Talking to Jan Mark – Neil Philip, March 1983

I interviewed Jan Mark for The Times Educational Supplement. I haven’t got the printed interview to hand, but I do have both the tape of our conversation and my partial transcript of it. I’ve no idea which bits of this I used in the article, but these are the ones that strike me as interesting now.

We talked about the wide range of her writing, especially in terms of age-appeal, and she said, “I dodge about.” While “I don’t think you can get much wider a public than you can as a children’s writer” with “long shelf-life and a wide library circulation,” she said. “I want to do an adult novel. I mean one that can’t possibly be published as a children’s novel.”

On her books for older readers:

“There’s less restraint on what you can say. They’re very enjoyable to write … perhaps because of that feeling that the possibilities are infinite, where the ones that deal with children are restricted by children’s experience, which is limited – the children in the book, rather than the children reading. The brightest child doesn’t know much.”

On her science fiction/fantasy books (what I called her “metaphysical thrillers”):

“I think they’re very realistic… The first time I did it, with The Ennead, I wanted to try and write science fiction, because I used to like reading it, and discovered in the process that you must be as intimately acquainted with your imaginary world as with the real world, and there’s an enormous body of material which is never mentioned which I had to have in case I needed to refer to it. I mean the economic system is never really explained in the book but there was one; it just turned out I didn’t need it… You need to be able to refer authoritatively to anything, as you would in real life, so it’s got to be accounted for mentally, even if it never gets into the book.”

“Once I’ve finished a book that’s all I wanted to say about those people in that situation, I might, I very often do wish I’d written it differently, but I never want to write more.”

“[Divide and Rule] began in the most unpromising fashion. I just thought, ‘It’s January, it’s time to write another book,’ and began from there… I don’t know why Hanno became so isolated, though once I’d seen the possibilities in the situation, I exploited it.”

“You can be friends with people you don’t like, but for what ends? The idea of manipulation is what I’m working on in all three books. Not only why do were do it, but why do we allow it? How much capital do you think you can make out of allowing yourself to be used? Some people can, some people can’t. Some people need to be the used half in a relationship, or feel that in fact in a subliminal way they are the controlling force, to allow themselves to be used, which may or may not be right. The possibilities are endless. I could write a lot more about it. I think I shouldn’t, though.”

On her childhood reading:

“I always have the impression I read a lot, but I’m not sure I did. I read continuously almost, but it tended to be the same books, and the choice of books available then was minute compared to what’s available now. Once I’d found a good book I tended to go back to it. I probably read more than most children. There was no particular author that stood out. I liked E. Nesbit, I always read her. There were three very odd books by Beverly Nichols, who’s not really known as a children’s writer, which I adored. I came on him when I was about seven … They tended to be books that weren’t very well known … By the time I was twelve I’d stopped reading children’s books altogether. There was no interim material, then. You either read children’s books or you didn’t. Once you’d worked your way through the library you went on to the grown-up section.”

On what gripped her:

“It was the quality of the writing. We didn’t have any rubbish in the library, we had a very good librarian. What books were available were usually very good. But a lot of books that should have been available, weren’t. When you think that Sutcliff, Pearce, and Mayne were writing from the early to middle ’50s on, those books weren’t getting to schools and libraries till the beginning of the ’60s, which is when I discovered them in my A-level years and read voraciously all the things I ought to have been reading much earlier.”

“There was one particular book by Judith Masefield, daughter of John. It was called Larking at Christmas. I got it out again a couple of years ago and reread it, and it’s got everything wrong with it – it’s classist, racist, sexist – and yet the writing is so lively. It was the first book I’d ever read where you got some idea of this is how people might talk, a family with in-jokes, unfinished sentences, people speaking at the same time – tremendous vitality in it.

On William Mayne:

“He influenced me in a way to begin with. It was the courage to say exactly what you mean, go to any lengths. It’s almost Biblical clarity in Mayne. It’s so clear it looks convoluted. He will say exactly what he wants to say, and seeing somebody else do that gave me tremendous confidence to try and do the same thing. I don’t think anybody could mistake one of mine for one of his, but he was an influence in that respect.”

