Interview with Award-winning Author J.M. Forster

“We are all different and there is no such thing as normal.”

British Author J.M. Forster

There are a lot of good authors on Amazon who don’t appear on the Best Seller list. It’s fun to poke around and use the ‘Look Inside’ option and see what appeals. This is how I discovered J.M. Forster. She is an award winning British author, and has written two well-received books for middle grade readers. The first, a mystery adventure, Shadow Jumper was Gold Winner of the Wishing Shelf Book Awards. Her second book, Bad Hair Days recounts the story of Mallow, who is desperate to hide an embarrassing secret. Bad Hair Days was a finalist in 2017 for the Wishing Shelf Book Awards.

I contacted Ms. Forster, and she generously took some time to answer a few questions.

As a child, Julia spent a lot of time reading, making her way through piles of library books every week. When her sons were young, she shared her love for books with them. As a result, in 2009 she decided to try her hand at writing a “positive and upbeat” story, with rewarding results.

In this email interview, Ms. Forster shares some of her favorite books, why she likes being a writer, and the tools she uses for her work. With two books published, she is challenging herself to learn Spanish.

LC: What sorts of things did you write when you were young:

JMF: To be honest, I didn’t write a huge amount when I was young, I was more into reading. However, I did attempt to write one book when I was about eight or nine years old. It was written in the style of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories. Enid Blyton, who died in 1968, was a famous children’s writer in England and her books are still really popular today.

The Mystery of the Golden Locket

Unusually for me, as I’m not a hoarder, I kept the notes of my unfinished story, which I called The Mystery of the Golden Locket. It’s written partly in blue biro, partly in red crayon and tied together with pink wool.

LC: How was reading/writing encouraged and supported in your family:

JMF: My family weren’t great readers; there weren’t many books in the house, compared to the number I have in my home today. But my parents were supportive of my passion for reading and I was a member of the local library. They’d ferry me along there practically every week, so that I could stock up on reading material. At that time you could only take out three or four books at a time with your membership card, so I’d take the whole family’s cards along and would come back with armfuls of books.

LC: What are some of the books you enjoyed as a young reader, and which ones still hold up:

A treasured childhood book.

JMF: As I’ve already said, I was a great fan of Enid Blyton when I was younger, and particularly loved The Famous Five, Malory Towers, and The Secret Seven series. One of my all-time favourite books is A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (I’ve still got my original copy). It’s an historical time-slip story set in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. And of course, I loved The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and A Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.

When I got a bit older I started reading Agatha Christie novels; Christie was a genius at plotting great murder mysteries.

LC: What else interested you then, along with reading and writing?

JMF: What other interests are there?  ; )  I was always reading!

Other than that, I’d spend a lot of time with my family. My mother used to take me and my sister on day trips to London and other nearby places to see the sights. We also spent a lot of time doing craft activities. At Easter we’d set up a little factory making eggs out of papier mâché, then we’d make sweets to put inside them and give them to family.

When I was in my teens I got into drama a bit, but it was always reading that kept my attention the most back then.

LC: What books do you enjoy with your family now?

JMF: My two sons are older now, (my older son has turned 18) so they have their own interests. My younger son likes non-fiction and science, so reads The New Scientist magazine. My older son is re-visiting books he read when he was younger, like the Skullduggery Pleasant series [ed.: by Derek Landy]. He’s also interested in visual special effects and animation so reads magazines about that.

LC: What pursuits do you follow when you are not writing:

JMF: My main interest, apart from writing, is learning Spanish. It’s something I’ve been doing on and off for years, having spent a number of months in Spain when I was in my twenties, teaching English as a foreign language. I now have Spanish classes, do language exchanges, watch films and TV series in Spanish etc. I love it and it keeps the brain active!

I enjoy walking my dog, Frodo, and when I can, I do Pilates (essential if you have a job where you’re sitting down most of the time.)

LC: What books are you reading now, or have you read recently:

JMF: I read a lot of fiction written for young people as that is what I love. At the moment I’m reading Stone Cold by Robert Swindells with the added challenge that I’m reading it in Spanish, obviously with the aid of a dictionary!

LC: Do you have a favorite library or librarian, or bookstore:

JMF: I have to give a shout out for The Suffolk Anthology in Cheltenham, an independent bookstore, run by a lovely lady called Helene. In the basement of her shop I run my writers’ critique group. A group of six or seven of us meet every 2/3 weeks to critique each other’s work and talk ‘writing’. Helene has always been incredibly supportive of us writers. Sadly, the bookshop is closed at the moment, given the current situation, but I hope that we’ll soon be able to meet there again.

LC: What do you like about being a writer:

JMF: I like being able to set my own timetable (although that does bring its challenges). As I publish my own books, I have a lot of control over how I do things and when. It’s that independence that I enjoy. Also, seeing how my story develops and changes as I write it and how it gradually gets better and better (hopefully!) over time, until at last I feel it’s ready to be launched into the wider world. Although I start off with a plot outline I often find that new ideas come to me whilst I’m writing, and they can change the direction the novel is going in. It surprises me when I’ve finished a story and return to the first draft and compare it to the final one; they are always so different.

