Miss Pierce knew I wanted to be a writer...

20th June 2003 at 01:00
...although I would have died rather than show her anything I'd written

Miss Pierce and Mrs Burr, my English teachers at Coombe girls' school, Kingston upon Thames, opened up the world of books. I haunted the library - it was a new school with a wonderful library - and Mrs Burr would breeze by and casually suggest books that were perfect for me. When she recommended I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, I was 12 and, like the narrator Cassandra, I was writing in notebooks all the time. I adored it.

I didn't have an intimate relationship with any of my teachers, but in English I worked hard and tried to please. Mrs Burr had us develop a story about a fantasy island, and I loved inventing every aspect of it and doing drawings for it. Later on, while I was at technical college, I wrote a book called The Island, which failed to find a publisher. Looking back, I can see why it didn't, but it was good for me to have finished a whole book before I was 17.

Miss Pierce was very fond of the kind of descriptive writing that does not come naturally to me, and she was a stickler for grammatical accuracy and structure. She said you must look upon your essay as a string of pearls, one idea leading to another, and your conclusion joining up with your opening. I started thinking then about the importance of a good opening.

Miss Pierce taught me what you could do with language, and curbed the wilder fringes of my imagination. She knew I wanted to be a writer, although I would have died rather than show her anything I'd written, and she marked my essays rather strictly. They would come back covered in red ink. The highest mark she ever gave was an A-minus, and I only got it once.

We were a class of fidgety 14-year-old girls, not very academic, but because Miss Pierce cared so much about books herself, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice came alive for us. One day I was reading aloud in class the bit where Jane is all set to go off with St John Rivers when she hears Rochester calling to her, and we were all so absorbed that Miss Pierce let me carry on when it was someone else's turn. I loved that feeling of holding an audience. And when she read us John Betjeman poems, I realised that poetry could be funny about the prosaic.

Miss Pierce had natural authority; I don't remember her raising her voice.

She was elegant and pleasing to look at, a little on the rounded side but with neat, slim legs and ginger hair that was carefully styled; it was a time when women went to the hairdresser's every week.

Three years ago, when I was signing books at Cheltenham literary festival, there was Miss Pierce at the end of a long queue of girls. She still had an air about her that made me sit up straight.

After technical college, I went to work in magazines for D C Thomson in Dundee, an eccentric and old-fashioned firm but a brilliant training ground. My first editor, Leslie Bowman, was a father figure. He had suffered terribly in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, but he was a gentle man and very patient with me. The red ink would come out again and he would make me take out all my superfluous similes and metaphors and get on with the story. Later, I worked on Annabel magazine for Scott Smith, who got me to write a piece about how I was going to concentrate on my career and never get married. Within three months I fell in love and came into the office with an engagement ring. I was a bit embarrassed, but he just laughed. That training means writer's block has never been a problem. I'm kind to myself these days and only produce 500 words of new writing a day, which adds up to two books a year. But I write several thousand words a day in letters to children.

Children's author Jacqueline Wilson was talking to Geraldine Brennan. See pages 13-16 for a preview of this year's Write Away awards THE STORY SO FAR

1945 Born in Bath

1950-56 Latchmere primary, Kingston

1956-62 Coombe girls' school, Kingston

1962-63 Carshalton technical college

From 1963 Journalist on girls' and women's magazines, including Annabel and Jackie

1973 Ricky's Birthday published by Macmillan, the first of 75 children's books including Bad Girls and Double Act

1999 Wins the Guardian Children's Fiction, Blue Peter and Children's Book of the Year awards for The Illustrated Mum

2002 Awarded OBE; wins Children's Book of the Year for Girls in Tears and Blue Peter award for Tracy Beaker

June 2003 Judges and presents TES Write Away awards at Shakespeare's Globe

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