It’s not the easiest job in the world, interviewing a recluse author in the midst of the pandemic, who lives in an area you’d “have to dig a trench for hundreds of yards” to hook up to wifi (rural Sussex).
Despite the recent release of her latest novel, Jacqueline Wilson has just been on holiday, and insists any self-PR must fit around the post-holiday, pre-lockdown rush of optician and dentist appointments. I interview her remotely, in the spaces between.
She’s no diva, though. Jacqueline’s simple life hasn’t really felt the tremors of lockdown: “I read, I write, I daydream, I walk the dog, I watch a box set in the evening with a glass of wine.” It hasn’t been lonely as she lives with her partner of 18 years “and luckily we get on very well together.” This is the nature of all her answers: droll, modest and bearing that unmistakeable tinge of inner happiness.
Despite her lockdown seclusion, the former children’s laureate made headlines in April for “coming out” publicly as gay. This is an overstatement, in her mind: “I just hadn’t specifically mentioned it before”.
Why not? She seems to be under the impression that young-queer-warriors don’t need little-old-Jacky waving their flag. “I’m an old woman now, and I’m sure many people would feel this is too much information!” She seems totally unaware of the effect her and her latest, rainbow-clad novel will have on many. Because Love Frankie – book number 111 in Jacqueline’s collection – is about a teenage girl who falls in love with the coolest and prettiest girl in school. Suddenly, Jackie’s own sexuality is relevant to her readers, 74-years-old or not.
While teenagers struggling with their sexualities are certainly in the corners of Jacqueline’s mind, she wrote Love Frankie for a universal crowd. It is not so much about gay love as first love (she doesn’t see gay love as distinct whatsoever). “I wanted to show what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. It’s such an intense, exciting, overwhelming experience, whether you’re gay or straight.” She’s hoping to hook adults too, stoking nostalgia for our teenage flames that never fully died away.
Jacqueline deflects away from Frankie’s LGBTQ+ identity, possibly because her own has never struck her as a point of conversation. “I think I’m very lucky because it’s never caused any problems for me,” she says, indirectly crediting her family. Yet she’s “heartbroken” that many young people “struggle desperately to accept themselves. I’d feel honoured if just a few young people read Love Frankie and felt less alone and anxious.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we all lived in a world we we could all love as we like and feel respected and valued.”
Detached, mellow and happy, she is either unaware of or uninterested in any trolling her “coming out” risks. “Lovely” and “warming” were how she described the public response, while adding – completely unperturbed – “who knows what might crop up in future!”
Far more daunting is the prospect of writing. “I find ALL my books difficult to write, though I try very hard to make them easy to read.” With Love Frankie, it wasn’t the LGBTQ+ element that proved difficult so much as the handling of Multiple Sclerosis, which Frankie’s mum in the story is struggling with. “I wanted to show it’s a very perplexing, challenging illness, and yet many people cope with it valiantly.” This thought was inspired by an unnamed friend, whose illness she says would come as a surprise to many who know her, “because she’s so determined to battle on and keep doing her job brilliantly”.
Perhaps one reason the writer finds ALL her books difficult is that ALL her books tackle rather difficult subjects, despite targeting the teen-toddler market. From Tracey Beaker to The Suitcase Kid to Vicky Angel, the Wilson collection makes abandonment, divorce, depression and grief staples of bedtime reading (but only as much as they are of life).
She acknowledges this is “not right for everyone”. Her “one lovely daughter” disliked “too much conflict” in books as a child, so Jacqueline would write her “special private stories where everything was wonderful and she always had pink cake for tea and a birthday every week”. At the end of the day, children come first— “I’m not always on the side of the adults in my books, but I’m always on the side of the children.”
Yet Jacqueline maintains children’s literature has the power, if not the responsibility, to create social change, as “Black Beauty by Anna Sewell changed many Victorians minds about the treatment of horses”. She also feels there’s a gap in the market: “right from when I was very small I’ve wondered why various troubling subjects were never mentioned in children’s books.” She’s working to plug this gap “in a child-friendly and hopefully comforting way,” by guiding young readers through “all kinds of family relationships”.
While subject matter varies, there’s something distinctly Jacqueline to all of her protagonists. “I tend to write about imaginative children who are often considered odd or different”. This is the reason she gives for never featuring same-sex romances before now: what on earth is odd about them? “I’ve always been open to the idea of falling in love and having a relationship with either sex, but as it happened I didn’t meet up with Trish until I was middle-aged.”
Until her late middle age, Jacqueline was in fact “in a conventional straight marriage” with a policeman whom she’d hitched at 19 and had a baby with at 21. I asked her about the difference between settling down with a woman versus a man. Her answer, of course, was not about gender (that seems irrelevant to her as a general rule). It was about character: “how much you love them. Let’s just say my marriage was goodish most of the time – and my civil partnership wonderful all of the time.”
As for Jacqueline’s character? “I suppose I write about odd ones out, because I never felt I was in any particular gang at school, or fitted into any specific category. I was always a bit different – and I suppose I still am now. Happily!”
Love Frankie is available to purchase online and in stores, published by DOUBLEDAY and illustrated – as always – by Nick Sharratt. Buy it here.