Kate Rundell introduces herself to as the author of two childrens’ novels (The Girl Savage and Rooftoppers) and research fellow of All Souls College. She is writing a thesis on John Donne alongside working on both her third children’s book and a murder mystery for adults. The room, comprised mostly of aspiring undergraduate authors, draws a slightly intimidated collective breath.
Within five minutes, however, she has established herself as the rare sort of person who manages to be both charmingly eccentric and completely accessible. Rundell is, after all, a storyteller, and listening to her speak is as absorbing as her novels. She seems rather like a character from a story herself, introducing her talk with anecdotes about eating instant coffee from a spoon, and strapping herself to a chair to force herself to write 1000 words a day.
Even money-talk loops round to a discussion on the importance of economics to children’s novels (which are, Rundell proposes, “essentially socialist”). As everyone in the room has probably considered writing as an profession, she gives us the facts as far as she can remember them. The average advance for a first-time writer of children’s fiction is around £8000, but can go as low as £2000. Her advice for anyone who wants to be a children’s writer: “you absolutely should, but you should also absolutely get a day job”. Her relationship with her publisher she describes as based on “editing and love”.
How does Rundell feel about the future of the publishing industry, in a world which largely considers that plagiarising and downloading will be its end? She is optimistic. “Fundamentally in favour” of eBooks, she considers that they enable us to draw stronger genre lines between “books that take you away from the world”, which you would read on a commute, say, and books which “give you something to take into the world with you”. She also predicts a rise in appreciation of the book as an object of beauty in its own right.
So what are the biggest problems in the world of children’s literature? Aside from the mandatory hatred of Michael Gove, it troubles Rundell how difficult it is for writers to talk about their work. Any form of self-criticism is impossible, and so uncommon that it comes to look “deranged, falsely modest” and “just not sexy”.There is also the problem of how, when children don’t write reviews, you can possibly know if what you write is “any good”. Rundell’s favourite letters from young fans are the ones in which children make up scenes: it shows that they have entered your world deeply enough for it to spark imaginative thoughts of their own.
Does she worry about the increasing “sanitizing” of writing for children? Rooftoppers is banned in some schools in Texas because in it a little girl drinks whiskey. As in every creative field, she says, “we have problems which are entrenched, and we’re trying to deal with them.” Protagonists are still largely white, and often male: “Hermione Granger and the Chamber of Secrets would never have sold”. Does she, then, see anything of herself in Sophie, the feisty protagonist of Rooftoppers? No, she laughs. For a protagonist to be in any way successful, they have to be a blank canvas – a home for the readers’ dreams and hopes. “All you need, really, is gutsiness and wit”.
Where Rundell puts herself into her novels is in their settings. Rooftoppers was inspired by climbing on the roof of All Souls, accessible through a trapdoor. This is the part of the discussion where her eyes really light up. You can climb all along Turl Street on the rooftops of its colleges. Some brave souls have even scaled the Sheldonian. To write children’s fiction, it seems, you need more than a vague sense of the playful, as well as the enviable ability to put things in a way which is lyrical and original without sounding affected. “I love Shakespeare in that visceral way that I love cigarettes, and swimming in the sea”, she tells me later over a smoothie, when I ask about her PhD. I wish I had said it. I also wish that I smoked.
Rooftoppers has been announced as the overall winner of the 10th Watersones Childrens’ prize as well as top of the 5-12 age category.