I was extremely excited to conduct this particular Q&A. Today’s interview is with a children’s author Annie Dalton, a woman who can I say with complete confidence is probably the reason I am who I am today: a book lover, passionate about publishing and writing.
I first came across Annie’s books in my local library when I was eleven years old. I can still picture it now; I know people have always said you should never judge a book by its cover, but I was eleven, and that’s exactly what I did. What child doesn’t? The bright, vibrant, happy, colourful front cover called out to me the moment I set eyes on it. It was the first book in the Angels Unlimited Series: Winging It. From that point onwards, I was hooked.
Growing up in high school was an extremely difficult time for me. My triplet sisters and I were heavily bullied; it was one of those situations where, if you were different or stood out like a sore thumb as we did, you were either destined to be very popular or the victims of bullying. Sadly, we were the latter. Identical triplets could have been ‘cool’, but we were far too obedient and hard-working and we stayed true to ourselves, rather than changing to fit in. And in a rough, working-class, badly-performing school, that was a recipe for disaster. (It turned out to be the best thing later in life, but kids can be very cruel.)
Annie’s books were the absolute perfect form of escapism for me. That may sound cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. I was immediately drawn to Melanie Beeby, the time-travelling angel. I identified with her because despite the fact that she was an angel in the most sublime place in the universe (Heaven itself, in fact!) she still often felt insecure, isolated, and inferior. All emotions which I felt on a daily basis. But the fact that she could become something so special – and surrounded by people so special – gave me some kind of hope for myself. It was the promise of something special for me, a girl who felt ordinary, mistreated and inadequate, that drew me back to the Angels Unlimited world over and over again.
I became such a huge fan of these books that I did a little digging and found Annie’s email address on the HarperCollins website. I emailed her, telling her of my love of her books and Melanie’s world. To my astonishment, she replied! We began talking and BOOM! Ever since then I have had a strong friendship with my most favourite author on the planet. This woman got me and my sisters through some dark days. She then did the most amazing thing – she based some characters in one of her books on the three of us! In the sixth book of the Angels Unlimited series, Fighting Fit, a set of identical triplets based in Ancient Rome were separated at birth, and now lead completely different lives. Mel Beeby’s job is to reunite them or the future of the human race will be in grave danger!
A form of me finally lived within the pages of my favourite books in the world! I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy as a child.
Throughout my teenaged years, into adulthood and the real, scary, world, Annie has been a true friend and a constant support to me. I’m extremely happy to share her story with you in this Q&A.
At what point did you realise that you wanted to write professionally?
Some people have more than one string to their bow, but I am not one of those people. The only thing I have ever known how to do is to write stories and it took me thirty plus years to get up the courage to do that! Writing for me has always seemed like a natural extension of reading but also of being a compulsive talker and daydreamer. I was always getting in trouble for talking, day-dreaming, or not concentrating at school. I never secretly dreamed of being a published writer when I was a child, as some writers apparently did, simply because (and this is rather embarrassing) I had absolutely no idea that books were written by people! To me, books and the stories inside them were some kind of glorious natural phenomenon that I never thought to question; like apples and clouds, they just were. I did however have an immediate and intense feeling of connection with the world of children’s fiction. Something inside me said, ‘Oh, yes!’ And like a struck tuning fork this childhood ‘Yes’ carried on reverberating over the years, sometimes louder, sometimes pushed into the background, until one day, when my youngest daughter was at school, I sat down at the kitchen table and finally gave into an increasingly powerful impulse to attempt to write a book of my own.
How did you get into writing, and how did your first book deal come about? How did you feel?
