The Worst Witch author turns to her own dogs for her latest book
“It's a bit like falling in love,” says Jill Murphy, sweeping me along with her enthusiasm. “Illustrating is like breathing because I've always been able to do it – it's fun. But getting the story right is a delight. It's almost as if the character sits on the end of the bed and waits for you to put them in the next scene.”
Jill is probably best known for her Worst Witch books, which are some of Puffin’s most successful titles, having sold more than 3 million copies and been made into a major ITV series, though Jill has also received various awards for her picture books.
Unlike some writers who take years to learn their trade, Jill began very early. “I wrote my first book at the age of 6, stapled it together and the teacher read it aloud,” she says. “Afterwards one of my friends said could she borrow it, so I wrote a sequel and I had a little lending library for all of my friends.”
When Jill was young, there was very little choice in children's books. “I read everything that Enid Blyton ever wrote, but there wasn't really anything else.” So she and her friends made their own entertainment. “Because I was the quickest reader, I would read a book and then we'd play it all day! Libraries were incredibly important then, because there wasn't anything else to do.” She shifts on her beanbag. “Nowadays there are so many distractions for poor kids – they never get five minutes peace to sit down and concentrate on anything.”
As a voracious reader herself, Jill is keen to encourage others. “I hope my books make children want to go on reading,” she says, and the passion is evident in her voice. “Reading is such a lovely thing to be skilled at because it's the gateway to everything else you want to do – even stuff on the internet.” Her own taste is very wide. “I'm fascinated by the Tudors at the moment, but I love any factual historical stories.” She smiles. “I can read anything from Womans Own to really quite cerebral type novels!”
She gets up to stoke the fire. “I don't think many people can say that their dreams have come true, certainly about their career. But it was just there, all the way through me like Brighton Rock!” Her words tumble out at speed, and I get the impression of a strong person, yet with great sensitivity. “My mother and father were amazingly supportive – they were always behind me. All I wanted was to sit at home and draw and tell my stories, which is what I've always done so I've been incredibly lucky. One thing I learned when I was growing up was how to be grateful.”
Jill's interest in Cornwall began when she was in her mid-twenties, visiting a friend in Rock. “I just fell in love with the North Cornwall Coast,” she explained. Ten years ago she settled in St Mabyn, where she now lives with her son and two deerhounds. “St Mabyn is my perfect place to live. The people are friendly, there's an excellent primary school, wonderful village post office and shop which is the hub of the village. And a beautiful church with a high tower which is so comforting when you’re driving home.”
It's Jill's interest in her surroundings that provide the inspiration for her books. “I wrote all the earlier books before I had children just by observing everyone else's,” she explains. “Everything is based on something that has fascinated me.” She smiles. “A lot of Mildred (in the Worst Witch series) was based on me at school as I was always very scruffy and untidy.” And this understanding of what children – and their parents want – comes across through her many fan letters. Iris Drouet, age 7, writes, “Mildred has a cat called Tabby who's a clumsy cat and he hates flying! I liked Tabby as a character because he’s special in his own way.”
Jill's affinity with animals is clear from her books, and it was a real life incident that prompted Jill's latest book. DEAR HOUND is about Alfie, a large deerhound puppy who loves cheese, digging holes and his owner Charlie. But one day, Alfie gets lost and he’s scared – of thunderstorms and never seeing Charlie again. Meanwhile, Charlie doesn’t know what to do – but one thing is for sure: he’ll never stop looking for his dear hound.
“It actually happened,” says Jill. “Grace was my son Charlie's first dog and he absolutely adored her. We did everything it says in the book to try and find her.” The illustrations are delightful and poignant, particularly one of Charlie, looking desolate. “I found him looking out over the gate and he said, 'I'm making her come up the road, Mummy.' He was so sure she was going to come out, I could almost see her coming round the corner.” Then just as Jill started to write the book, Madeleine McCann went missing. “I was so upset I had to stop,” said Jill. “Eventually I pulled myself together and finished it - I think sometimes children need happy endings.”
At this point she goes to fetch her deerhounds. As they nose the door open, I'm stunned by the size of these gorgeous grey animals who sniff me all over, then give my face a thorough wash. Scout drinks my coffee dregs and Kiera settles onto my lap with a contented sigh. “Their characters are so extraordinary, so gentle,” Jill says gazing fondly at them. “If they were in a fairytale they'd be enchanted elderly aristocrats from the Middle Ages. They're eccentric, and just lovely!”
Dear Hound is a wonderful tale of never giving up hope, of a child's best friend – and the best possible tribute to these truly loveable dogs.
Dear Hound is published by Puffin.
Cornwall Today May 2010