A theatre critic at The Guardian, Lyn Gardner first turned to writing fiction for children in 2006 with ‘Into the Woods’ (illustrated by Mini Grey) and later its sequel, ‘Out of the Woods’. Since then she has gone on to write a seven part stage school series based around a young girl, Olivia, and her school friends who love to perform. Lyn is speaking at the FCBG conference at the end of next week, and in tanticipation of her session I recently interview her about her work.
FCBG: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ll be sharing with us at the Federation of Children’s Book Group’s conference in April?
Lyn Gardner: I’ll be talking about my Olivia series, and about writing for girls. I come from a family of girls and I have girls myself so I feel that it’s territory I know. I’m interested in strong heroines who are complex, brave, adventurous, sometimes a little bit difficult, and sometimes a tad emotionally bruised. Olivia is all these things. But fun too (I hope). The books explore female friendship in many manifestations and uses the stage school setting and the fact that the children work professionally on stage to look at what it means when your friend is also your rival, jealousy and generosity. Change is a big theme too which I always find interesting. I’m somebody who doesn’t like change very much, and have always resisted it. But every time it’s been forced on me, it’s turned out to be for the good. After all, we live in a world that is changing very fast because of huge economic and cultural and social shifts. We are all living through rapid change, and that means our children have to be equipped in all sorts of ways to deal with that change. Going to a different school at 11, facing family upheaval of difficult kinds, moving house all bring about change and sometimes it’s hard to cope. Gosh, this makes the books sound rather serious, but I hope they are nail-biting and gripping too.
FCBG: You’ve now written 7 novels in the Olivia series, a marvellous set of books set in a stage school, combing elements of Ballet Shoes and the Chalet School books but for 21st century children. What did you enjoy most about writing these books?
Lyn Gardner: I’ve loved writing them all. When I wrote my first novels Into the Woods and Out of the Woods, I remember saying to my agent that I didn’t think I was the sort of writer who would ever write a series. What a stupid, naïve little fool I was. Writing a series is such fun because you can really explore characters and have the time and the space to let them grow, develop and really breathe. In the case of the Olivias because every book represents a term I also had the chance to show them growing up. They are 12 in the first book and just turning 14 in the final one. Ballet Shoes crossed with Malory Towers was very much the model. I loved school stories when I was child and all those theatre classics such as Ballet Shoes and The Swish of the Curtain.
FCBG: What did you find hardest about writing these books?
Lyn Gardner: I’m the queen of displacement activity. I’ve even been known to pick up a duster (something I never do willingly) when there is a book that needs to be written. But they don’t write themselves. Thinking about writing a book and actually doing it are two different things. All books are hard to write. If they are not hard to write, then I suspect they are probably not worth writing. Or possibly reading either. I’ve had to learn a great deal about structure and tight plotting. There are times when you think “I can’t do this,” but if you sit in front of blank screen long enough eventually you start to get the words down. The opposite of that is when it’s all going swimmingly and the whole thing starts to unfold in your head like a movie and all you’ve got to do is write it down. That’s rare but when it happens it feels like automatic writing, as if there is something magic about it. I love that.
FCBG: What skills from your review writing did you find helpful in writing the Olivia books?
Lyn Gardner: I reckon that writing is writing, It doesn’t matter what you are writing. Of course reviews and features are very different from fiction but the skills are transferable. I often think fiction is easier, or at least less confining as you don’t have to let the facts get in the way of a great story. But of course in journalism you don’t have that leeway. I like doing both.
FCBG: Given your background and passions, I wondered whether you have considered writing plays for children – and if not, why not?
Lyn Gardner: I have been asked, and maybe one day I’ll give it a try. Once I would have said “never”, but think I’m getting braver about the possibility. Dialogue does come pretty easily to me (I reckon my brilliant editor, might say too easily). But having seen so many plays doesn’t mean I’d be any good at writing one. Off course writing plays would be a pretty exposing thing for a theatre critic to do too. I guess writing novels is a way of being creative, but without putting my neck on the line in the way it might be if I wrote a play. But who knows, maybe one day I might give it a go.
FCBG: What makes for great writing in children’s theatre as opposed to children’s books? Can you give some examples of plays for children which you think have been written exceptionally well?
Lyn Gardner: So many plays for children are based on well-known novels because titles are good box office. There are some fantastic original plays for children and young people. We have some great writers including people such as Mike Kenny. Lots of authors who write for adults also write for children (Jeanette Winterson, Roddy Doyle, William Nicholson, Mark Haddon etc) so why don’t more playwrights who write for adult audiences also write plays for children? I also thing we need to look at what we mean by new writing in theatre, it can be devised work as much as a play written by a single novel. There are some brilliant companies such as Fevered Sleep, Theatre-Rites and Oily Cart who are creating terrific theatre for children.
FCBG: A lot of children’s theatre nowadays seems to be based on successful children’s books which have been adapted into plays (eg Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). What tips do you have for adapting a book into a play – especially for children who may want to try their hand at this either at school or at home?
Lyn Gardner: Be faithful, but not too faithful. A play is as different from a novel as a tinned peach is from a fresh peach. Both can be delicious, they have similarities but they are different things. I reckon that for children using a novel they love as inspiration to write a play might be more interesting than trying to adapt it for the stage. Why not write your own Peter Pan or your own Matilda?
My thanks go to Lyn for her interview today. If you haven’t yet read any of the Oliva book, you can find out more about them here.