Last year I met Author Joyce Dunbar in the most unusual way; I asked her for an interview because I mistook her for another author. You can probably imagine how embarrassed I was to realize my mistake which I discovered when she mentioned that her Mouse and Mole series was no longer in print. I was certain that the copy my daughter and I had checked out from the library had been a current book. When I went back to search the internet and find out exactly what book we had been reading, I found that we had read a book by a Mr. Wong Herbert Yee also entitled Mouse and Mole. Upon further research by both Joyce and I, we found disturbing similarities to her work; but that is a story for another day.
Over the span of the last year as I have had the pleasure of getting to know Joyce better, I have found her to be an extraordinarily talented author, and it is my hope that you enjoy getting to know my friend from across the pond as much as I have!
1. Hello Joyce, tell us a little bit about yourself: Where you are from, how many books have you had published, how did you get your start, etc…
I come from the industrial north of England, but now live in the beautiful medieval City of Norwich - which has just become Unesco City of Literature. I've published over 80 books, and have several more in the pipeline. I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I discovered Shakespeare and spent several years trying out different forms - poetry, plays, journalism, short stories. It was when I married a lawyer with ambitions to become an illustrator that I found my forte - children's books. JUGG, published in 1980 and illustrated by my husband, was accepted immediately by the first publisher to see it. Unfortunately, the publisher went out of business and the book hardly made it to the shops.
But I'd started! I'd written and published a book. I still have many copies in my attic.
2. What were some of your favorite books as a child?
I didn't come from a bookish household - but my mother was an avid reader and my father read TOM SAWYER & HUCKLEBERRY FINN to us - which was life changing, because Mark Twain was the only author I could name at an interview for the Grammar School. Other than that, I loved Fairy Tales and Fables. My brother bought me JOHNY APPLESEED, which I loved also. I didn’t really discover children’s books until my own children were born.
3. How long did it take you to get your first book published? Were there ever moments when you became discouraged?
I was 35 when my first book was published. I felt very discouraged when the publisher said he would have to pulp them. I bought the whole lot - and couldn't write for two years afterwards. I was then asked to do some radio stories - which got me an agent. I was on my way.
Writing is a bit like gardening, onlookers see only the plants that flourish, the gardener sees the ones that didn't. While others can see my many published books, I know about the many unpublished ones, and the projects that stalled. This isn't a complaint. No one ever said a career as an author is easy. Nor should it be.
4. What made you decide to write for Children/YA age groups? Are you currently working on any new projects?
Simply that my husband was a very visual person - and so was I. The book was a kind of love letter to him - all the more precious to me because the marriage didn't last. For me there is no greater joy than seeing an illustrator translate my words into pictures. I love the whole process, the first look, the problem solving, and the finished book.
Yes, I'm always working on a new project. I have a new book coming out in October, called PUSS JEKYLL, CAT HYDE, and another called TWINKLE, TWINKLE SQUIGLET PIG, which is being brilliantly illustrated at the moment. I have started an adult book, and may concentrate on that for a couple of years.
5. What do you find the most difficult part of being an author?
Well - you are always pushing your boundaries, so the point where you find your strength is also the point where you find your weaknesses. I write a lot of rubbish to begin with - and think I have set myself an impossible task. The trick is to stay with it, to wait for that magic moment of breakthrough. But there can be weeks of despondency where I think I am finished. Mainly, I think writers have to make themselves available - to sit on the chair and stare.
I have interests rather than hobbies, though I used to sew, knit and paint. I was a very keen gardener for many years. Now my interests are traveling, walking, theatre, Art galleries, people watching, animals, and of course, reading.
6. What words of encouragement would you give to children who might not be great readers yet?
I would say
READ, because reading is food for the brain.
READ, because reading helps you to find out about lives you haven't lived,
READ, because language is power,
READ because it helps you to grow as a person and find out who you are.
READ because reading is fun, fascinating, interesting.
People who don't read are at the moment closing libraries, cutting educational budgets, and rolling back the years of progress that has made literacy and culture available to everyone, thus adding to their numbers. They are a real threat.
7. What words of wisdom do you have for new authors?
IMAGINATION, INVENTIVENESS, SIMPLICITY, DIRECTNESS, ECONOMY. This is my mantra. To that I would add TENACITY.
8. Of which accomplishment are you the most proud?
I think any mother would say, my children. My daughter Polly is a writer and illustrator, my son is a fashion photographer. I now have a grand daughter too. Of course, I am proud of my books - it means I have left an imprint of the person I am. I'm also proud of overcoming many major setbacks, and of living just where I'm meant to live.
I think I am very fortunate to have had a 32 year long career in a golden age of children’s books. All this is under threat now, from the digital revolution. But I think parents will always want real books for their children, with pages to turn, to smell, pore over. Real books are friends in ways that e-books can never be.
9. Do you have any other information you would like to share, such as a website, author page, awards won, etc.?
I don't like listing awards. I don't even remember them. But I do have a website www.joycedunbar.com where you can find out all sorts of other things you might like to know and ask me any more questions.
10. And last but not least, please tell us anything else of interest that I have neglected to ask.
Illustrator Debi Gliori and I came to the States on a book tour in 2002 to promote TELL ME SOMETHING HAPPY BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP. We were meant to go in September 2001 - but then came 9/11. So the trip was postponed until 2002. By then the book had been picked up by psychologists and reviewers as a way to help children feel secure again. We traveled mainly in Texas - ending up in New York.
What amazed me about America was the sheer enthusiasm, the queues and crowds of people, the welcome, and the hospitality. Here, people don't make a fuss. It's considered bad form to promote yourself or boast about awards. So on the whole, I keep a low profile.
I wrote this particular book long before 1996 as a way of making myself feel secure after my husband had left, my children had gone to university, my cat died, my best friend committed suicide and my agent retired. I just wanted to wake up in the morning and find everyone in place!
I didn't dream, for a moment, that it would in future bring solace to others in the face of such a dire tragedy. But that is the power of story, to transform, to reach through time and space. It illustrates the way in which a writer can turn life around, their own, and others. It also makes the point that children's books can be anything but childish. They address the big questions of loss and grief and change, but in metaphor, rather than literally.
Another best seller is THIS IS THE STAR, the story of the Nativity, illustrated by Gary Blythe.
One other thing I should mention is that I am a deaf lip-reader. My first novel MUNDO AND THE WEATHER CHILD, was about a deaf child and his imaginary companion which was runner up for the Guardian Award (one that I do remember). Also, because there are so few picture books for deaf children - I wrote MOONBIRD illustrated by Jane Ray. This has been performed in Singapore - they invited me over for a week, Thailand, and France. Deafness is very limiting in all sorts of ways - mainly the phone - but it gives you a unique angle which is very good for writers. Thank goodness for e-mail!
I have never lived in the deaf community - when I was young it meant rejection and ridicule - so I masqueraded as a hearing person to the point where I taught Shakespeare for 20 years, 10 of them in his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, where we lived for 10 years. I teach on a Greek island, run writing course and regularly visit schools. I speak normally and most people don't realize I am deaf until I tell them - or they speak to the back of me.
I hope this will be of interest to you and your readers.
All good wishes