"The Dark Is Rising' books are full of places and images out of my own childhood, in Buckinghamshire and Wales, and they seem to me now to draw rather heavily on the emotion I regard as my own greatest weakness, fear."

How long does it take to write a book?

They seem to take a year on average except Silver on the Tree, which took two years. I write very slowly, on a good day I write about 1,000 words.

Did you ever want to be anything other than a writer?

Yes, I wanted to be a concert pianist, but that stopped when I realised I wasn't good enough. I think if I came back as somebody else I'd like to be a very good singer. Being a writer is a very lonely job, you're stuck in your room on your own for such a long time, so sometimes I think I'd like to be a performer instead.

What books did you read when you were younger?

I never have anything brilliant to say when asked about what I read as a child. It was such a long time ago! I don't mean that I've forgotten, but that during and after World War II, there weren't many books published for children. I remember reading battered old prewar copies of E. Nesbit's fantasies, and The Railway Children, and almost everything by Kipling. There were the Pooh books and A.A. Milne's verse when I was small. Sometimes they went into the air-raid shelter with us, to be read by candlelight as a distraction from the bangs and thumps going on overhead.

Later I was totally addicted to Arthur Ransome. If he published a new book, it was always the favourite birthday or Christmas present and I would have to be kept forcibly from retreating into a corner and instantly starting to read. I read Malcolm Saville's adventure stories, Pamela Brown's theatre books - and skipped my way through Dickens, Thackeray and H.G. Wells. I was book-hungry and out of reach of a library, and those happened to be on my parent's shelves.


Do you consider yourself a 'children's author'?

Not really. I'm an author who writes books, plays and screenplays, and... my books happen to have been published for children or 'young adults'. Five of them are texts for picture-books, so in writing those I suppose I was aware of the age of their probable audience - but usually when writing a 'children's book' I'm not thinking about children at all. I write a book the way it wants to be written, and my publisher Margaret K. McElderry tells me who it's for. Once I gave her an adult novel called The Camp and she said, "Oh no, this is a children's book", and published it as 'Dawn of Fear'.

Why do you write fantasy, rather than realistic fiction?

I sometimes think I may be a cross between a journalist and a poet. Half my head loves to write about real life; I was a newspaper reporter seven years and a columnist for seven years after that; I have written a documentary book about America and a biography of the author J.B. Priestley. But nearly always when I write fiction, my imagination starts with real life and then turns aside into metaphor - that poetic, indirect kind of storytelling common to all fantasists. My first novel was published as science fiction. My first 'children's book', 'Over Sea, Under Stone', was intended to be an adventure story, but magic kept creeping in. Even when I collaborated on a play with another writer, one of the characters turned out to be a ghost. A friend of mine says it's all the fault of Oxford University, where students of English had to read so much mediaeval literature that we ended up believing in dragons.

Because you write about extraordinary events, do strange things ever happen to you?

Yes, sometimes they do. When I began to write 'Silver on the Tree', I found it very hard and I remember going to stay the weekend with my American publisher, I told her I was having trouble and she said, "Let's talk about it in the morning, let's go for a walk now." We went for a walk in the meadow behind her house and three things happened: We saw two swans swimming in the river, an enormous bumble-bee came flying past my nose (very late in the afternoon for a bumble-bee to be about) and then my publisher told me a tale of a strange black mink, which she'd seen in the meadow last summer and I suddenly realised that in my first chapter I had two swans, a bumble-bee and a black mink! Now that is pure coincidence, but it's the sort of thing that gives you tingles and it certainly encouraged me to go on with the book.

Are any of the characters in your books taken from real life?

The book 'Dawn of Fear', which is about being an English child during the bombings of World War II, is almost completely autobiographical. The hero, Derek, is me, and I dare say feminists would be appalled by my having turned myself into a boy. (On the other hand, you might call it a feminist act.) That's the only time I've deliberately used people or events from my own life - but of course all writers are doing that subconsciously, all the time. Our material is life as we've lived it: everyone we've met, everything we've seen or done. 'The Dark Is Rising' books are full of places and images out of my own childhood, in Buckinghamshire and Wales, and they seem to me now to draw rather heavily on the emotion I regard as my own greatest weakness, fear. In one of them, 'Silver on the Tree', I used two vivid dreams I'd had years before - but perhaps that doesn't count as 'real life'.

You have lived in the United States for more than thirty years. Why are your books so British?

There are two types of fantasist: those who write about other-worlds, totally invented planets or civilisations, and those who use the real world but bring magic into it. The first are often American or Canadian; the second English, European or Australian. I belong to the second variety: we tend to be people whose imaginative bank account was filled up very early in life. We rely very much on our roots. And my roots go deep; my home places in England and Wales took hold of me particularly firmly and will never let go, no matter where I may live. I'd like to write a book set in America, but none has yet knocked at my head. I still have a British passport; perhaps it's symbolic.

What do you feel like when you finish a book?

A combination of a sense of loss and a sense of relief. Finishing 'Silver on the Tree', I felt a great sense of loss, because there were all these people that I was never going to see again.

What is your advice for young writers?

Read, read, read, read, read. Of course you must learn English grammar, and something about the way stories are put together - but reading, endless general reading, is the only way to develop the sense of rhythm and language which enables a writer to 'hear' good prose inside his or her head. and write it down. For writers under the age of about 16, reading is more important than writing. And the great peril, to be treated as if it were a drug, is television. Although I write for television, I feel passionately that children should watch it very seldom; that they should be encouraged whenever possible to turn off the set (or not to turn it on in the first place) and instead read a book.