Chris Stephenson in ‘Carousel’, 2003 and 2006

This interview was published under the title ‘Working from Home’ in Carousel magazine, 2003.

The house, circa 1880, is one of the many modest, architecturally varied houses that line both sides of the long street just off the Cowley Road; the sort of area – Jan pointed out – capable of making a success of that most intractable of events, the English street carnival. For this, she proclaimed with a combative gleam in her eye, is East Oxford, and therefore, so the implication ran, distinct from self-satisfied North Oxford.

Inside: three immediate and abiding impressions. First, comfort; informal, lived-in, congenial. Second – viewed from the windows – the importance of the garden; longer than one would have thought, and made to seem more so by Jan’s intensive tree-planting and artful path-laying; a cool, shaded place. ‘A little nature reserve,’ she said, with a quick pleased smile. Third, and not least, books.

Books on shelves and floors and tables. ‘I’ve got a book for everything,’ she announced, en route to verify some point or other. Books for pleasure and research (synonymous activities, so far as Jan is concerned), and books for review. ‘That pile’s read’ – she indicated – ‘this pile’s to be read.’ An incisive and scrupulous critic, she cares deeply about the books she reviews – and about those she can’t bring herself to. Pulling a book from the ‘read’ pile, she muttered, a mixture of sorrow and anger, ‘It’s not about anything. How often’ – she sighed heavily, grimly – ‘you see a very good idea ruined because the writer doesn’t know how to handle it.’

Jan, at the Norwich Teachers’ Centre, circa 1994. Photo (c) Enid Stephenson

As we paused in the kitchen, I suggested that perhaps we should conduct our conversation in the room in which she writes. Jan hesitated a second. ‘We’re in it,’ she said. ‘I write on the kitchen table, and do the typing in a room upstairs. 400 words each page, the same whether I write or type. Pure chance.’ She went on to explain that, even by her own fabulously exacting standards, her current writing schedule borders on excessive. ‘At one stage I was writing book three in the morning, revising number two in the afternoon and correcting proofs of the third in the evening. I used to leave gaps of about two months between drafts, now I can’t afford to.’

When I eventually saw it, the ‘typing room’ proved to be small and compact, full of the inevitable books, with the typewriter – a ‘new’ second-hand machine found by Jan’s daughter – on a small table by the window, which overlooked the garden, and the allotments beyond. (‘There’s a typewriter restorer in Oxford,’ Jan volunteered, quickly forestalling all speculation, and irresistibly recalling her riposte to the unfortunate person who suggested that a PC would ‘save time’. ‘Writing,’ she had declared sternly, ‘is not about saving time.’)

Now, seated at the kitchen table on a bright morning warm enough for the door to the garden to be wide open, allowing the cats, Lulu and Foxy, and occasionally the one from next door, trouble-free access, she chatted about writing and books in general. And in so doing, she managed to be not only succinct and discursive but also – just like her books – serious and very funny. (‘Oh, the humour,’ she said with a sort of grim amusement, referring, in particular, to They Do Things Differently There, one of the last decade’s funniest books. ‘A dangerous thing to do. Some people, some critics don’t – get it.’)

‘I could read when I was three, and I was writing when I was four – and I always assumed that writing was for writing books. I wrote books three lines long – ‘I got up. I went out. I came home.’ My mother’s kept them. Mothers do. I learnt to write dialogue from reading plays – Shaw’s in particular; they read very well on the page.’ A quick smile, to allay my doubts.

‘I read everything, fiction and non-fiction. And of course there was no such thing as “teenage fiction” in those days. It all began with librarians finding adult fiction that was suitable for children. Just like Kaye Webb, when she started the Peacock imprint; I Capture the Castle was one of the titles she included, and that’s why it’s become a teenage book. I never planned to be a writer, just that someday I’d write a book, or three.’

From Thunder and Lightnings (her first book and, like the later Handles, winner of the Carnegie) onwards, Jan has produced novels and stories of such imagination, originality and acumen, it’s almost as though she established the rules herself. And three new books published within weeks of each other, two novels and a poetry anthology, serve as reminders of her place in the premier league of children’s writers.

The novels, Something in the Air and Stratford Boys, are imbued with as much sagacity and trenchant humour as anything she has written. Whilst the anthology, A Jetblack Sunrise (title from Walt Whitman), is a powerful and eclectic compilation of poems about war and conflict, a testimony to the awesome reach of her knowledge and know-how.

‘I do research on the hoof. It was only after I started writing The Eclipse of the Century that I realised it was being set in Central Asia.’ She smiled the smile of someone long conditioned to expect and welcome the unexpected. ‘Then I had to read up on all those countries. Every book has its own physics.’

In Stratford Boys, a remarkably convincing account of Shakespeare as a growing lad at home among family and mates, the future heady days no more than misty speculation, when he and fellow assorted Stratfordians join together to stage a Whitsuntide play. It’s an experience which, Jan suggests, the playwright recalled years later when he created the ‘mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

‘He must have experienced amateur actors at work. He wouldn’t have got it from the companies he worked for – they were highly professional. And the mechanicals are written with such affection. And they’re not brainless; after all, they’re all craftsmen. When Snug says, “for I am slow of study”, it’s not that he’s stupid, it’s just that he can’t read. Before the burgeoning readership of the 19th century, hardly anyone read. And that’s partly what Stratford Boys is about. Because you don’t read doesn’t mean you’re an idiot.’

