Catherine MacPhail

8th April 2011 at 01:00
The winner of a 2011 Royal Mail Award for Scottish Children's Books talks about tackling gritty themes, the shortcomings of iPads and the simple joy of a good murder. Photography by Fraser Band

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

In Greenock, with my mother and three sisters. Looking back, I suppose we must have been really poor, because my mother had three jobs - my father died when she was pregnant. She did have an exceptionally hard time, but we had fun growing up and I did not feel as if we had a lot of hardship, I think because we had such a close family.

What is your first memory of reading?

Going to the library with my mother. She was never out of the library and she used to browse through the books and I would browse with her and smell the books.

What was school like for you?

I absolutely loved going to school. I was really clever, I was always top of the class. We got a really good education.

Is there a teacher who made a difference to your life?

Mrs Stevenson, the teacher that I had all through primary. I remember her lessons so well. She taught us grammar - she taught us about declensions and all about using words. She was an exceptionally good teacher.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Little Women, because it was about four sisters and their mother, and I remember when I read the book that I just assumed the father had died. And one of the sisters wanted to be a writer. To me, that was us.

What do you enjoy reading now?

I read all the time and I read anything. At the moment, I am reading, would you believe, The Lady Vanishes (by Ethel Lina White). I like horror stories, ghost stories, I particularly like crime. I like a good murder.

What makes a good book?

Personally, I like a really good plot. I like twists and turns and good characters.

You say you wanted to be a writer from a really young age. What made you finally go for it?

It was after my youngest daughter was born, I was always seeing the adverts in the local paper for the Greenock Writers' Club and I plucked up the courage to go. I thought I would feel completely out of place, but they were so nice. I got so much encouragement and confidence.

You say your first book was based on something your daughter experienced. What was that?

Katie was in high school and, on her way to a youth club, there was a gang of boys and girls a lot older than she was. They dragged her off, assaulted her, finally put her up on the wall of this railway bridge and threatened to throw her over it. After that, the bullying started and she had an absolutely horrendous time. The whole family got affected.

So how did it go from that to being the subject of your first book?

I know there are lots of books about bullying, but I wanted to write a book that was just about the girl that was being bullied and what she was going through.

Your books deal with the difficulties children in more deprived areas experience. How easy is it for you to identify with them?

What I like to do is to take a child that I can relate to, a child who maybe is well brought up or is decent inside and put them in a position where they encounter some kind of a crisis or a dilemma.

In Grass, Leo has to make quite difficult decisions (whether to "grass" about the murder he witnessed or say nothing to ensure his family's safety). Do you think children have to grow up too early?

I think nowadays it's not just growing up in the sense that they maybe have to deal with things that you want only adults to deal with, but also, with the amount of things they see on television and around them, their innocence is taken away.

What do you hope your readers get from your books?

Number one, I want them to get a rattling good story that they can't put down. But also, what I like is to give them a story that will maybe make them think when they do put it down.

What do you think of how literacy is taught in schools?

I was at a school today. These children were fantastic, they were so looking forward to me coming because the teacher had prepared them. When I left, they were going to use the afternoon to follow through an exercise we had done. So I think it all comes down to the teachers.

What do you say to teachers who find it hard to get children to read?

Get them to read books that they would like to read. I think a lot of times it is the books they are told to read. Get them to read mine.

Now that more and more children have iPods, iPads and laptops, what role do you think books still play?

When I go around schools, I constantly tell children that a book is something that you don't have to plug in or need batteries for. You can read it in bed, take it anywhere.

What would you say to children who want to become authors?

To read as much as they can and to keep a notebook, because the more you read, the more you learn about writing. You learn how an author has created characters, created suspense, made you turn the pages. You are widening your vocabulary and you are also learning so much about how to construct a story.


Born - Greenock, 1946

Education - St Mary's Primary, St Columba's High

Career - Solderer, author. Wrote radio series My Mammy and Me and We Gotta Get Outta This Place. Books include: Run, Zan, Run; Roxy's Baby; Dark Waters; Grass and the Nemesis series.

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