children's books · classics · Favourite writers · prizes and awards · rereading

Forty Years On

Every book Jan Mark wrote, and everything she said, was a lesson for me. And she was willing to share because she was also a brilliant teacher. Visits to her house were long and full of good wine and food and conversation. I miss her now she’s gone but I still have nearly all her books which remind me what going writing is all about.

jan mark

Jan took her craft very seriously. When she visited schools (which she did a lot) she ‘always offered a warning, in advance, to any child who might ask if I have any other hobbies. Writing is not a hobby. If I don’t write, I don’t eat.’

First up, Jan spent about five years chained to the desk, generating a backlist. She began with a novel a year, before realising she could also ‘fit things in’ – early readers, stories, plays. Her output soared and with it came reviews and prizes.

I love the story of how she started writing and want to share it, because Thunder and Lightnings has just been reissued by its original publisher, Puffin, to celebrate its fortieth birthday.

thunder and lightnings

The original Kestrel edition, published in 1976, which won the Carnegie Medal.

‘There was a quite small paragraph in the Guardian advertising a competition run by Penguin Books. They were looking for a children’s novel with a twentieth-century setting, of 35-40,000 thousand words by someone who hadn’t published a children’s novel before. The entrants had from April 1974 until the following December. I thought that if I didn’t go for this, I didn’t deserve ever to get started.

‘I thought about it and lost heart, and started something which went nowhere. Then I realised I had the subject matter there – the aircraft. I remember the moment it struck me: I was walking home from the village with my son Alex, who was a baby in the pram, and I looked up and saw two tiny specks passing over. We’d become very familiar with aircraft by this time, living eight miles from the end of the runway (which we didn’t realise when we bought the house). I couldn’t hear those two specks because they were so high but I thought, “They’re Lightnings.” They were never painted so all you could see was the metal cladding which shone so brightly. Then I finally heard the jets and I knew they were Lightnings. At that moment, a character began to form in my mind: someone who could recognise aircraft at forty thousand feet by the sound of the engine.

‘I had no idea where the book was going until we happened to be at RAF Coltishall, on the day the Lightnings were due to be phased out. (We’d actually meant to go the day before but the car wouldn’t start.) I had the idea of someone letting childhood passions go. Children say, “When I was young” because everything lasts so long when you’re a child. Children are powerless to hang on to what they really care about. I just wrote that episode into the book.

‘It wasn’t all easy. There were times I came close to giving up, but I just thought, ‘How will I feel when I read the results in the Guardian?’ It would be bad enough not to win, but it would be worse not having gone in for it. Somehow, I just managed to finish it before the closing date of 12 December.

‘Then I had to wait six months while they got on with the entries. It was a tough time. I didn’t dare start another book. But I thought – and this isn’t meant to sound conceited – I didn’t expect to come third or fourth. I thought, “Either I’ve got it absolutely right and this is a very good novel or it’s no good, and I’m completely on the wrong track.” But I don’t think I actually believed that.’

Turns out, she was right, and a lot of people are very grateful for that. So happy birthday, Thunder and Lightnings. May you continue to live long and prosper!

Thunder and Lightnings cover(2) ()

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