Q&A with Readings Children’s Book Prize winner J.C. Jones
We sat down with J.C. Jones – author of the 2016 Readings Children’s Book Prize winner Run, Pip, Run – and asked her about her ideas, her road to publication, and what we can expect next.
Where did the first spark of the idea for Run, Pip, Run come from?
When I was growing up, I always loved stories about kids who weren’t afraid to take their destiny into their own hands. Shortly before I wrote the book, I’d met a nine-year-old boy who was in foster care because his own parents weren’t able to look after him. Despite a lot of adults trying to do their best for him, he’d ended up being moved from place to place, with nowhere to call home. So I think the book, or at least the main character Pip, is in some way was a response to that – Pip, is not content to let adults make all the decisions about her life, especially if she thinks they’re wrong!
Can you tell us a bit about your road to publication?
I emailed a synopsis and a sample chapter to Allen & Unwin as part of their Friday Pitch, where they look at unsolicited manuscripts from authors. This really suited me as I have no verbal skills, so I’d never convince anyone I had a good story by phoning them and talking about it!
Then Anna McFarlane, a publisher from Allen & Unwin, emailed me back. I didn’t read it for a few days because I was certain it was a rejection and I wanted to put it off for as long as possible! So it was a nice surprise when I did read it and she wanted to see more. I had a rough first draft so I spent a few weeks polishing it up, sent it to her and the rest is history.
Okay, there was a bit more to it than that, particularly in terms of reworking the ending, which was originally a bit more downbeat, but we got there!
One of the things we love most about Run, Pip, Run are the genuine characters: from no-nonsense Sully to the kind and charitable Matilda, they all feel very real. How did you go about developing these characters?
The truthful answer is that I don’t really know! It sounds strange to say, but mostly when I’m writing I don’t think too much about character development or plot development, or any of the things authors are supposed to think about. I let my instincts talk directly to my fingers when I write, and try not to let my conscious mind interfere too much and ruin things. But, as a reader, I certainly enjoy characters who are not cardboard cut-outs, so that is probably reflected in the book, and I really like both Sully and Matilda – they have their faults but they are both very good friends to Pip.
Pip has a run-in with Senior Constable Molly Dunlop, who wants to take her to the welfare authorities. Did you research things like child welfare and youth homelessness?
Not especially for the book, although I am interested in child welfare, in general, and follow those stories in the media. Most parents do an amazing job, as do police and social workers in often very difficult circumstances, but still there are thousands of kids in out-of-home care. Some do find their forever homes with a foster or adoptive family, but too many are moved from place to place, and sometimes end up with no support at all the moment they turn eighteen. There must be a better way – but that’s easy to say for a writer who can summon up all kinds of inventive solutions just by tapping away at a computer.
Our judges thought Run, Pip, Run was deft at tackling heavy issues without ever becoming too much for young readers to handle. Were you conscious of that balance while writing it?
When I wrote the book, it wasn’t meant to be about issues at all. It was just meant to be the adventures of a stubborn, prickly ten-year-old called Pip, who is determined to do things her way. There was definitely no conscious intention to comment on social issues! It wasn’t until my publisher read it and commented on this aspect that I really thought about it. Perhaps this is why it didn’t appear heavy-handed – because it wasn’t even deliberate! It was just Pip’s story.
What’s a normal writing day like for J.C. Jones?
I like to go for a morning walk before breakfast, and then I often head for my local library and work part of the day there. I like having people around but not having to interact with them too much. I get emails and other business-y things out of the way first, and do any research that I need to. Then I empty my head and let my storytelling instincts take over.
To get in the groove, I usually reread the last chapter I wrote, sometimes lightly editing as I go, and then I just write. Sometimes, I have a few plot points as a guide but I’m more of a ‘pantser’ in that I fly by the seat of my pants, and let the story unfold as it will. I figure it’s more exciting for me and the reader that way, although it can be frustrating when I get stuck and have no road map to get me back on track, but that doesn’t happen often. If it does and I’m at home, I put a load of laundry on or sit in the backyard and watch the rainbow lorikeets in my palm tree – something very undemanding while my subconscious is working things out. Then I get back to work and sometimes find it hard to stop if things are going well, in which case I end up working well into the evening.
Do you have other favourite books and authors that inspire you when you write?
Not when I’m writing. I don’t want to hear another author’s voice in my head when I’m working as it would get in the way. Having said that, I’m sure the books I have read and loved over the years have influenced me – both in terms of the stories and the characters. I love books that take you on a journey or quest of some sort, including The Lord of the Rings and a story by a Danish writer, Anne Holm, called I Am David, about a boy who has been separated from his family by war. I first read it when I was about ten or eleven, and then reread it very recently when it struck me that there’s a little bit of David in Pip, although the circumstances are very different.
What books did you enjoy reading as a kid?
The first book I remember reading for myself was Green Eggs and Ham when I was about five. It was my sister’s book, which annoyed me because I wanted it to be mine! Children’s books that I loved as a child include pretty much everything of Roald Dahl’s, especially Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, plus books like The Secret Garden, and The Famous Five and Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton (why couldn’t all those exciting adventures happen to me?).
I still read children’s books. In recent years I’ve read The Hobbit, the Harry Potter books, Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, as well as books by Jackie French, Morris Gleitzman and Emily Rodda, whose work I enjoy. I recently finished Julie Hunt’s Song for a Scarlet Runner, which is wonderfully lyrical and descriptive. I also love children’s non-fiction, particularly illustrated books on all sorts of topics.
What do you hope readers will think or feel when they’ve read the very last page of Run, Pip, Run?
I hope readers will feel or think something, of course, but I wouldn’t presume to say what that might be. Individuals, whether children or not, have very different responses to the books they read. I get annoyed when people say, ‘you’ll love this because’ or ‘that was terrible because’ – unless someone asks for their opinion, of course. Readers should be free to make up their own minds.
Will we see more of Pip in the future?
I hope so! Pip’s on a kind of quest although she might not have realised it until the end of Run, Pip, Run. She has a way to go before she reaches her destiny, and one or two adventures along the way – at least in my head. So I hope readers who enjoyed Run, Pip, Run get to share them at some point in the future.
Stories have been important to J.C. since she was a child growing up in England, when she once put a lamp under the sheets so she could read all night – and nearly set the sheets on fire.
Today, she lives in Sydney in an old, crumbling – but, sadly, unhaunted – house, and likes going to the local park to walk her imaginary dog who is remarkably similar to Houdini from her first children’s book, Run, Pip, Run.
You can follow J.C. Jones on her Facebook page.