Original magazine headline: Interview - `Years of editing pupils' work helped me'
- How did you get into teaching?
I did a teacher training course initially as a kind of insurance policy. I worked as a freelance writer for a while, but after my marriage broke up, I had a son and daughter to support and wanted a career that involved what I love most - reading, writing and literature.
- Why did you decide to go back to the school where you had been a pupil?
I loved the vision of the school and felt that it was a special place. I did supply teaching at other schools and they just didn't strike me as the kinds of places I wanted to devote all my energy to. I think I made the right decision, as I was very happy there. I have always been a feminist and the idea of working in girls' education was part of the impetus of deciding to go back to the school where I was happy. I thought if I could do for other young women what my teachers had done for me, it would be a good use of my life.
- Would you advise other teachers to send their children to the school where they work?
There were things for and against it. Most of the time my daughter was happy. I think the sixth form was more difficult as I was teaching a lot of her best friends. They would come to stay over and I'd be taking them tea in bed in my dressing gown one minute, and standing up in front of the class the next day. But it depends on the school and the person: it's not a blanket decision.
- Who has been your greatest influence?
In my teaching career, Mother Joseph Howley, known to us as Sister Jo, was the headmistress when I went to the school. She's in her nineties and I'm still in touch with her now, as well as Sister Gabriel, who was my dormitory mistress for the year I was a boarder. They were the most influential for their energy, enthusiasm, curiosity and their non- conformity. From an intellectual point of view they had high expectations of us. I have a lot to thank my A-level teacher, Sister Jude, for as well. She was also a writer and encouraged us to explore the A-level texts by writing stories on similar themes, before it was the fashion to do so. I didn't consciously model my own teaching on my former teachers to begin with, but then you realise as you become a teacher and get into it, and almost feel yourself echoing them.
- How did you come up with the idea for the City-Lit books?
The series was conceived because Malcolm (Burgess) and I were looking for a book like that when we were in Athens. We thought that the travel books available were giving us information, but we wanted a good anthology; something that gets under the skin. We wanted to see the city through the eyes of writers. It is something that I started doing in class with pupils, when I would try to give them a taster of some of the best books that I thought would appeal to them.
- How did teaching prepare you for editing and publishing?
When you are teaching, you are basically editing pupils' work all the time. When I went to the publisher to talk about my novel, he said that I was a natural editor. I thought perhaps this is something I should pursue and did an evening course at the London College of Publishing. I was then taken on by the company that edited my book. All the years of helping pupils to structure their work, giving them advice, analysing things and even just marking - it has all helped.
- Why did you leave teaching?
I had ailing parents and am an only child, so I needed something more flexible. My first book was published a little before I left teaching and I had had lots of short stories and academic papers published before that, so it was always something I had alongside being a teacher.
- Do you miss teaching?
Malcolm and I run a project called Adopt an Author, which keeps us involved in teaching. We work with around 22 schools in Essex, in a social regeneration area. We get children's writers into schools to inspire them with reading and writing. We are very much in and out of schools, even though we are in publishing. I think if we didn't do that, then I would miss teaching and that direct contact with kids.
- If you were Schools Secretary for a day, what would you do?
Learning to trust teachers is important. It was different when I started; you felt you had some kind of responsibility, and that's why I loved it so much. Increasingly, teachers have felt that, because they have so many things to prove, it's almost as if they're not being trusted.
- What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?