Anna James has been a school librarian, a book blogger, a journalist, a literary scout, and now, an author and our guest editor for NB 98! Her life is shaped by books and, as she beautifully puts it, “reading is the closest thing we have to magic”. Editor Alice Beazer sits down with her to chat through all things literary and introduce us to her exceptional debut novel, Pages and Co.
Thank you so much! My heart lies with magical realism and I love reading fantasy novels that are rooted in the real world; I’ve always been entranced by the idea that magic is just around the corner. When I first started writing though, I thought it would really be just a touch of magical realism, and that Tilly would be able to speak to book characters in the bookshop. But as I wrote I just got drawn into this idea of a wider world around the idea of book characters appearing, and what it would mean if that was just the start of something bigger.
In the story, Tilly goes on a magical quest to find her mother. What was the main inspiration for the book? Has this idea been in your mind for a long time?
Tilly’s particular story came to be quite suddenly. Initially I had thought about a story about a group of teenagers who worked in a bookshop but I realized very quickly that wasn’t quite right. This merged with an idea I’d been toying with for an essay about what we’d say to our favourite childhood characters if we could and once I put them together everything else came quite quickly.
If you could meet any characters from any books you have read, who would you like to meet and why?
My first answer is the same as Tilly; Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. I love her so much, and she was such an important character for me growing up. But aside from her, I’d probably choose most of the cast of the Northern Lights books by Philip Pullman.
I read avidly as a child, and the books I loved most – apart from Anne of Green Gables and Northern Lights – were those by Diana Wynne Jones. She’s the most creative, witty, beautiful storyteller and I read her books over and over again; she deserves to be so much more popular than she is today and I think she’s probably the writer who had the greatest influence on me as a writer. My favourites were the Chrestomanci series and Archer’s Goon. I also loved Enid Blyton, especially the Malory Towers and St Clares series, and The Magic Faraway Tree. And then finally there’s a book called Momo by Michael Ende, which is a strange and lovely book about the importance of storytelling and friendship.
Was writing books for children something you have always wanted to do?
The honest answer is no, not at all! I had always been very creatively satisfying by writing journalism, I love reviewing and interviewing, and above all recommending books to people that I think they’ll love. I hadn’t written fiction before I wrote Pages & Co, but when I had the idea I just had to try and see if I could do it.
Has your background as a librarian has shaped your writing?
In so many ways! Firstly it deepened my love of children’s literature, and I really do think that although reading lots is the most common advice, it really is the best. I think you can always tell when you read a children’s book by someone who hasn’t read much children’s fiction. It also showed me how important it is to celebrate different kinds of books and readers; in Pages & Co Tilly’s new friend Oskar is dyslexic and loves listening to audiobooks, and I wanted to celebrate the fact that there isn’t a right or a wrong way to engage with book, especially for children. And finally, I’m often frustrated by the cliched way that librarians are presented in fiction, and pop culture generally, and I wanted to write some passionate, brilliant librarians like the ones I have worked with.
What do you hope this book will achieve? Who is this book for?
I’ve grown up finding escape and comfort and solace in libraries and bookshops, and I don’t think I could write something that didn’t include that in anyway. I’m pretty sure there’ll be a bookshop or library in everything I write, even if it’s a tiny cameo! Above all I want people to enjoy reading Pages & Co, to be engaged by Tilly’s story and adventure. But beyond that I would love for people to remember the books that mean something to them, and to think about the fact that the stories we tell, either written or spoken, are important. I hope that readers of all ages will find something in the book!
Pages and Co is the first book in the Tilly and Bookwanderers series; are you working on more books at the moment?
Yes! I’m currently nearly finished the first draft of the second book. I don’t want to give too much away but Tilly and Oskar venture into the world of fairy tales with this one, where some of the characters aren’t as they seem.