Not quite giving up the day-job . . .

You can never truly leave your roots behind - which is just as well, because they often prove inspirational. Author Anna Dale talks to Steven Russell about a happy East Anglian childhood, her big break and giving up chocolateANYONE who knows Essex might experience a sense of déjà vu upon reading Anna Dale's latest story for children.

You can never truly leave your roots behind - which is just as well, because they often prove inspirational. Author Anna Dale talks to Steven Russell about a happy East Anglian childhood, her big break and giving up chocolate

ANYONE who knows Essex might experience a sense of déjà vu upon reading Anna Dale's latest story for children. For the sleepy fictional village of Cherry Bentley bears more than a passing resemblance to Writtle, near Chelmsford.

It's no surprise, for Anna Dale drew on her childhood memories of Essex when she needed a setting for her tale Dawn Undercover.

“The green's there, and the duck pond, and the pub - The Wheatsheaf - which I've called the One-eyed Stoat,” she says. “All Saints Church is there - quite a few places. I think if you knew Writtle and read a little bit of the description you'd probably recognise it.”

Then there's Palethorpe Manor.

“Have you heard of Hylands House in Chelmsford? When I was a child, it was falling down and really dilapidated. And so I put in a house, called Palethorpe Manor, that's in the same sorry state that Hylands House was in.”

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Anna was born in Newmarket in 1971. The family moved to Hampshire and then to Writtle. She lived there from the age of seven until she went to university in Canterbury. They were halcyon days: having fun with the 3rd Writtle Brownies, catching fish in the stream, wandering over the fields with her dog, playing rounders on the green and feeding the ducks in the pond.

Two little incidents would shape her life.

The first was when Anna got her Writer's Badge at Brownies; the second at the local primary school when she was about eight and teacher Diana Marden read one of Anna's stories to the class.

“That really sticks in my mind. I was thrilled. When she read it, it sounded like a proper story. And I could see all the kids listening. Afterwards, a boy came up to me and talked excitedly about the story as if everything in it had actually happened. That was a magical moment for me. I was amazed that he'd believed something that I'd made up in my head. That was my first taste of being a 'writer' and I loved it.”

Surprisingly, it would be more than 20 years before Anna's literary talents moved into top gear.

The Chelmsford County High School for Girls pupil wanted to read English literature at university, but got a grade C when she needed a B. She was obliged to go through the clearing system and studied history, instead, at Kent.

Upon graduation she didn't really know what she wanted to do, “apart from earning some money! I either liked art or writing. But I didn't think you could really be an author; it didn't really cross my mind that it could be a career option”.

She thought of publishing, did a secretarial course to get some office skills, and then got a job in a bookshop to learn something of the trade.

About four years later she “started scribbling and wrote something that was booksized and pretty dreadful!” It didn't get much further than that.

Then, when she was 29, Anna started saving to visit New Zealand, with a friend, “but he pulled out kind of at the last minute and I thought 'I don't want to go on my own.'”

That summer she saw an advert for a post-graduate creative writing course at Winchester, not far from where she lives. The New Zealand money thus went towards the year-long course instead.

“It was great,” she enthuses. “It was the best education I ever had.” Working in groups, where you read out your work and had it critiqued, was hugely encouraging. “You start to think 'Ah, I'm not bad.' So your confidence increases.”

Whispering to Witches, the adventure story that would become her debut novel, was actually written in two months as part of the course.

It's about Joe, whose Christmas holiday plans are upset. Instead, he finds himself caught up in a conspiracy over an ancient book of magic and entangled in a world of witches and spells.

Anna got a good mark for her coursework and, thinking she might have something of potential, bought the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. It suggested sending a synopsis and the first few chapters to agents.

“And on the third agent, instead of getting a padded envelope back through the post” - the rejected and returned manuscript - “I got a letter that said 'Please send the rest.' I can remember that letter on the doormat. It was really exciting.”

Anna's fighting a cold, but lurgies can't quell that note of joy that survives long after the event.

“Then I got the call. I was at work at the bookshop and I got a call that I couldn't take. It was really near Christmas. Someone said 'It's your agent on the phone!' So I called them back later and they said Bloomsbury had made an offer.” Whispering to Witches was duly published in 2004.

Anna secured a two-book deal. So Dawn Undercover came out for last Christmas - just a few weeks after the paperback edition of her debut children's story was published.

