FCBG: You’ve described your childhood as “mental!” “‘There are cats in the Frosties and dogs in the Coco Pops’. That’s so bang on what our house was like.” What books were around? Did you read or listen to poetry as a kid (other than music)?
Laura: I am completely compelled by the material my parents raised me on. I read lots. I had loads of books; my favourites were Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Colin McNaughton’s, “There’s An Awful Lot Of Weirdos In Our Neighbourhood” and the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy. I was also frantically obsessed with trying to be an innocent annoying do-gooder, I made my parents get me a book on Anne Frank and an illustrated version of the Bible and was constantly trying to understand the world and why it was the way it was. And of course, The Brownie Girl Guide Handbook. Obviously. Really referred to that most days on how to apply myself to life.
FCBG: You mention how much you enjoyed Roald Dahl’s books, and I know he is one of your sources of inspiration. Who else inspires you (children’s authors, poets, but also from any walk of life, not just literature)?
The rapper Eminem is a great influence of mine, I really like the way he ripples words together and bounces them off one another, where the delivery is just as important as the content. I am a very visual person, I really like film and documentary, I would say the art and content of Tim Burton has been very precious in the shaping of my own work, particularly the way he logs his progression from brain to page to screen. I went to an exhibition of his at the MoMa in New York and it really was an all encompassing show case of a true artist, rather than say the show reel of a filmmaker. I enjoy watching the freedom he has with his work too, that he can write a bit, draw, make and direct. It’s very influential.
At the moment I am drinking up Caitlin Moran’s work, I think she is a really important role model, I like her attitude to life and her playfulness to her work, I like it that her and her work are united and seem pretty interchangeable. That for me is a ‘must’, a true artist must be completely engaged with the work they make, all the time, I believe. Ricky Gervais is somebody that has always been inspiring to me, I like watching his free behaviour to his work and the clever ways in which his fans/ the public respond to him, that they accept and respect all of his ‘artistic’ movements. The public often want to box artists and label them, where Gervais can be a writer, comedian, actor, director, picture book maker and I like that. And of course, the music of my glittery King, David Bowie and the works of my rainbow, Frida Kahlo.
FCBG: Tell us a little about your new book for children, Darcy Burdock. Where did the idea come from for this book? How much is Darcy like you? (I ask this particularly because the book blurb includes the line “Darcy likes dressing up in ridiculous outfits” and you’re known for having quite a distinctive dress style)
Am I? Why thanks. Darcy is maybe a bit too much like me, which is maybe not allowed, but the writing and the voice of her, in particular, came very naturally. Let’s not get it twisted, I am not a ten-year-old person, I am a married woman who has a grasp of being that exact married woman. It is completely undeniable that I can revert back to my smaller self, easily – that was actually Dahl’s advice that I read in an interview – that a true children’s writer should be able to summon memory from their youth. I enjoy that nostalgia because growing up was really fun, I LOVED growing up with my family and I have such fond memories from that time, it’s nice to have somewhere to dump all that stuff, Darcy is a perfect mouthpiece for that. And her clothes, well …as if I could resist drawing jumpers with cheeseburgers and flamingoes all over them? The aim is to obviously make a Darcy clothing line. Darcy BurFROCK…? Just thought of that one.
FCBG: I love the idea of a clothing line! And with three Darcy Burdock books planned, there’s time, I hope, for someone to take you up on it!
The early reviews for the first volume have been very positive; where are you at with the 2nd and 3rd volumes? Are they already written? When are they due to be published? And, given your background as a performance poet, will you be recoding audio book versions?
I can’t believe it, I am SO grateful! Everybody has been so kind. The 2nd book is nearly finished (I like it that you’re calling them volumes, sounds really posh…and pretty…chunky and a bit sciency-ish) I have some nice ideas swimming round for book three, hopefully some of those will come to life, I just need to sit down and do that writing bit instead of talking about it the whole time. The writing process has its own pattern, a lot of writing is done on the go, so in my head, much of it is written. Book two will follow pretty soon I imagine, depending on when we’re ready to go and if people want to read it of course, otherwise I might as well stop writing and open a florist or something? And yes of course there will be an audio book; I want that twinkly noise you used to get on the old story tapes that means you have to turn the page. But I can’t promise it won’t come with a bonus track of ramblings and maybe some adapted nursery rhymes and recipes.
FCBG: Within minutes of meeting you I think most people will see and feel how passionate you are about poetry. What do you think about the renewed focus on poetry in the national curriculum and the national competition for teenagers to recite poetry learned by heart?
What many don’t realise, is that to have a poem off by heart is a really cool useful party trick that can make many people have crushes on you. If I were a teenager, I would learn a few poems and I would be saying them out loud loads at parties. I think poetry is taught very badly at a lot of places. I can’t say who is exactly is to blame for that but it’s a general mixture of the wrong poems and poets being taught by the wrong people. To teach poetry properly you really just need inspiring contemporary poems by exciting poets, taught by wonderful patient imaginative teachers. That would be a dream come true. It’s just frustrating, we have so many incredible ambassadors for the spoken word – I just can’t see how the burn doesn’t translate.
FCBG: If you were education minister, what would you suggest schools and families might do to inspire a love of poetry?
The first thing would be the encouragement of public speaking and creative writing. I can’t work out where the missing gap is: Kids, when they are small are so brave and fearless, and that drive and energy needs to be ribboned through their childhood so they hold on to that skill. It is a good one. There is a misconception that people need to be ‘well educated’ and ‘smart’ to understand, read or write or even have an actual opinion on poetry, when that’s just a load of rubbish, if you can talk, you can write, and poetry is the most attractive of all forms of writing as there are zero rules and policies. Maybe some find that intimidating but for me it all comes down to a confidence thing. Which is a shame, as some people have some truly marvellous things to say.
FCBG: You’ve said in the past, “Writing a short story is outside my comfort zone. It isn’t poetry, which comes naturally to me.“. What about combining them both, as, for example in Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, or in many songs where poetry and a story are combined? Is this something you’ve tried?
I think this was a while ago, since I’ve sort of got my head around the tool of the short story and I feel much more at home. It is about finding your writing voice. Which is really hard. You spend your whole life trying to discover and figure out how you would like to be represented as an actual human being, and then you have to do all this new ‘discovering’ as how you want to be ‘read’, when the obvious answer is to write how you speak …doesn’t that make sense? And as far as the other thing goes, yes poetry feeds though all my work across all genres, for me, poetry is really just an excuse to have beautiful muck around with words. When it comes to involving poetry in your writing, its up to the writer; you have the power to sneak that poetry in, like feeding babies vegetables hidden in the mash potato.
FCBG: The FCBG conference audience might be a little bit different to the audiences you’ve had at Glastonbury and Latitude. What do you hope your session at conference will be like? What do you hope for in an audience?
Any audience, with head s…and imaginations would be useful, and not a scrutinizing disposition. I can’t be bothered with all that.
FCBG: Thanks, Laura, for such an engaging interview! I can’t wait to join you at conference.