Becoming a writer was a gradual process. There wasn’t any one big epiphany, more like an accumulation of moments and influences. I grew up in 1950s Britain when few families owned a TV, and entertainment was commonly via the radio. After school, I listened to Children’s Hour on the Home Service, particularly dramatisations of popular children’s books like John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth. At bedtime my mum read to me from our book of Grimm’s Fairytales. To be honest, she did mostly out of duty and stopped reading to me just as soon as I learned how to read for myself! But I didn’t care about her motivation, I just soaked it all up, the magic dog with eyes like cartwheels, the little boy who was murdered by his evil stepmother slamming down a chest lid on his head, everything! And during the short time he lived with us, my father actually made up stories in which I starred as the main character. So before I became a reader I was a listener, simultaneously creating the story in my imagination as I listened. Then I learned to read and my imagination was fired in other new and wonderful ways.
My first effort turned out to be a rather baggy fantasy for older children/teens called Out of the Ordinary and was rewarded with serious beginner’s luck. I immediately found an agent who sent my manuscript to Miriam Hodgson, the now legendary children’s editor, who saw some potential in my writing despite its flaws, and persuaded Methuen, as it then was, to publish it. I have been lucky enough to earn my living from my writing ever since.
I was not a clever or academic child. I failed my eleven plus and went to a secondary modern school where our teachers seemed irritated and resigned at the thought of having to teach us. It wasn’t an environment that was very conducive to love of learning. We basically just endured, teachers and pupils alike. Any education that I managed to glean, I owe almost entirely to my local library. But by the mid 60s, change was in the air. It was the totally opposite process of what is happening to young people today when so many doors are closing. A fresh breeze was blowing in the 60s and new opportunities were becoming available for educational misfits like me who would never have ticked all the old boxes. Despite my uneven A Level results, I managed to talk myself into the English department at the University of Warwick. When I handed in my first essay, my tutor commented, as school teachers had commented before him, ‘You write so well, but you never answer the question!’ I wasn’t being deliberately subversive. I just always felt that I would rather write about something that excited me and usually the set questions didn’t! I eventually left with a degree but my three years at Warwick had actually driven my vague longings to write even further underground. It was only once I had children of my own and discovered exciting new children’s writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy, that I suddenly felt compelled to try to write my own. I always feel slightly embarrassed that my first book deal came about with virtually no effort on my part. A neighbour’s photographer son had recently written a children’s book using his own photographs as illustrations and had acquired an agent at Curtis Brown. When I told him that I was writing a book for children he offered to introduce us and did. That was it! It’s over twenty years ago now but I will never ever forget the feeling when my agent phoned me to tell me that Methuen were taking my book. The joy! Followed by rather less joy when the manuscript came back and I saw all the dozens of red scribbles – every scribble representing a crucial change that my editor wanted me to make!
Did you always set out to become a children’s writer?
Actually I started out writing really bad poetry! And I wrote a lot of first chapters for novels, some of them for adults and all fairly hopeless, though maybe not as bad as the poetry! But the first book I ever finished and had published was for children. My first love as a child was fantasy, though I never thought of fantasy as a genre when I was small. But I instinctively gravitated to books with some kind of magic in them – I’d include time slip stories in my personal magical category – so my initial instinct was to write the kind of novels for children that I had loved to read. I never really believed that I’d become a professional writer of any kind to be honest. With my first book I thought more in terms of giving something back, having been given so much. Like you I was pretty much saved by reading as a child. I thought of myself as just adding my small contribution to this already existing sea of stories. I didn’t think there would necessarily be any more where that came from! But over the years I have written in different genres and for different age groups of children. I was blessed with some wonderful reviews early on and have been shortlisted for various prizes including the Carnegie and the Nottingham Oak. But it wasn’t until I was asked to write a short story for a HarperCollins anthology to celebrate the millennium that I stumbled on the elusive holy grail of commercial success. The anthology was called Centuries of Stories and my contribution featured a thirteen-year-old time travelling angel called Melanie Beeby. HarperCollins loved the character and decided she deserved her own series. The series ran for twelve titles, became an international best seller, and was optioned for a feature film by Disney. As so often happens with options, this film was never made, and the books eventually slipped out of print – but, thanks to my daughter, they have recently been given new life as ebooks.
What would you say is your favourite of your books/work?
