Crocodile Time: An Interview with Jan Mark

This is part of the script of Visiting Jan Mark and Robin Mellor (1998), an educational tape produced for the Mark and Mellor Project, winner of the European label for innovative language teaching. It was originally published on

Voice-over: Jan Mark grew up in North London and Kent and then moved to Oxford where she has been living for more than ten years …

Jan: Well, this was the first one, Thunder and Lightnings, which was the one I wrote just after my son was born. Because it was the first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just put everything in it. I didn’t want to waste anything. And he was the baby. I think there is probably a picture, it is not him, it is the baby. And he was 24 last birthday, 6 feet tall, plays bass-guitar, shaves twice a day and does taikwondo.

Question: Did you write the book on a special purpose?

Jan: I wrote it for a competition.

Question: And how did it come out?

Jan: It won. The prize was being published, and it was a good way to get started. Right at the end of the book, the boys see a Lightning fly over the house and it climbs to 40,000 feet and then it drops. And that happened over our house and, when we saw it, we wondered if that was the last Lightning at all before they were phased out. And I put it in the book, it seemed such a good way to end it. This guy saying good-bye to his Lightning. Took it up as far as it could go and then stalled, turned and dropped it, wonderful.

Question: And after that, then you could go on thinking… Another open end.

Jan: Another open end. Well, I got away with it the first book you see. People used to complain. They weren’t used to it. I used to get letters from children.

Question: They were short of imagination, if they complained, I guess?

Jan: This is actually an Oxfam shop. And it is a specialist shop. We just sell books here. I worked here for eight years. And a lot of people don’t realize that Oxfam actually began in Oxford. And is still run from Oxford. It started off as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. And it was set up by a group of local people to relieve the famine in Greece at the end of the Second World War and when I first started working here we had a visit from a Greek woman who had always wanted to come to England, come to Oxford and see Oxfam because she was one of the children who were saved by the first shipment of food and clothing to relieve the famine in Greece.

Voice-over: Now and then Jan seems to be fed up with all the tourists in Oxford.

Jan: This is a tourist crocodile getting off a coach. We call them crocodiles because they walk round the town in long lines with many lengths. Here they come. That’s one of the drawbacks to Oxford that it is so small and there are so many tourists in it. And sometimes when you see them walking round on a hot day in town you wonder if they’re really having a good time. Why didn’t they stay at home where they could keep cool. This is actually quite a small crocodile. We get them 200 people long sometimes.

Well, I’m often asked why I stick to using a typewriter, especially one as ancient as this, when I could work so much faster on a computer and save a lot of time. And I don’t want to save time. If I want to spend 18 months on a book it is not because I can’t do it faster, it is because I don’t want to do it faster. And I grew up using a typewriter. I feel as comfortable typing as I do handwriting. I work at about the same speed. And because of the way I draft – I do 3 drafts – I want 3 complete versions of the book. I don’t want to work on a screen altering it as I go. Because once you’ve done that you’ve lost what was there in the first place. Here I’ve got everything on record and if I decide to go back and use what I’ve already cut out, there it is. I can find it again. Also of course if you scroll, you’ve lost what you’re looking at. It’s left the screen whereas here I can flip through pages. I know exactly where something is written on any given page. And anyway it is the way I like working. I’m not going to adapt to a new technology to keep the publisher happy. His business is to publish a book, my business is to write it.

This is the one we’ve always called the millennium novel. It is actually called The Eclipse of the Century. But it does take place next year. I started writing it in 1996. And I was trying to work out what the world might be like in three years’ time. It actually opens in April 1999 and that is the month it will be published.

Question: What would you say is the most important point of a short story? What is the basic idea to get a good short story?

Jan: I think, this is only what I think – we all think something different – I think, the purpose of a short story is to catch people at the moment something happens after which nothing will ever be the same again. With a novel you watch it happen, you watch them change, but in a short story you’re looking for the moment when they start to change.

Interviewer: And in a novel you get the process.

Jan: You watch the whole thing happening.

Question: Do you do this on purpose, I mean giving an open end to the book and making the readers go on thinking for themselves?

Jan: Yes, I mean I like to make my readers work very hard all the way through. It seems a pity to waste it, if they’re going to stop thinking when they think, ‘Well, we’re going to the end of the book.’ Yes, I mean, I’m always very flattered if someone asks if I’m going to write a sequel. They want to know what happened next. And I say I don’t know what happened next. I’m not interested. I’m delighted you’re interested, but I’ve said everything I wanted to say, there’s nothing to add. That’s why I’ve stopped.

Question: How important is the environment, I mean, your family, the house you live in, the street you live in, the town, the city or the country in your work?

Jan: I very rarely write about where I am, it is usually where I have been.

Voice-over: Her book At the Sign of The Dog and Rocket nicely exemplifies this.

Jan: Right, well when I first left school, before I went to art college, I had to get a job, so as to survive on during the summer. And the first job I could get was in a pub just outside Ashford. It was called ‘The Woolpack.’ And I loved it. I really enjoyed working in a pub, I think, apart from writing, I’ve never enjoyed a job more. And I went back there the following summer. And I thought – and this was years before I became a writer – I thought, I would love to do a book about this place one day. And in the end I did. Twenty-one years after I had left the pub, I wrote the book. And I realized I couldn’t call it ‘The Woolpack’ because by this time we had a soap opera on television called Emmerdale Farm, which featured a pub called ‘The Woolpack.’ Now Emmerdale is in Yorkshire, I was writing about Kent. And I didn’t want people getting muddled so I changed the name of the pub. I called it ‘The Top of the World’ and it is at the bottom of the hill and the sign that hangs outside is a polar bear sitting on top of the world watching the Pole Star, the North Star. And it is very romantic, there is a great beam of light shining from the star but it is so badly painted it looks like a bull terrier watching a fire work explode. So all the regulars called it the ‘Dog and Rocket’ and that’s the name of the book.

Question: I see that some of your books have been translated into other languages and can be read all over the world now. Could you give us an example?

Jan: This one is a Dutch translation of a picture book. I based the story on the Book of Tobit, which is a text from the Apocrypha. This one is an extremely silly story about my rabbits eating carrots. It has been translated into Afrikaans. This is the Japanese version of Nothing to Be Afraid Of. In fact this is the picture of Robin in the park with doggy.

Question: I suppose music is a major item you like to talk about, because you seem to be very much interested in music.

Jan: Yes, I love music and I love to talk about it.

 Question: Can you work with it?

Jan: Not anymore. I suppose when I was younger and I wrote for fun, I liked to have it on in the background. But now I need to concentrate on either the music or the work. I can’t treat the music I like as background. I want to listen to it. And if I listen to it then I’m not attending to my writings. So …