Show Hide image

The many lives of Jacqueline Wilson

The bestselling author reflects on her difficult childhood, meeting her wife and taking on the smug, middle-class world of children’s fiction.

 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

The children’s author Jacqueline Wilson remembers exactly how she felt on her 50th birthday in 1995. Her breakthrough novel, The Story of Tracy Beaker, had been published a few years earlier and since then all kinds of “wonderful things” had happened in her career (though Tracy Beaker was yet to be adapted into the hit CBBC TV series of the 2000s). Wilson was still married to her husband Millar, their daughter Emma had grown up to be a successful academic at Cambridge. “I thought, ‘I’ve had a good life, and now it’s going to go downhill all the way,’” she recalls. “If I’d known all the bizarre and different things that would happen to me since then…”

Wilson, who turns 75 a week before Christmas, tells me this sitting in her garden. She separated from her ex-husband in her fifties, and now lives with her wife, Trish, in a beautiful 1930s arts and crafts house on the edge of a village in East Sussex. Inside is Wilson’s collection of books, including rare editions of Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield and Dodie Smith; in the kitchen, visible through the glass of her conservatory, a portrait of Virginia Woolf sits above a shelf, and apples from the garden are strewn over newspaper on the floor. They moved here four years ago from a “little terraced house” in Kingston upon Thames (where Wilson was raised), after Wilson searched for a “ludicrous” romantic gesture she could make. “I said, ‘What would you like, if you could have anything in the world?’” Trish replied, “A bit of space!”

This year, they have cherished that space. We meet in early November, sitting a few metres apart outside, occasionally in light drizzle. Wilson is dressed in black skinny jeans, a dark, very fluffy jacket and Dr Martens embroidered with red roses, while Trish occasionally opens the door to offer more hot drinks and biscuits with their little terrier, Jackson, at her heels. After a series of health issues, including heart failure and a kidney transplant, Wilson is classified as extremely clinically vulnerable. “You don’t inevitably die if you get Covid if you’ve had a transplant, but it means you have no immune system,” she says. “And I’m old!”

[See also: Joni Mitchell: “I know what I want and I’m not afraid to stand up for it”]

Her routine hasn’t changed too much: Wilson spends her mornings writing and her afternoons walking the dog, reading and watching TV shows such as Schitt’s Creek and The Crown (on DVD – their internet is too poor for streaming). But she is spending less time in schools, or answering the fan letters usually sent on from her publisher’s office, now closed. The respite from work is a relief, but Wilson feels “awful” for any child whose letter goes unreturned.

***

Wilson herself had what she calls “a strange childhood”. She was born in Bath in 1945, where her parents, Biddy and Harry, met while working for the Admiralty. Her family struggled financially: when Wilson was two or three years old, they moved from their furnished one-bed apartment in Bath to live with her maternal grandparents in Kingston. There was a stint in another one-bed apartment in Lewisham, south London, where an aggressive man who lived downstairs frightened Wilson by screaming abuse at her. Finally, when she was six, the family were allocated a flat in a new-build in Kingston in “what my mother always described, hilariously, as a better class of council estate”, Wilson says. For the first time, the family had the luxuries of central heating, hot running water and two bedrooms.

But her memories of that time are not exactly warm. “My parents really couldn’t stand each other,” she says. Her mother was “a snob” who sent Wilson to elocution lessons and often corrected her father’s speech; her father was a shy man with a terrible temper. “Mind you, a lot of people found they lost their temper around my mum,” Wilson says. There were frequent explosive rows, insults and, Wilson later realised, infidelities. The atmosphere at home was often tense. Harry would sulk. “He wouldn’t talk to you. He’d be going around the flat, looking straight through you as if you weren’t there, which was horrible. But then, suddenly, something would change, and he’d be fine.”

Wilson was often sick as a child, and had nightmares. “When I woke up, I never quite knew what to do,” she tells me. “I wanted to cry out and, if it was past my parents’ bedtime, go and get into bed with them. I would always say, ‘I want a drink of water.’ I didn’t actually say, ‘I had this terrible nightmare…’ Occasionally, that worked, but other times, particularly if my dad came… sometimes he’d be fine, and other times he’d shout at me. It was the uncertainty that I couldn’t get to grips with.”

“I hit the jackpot with peculiar parents,” she says. “Thank God I’ve always had a lovely relationship with my daughter, and with Trish, because otherwise I’d have to start thinking, ‘Maybe it’s me!’” The experience shaped her personality. “I learned to be quite clever at gauging people’s moods, working out why they were like this, or what I was doing that was irritating them.” But she also calls her childhood “ideal for a writer”: “I was always watching myself doing something, rather than just doing it.” Wilson was often alone, and longed for a sibling. “I wasn’t a sad little kid, but I was by myself a lot.” During school holidays, Biddy worked in a cake shop and left Wilson home alone, popping in with a bun for lunch. “I absolutely loved it: loved playing by myself, loved reading, loved drawing, loved having the privacy to play imaginary games.”