It's enough to make a girl giddy.

Anna laughs. “I was so excited when I heard I'd got the deal. I lost about half a stone in two weeks because I couldn't eat.

“When I was writing Whispering to Witches I was eating lots of chocolate and drinking lots of Coke. You spend so much of your time sitting down, I think you need quite a caffeine rush.”

So, is writing for children her metier - and why?

“I think I've retained some of my childhood wonder, I suppose. I enjoyed that part of being a child: the innocence. You've got the opportunity to write about all kinds of different things, especially with fantasy, which I love. I don't think I've got the skills to write for adults, really!”

There's plenty of fantasy in Dawn Undercover. Dawn Buckle is an ordinary girl whose life picks up speed when she is approached by P.S.S.T. (Pursuit of Scheming Spies and Traitors) and attempts to track down bad apple Murdo Meek with the help of a shell-phone and a camera disguised as a box of raisins.

It took more than a year to write, though Anna was also working in the bookshop part-time. She still does two days a week.

“Working is a double-edged sword. Writing is solitary and I get lonely, so I really need the company of my friends at work and the bustle of the bookshop. But . . . you're just getting into your book and then you have to work for a few days. I can't automatically get in the mood for writing, so you have to 'think' yourself into your book again.

“But, then, I couldn't survive without it (the job).”

She's still saving hard to buy her own home, so it's not yet time to give up the day-job for good.

“Advances nowadays are much better than in JK Rowling's day, but because it's paid in quarters over several years, and so you don't have a consistent salary, it's a bit difficult for anyone who's self-employed. But I'm happy with the money I'm getting. Definitely.”

Anna's already got a fresh two-book deal with Bloomsbury in her pocket. In fact, this morning she's been working on her third book. She's several chapters in and it's likely to be finished by early summer.

“It's a fantasy inspired by The New Forest, near to where I live. It's about two girls who go on a quest.”

Another new set of heroines, then.

“I'm a bit silly in a way, I suppose, because series are quite good things to write because they're very much in demand and popular and quite lucrative. But I like writing about different characters and settings.”

Surprisingly, Anna is a bit unsure of her future direction.

“I don't think I'd like to be a full-time writer. I'd quite like to have another part-time career; a bit more challenging . . . I think . . . because although I do enjoy the bookshop, I feel I'd like to try something else.” She laughs. “I'd like to be a potter or something! Or something with a wildlife charity.”

One senses, too, that her East Anglian heritage might be exerting a pull . . .

Anna's planning a visit to Suffolk soon. “I've been doing some family tree research and they come from Hitcham, near Stowmarket, over hundreds of years. I want to come up and look at some graveyards and go through the records. I'd quite like to have a look at the land of my fathers.”

Where she lives near Southampton is said to be the fourth most expensive spot in the UK for houses. The author's noticed that property prices in the Chelmsford area are similar, but that Colchester is cheaper.

Thinking of upping sticks, then?

“Yeah . . . I don't know . . . I'm thinking of kind of making a leap, somewhere else. But I don't know if I can leave the New Forest . . . But, you know, good things come to those who wait. I have to be patient.”

While the future resolves itself, there are those two books to finish for Bloomsbury.

The fourth might possibly be a sequel to the third, “but I haven't even told the publisher that!”

n Dawn Undercover is published by Bloomsbury at £10.99. ISBN 0-7475-7407-3

* * *

ANNA Dale thinks Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree was probably the first “big book” she read - and she's a committed fan of an author often criticised for repetitious plots and class-bound settings.

“Her work is not beautifully written, maybe, but she's got a phenomenal imagination. That's her best quality - something other authors would kill for.

“She wrote over 700 books, which was prolific. I think she could write a book in a week.” Yes, but they're written to a template. “Well, they were quite similar! But that's what children love. They love the same characters having the same sort of adventures. We still sell loads of them at the bookshop. Her stories move very quickly, and are exciting.”

What are the ingredients for a successful children's book?

“There are lots of themes that are popular. But the author has to write for himself and not for anyone else. And that's what I try to do. I try not to think about whether my editor will like it or not, or anyone else. You just hope that other readers will eventually like it as well.

“I think you have to have fast pace, because children like it to move quickly or they'll lose interest. And humour is a really good way of attracting children. And, I guess, try to be original.”

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