Juliet Clare Bell or Clare Bell?
My full name is Juliet Clare Bell but I've been called Clare all my life (it's a long story about my pregnant mum and Romeo and Juliet and then my arriving into this world longer, scrawnier, orang-utan-ier and less Juliet-like than expected).
Until now, with a few exceptions, like anything very official, or when stand-in teachers did the register at school and I became Juliet Bravo for a few weeks by my classmates, I have remained Clare. (Juliet Bravo was a 1980s police drama on the telly, and people thought it was a very funny nickname.)
But there is another Clare Bell, children's author, so I need to use my full name. If you're trying to find the Clare Bell of Ratha's Courage, her site is here (but please feel free to look around here first).
If we meet, please call me Clare, and never call me Juliet Bravo, or I might have to arrest you.
When did you start writing for children?
It was when my eldest daughter was a few weeks old, in 2003. I was getting very little sleep and was extremely tired. I kept thinking about babies looking like different animals... I was probably hallucinating. So I started writing, and sent the manuscript to a publisher a few months later. It was rejected, but she was helpful and said what she thought was good about it. Since then, I have written lots of picture book manuscripts. Some of them will stay in the filing cabinet, but there are plenty of others being sent out by my agent at the moment. And there are many more inside my head, just waiting to be written.
What was your childhood like?
I had a very happy time at home with my parents and five brothers and sisters. The house was almost falling down with books and it was very chaotic and messy, but it was never boring and never lonely. And everyone was always welcome, so there were often extra people turning up for dinner or tea or for the night.
Many of my childhood memories involve running around after school with brothers and sisters and neighbours on our road and in the fields behind the estate where we lived. We lived on a cul-de-sac with 36 children, and every year we had the amazing Upsheres Mini-Olympics, after which loads of children would stay for the night in our sitting room, squashed up in sleeping bags.
And we would stay out on August nights, watching shooting stars with six or seven of us huddled under a blanket. Once, we tried to sleep out in the corn field behind our road, in a house we’d made of corn. It was in turns brilliant (while eight of us we were stuffing ourselves full of party food in our amazing igloo-type house in the dark with little torches), absolutely terrifying (when it was knocked down by what we thought was a wild dog), infuriating (when we realised that it was actually one of my brothers, pretending to be a wild dog) and eventually funny (but not till a few years later, when we’d got over the shock)...
I had a great time at primary school, which was big and noisy and very friendly. I was completely inspired by one teacher who loved maths and patterns and got us to think in really interesting ways. We also had a new teacher who took over our class at Christmas when our old one left. We weren’t nearly as nice to him as we should have been because we were still missing our old teacher. Anyway, this is my chance to say sorry to him.
All these memories and the feelings they conjure up help when it comes to writing. And I can make embarrassing things that happened to me happen to my characters instead!
Did you write much as a child?
At school, I wrote a lot –from little stories about kings, queens, princesses and magic pigs, to my first novel, The Secret Attic, at the age of nine. The novel took up two exercise books and earned me 40 team points. It wasn’t very good. But it was very long.
And at home, we wrote and recorded really bad pop songs with our friends so we could make our own charts -classics such as Shoobidobidoo and Mr Midget Goes to the Toilet.
As I teenager, I also wrote some very bad poetry. It was always very heartfelt and meaningful, and usually ended up sounding like the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby. When I got a part-time job in a supermarket, I would write poems on the back of till receipts. I must have cheered up by then because they were all about what I thought customers might be like, from their shopping...
After that, I got bogged down with studying and jobs and things and forgot how nice it is to write stories and poems. Fortunately, I’ve remembered now and I hope to be doing it for a very long time...
What did you enjoy reading as a child?
When I was reading books to my little sister, my absolute favourites were The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (written in 1928 and apparently the oldest American picture book still in print) My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd and Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. I still love them now. Our parents also read lots of Dr Seuss to us and my dad often made up silly Seussian-type rhymes. I particularly loved Marvin K Mooney Will you Please Go Now!
When I was slightly older (and ever after), I devoured collections of silly, very silly and slightly more sensible rhymes and poems. My favourite collections, most of which you can still get, were Oh That’s Ridiculous!; Oh, What Nonsense!;, Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls (all selected by William Cole and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer); The Armada Lion Book of Young Verse (illustrated by Quentin Blake) and I Like This Poem (Edited by Kaye Webb). I read them over and over again and learned lots of the poems by heart, including my favourite, Jim -Who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion by Hilaire Belloc. (This has recently come out as a picture book, illustrated by the amazing Mini Grey). I also loved Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes when it came out in 1982.
I was really into novels set in World War II, especially When the Siren Wailed by Noel Streatfeild, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, and as a teenager, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.
And then there was The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, Stig of the Dump by Clive King and books with ghosts or where someone travelled back in time, like The Ghosts by Antonia Barber (which became The Amazing Mr Blunden on screen), When Marnie was There by Joan G Robinson, A Traveller in Time, by Alison Uttley, and my favourite book as a child, which sounds terrifying to me as an adult, Come Back Lucy by Pamela Sykes.
Where do you live?
I live with my husband and three small children in Birmingham, the UK's second city. It's a great city and there's a lot going on for people interested in writing and story-telling...
Where do you get your ideas from?
Ideas are all around us. I pinch them off my children all the time. After a recent trip to our local chocolate factory, my two daughters kept saying they wanted to live there. For a few minutes I got really excited by this great idea for a story about children who lived in a chocolate factory... until I realised that I might just have been beaten to it...
I'll often write down snippets of conversation I've overheard. Sometimes it sparks off an idea that turns into a story, sometimes it does nothing. But in my experience, it pays to be nosey. Which is a lot of fun. And you can find some great ideas for stories and characters from newspapers and magazines.
Sometimes a title that I love the sound of pops into my head and I then feel compelled to write its story. This is not always a good idea. There’s a real danger of making the story sound contrived because you are trying so hard to make it fit your title. But even when it doesn’t quite work out, another story will often emerge from the attempt.
What happens when you've finished a story?
When I'm reasonably happy with a manuscript, I'll send it to my critique groups and a few other writer friends. They always provide really interesting feedback. And the manuscript always needs further editing as a result. When I've finished re-editing, it usually goes back to some of the writers again. Once it's as good as I think I can make it, I send it to my agent, Celia Catchpole. Sometimes she makes further suggestions, which I always listen to extremely carefully and act on. Other times she is happy to send it out to publishers as it is. Then I have to get on with writing the next one and try not to think too much about what is happening behind the scenes...