Wilson was already writing stories. At six years old, she went to have her tonsils out, and startled her mother by confidently telling the surgeon that she was going to be a writer when she grew up. By age 11, she’d read all the books in the children’s section of the library – her mother got special permission for her to access the adult library early. At 12, she was keeping a diary: in between entries about “falling in love with a different person on the bus every week” she recorded details of the novels she was working on. Her parents didn’t want her to go to university – “it just wasn’t really on the horizon at all” – so Wilson left school at 16 and got her first job at the “terrifyingly old-school and very posh” publishing house, JM Dent, in London, working with their Everyman’s Library series. She was too nervous to ask for directions to the canteen, and never found it – instead she wandered round London, and read her way through the classics.

For her 17th birthday, she received a portable typewriter. When she came across an advert in the Evening Standard from the Dundee publisher DC Thomson asking for teenage writers, she used it to write a short story. After Wilson “bombarded them” with stories, they offered her a job. She moved to Dundee, living in a Church of Scotland girls’ hostel (“revolting, but a good way of making lots of friends”), while writing for DC Thomson’s newly launched teen magazine Jackie. “What 17-year-old with no qualifications would get offered a job on a magazine just like that now?”

It was at DC Thomson that Wilson met Millar, who was a printer there. “Reader, I married him – at 19!” In their wedding photos, the pair look, Wilson says, “like children, complete children”. She left DC Thomson and the couple moved back to Kingston, where they had a daughter, Emma. Unable to find work as a printer, Millar joined the police. “I’d never visualised myself as being a policeman’s wife,” Wilson says. “I had, as a teenager, wanted to be a beatnik, go on Ban the Bomb marches, not exactly throw stones at the police… but it just wasn’t what I’d imagined. But my mid-life wasn’t as I imagined, either.” She describes her relationship with Millar as “an old-fashioned marriage”: “he wasn’t the type of man that helped with the washing or the ironing”. While raising Emma and running the household, Wilson was getting up early to write for teen and women’s magazines (“At least two stories a week – about 10,000 words. I made them as long as possible because you got paid by the line!”) and trying to get a novel published.

She was also telling Emma stories. “It’s a bit of a joke, because my books are mostly about conflict and kids going through difficult circumstances and, certainly when she was very young, Emma couldn’t bear anything unhappy happening to any children whatsoever, in any story.” She told her “completely unpublishable” tales of little girls who were allowed to wear pink every day and have a birthday every week. As Emma got older, she developed a fascination with the Victorian period; the two would write letters to each other as Victorian children (Wilson readers will note the parallels with her novel The Lottie Project; she also has a series of Victorian-era children’s books). “I was so lucky that she loved reading, she loved writing, she loved art, she liked all the things that I like,” Wilson says.

It was while taking Emma to the Kingston Library that Wilson stumbled across a series called Nippers, “edited by a wonderful socialist woman called Leila Berg, who felt that urban children on big estates were put at a disadvantage if they were taught to read by reading about Peter and John and their lovely middle-class life with big gardens and all the rest of it”. They had titles like Fish and Chips for Supper, Wilson recalls. “I thought: I’d like to write this sort of thing.” She took a couple home, counted the words on each page, and wrote her own about a little boy who wanted a really good birthday present. The series was already full of well-known writers, but Berg accepted Wilson’s submission, and Ricky’s Birthday, her first children’s book, was published in 1969. “Maybe she just liked my cheek,” she says. “I never got to meet her, I wish I had.”

***

Just like the Nippers series, Wilson’s books are a reaction against the safe, smug, middle-class world she saw everywhere in children’s fiction: one full of pony rides and boarding schools, where Daddy was a doctor and Mummy baked cakes. Her characters are bullied, homeless, insecure or in care; the children of parents who are absent, unwell, divorced or abusive. But these are not bleak tales of relentless misery: the boisterousness and indefatigable imagination of characters such as Tracy Beaker, and the mischievous illustrations of Wilson’s long-time collaborator Nick Sharratt, counter the grimness of their surroundings (in Beaker’s case, a care home that she calls “the Dumping Ground”).

Wilson has a gift for the trivial, pleasing detail that can capture a child’s imagination. Friends of mine now in their late twenties have vivid memories of the rainbow felt-tip pens prized by Mandy in Bad Girls, or of Radish, the toy rabbit that comforts Andy as she moves between her divorced parents’ homes in The Suitcase Kid. More disturbing moments stick with readers, too: Dolphin’s alcoholic, bipolar mother painting over her tattooed body with toxic white paint in The Illustrated Mum. At the beginning of How to Survive Summer Camp, Stella – a bookish girl with long plaits – goes to the hairdressers. When asked how she’d like it cut, she indicates a very tiny amount with her finger and thumb. The hairdresser, misunderstanding, cuts off all her hair – a cautionary tale that haunted me for years.

[See also: The White Gods]

Wilson can bring up such detail from her own childhood with ease: playing with paper dolls with her grandmother; pretending to be a racehorse called Merrylegs, galloping along beside her father. She often prefaces her anecdotes with: “This is embarrassing, but…” Wilson has clearly remained on close terms with the worries and emotions she felt as a girl. “Although children nowadays are very different, deep down, I think you have the same feelings: you want your mum and dad to love you, you want to be popular at school, you want a best friend and all the rest of it.”