There it was, vintage Jan Mark; uncompromising, positive, truthful.

Information tumbles from her. So it comes as no surprise that she is a dedicated crossword-puzzler, relishing it when the Guardian crossword is thorny enough to last her throughout the day. (Just see what she can do with crossword clues and Hamlet in Heathrow Nights.) To stroll along the street with her is to be treated to an enlivening mini-lecture on the ages of the houses and the growth of the neighbourhood.

Later, on a walk to Iffley Village, she halts, points, pronounces. ‘A eucalyptus tree. You can smell it. That’s what Australia smells like,’ and, simultaneously, or as near as dammit, picks up on a glancing reference to ‘a ladder and glasses’, and completes the quote, ‘you could see the ’Ackney marshes, if it wasn’t for the ’ouses in between.’ … From the flora of Australia to the English music hall, with scarcely a pause for breath.

Jan at a book fair, 1980s. Photo (c) Enid Stephenson

This tribute was published in Carousel in 2006.

Enid and I knew Jan for twenty-five years, from the time she was living in Norfolk and we were running a bookshop in Norwich – the venue, incidentally, for Jan’s first-ever launch party … Later, when she moved to Oxford, we were occasional visitors to her house, with its books and cats … and when we too moved, she’d visit us in Yorkshire whenever she was teaching at Lumb Bank.

We caught our final sight of Jan late last September at the Guardian Children’s Book Award. She’d been a judge, and was in particularly high spirits because the book she’d championed – and, one suspected, lobbied fiercely for – Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman had won.

The closest I came to experiencing her brilliance as a teacher was at last year’s Society of Authors’ conference, when she gave a master-class of rare ingenuity, wisdom, indiscretion, cunning and expertise. Before and after the session, delegates to the conference, alerted to her presence, revealed their pleasure and regard by greeting her like some famed oracle from distant lands.

Jan had no truck with the less-than-professional (whatever the profession); she could not abide the pompous, the pretentious, the inept or the mediocre. (I recall her muttering to me of her impatience with writers who wittered on about how they’d ‘published their knitting patterns.’) As for her reaction to the PC proposition*, some would have considered it succinct, and others blunt. And it may be that those who inclined to the latter were the same people who found her ‘difficult’ and ‘intimidating’. Although I consider it likely that anybody who was really intimidated had something to be intimidated about.

After speaking at an educational conference at UEA some years ago Jan was asked to give some advice. ‘Can you tell me,’ came the query from the body of the lecture theatre, ‘what to do when you’re halfway through a class reader and you suddenly realise that the book is unsuitable?’ Jan, scarcely able to credit what she’d just heard, glowered. ‘Do you mean to tell me,’ she replied, each word a hammer blow, ‘that you don’t read the books beforehand? Call yourself a professional?’ The audience, united till then in languor, erupted, and split down the middle like the Red Sea.

There’s no doubt that the frowns and black looks – directed from beneath that bush of hair – could be off-putting; and the sighs, those long-drawn, what-hope-is-there sighs, were, to say the least, categoric. I was once on the receiving end when I asked, at short notice, if she’d write a forward for something I’d edited. The sigh was cosmic. In the end, of course, she did the work, impeccably and on time.

Although Jan could be crushing in the extreme – and if you caught her on a particularly ‘off day’, it was liable to drive you nuts – she had too much to look forward to – so much writing, reading, teaching, listening and seeing – ever to be gloomy. Ruthless as she was in her condemnation of any book she considered sub-standard, her joy at discovering a writer she really rated was something to behold.

The more you got to know Jan the more you became aware of her capacity for gaiety. I was with her one evening outside a pub in South London when, with graceful suddenness, she bounded from the table, dashed to the kerb, and stood with arms raised, gaze directed like a sun worshipper. Concorde was passing overhead. Her face, when she turned, was rapturous.

When she was driving Jan through the sub-topian outskirts of North-West London one day, Enid pointed out a row of modest, detached houses, each bearing a highly visible house-name like a personalised coat of arms. Having scarely acknowledged the likes of ‘Boundary Ash’, ‘Oak Hampden’, ‘Decameron’, ‘Verona’ or ‘Tudor Lodge’, Jan’s mood turned to one of outright jubilation at the moment she spotted ‘Jolidee’, a rank outsider in the royal enclosure. Such an anomaly invited conjecture: unwitting social blunder or – as Jan undoubtedly hoped – deliberate subversion?

Auden said, ‘Words are for those with promises to keep.’ Jan kept all hers. She would have refuted ‘dedicated’, but that’s what she was; and if she’d ever been able to bring herself to countenance ‘focused’ (I can see her monumental disdain: ‘One of those words’), she was that too. Like Scott Fitzgerald, she had a ‘beautiful talent’. And the fact that even after such a prolific career she died at the peak of her powers – where she’d always been – was remarkable. Typical Jan.

* See the anecdote from Chris’s 2003 piece above about writing not being about  ‘saving time.’

Jan, in Chris and Enid Stephenson’s garden, Norwich, 1986. Photo (c) Enid Stephenson.

Chris, who died in 2017, and Enid Stephenson ran The Hungate Bookshop in Norwich from 1980 – 1993. Visit our special page dedicated to this era by clicking here.