As a child
I remember crying with frustration when I was four because I couldn’t read, no matter how hard I stared at the book – the book in question was Huckleberry Hound. The day I realized I could read was a revelation. I was in the classroom at Wheatfields Infants School, and I suddenly found I could read a book called Farmer Small. When the teacher left the room, I sat in her chair and read it to the class. She was very surprised when she came back – I don’t think the class had ever been so quiet. I can even remember the last line of the book. It was “and so are the pigs!” Pity I can’t remember the rest of the story. Anyway, inspired by Farmer Small, I wrote my first book at the age of five, and my career began.
As an adult
I went to Watford College to train as an advertising copywriter, and started work at a company doing ads for Trebor and VW. I had my first book published by Andersen Press when I was twenty-one. I moved to another ad agency (Young & Rubicam) after that, and got put on the board aged twenty-six. Meanwhile, I wrote loads of picture books and also poetry. I left advertising around the birth of my second child, and started doing teen novels and television scripts for various children’s programmes. I have now written over eighty titles. I am married, with a son and a daughter, two cats and a rat. I was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award in 2004, for Naked Without a Hat, a teen novel.
As an artist
I have written books since I could hold a pencil – I still have them all, hand-sewn and illustrated. I work in a converted attic in North London, starting at 9.15 a.m. and working through until about 4 p.m. I do my research at night, or when I’m feeling less creative. I like having little icons around me for inspiration. For example, when I wrote a book called Rat Heaven, I wrote with my pet rat inside my jacket (let’s hope I don’t write one about an elephant!). Sometimes, ideas for books come to me in my dreams (that is happening more and more frequently). Often, they come from conversations I’ve had with strangers on trains (not to be advised!), or from odd articles in newspapers. I once met a man on a train, who showed me two ferrets that he had stitched together – wait for that to appear in a novel!
Things you didn't know about Jeanne Willis
- I used to be a reptile vet’s assistant.
- I once had a toad called Dave, who lived to the age of twenty-six!
- I am terrified of flying, and the dark.
- I once did the Playtex Marathon in a fluffy blue bra.
- I used to sell cowboy boots in the King’s Road, Chelsea.
- I saw the ghost of my great-grandmother when I had measles.
- I can’t even kill a fly – I love insects. I’ve got some jungle nymph stick-insect skins on my desk.
- I once had a garter snake called Betty.
- I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can do cartwheels.
- I love cats and chocolate.