Perhaps what’s most striking about Wilson’s success is how widely read she was among millennial children in Britain. In 1991 Tracy Beaker made her a household name, and it remains her best-known work. But throughout the 1990s, girls my age rarely read just one or two Jacqueline Wilson books: they read dozens. She became the most borrowed author from British libraries, and with her silver hair, eccentric clothes and knuckles crowded with chunky rings, she was a quirky icon for children. Her book signings drew famously long queues and could last hours. By 2005 she was children’s laureate: the Guardian wrote that her appointment came despite an “unjustified sniffiness” and “literary snobbery” over her work. It took time to adjust to fame. “I think you do actually take a long while before you feel really, really comfortable about leading a different kind of life. It’s useful, though, as a writer, to have lived different lives.”

When it was published in 1996, Bad Girls reached number seven in the children’s book charts. “I never used to be a competitive person – then I wanted to do really, really well. But just as I thought I had a chance of making it to number one, a certain JK Rowling did the first Harry Potter.” Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1997, and Rowling dominated the charts for the next decade. “I never quite managed to be the queen bee. But at my stage in life, you don’t expect that: you just want to hang on by your fingertips!”

Consistent favourites among Wilson’s readership are Sleepovers and the Girls in Love series. Pitched at slightly older children, the Girls in Love books were a rite of passage at my school, passed around classrooms like contraband, holding within them the thrill of boyfriends, kissing and the impossibly grown-up experience of sneaking into a nightclub. Wilson intended her latest book, Love, Frankie, to be a modern version of those stories – but, this time, she decided to make the love story one between two girls. “I wanted to show that the agonies, joy and embarrassment of falling in love is the same – whoever it’s with!”

***

Promoting Love, Frankie earlier this year, Wilson “came out” to the press. She and Trish have been a couple for 18 years; their friends and family were well aware of their relationship. Wilson’s ex-husband left her in the late Nineties. Newly single, she made a promise to herself: “Keep all my friends, keep working, but try very hard to do new things, too.” She attended art history classes, architectural tours of London, and took up something that was “pure fun”. Returning to the very same dance hall in Kingston that she used to go to as a teenager, with red flock wallpaper and gilt chairs, Wilson met a “cracking bunch of women” and learned how to line dance. “Everybody had a lovely, funny sense of humour, and a slightly jaundiced view of men,” she says. One dance she learned – to the tune of “Stand by Your Man” – was retitled “Stamp on Your Man”. “It was just therapeutic and fun,” she laughs.

After six years of singledom, Wilson met Trish – a bookseller – at an event. Keen to see her again, Wilson called the bookshop where Trish worked, asked for the address, and wrote Trish a letter that said, “I really enjoyed our talk and I’d love to do an event with you…” The romantic impulse behind it went unnoticed: “Trish took me utterly, to the letter, seriously!” Wilson laughs.

The two eloped in 2008. “We were thinking about it for a long time.” Researching civil partnership options online, they came across a “miniscule” woman called Suzanne (now a friend) who offered an “elopement package” in Vermont, the first US state to introduce same-sex civil unions. They stayed in Suzanne’s large Victorian inn, and she arranged the paperwork and the officiator. They had just two friends present as witnesses at the ceremony and spent the following week in Boston. “It was just the most delightful way to do it,” Wilson says.

“I can truly say that, apart from my mother, I haven’t had anybody being anti [the relationship] at all,” Wilson says. (Her mother’s general attitude of disapproval meant that the reaction was not surprising.) “My best friend from my school days was a bit unnerved and kept saying, ‘No, you’re not! Don’t be silly!’ which was rather sweet. I did tease her about it.” Does she wish she had written about gay relationships in her books earlier? “I think probably I could have done,” she says. “But it’s hard to remember how life has changed quite dramatically.”

[See also: “The English believe their elites are a treacherous class”: James Hawes on his short history of England]

Wilson publishes two new books a year. A new instalment in her Victorian series comes out in 2021, and her next children’s book after that is completed, too. She is also considering writing an autobiography: “I can’t make up my mind.” Her 2007 memoir for children, Jacky Daydream, captures the difficulties of Wilson’s upbringing without going into much detail. (When she gave a copy to her late mother, she responded, “What are you giving me this for? I don’t want to read it – it’s for children!”)

“It’s all true, but a slightly rosy version of things,” Wilson says. An autobiography for adults would be different. But she does understand how interesting her life might be to readers. “Your average relatively well-known writer has probably been to university and done things sensibly, and generally hasn’t left home at 17. There’s the whole having one life with my then husband, then having another entirely different life with my wife. I mean, I’ve been greedy. I’ve had things all different ways.”

She is often asked when she intends to stop writing, a question she rejects outright. “Even if I didn’t get published, I wouldn’t stop writing. It’s just what I enjoy!” While reading recently, Wilson came across the phrase: “You have to remember you only have so long in the spotlight – and then it’s time to move away.” She laughs. “I want just a little bit of light still!” 

This interview is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Ian Hislop, John Gray, Stephen Bush, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 11 December 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special