Q: Are your characters based on real children?
A: Not exactly. They are combinations of real children that I’ve taught over the years, morphed into one.
Q: Are you worried that the book is too violent?A: No. I’m afraid we are surrounded by violence, and reading about it is a way of thinking about it. Most importantly, the book is full of affection – the violence is dressing.
Q: When writing a story, do you prefer to write it first, then transpose it onto the computer? or do you entirely write your stories on the computer?
A: I like writing by hand. I love the speed of it. But lately I have been seduced by the laptop, where you edit as you go. I try to do a bit of both.
Q: Is there going to be a Ribblestrop Two?
A: Yes it is due in all good bookshops February 2011 and will be called 'Return to Ribblestrop'
Q: Is the school based on a school you worked at?
A: Yes and no. I’ve worked in seven schools, and none of them have been quite like Ribblestrop. But: that mixture of hope and pride, all confused with disorder…there are elements of Ribblestrop in every school. Good and rubbish teachers – nice and horrid kids…you meet them in every school too.
Q: Where did the idea come from?
A: It came from various places. It came from walking in the grounds of a very nice house in Cornwall, part of which had been given over to a bunch of monks (who were very surly). I chatted with my friend about the joy of turning it into a school, and we made each other laugh a lot about how dreadful it would be. A good school needs vast amounts of money, and I am fascinated by what can be achieved with no money. But the idea also came from the frustrations of working in schools where the organization was so tight and inflexible you couldn’t breathe.
Q: You teach in Manila. What is it like?
A: I teach in a private school. There is a very strong work-ethic, and – most amazingly - it is ‘cool to be smart’, to quote one pupil: you don’t apologize for wanting to do well, wanting to learn, wanting to experience school. That is an exciting ride for a teacher: the children come to school to have a good time and work hard. And as for Manila! – it’s a wild, friendly city in the most beautiful country, with the most fabulous people. Visit.
Q: Would you send your own children to Ribblestrop?
A: I don’t have any, but if I did… No, I would want to keep them with me. Why have a child and farm it out? – it seems crazy. If I had to choose a boarding school, then – for sure – I would be begging the headmaster to accept them.
Q: Who is Millie? Is she a child that you taught?
A: She’s three children that I taught. I can’t write a character unless I can see them, so Millie – to me – has a very definite shape. She is based on a child I taught for two years at a school in Sussex, but she has been morphed and blended into two other children that I taught in Cornwall. All three girls were outrageous and charismatic. I know absolutely what Millie looks like. I know the sound of her voice and I know just how hard she can hit someone.
Q: Where are the orphans from?
A: They are from India, with bits of Nepal thrown in. Like Millie, they are fusions of the various children I have met – especially the children I taught in northern India, with a work ethic so intense it was scary. And manners that used to shame my own.
Q: What books did you read as a child?
A: I loved Enid Blyton. Then I found Anthony Buckeridge, and for the first time books made me laugh – the Jennings series is genius. A wonderful primary school teacher read us ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr, and for the first time I found that books could really frighten and confuse you. Alan Garner, Nina Bawden and later Ray Bradbury.
Q: Is Ribblestrop going to be a film?
A: I think it would make a fabulous film, and it would be very exciting to think so. People are talking.
Q: What do you think of Harry Potter?
A: I was very ill when I read the first book – in fact, it was read to me as I faded in and out of fever. So Hogwarts is associated with the most fantastic, vivid experiences and I remember crying at the end. I have to say that later on, I got a little tired of the formula, and I haven’t read the whole series. But the books were an earthquake reminding everyone how much fun you could have. I love that threesome – Ron, Hermione, Harry – three of the loveliest characters.
Q: What's the best advice you have for aspiring writers?
A: Only the advice that was given to me. Sit in a room without a view and do eight hours a day. Finish what you start, unless you realize it is truly awful.
Q: Where does the name ‘Ribblestrop’ come from?
A: In my head, Ribblestrop School is in Devon, and it’s just outside a town I used to live in. But I couldn’t use the town’s name, because as soon as I did I couldn’t invent anything – I could only report on what was there. I hunted for a different name, and I’ve enjoyed so much time in the Ribble Valley up north…I can’t remember where the strop came from.
Q: Is it true that the published book had to be ‘toned down’ from the original?
A: Yes. When Simon and Schuster bought it, it was on the understanding that there would be revisions and certain scenes would go. And no, there were no fights or tears: my editor is superb, and helped me write a better book.
Q: Why do you let the children in the book drink alcohol?
A: Because they’re finding out their own limits – because the people that run the school aren’t aware that it’s unusual – because in some countries children do drink alcohol without going crazy – because the children are up against it, and the rituals they devise, like the rum-truffles, bind them together – because booze is out there and its part of life. Millie is a barbarian, and putting her in an environment where smoking and drinking is possible probably saved her life. She’s learning that those things aren’t important.
Q: What was your school like?
A: I went to a boys’ grammar school in South London. It was, inevitably, the best of times and the worst of times.
Q: Did you have a teacher that inspired you?
A: Of course I did – I hope that everyone does. I had a very special English teacher, but the school had several ‘masters’ who cared, passionately, about their subjects and made their pupils care.
Q: What is your favourite film?
A: ‘Witness’, directed by Peter Weir, with Harrison Ford. But I recently made the mistake of ‘teaching’ it to my GCSE class out here in Manila, and they laughed at it and told me I was old-fashioned. Never bare your soul to young people.
Q: Who is your favourite writer?
A: I have many favourite writers, but my hero remains Dennis Potter. Nobody wrote like him; nobody spoke like him.
Q: Have you written anything besides ‘Ribblestrop’?
A: I have written three other novels that are mouldering in boxes. I have written a radio play, that was firmly rejected. I have written about fifteen plays for the various schools I have worked in – some being total rubbish, and a few having at least a glimmer of possibility.