes for books, the accolade for me is the kids. And the librarians, who've had an education, who are looking at a scalawag, who's conned his way in – an ex-longshoreman, ex-seaman, ex-truckdriver, who's suddenly popped up as an author – and they say, "Oh, Mr. Jacques, we love your books." I think, isn't that nice, here are these people with this great education speaking to me as if I'm somebody – it's a big thing.
I was always running around, jumping up and trying to hit the brass ball. I was a standup comedian, after-dinner speaker, folksinger, poet, radio personality, and theater playwright. I was just dabbling in it all. I'd look at people who'd made it and think – why did they make it? What talent did they have? Then I realized, all I had to do was concentrate and focus on one thing. Liz kept telling me this, and I didn't believe it. Then one day, I brought my great mentor and friend the script for Redwall and he said to me, "Now I know what you do – you're a children's author."
I still have bad dreams that it's all gone and I'm looking for a job. But I've come to realize how lucky I am, to be who I am, and to able to wake up in the morning and find I'm still me and I can still write.