Jacqueline Wilson interview: Elixir of youth

JACQUELINE Wilson is sitting quietly in the midst of a lunchtime rush in a London hotel. There is no fanfare, no wailing, no pre-pubescent mob brandishing confection-coloured books at her. There is not so much as a glance in the direction of this pensioner with a silver crop, hamster cheeks and knuckleduster rings crowding her fingers. This is odd. Wilson is the grand dame of children's fiction in Britain, the Madonna to JK Rowling's Kylie. She has sold more than 25 million books in the

If anyone between the ages of 8 and 14 were here, she wouldn't stand a chance. Wilson is a writer of rock god proportions, albeit one who says "crikey" and "golly" and whose fans want to talk to her about playground bullies and their parents divorcing. She gets more than 500 letters a week and her signing sessions are legendary, lasting for eight hour stretches as she talks to every child, comforts them, makes them laugh, eases their fears.

Not any more, though. Last May Wilson, now 63, ended up in hospital with heart failure and had to cancel a summer of festival appearances, signings and tours. She was fitted with a pacemaker and is well again though the drugs she's on make her feel sick and dizzy in the mornings. But life has had to change (she only signs books for 200 children in a sitting now) and as someone who used to swim 50 lengths each morning, it's taking time to adjust. "It's difficult," she says. "I did take what I suppose is a rather sickening pride in being able to chat to kids for ages. Now I know it's not a possibility. I don't like to disappoint children – if they burst into tears you feel such a perfect heel that you can't please them. But then friends and family keep saying you have got to be sensible."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Wilson has just delivered her next book to her publishers – she is writing as much as ever – and for the first time she has set a novel in the Victorian era, about a foundling in 1880s London called Hettie Feather. It is as always about and for children and she tells me that even when she wrote dark crime novels for adults in the Seventies, they still had teenage protagonists. "It's just something that comes naturally to me," she says of her lifelong fascination with childhood. "I don't want to sentimentalise children – they can be dreadful – but it's that one skin removed. They aren't as good at hiding things." She stays tapped in by talking to young people all the time, and the fans of her books inevitably become their inspiration. She also watches the TV series Skins: "I look at those 16-year-olds open mouthed and think 'crikey!'"

I wonder, though, whether the knowledge of her illness has made her want to experiment with her writing. "This is it," she says. "Without being melodramatic it's clear that I'm probably not going to make it to a very old age now. Why not do exactly what I want to do and just enjoy it? I always feel it's better to have a go at something rather than have regrets."

Wilson is frank and unsentimental talking about her illness, and I end up feeling more sad than she seems to be. She isn't one to wallow, like so many of her strong-willed teen creations from Tracy Beaker to Vicky Angel. Besides, life is too good. She only achieved astronomical success in the last decade and is enjoying her notoriety all the more for coming at a time when women tend to become less, not more, visible.

"It's been a lovely way for it to happen," she says. "I'm 63 now and I remember thinking when I was 50 that everything was going to go a bit downhill and it would just be more of the same. Then the most extraordinary things started to happen."

Around that time her husband of 30 years, whom she met as a teenager in Dundee while working for DC Thomson, left her. "It was a shock when my marriage broke up but it was an extraordinary way to refocus," she says. "I think I worked harder and more constructively than I ever had before. I threw myself into work and started going to schools and libraries four times a week. I do think that if I'd still been married a lot of the success wouldn't have happened."

Two years ago she wrote the first instalment of her memoirs, Jacky Daydream, which covered her life up until the age of 11. The follow-up, My Secret Diary, has just come out and focuses on when she was 14. It's a typically quirky, heartwarming read, including scraps from old diaries about the clothes she used to wear, the rows in her home between her mother, Biddy, and her father, Harry, her schooldays, first romance and above all, her writerly ambitions and the books she devoured. "I didn't want to write a misery memoir," she says. "I think you're a slightly sad person if in late middle age you're still stamping your feet and saying it's not fair, my mum and dad didn't give me this."

Harry died long ago but Biddy, a formidable woman with plenty of what she would call "gump", is 85 and Wilson is nervous about her reaction to the memoir. "My mum doesn't read my books," says Wilson. "But I still wouldn't want her to feel betrayed or uncomfortable. She didn't read Jacky Daydream but some friends teased her about one or two things and she did get very angry." Why doesn't Biddy read her books? "I don't know. She says, 'why should I? They're for children'. Hilariously she once said, 'why can't you write a really good book, you know like Jeffrey Archer's ones?'." If this is hurtful to Wilson, it's hard to tell because she is roaring with laughter.

Her ability to capture the child's voice – all her novels are written in the first person – as well as her refusal to shield young readers from all the messiness of life has won Wilson so many fans, and detractors too. Her books deal with death and divorce, mental illness and poverty, and children are frequently let down by adults. "I don't deliberately try to shock people," she says. "I always try quite hard to make my books moral, to encourage children to be kind to the odd one out." Her passion for children's books is immense and catching, too. After I turn my Dictaphone off, Wilson leans forward and with a smile asks: "So, what books did you read when you were young?" v

My Secret Diary by Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday) is out now