Where an author chooses to carry out their work is no minor decision: a writer often must sit in the same spot, day in and day out, with no colleagues to alleviate boredom or distract them from the task at hand; their environment must at the very least provide comfort and not hinder their creative process. To get a better idea of how crucial a writer’s working environment is to them, we spoke to Julia Copus – award-winning poet and now acclaimed author of the Harry and Lil picture books. She also reveals how she came up with the idea for Hog in the Fog, the first in the Harry and Lil series, sheds light on the process of working on a picture book and explains how her understanding of rhyme has helped in the transition from poet to children’s writer.
Can you describe the room in which you write?
I write at three different tables – the kitchen table, a big oak table in the front room and a smaller table upstairs in my study. My favourite room to write in is my study, which I recently painted a deep, warm red – “Oriental Red” by Craig & Rose! I have a huge red-framed clock on the wall, which I love – and which looks uncannily like the clock in my new picture book, Harry and Lil. I have a passion for clocks, and the concept of time in general – which is interesting because I usually have only a very rough idea of the actual time! From the window, I can see fields and some woodland. The view is more far-reaching in the winter when the hedges are bare, although today there is quite a heavy fog obscuring the trees and houses in the distance. I also write in bed – last thing at night and first thing in the morning. I think my brain is most creative at those times – in the sort of twilight between waking and sleeping.
How does your environment affect you as a writer?
I live in a village in Somerset, called Curry Mallet. It’s mentioned twice in the Domesday Book, and I love the timeless feel it has. In 1086 there were 11 villagers, 7 smallholders and 2 slaves here! It’s usually very still and quiet (except on days when the helicopters are on a training practice – mostly in the summer). Some writers like noise when they write, but I prefer it quiet. I can’t think straight when there’s too much noise around, though I do sometimes write in cafés. I actually carry ear-plugs with me so that I can write on the train and not be distracted by people’s phone conversations! So yes, I think environment does affect me a lot. The view from my study window – the woodland and fields – is a reminder that humans are only a small part of the world; certainly not the whole picture…
Where do your ideas for your poetry come from?
All over the place: my life, a memory, other poems, a physical process that reminds me of some aspect of human nature; occasionally a phrase or a first line … Sometimes it’s an image that sticks in my mind from reading – like the image of the beautiful young priestess, Hero, waiting for her lover on a stormy night in her high room by the sea. I wrote a small sequence about her in my last poetry collection.
You’re a very successful poet. Why did you decide to write a children’s story?
I’ve always loved picture books. I remember my own favourites from childhood very clearly – along with that special feeling of being read to. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Go, Dog, Go!, Are You My Mother?, lots of the Dr. Seuss books … They seemed magical to me. I loved them as objects too. We had them in hard covers, all a bit battered and dog-eared. It was only recently that I started reading – and collecting – more of them. Where The Wild Things Are is perhaps my favourite of all – an absolute classic. As for taking the decision to write a children’s story of my own, I’m not sure where the impulse came from; I think I just felt it was something I wanted to do and could do. I think we write what we most like to read. Also, because my adult poetry is quite serious, as a rule – quite intense – I think I wanted a different outlet that would enable me write from other parts of me.
How do you think your skills as a poet helped with writing the text for Harry and Lil?
I suspect they helped a great deal. The simple rhythm and rhymes are not quite as easy as they look! That’s especially true if you need to go back and change bits of the story: editing in full rhyme can be something of a headache. If you have a practised ear, all this is bound to be a bit easier.
How does it feel, as a picture book writer, to finally see the text accompanied by its illustrations? After the solitary work of the poet, how does it feel to collaborate with an illustrator?
