Geraldine McCaughrean is not yet a household name in America—perhaps because her last name (pronounced "Mc-cork-re-uhn) is a mouthful. "I was so very keen to get rid of 'Jones,'" she says wistfully of her maiden name. But she's famous in England: author of more than 130 books; winner of England's most prestigious children's book award, the Carnegie Medal, for A Pack of Lies; and three-time recipient of the Whitbread Prize.
Her profile here and internationally is about to get a lot higher with the publication of Peter Pan in Scarlet, a sequel to J.M. Barrie's classic, commissioned by Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, which was bequeathed the copyright by Barrie. She talked with Bookshelf from her home in Berkshire, a village north of London where she lives with her husband, John, and her teenage daughter, Ailsa.
Did someone suggest you would be a good choice to write the official sequel to Peter Pan?
My husband saw it in the newspaper! There was going to be this worldwide search—you had to be a published author and submit a synopsis and a trial chapter. He said, "Why don't you have a go at that?" My first reaction was, "I haven't got a chance in the world at getting that," but then I thought, "Well, it'd be fun to do as a writing exercise, a cerebral exercise in whether I could pick up Barrie's tone of voice and think myself into Neverland." So I sent something in.
And you won!
Yes I did but, of course, my first thought was, "When am I going to find time to do that?" I had lots of other jobs on the go and deadlines. But when I sat down to do it, I was much more carried away than I thought possible.
It wasn't daunting to write a sequel to a classic?
I was fine until all the journalists started saying, "Aren't you daunted?" But I figured, somebody has got to do it, it might as well be me and, honestly, writing it was the easy part.
What was the hard part then?
I did feel like my duty was toward Barrie, first and foremost. If you're going to mess with somebody else's characters, you'd best do it right. So I worried a bit about that, but I got over it because I was having so much fun. And that is always a good sign for a book. You sort of suspect if a book's fun to write, it will be fun to read.
So as a writing assignment, this was easier than most?
Well, I had a lot of people to please, all these hands reaching out to take [the manuscript] from me but, in the end, all the necessary people seem pleased.
But it hasn't gotten any reviews yet, has it? I mean, there is a top-secret embargo of the plot, right?
Yes, but they have given it to some booksellers, and they've given it absolutely rave reviews. Of course, yes, it does remain to be seen what the rest of the world will think. I rather hope it will be read to children by parents in the same way Barrie expected his book to be read aloud. There a lot of little asides in his book—adult jokes for the parent that no child would appreciate—and I've tried to do the same in mine.
What do you make of all the hush-hush on the plot? Is it just hype?
It's a bit odd. Publishers are always so happy to have me talk about my books. I've never had to not talk about the book before but I suppose since it's publishing simultaneously all over the world on the same day, they want it all to happen at once on that day.
Did you know the New York Times published a story recently that let the cat out of the bag?
I did. It's a bit of a mystery since they could have had a copy if they signed the confidentiality agreement but since they didn't sign it, they hadn't been sent one, so I'm not sure how they got it. I don't think [the Times reporter] was out to do anything unkind, but it has left a slightly nasty taste in my mouth.
What was your first exposure to Peter Pan, reading it as a book or seeing it as a movie?
It was the first play I ever went to. I was six and my parents took me to see it in London. Everybody thinks they know the book but what they know is the play, or the film, or the pantomime. I wanted to be true to the book, so I read and reread before I began writing.
You've written about such seminal figures as Odysseus and Saint George, and on the other end of the spectrum, humorous treatments about the Wild West in Stop That Train! How did this experience stack up?
Writing is writing to me. I'm incapable of saying no to any writing job so I've done everything—historical fiction, myths, fairy tales, anything that anybody expresses any interest in me writing, I'll write. It's the same reason I used to read as a child: I like going somewhere else and being someone else. I also find there's no particular reason to write a new story all the time when there are so many old stories people are forgetting: Gilgamesh, Moby Dick, El Cid, Pilgrim's Progress, all the Greek myths. They're all well worth re-airing, and I'm just the writer to do it.