January 09, 2009
by Lee Randall
WIMPISH AND WEEDY, YOUNG Vivian French wasn’t a “fitter inner”, as she puts it. “I had rather small feet and a rather large head and I would fall down a lot. The way my father would keep me walking was that we’d make up rhymes together. He’d make up a line and I had to do the next one.”
Her talent for invention endured, and after careers as an actor and a storyteller, French published her first children’s book in 1990. She has since published roughly 200 bestselling books for children of all ages, with sales of well over a million (figures aren’t her strong suit), including the wildly popular Tiara Club series, and Tales from the Five Kingdoms, featuring Trueheart Grace Gillypot, a cheeky bat named Marlon and the loveable troll Gubble, whose head has an inconvenient way of bouncing off his neck now and then.
French, born on the border of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, is that rare adult who shows excitement by yelping “Yay!”, without sounding annoying or childish. Her enthusiasm for life is infectious, and the same warmth pervades her books – even her villains reveal their humanity, while her good guys are not so angelic as to induce nausea.
Despite being the daughter of a headmaster, she hated school and was even asked to leave Cheltenham Ladies College. With considerable scorn, she explains: “It was founded on the basis of sarcasm and excellence in education. They called my dad in – this was a long time ago – and said they were worried about me. I floated around in a world of my own. And I hated games. I was always the one picking daisies around the outskirts.”
Does she write to comfort the lonely child that she was? “I think I write for the child I would have liked to have been, a confident child who has lots of friends and is quite practical. If anything happened, I just stood and flapped my arms. It was a long time before anyone realised I was very short-sighted, and I did live in a kind of a mist.”
French credits her dad with firing her love of stories and storytelling. In addition to their walking poetry slams, he read to his brood nightly – French had an older brother, now deceased, and has another brother, five years her junior, upon whom she bases some of her characters. “My father particularly read us fairy tales. I read those, and a lot of SPCK books. They were terribly virtuous.”
What appealed most, she says, was the acting side of storytelling, though she’s quick to point out that the listener is as integral to the tale as the person – or theatrical troupe – doing the telling.
After toying with the lure of the open road and becoming a long-distance lorry driver, she went to university to study English, but spent more time off campus acting than in the library swotting. And she got married.
“I got married because another student asked me and he was a really good director and I was too polite to say no. The way I was brought up, if somebody asked if you’d like a piece of cake you said, ‘Yes, that’d be lovely,’ even if you hated it. I got a pretty lousy degree, and moved to London and got a job at what was then the National Book League, now the Book Trust, working for the information centre.”
She was more likely to chat with the public about their favourite books than research their queries, and was soon out of work. By this time she’d had the first of her four daughters, Alice, and reconnected with an old school friend who suggested she start acting.
She joined a theatrical troupe and began touring universities, coming to the Edinburgh Fringe in around 1968. “My generation was the changeover generation. We were into the Sixties big time and really did believe love would conquer all and anything was possible, and here’s a flower. I can actually remember giving people sunflowers – with a straight face – and people taking them with a straight face! Incredible.”
Her marriage foundered and she secured a job with the Robert Cooper Theatre company, which came with an Equity card, so the idea of applying to drama school seemed redundant. Instead, enlisting her mum as a babysitter, French spent weekdays touring schools, rushing home on weekends and holidays to be with Alice.
It sounds a mad existence. “Talk about usage and abusage of actors! We had to do one play for infants and one for juniors. The latter being a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast of four! We doubled up on the roles and had to go behind screens to change and small children would come up and go, ‘I can see your knickers!’
“Bits had been rewritten. So it was, ‘Hello, my name is Puck and I’ve come to give you all good luck,’ and you had to go very fast on the good luck bit because older kids would improvise in the front row. It taught me an awful lot about crowd control. Once you’ve had a whole lot of kids launching themselves onstage, you learn that you have to fix them with a basilisk eye, a cross between Joyce Grenfell and Hitler.”
Together with a bloke who’d once been a “flinglet”, she started Blackbird Productions and, along the way, met her second husband, Derek.
“I met Jessica and Jemima’s dad through a lonely hearts ad I placed in Time Out. I didn’t actually meet him, I met his friend and he introduced me to this very nice man. So I married him. It was difficult touring with kids, so I joined a co-operative in London, based in Finchley. I was the drama worker. It was Thatcher territory and we were seen as dangerous because we were a co-operative, so if they had any events in the building we had to be vacated, in case we flew red knickers from the roof. It was very Seventies.”
Sadly, her marriage to Derek was ill-fated, but having learned her lesson with Alice’s dad, she took a calm look at her options. “Derek and I broke up in about 1982. We were going to a Christmas carol service and he said he’d met somebody else and she was having a baby. So we went and had to sing Away in a Manger…
“Now Derek and I are almost best friends – we have holidays together, our two families. I remember making a decision: either I can make a huge fuss about this or I can remain friends. I thought it would be really good for Jess and Jemima to have a father around. He’s a really nice guy and he and his wife Nina have such nice daughters. When the girls were little we’d go out all together, me and (my husband] Davy, Derek and Nina and Alice and Jess and Jemima and Cathleen and Edie and Nancy, and you’d see people looking at all these girls, trying to figure it out.”
For the record, Nancy is her daughter with Davy, her partner of the past 25 years. They met, French reveals with a giggle, because “he was left over from a party. We used to have great parties in London. After one party there was this guy lying on the sofa with his feet up, wearing white boots, and I remember thinking, those are quite cool. He looked a bit like Neil Young. That turned out to be Davy, and he never really went away again. “
The pair moved to Bristol on a whim, having heard you could get great big houses there for not a lot of money. And it was there that she befriended the poet Diana Hendry – who, like French, has since relocated to Edinburgh. Hendry inspired her to do more than just dabble in poetry and storytelling, and introduced her to an editor and illustrator. The rest, as they say, is publishing history.
Does she have any tips for aspiring children’s book authors? Don’t talk down to kids, is her first warning. “They’re people. My grandfather told me to treat everyone the same way and never be rude to anyone. Kids are really interesting. You never know what they’re going to say. It’s that unexpected quality and the way they respond to things. Once a child asked, ‘how many similes are there in your books?’” She hadn’t a clue, of course – numbers aren’t really her thing. Luckily for us, stories are.
The Tales from the Five Kingdoms series by Vivian French, illustrated by Ross Collins, are published by Walker Book. Bag of Bones is the second in the series that began with The Robe of Skulls.