I think it’s probably true to say that whichever book I am writing, at the time of writing, is my favourite! This is because writing a book takes huge commitment and energy, or, to put it in simpler terms, love. While you’re writing and experiencing the inevitable ups and downs, frustrations and downright terror that go with writing, it’s that love, that totally irrational belief that this book is worth writing, that gets you through; just as love for your child will get you up in the night even when you are bug-eyed with exhaustion and can barely put one foot in front of the other. At different times I have been in love with all of my books. Then time passes and I tend to see only the flaws. Then more time passes and I fall back in love! I recently wrote a book for Barrington Stoke called Cherry Green, Story Queen, a kind of remix of Scheherazade, set in a foster home. I still love it. I once wrote three books about a small girl called Tilly Beany whose ungovernable imagination innocently causes havoc at school and home. I am still proud of that book. I am still very fond of some of my angel books. But I am also looking forward to falling in love with future books that I hope will be completely different to anything I have previously written.
How would you say, from your perception and point of view, the publishing world has changed from when you began writing to the present day? Anything changed for the better, or worse, in your opinion?
My perception is that today it tends to be sales departments that call the shots, where publishers were once more editorially led. When I started out, my editor Miriam would listen patiently as I talked through an incoherent tangle of ideas for new books, before carefully tweezing out the single tiny seedling of an idea that struck her as having most potential. ‘Just put a few words down on paper,’ she’d say cheerfully when we’d finished, ‘so I can run it by Acquisitions.’ And a week or two later I’d have a contract! This would never happen today. In those days, editors would often take a chance on an unknown writer, nurturing him or her along, investing time and energy that might or might not pay off. But children’s books were not such big business then, and there were fewer children’s writers trying to make a living than there are today. I don’t want to get into things being ‘better’ or ‘worse’. The changes are here now as our current reality. We’ll have to learn to adapt, to reinvent ourselves, possibly several times over, in order to survive. It’s no use being precious about it – no one asked us to be writers after all! – but I sometimes feel like a bit of a dimwit for not sufficiently appreciating my good fortune, for not realising that it was just a passing era, rather than a life-long magic ticket for being an author.
Can you describe the challenges and benefits of being a full-time author?
I have had times of feeling stuck in a writing desert or no-man’s land; wanting and needing fundamental changes in the way I work but not knowing how to bring this about. It’s a hideously familiar rerun of all those initial doubts and fears that paralysed me when I first started out, doubts and fears that I had foolishly imagined to be gone forever! People assume that with several published books under your belt, you must have acquired an unshakeable level of confidence. Sadly creativity doesn’t work like that. Rowan Colman, a hugely successful novelist, talks about a phenomenon she names ‘The Fear,’ a creativity-sucking terror, which is all the more terrifying obviously if writing is also how you feed and clothe your family.
On the other side of the scales is that incomparable excitement which comes with finally breaking into new writing territory; or the thrill of those rare but glorious days when both sides of your brain are suddenly joyously in synch and you feel as if you’re flying; or, yes, an unexpected film deal; or receiving a letter from a thirteen-year old girl confiding that reading your book is helping her to heal from the death of a sibling. On the benefits side of the scales I would also include being sent a bright pink working clock (complete with sparkly winged angel logo) made by eleven-year old triplet girls, now grown up, one of whom is hosting this blog!
You’ve recently re-released your Angels Unlimited books as ebooks, with new cover artwork and under the name of Angel Academy. Can you describe the challenges and benefits of republishing your Angels books as ebooks?
Republishing the Angels series has just been win-win all round. The first four books particularly were written to very strict deadlines, and often I was writing other books alongside. This meant that the writing wasn’t always as tight as I’d have liked. As part of the process of converting them to e-books I’ve been able to re-read and re-edit, taking out any extraneous fluff and also bringing them up to date. My daughter designed new covers, giving these books a more contemporary – and I hope more powerful and grownup – look. It makes me very happy to know that Mel’s cosmic adventures are being read by a new generation of readers.
To find out more about Annie, visit www.anniedaltonwriter.co.uk