Glorious photo of Jan from the 1980s, by Peter Greenland.

On religion.

“I find a great deal that’s very detestable, especially in Christianity, and many other religions, but particularly Christianity, which is really the religion I’m using in Divide and Rule, the worst aspects of it, though the cyclical sacrifices come into most Western religions. A lot of Christians don’t realise what it is they’re celebrating every Easter.”

“… it’s partly the uses to which people put religion. I mean, the temple in Divide and Rule is just a vast job-creation scheme. It simply exists to employ the people who work there. Their only interest is in securing their future, and they a form a cult quite cynically”.

“I didn’t have a religious upbringing at all, it’s not a Christian family. I used to spend a lot of time in and out of churches seeing what was going on. It was curiosity really that led me into churches, and every kind of church, to see what was going on, and what was the attraction. And what I found there had nothing to do with peace, love, and fellowship.”

On books in the classroom:

“There’s too much emphasis on how to use it, I think. A lot of teachers, and reviewers, people who review for teachers, are ready to discard a book because there’s nothing you can do actually with it in class except read it, which is why it was written usually. Something I thought of doing when I first went to the Poly and which I’m determined to do now was to make a list of what we call ‘classroom classics’ – books that become very popular in the classroom not because they’re good, necessarily, but because they’re safe. The teacher will try them out and discover if it goes down well with third years, particularly the boys, and we all know how difficult they are to please, so they get a set in, and it’s passed on to the next teacher who’s responsible for that age group, and within a couple of years the whole third year is doing it every year, and doing projects on it, and last year’s project work is still hanging from the ceiling, and there are a number of them. One’s The Goalkeeper’s Revenge, which is understandable because for 20 years it was about the only collection of short stories for children available, The Silver Sword, the Narnia books, and I said laughingly to a lecturer I’m working with, ‘I bet Thunder and Lightnings is going the same way,’ and it is. We found a school in Oxford which is actually doing this with it. And they become classics by inertia rather than anything else. They may be perfectly good, but they’re not questioned.”

Thunder and Lightnings is the book that sends up projects rotten, in fact there is an H.M.I. who reads it around the country as an awful warning to teachers and students, and yet people do project work on it – on the aeroplanes. Well, it’s not about aeroplanes: as you said, it’s about making friends.”

On children and fear:

“I have a theory about children. We’re not born frightened, we’ve lost that instinct of fear. And you can’t cope with fear till you’ve learned to identify it. I think children learn it from each other and they pass it on to each other. Children spend most of their childhood either being frightened or frightening other children. Once they’ve learned the technique they pass it on, and it’s very necessary. Because we no longer have the instinct, we have to learn it… There’s no need to frighten yourself after a bit. I don’t think the dead can do anything worse to us than the living can. When children say, ‘Do you write horror stories?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ Divide and Rule is a horror story, because I think it is in a way, it’s about somebody being driven out of his mind quite cold-bloodedly. That seems to me far more horrid than anything that comes dripping out of a crypt, with fangs.”

On teaching:

“It’s the best place to observe them from, the front of a classroom, or the back of a classroom. Now there’s no chance I shall go back to teaching, but I’m in and out of schools all the time.”

On being a writer.

“I always thought I would be [a writer]. It never occurred to me I could actually make a living out of it. Right up to when I wrote the first book it never occurred to me I could make a living out of it.”

(c) Neil Philip, 1983, 2019

Neil Philip is a writer, folklorist and poet. Among his many books are A Fine Anger, Victorian Village Life, The Cinderella Story, The Penguin Book of English Folktales, Mythology (with Philip Wilkinson), The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, and The Adventures of Odysseus. Neil has contributed to numerous journals, including The Times, and Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books, and has also written for stage, screen, and radio. His work has won numerous awards and honours, including the Aesop Award of the American Folklore Society and the Literary Criticism Book Award of the Children’s Literature Association. Find him online here.