I didn’t get to choose the illustrator, exactly – though I did get sent examples of her work before she was signed up, and I loved them. I think I’ve been very lucky: though she is new on the scene, Eunyoung Seo is a major talent, and it was, of course, a huge thrill to see the book brought to life by her pictures and extra ideas – like the beautiful little bottle-top hat that’s worn by the crow! As for collaboration, it was quite a complicated process. Eunyoung is Korean. She studied in Edinburgh and now lives outside of the UK. Any communication between us was passed through several hands before it reached us. For instance, the first version of Harry that Eunyoung drew was more of a pig than a hog; describing to her exactly what I had in my mind took some time, but it also forced me to visualise the characters much more clearly. I sent quite a few emails and pictures to the Children’s Dept (at Faber), and I believe they forwarded these on to Eunyoung’s agent. A long process, but it worked. And what’s strange is that some of the details Eunyoung invented for Candy Stripe Lil’s house look uncannily like my own cottage – even down to little details like a twig coat-hook (made for me by one of my brothers) and a little turquoise tea-cup.
You live in the countryside. Does this influence the themes and imagery in your work?
It certainly did with this story. I live at the bottom of a hill, just as Lil does, and it can get very foggy around here. The setting in the book looks quite a lot like Curry Mallet, where I live, in fact. Appropriately enough, it’s a little foggy again today, as I write this.
How does the writing process begin for you?
With this particular book it started with the title: Hog in the Fog. There, straight away, you have a mini mystery! And fog is the perfect weather for a mystery, of course: it means that things are only half-revealed to us. Working out the story was then a simple case of deciding what exactly Harry was doing in the fog and how he was going to get out of it. The idea of other animals spotting different parts of him and mistaking them for something else was the sort of crucial, Eureka moment that helped the final storyline fall into place. I also had it in mind from the start that I wanted the book to rhyme. My adult poetry often uses subtle, internal rhyming, so this was a chance to play with a more obvious rhyme and rhythm – a different sound altogether. I think children in particular find full rhyme very satisfying – partly because it allows them to guess the end of the sentence!
How long does it take you to write a poem? And how does this compare with writing a Harry and Lil story?
There’s less of a difference, time-wise, than you might think. A single poem can take me a week or a month, and occasionally I’ll go back to finish a poem months after it was started. Each new poem (unless it’s part of a sequence) is a whole new project – with its own unique shape, structure, imagery and so on, so it’s back to the drawing board every time. With a Harry and Lil story, the initial draft might take a couple of months, but a fair amount of time is then spent on revisions. The fine-honing of the details and structure can be quite a collaborative process, with occasional suggestions coming in from the Children’s Department.
When I wrote Hog, I was dealing initially with the brilliant Leah Thaxton. I sent her an email which began, “I know you don’t do picture books but I wondered if you could point me in the right direction …” and she emailed straight back to say that they had just decided to start a picture book list and could she have a look at my manuscript! (My writing career has been full of this kind of luck.) A bit later, the equally brilliant Alice Swan joined the team at Faber to head up the picture book list. I work fairly closely with Alice now, sending her progressive drafts and working in her feedback where I can until we end up with something we’re both completely happy with. Because the text rhymes, every little change has a knock-on effect – other lines and words need changing to fit around the edit – so getting it just as I want it to be can take some time.
What’s next for Harry and Lil?
That is a closely guarded secret! But I will just say that (to quote from J. M. Barrie) ‘a house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently’ – and Harry has a very active imagination!
What are you working on at the moment?
Besides working on a new Harry and Lil story, and slowly (very slowly) building a new poetry collection, I’m researching for a biography of the incredible, turn-of-the-century poet Charlotte Mew. It’s fascinating delving into the minutiae of another writer’s life, and Mew’s story is particularly involving. More to the point, though, she was an extraordinary poet who has been somewhat overlooked in recent times. She was well respected by her peers. Virginia Woolf called her ‘the greatest living poetess’; Thomas Hardy said she was ‘far and away the best living woman poet – who will be remembered when others are forgotten’; and Sassoon predicted that ‘many will be on the rubbish heap when Charlotte’s star is at the zenith where it will remain.’ Sadly, the predictions made by Hardy and Sassoon haven’t so far proved true, but I really can’t think of a poet more deserving of a renaissance. My hope is that the biography will play a part in helping to make that happen.
Julia Copus was interviewed by Hannah Marshall for FaberShop on the Book People’s website. Julia’s poetry, and her Harry and Lil stories are available from Faber.