I am sitting between Dumbledore and the Cat in the Hat – and in front of me Peter Pan is chatting to Percy Jackson about what they’re planning to do in halfterm. It is the last day of Book Week and I am in a theatre packed full of Francis Holland school children dressed up as their favourite literary characters. Even The Very Hungry Caterpillar has made an appearance though by the look on its face it’s regretting it (tying your legs together is fun for ten minutes then it’s just plain annoying). Just as Frodo Baggins stands up to high-five The White Witch for bringing in a box of Turkish delight, the internationally-acclaimed author, Mary Hooper, walks in.
Author of the award-winning Megan books and deemed by many as the ‘best YA historical fiction writer out there,’ Hooper is a well-known name in this school. In fact it is her books that the children here take out more than any other author! So where does she get all these fantastic ideas for plots and characters from? Hooper explains, ‘Some people think there is a giant cupboard marked IDEAS and I just wander in and pick one.’ She shakes her head. ‘It’s not like that at all. Ideas come from all sorts of places. I got the idea for my Neighbourhood Witch story from glancing up at a Neighbourhood Watch sign and imagining what it would be like if there was a Neighbourhood Witch you could visit for spells. And then for my book, Lucy’s Wild Pony, I used a totally back-to-front way of finding the idea. My publisher sent me various book cover images of a girl (Lucy) with a series of different animals. I chose the horse and then wrote a story to fit the cover! I got the inspiration for The Never-Ending Birthday from watching the film, Groundhog Day – a day that repeats itself again and again, and then for teenage books, I usually scout the problem pages of current magazines…’
But that was when Hooper was writing contemporary books. Now Hooper is all about the past. ‘I began looking at artefacts and sources from the past and they fascinated me. When reading London’s Bills of Mortality (the statistics given from the seventeenth century to monitor deaths), I noticed that the parchment was lined with skulls and crossbones. Instantly intrigued, I read on. I couldn’t believe that one third of London’s population died in the plague – that was 100,000 people… I started researching the plague more. People were so anxious to find cures for it that they genuinely believed putting 12 snails in their mouth and drinking the liquid they produced would cure them! And that’s not even starting on the group of people who thought the liquid from a dead man’s skull could cure their symptoms. Then I noticed the other causes of death at the time: 14 people died of Lethargy (extreme tiredness) and 2,600 people died of ‘Teeth and Worms’ (ewwwww). And I grew to thinking: what would it be like to be a fifteen year old girl living in 1665?’ And that’s where Hooper’s widely celebrated book, At the Sign of the Sugared Plum, sprung from. Check out the creepy skull inside the girl’s eye and Click here to buy it on amazon.
But it’s The Disgrace of Kitty Grey (her latest novel) that Hooper is keen to talk about. Set in 1813, exactly 200 years after Pride and Prejudice was written, Kitty Grey, a dairy maid in the sleepy countryside, is sent to London to collect Jane Austen’s much-talked about novel, Pride and Prejudice. Little does Kitty know that she is going to wind up in Newgate prison with the sister of her ferry man lover who has mysteriously disappeared… Already receiving glowing reviews, The Disgrace of Kitty Grey, is selling fast. Click here to buy it on amazon.
So how does Hooper manage to produce so many fantastic historical fiction titles? ‘The first thing I do is think of a theme, a subject, something I want to write about. After that, I dream up my characters because once you’ve got them, you care what happens in your story. Then I do my research. And it’s the best bit. If I could have my way, I’d go on researching forever and I’d never end up writing the book at all!’ This is a very moontruggy approach and I like it. Because researching isn’t just about looking things up on Wikipedia; it’s about unlocking long-forgotten stories, delving into lives of the past, scouring ancient letters and peering into mystical leather-bound books. ‘Once I’ve got enough information,’ Hooper continues, ‘I spread it all out on the table and the floor – notes, maps, photos, pictures… Then I think about my plot. I get a large piece of cardboard and on it I stick the same number of post-it notes as there will be chapters in the book. Then on each of these post-it notes I write the main events of the plot – because each chapter has to have a hook, something propelling the reader on. I often start with a maid. In Velvet (click here to see a trailer for the book) I started with a maid who worked for a medium (a man who communicates with the spirit world), in Fallen Grace I started with a maid who worked for a Victorian undertaker and in Eliza Rose I started with two babies swapped at birth. But often I realise that what I initially think is the beginning of my book is not – and I shuffle the post-it notes around. And then – ’ she pauses and gives a wry smile, ‘ – then I work out who’s going to die – and when!’
And then what happens? How does the book get on the shelves? ‘When I’ve typed it all up I print it out and then lock it away. I do something different for a week (I go on holiday or start planning another book) and then after a week, I return to it with a fresh eye. That way I can stand back and assess it better. When I’m happy with it, I send it off to the publisher and wait. And if I don’t hear anything for six weeks I ring them up and pretend to ask about how they are or whether they’ve been away anywhere nice recently – but really I’m thinking: DO YOU LIKE MY BOOK?! Eventually they send me back their thoughts and I get to work again. It’s usually a two year process: one year thinking and writing and one year to get it published.’ Hooper’s talk draws to a close and it’s time for questions. Pinocchio’s hand pings up: ‘Do you get much say on the front cover of your books?’ Hooper laughs. ‘Authors get very little say in their book covers. I ended up with a hard boiled egg on front cover of the Italian version of the Megan books!’
‘But I did get to take off the necklace artists had added to Kitty Grey on that front cover – I told them there was no way a country diary maid would have fancy jewellery – and in the end, the artists had to agree! It’s not just authors and artists who work on the book cover though; booksellers have a huge influence. W.H. Smith told me that they wouldn’t take Fallen Grace with a cream cover – it had to be purple to blend in with all of the best-selling vampire novels – and so that’s what happened.’ Click here to buy it on amazon.
Winnie the Pooh sticks up a hand, ‘Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?’ Hooper smiles. ‘I left school early and I didn’t have much of a career. But when I started writing short stories for magazines, I realised this was something I could do – and better still, this was something I enjoyed.’ Shrek is wiggling his fingers in the air to get noticed: ‘Do you have to have any qualifications to be a writer?’ Hooper thinks for a moment and so do I (about a swamp-stinking ogre writing a book), ‘You’ve got to have two things: a good imagination and an ability to get your thoughts down on paper.’ Now it’s Artemis Fowl’s turn: ‘So many of your lead characters are fifteen-year-old girls. Why?’ Hooper nods. ‘Because being fifteen marks a changeover time – from childhood to adulthood. It’s an interesting time…’ Katniss Everdeen has one last question: ‘How old were you when you had your first book published?’ Hooper smiles, like she’s remembering it right there and then: ‘I was 28 years old.’
Hooper leaves us with a few words on what she’s got planned next. ‘My new book is going to be called Poppy and it’s set in 1914. Poppy is fifteen years old, beautiful and clever, but society has already carved out her destiny. Everything changes though when World War One starts and Poppy’s life is thrown dramatically off course.’ A tale of forbidden love, unimaginable hardship and unexpected freedom, Poppy is sure to sit alongside Hooper’s other classics when it’s released next May. Watch this space…