An Interview with Claire Barker

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The wonderful Claire Barker visited some of our North Somerset schools a few weeks ago on a promotional tour for her new book - 'Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog and the Last Circus Tiger'. We were lucky enough spend some time talking to Claire during her visits and spoke to her about her books, her writing and biscuits!

Is it nice be known as the author of the ‘Knitbone Pepper Series’? 

Oh yes! What a wonderful question. Writers dream that their stories will live on in other people’s imaginations.  I’m like a proud parent, I want Knitbone to make lots of friends! I love it when children say they couldn’t put it the book down. That’s the biggest compliment.

Are you enjoying seeing your books side by side on the bookshelf? 

The design team at Usborne have done such a beautiful job. The series looks magical; the sort of books that I would have longed for as a child. I love seeing the beautiful paper ridging on the spines and the vibrant colours standing together. They make such a beautiful set to collect and will look even better when the third one comes out. Treasures to keep, they will do any bedside shelf proud! I particularly love seeing them together on my daughters’ shelves. 

Tell us more about your process of writing - do you have a special place to write? 

I write in at a very long wooden table in my old kitchen, which is festooned with twinkly fairy-lights. I’m often in my pyjamas, dogs snoring beside me, but if I get stuck on a plot knot then we go for a walk in the woods. After twenty minutes the knots always start to come loose. I think walking is the best exercise.

Do you use a notebook to keep track of your story plots? 

Yes, I sketch them all out first. Stories must have several ups and downs in them to make them interesting, so the best way to describe it is I work to a shape. It looks like a range of hills. I keep notes of interesting words. Yesterday I put the word ‘jumblepig’ in my notebook. 

What do you do when the words won’t flow? 

I paint or go for a walk as I mentioned earlier. A lot of my best ideas sneak up on me at 5:30 in the morning when I’m least expecting them. They have their own plans and don’t believe in lie-ins! 

Your books inspire hope in a belief that there is life beyond death and help a little to remove the fear of dying - was this your intention when writing your books? 

What an interesting question. I think my intention was to acknowledge the sadness children feel when a much loved pet dies, but with hope and humour. I hadn’t seen much written about it, which is surprising as it’s a very common experience. So much focus is put on the dying part, but what about the aftermath?  I found myself wondering ‘what if?’ I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts and wondered why I never saw stories about animal ghosts. I wanted to read one, so I wrote Knitbone Pepper.

Do you have a favourite ‘Beloved’? (Ours is Orlando). 

Orlando is madder than a bucket of buzzy bees! I love them all but I am very fond of Martin because of his round tummy, soft heart and warrior spirit.

We love the new character of ‘Roojoo’. Can you tell us more about him that we might not find out about in the book. 

Roojoo, during his years of being a ghost, once put out a fire in the circus tent when everyone was asleep. He has actually saved Bertie’s life twice, although Bertie only knows about the first time. Roojoo is very modest, so hasn’t mentioned it. He is also very fond of nature documentaries and having his chin tickled.

We know your next ‘Beloved’ is a horse; do you have plans for any more? 

Ah yes, the beautiful Moon with her mysterious Romany secrets… I’ve got Beloveds coming out of my ears.  We shall have to wait and see. Maybe you can think of some of your own! It’s lots of fun.

What were your favourite books to read when you were growing up? Did any of them in particular inspire you to become a writer? 

I didn’t really plan to become a writer, which is strange when you think how much I love stories. My Irish great-great grandfather was the village storyteller, so maybe it’s meant to be!  I heard a quote about Dickens the other day which said that ‘he didn’t just write what the readers wanted, he wanted what the readers wanted. I’m a bit like that. Every story I write is really to amuse myself.  

I did have a book of Shakespeare’s Tales as a child that was brilliantly and vividly illustrated. That grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let it go. I still read at it 40 years later. I also adored The Beano.

Do you have any advice for inspiring your readers and writers? 

Read books that you can’t put down and write stories that you want to read.   Stories come naturally to us, like tunes where you instinctively know what comes next. Trust yourself to sing the song. Reading lots of books will help you to know when your sentences are pitch perfect. How? I can’t explain, they just will.

As biscuits feature heavily in your books - do you have any words of encouragement for your readers who have food allergies and sometimes have to give up eating the things they love?

It’s not easy is it? I am allergic to wheat, so rather ironically biscuits are a big no-no. I haven’t always been allergic to it and it was very difficult at first to give up bread and cakes – I’m such a greedy guts! Still it’s no good making yourself ill. I eat lots of different things now and it’s actually made my diet more interesting. I think I’m much healthier as a result.  Biscuits are probably not that good for you anyway (but don’t tell Martin!).

We want to thank Claire for answering our questions. It was a joy to spend time with her and to have her visit our schools. Our children were inspired by Claire and continue to be as they read her books. It's wonderful to see them reading them during quiet reading, holding them close whilst travelling around school, as they would a beloved treasure and fighting to be the next person to borrow the library copies!