LC: What got you going on writing Shadow Jumper and Bad Hair Days:

JMF: Before I started writing Shadow Jumper, which I think was in about 2009, I read a lot of books with my children. I enjoyed reading them so much, I decided to have a go at writing one for myself. The story for Shadow Jumper came from two different ideas; one was the game I played with my two boys when I was taking them to school and kindergarten each morning. We would jump between the shadows on the pavement as a game and as a means of keeping them entertained until we got to school. The other idea came from the skin condition my dad suffers from; he’s sensitive to sunlight. It means that he spends a lot of time inside, his skin reacts badly to the light and he comes out in an itchy, painful rash. The doctors have never got to the bottom of what causes this problem. I started to think about what it would be like to be a teenager with such a problem, how they would cope with it. I then connected the two ideas together and came up with Shadow Jumper.

Bad Hair Days comes from a similar idea: being different. Although the story is about a girl who suffers from alopecia, or hair loss, it’s really about the fact that we are all different and there is no such thing as normal. It’s also about the importance of friendship and family.

I wanted the stories to be positive and upbeat. I like to think I achieved that as both books are very popular.

LC: What “writing implements” do you use? (paper/pencil/pen, typewriter, desktop, laptop, tablet, etc.):

Forster’s writing room.

JMF: I normally write using my laptop in my writing cabin. It’s a wonderfully tranquil space with a lovely view of the garden and a huge magnolia tree. However, when I start a novel, I scribble plot and character outlines using pen and any bit of paper I can find – I’m not terribly organized. Sometimes I brainstorm ideas onto a large piece of flipchart paper with a marker pen. Invariably, however much planning I do, things change as I go along, meaning those original hand-written notes become obsolete.

LC: Are there any particular writing programs that you like and use:

JMF: I use Word to write. It’s easy and I’m a bit of a technophobe, so I stick to the familiar. To help improve my writing I use ProWriting Aid program which helps me identify bits of text/vocabulary which are repetitive, don’t make sense or are not grammatically sound.

LC: Do you have anything to say for writers who get no encouragement, or are actively discouraged:

JMF: Don’t listen to those people who try and discourage you, which is easier said than done, I know. At the end of the day, no one can stop you putting pen to paper and writing your story. As long as you enjoy what you do, that is the important thing.

Without a doubt, one of the hardest things about being a writer is the rejection you are going to have to cope with, not just from well-meaning friends or family who think you shouldn’t be wasting your time, but from the publishing industry itself. Rejection comes with the territory of being a writer and it means that you have to develop a thick skin.

One practical suggestion for a budding writer is to find a supportive critique or writing group, either in your local area, or on line. Mixing with fellow writers who understand what you are doing is essential, in my opinion, and they can be a fount of knowledge, inspiration and encouragement.

Thank you, J.M Forster! I look forward to finishing up Bad Hair Days. Meanwhile, there is always room for another fun and exciting read-aloud book, and we await your next story!


Do you read-aloud to children and need some better books?

When you are an author, you are never alone!

Author Joy Wodhams with her character Cabbage Boy.

One tool everybody appreciates is a well-crafted children’s story, notably when reading aloud to children. Joy Wodhams’ adventure tales, The Mystery of Craven Manor and The Boy Who Could Fly, fit the bill. Author of books for youngsters as well as adults, Ms. Wodhams grew up in Liverpool, a sizeable port city built upon the River Mersey, on the west coast of Britain.

She began writing as a young girl, producing her first magazine at the age of seven. As an adult, she earned her living as a magazine editor, and sold short stories and feature articles to national magazines. In addition to her writing, she is an accomplished painter and art teacher.

Her lineage has noteworthy roots. As it says on her Amazon page, she comes from “five generations of theatre and circus gymnasts, trapeze artists, singers, musicians and songwriters.” Who wouldn’t want to be able to say that!

In an exchange of emails, Ms. Wodhams provided some insight into her writing life.

LC: Did you get encouragement for your writing when you were young:

JW: Not really. I remember lying on the floor, aged about 7, with pencil and an exercise book, and my mother complaining ‘You’ve always got your nose in a book or you’re scribbling. I’ve been calling you for ages!’

LC: What else interested you then, along with writing?

JW:Drawing. Particularly young ladies wearing the latest fashions. Painting came a little later, when I was 9 or 10, and I’ve always loved pencils, pens, paints, paper, inks and anything else connected with painting or writing. Even now I can’t go past a stationery store without diving in. The drawers of my desk bulge with multi-coloured folders and notebooks, waiting to be filled. As for books—they have been my main influence and my main obsession.

LC: Did these interests influence your writing subjects:

JW:Not particularly the drawing and painting—I’ve never created an artist as my main character, for example—but the books I read in childhood are still vivid in my memory and I think had a very profound effect on me. Now I write for children and adults, but my children’s books are the most successful. I’m told I’m very good at getting the ‘voice’ of a young child or young adult.

LC: How have these interests evolved, what interests you now, (or put another way: What pursuits do you follow when you are not writing):

JW:Over the years I’ve seesawed between writing and painting, both being major passions. I painted over 600 pictures in the l990s and sold most of them at my annual exhibitions. At the same time I was writing short stories for weekly and monthly magazines, but my market shrank when ‘800 word bites’ became popular (my stories usually ranged from 3000 to 5000 words).

Nowadays I usually have a part-finished painting on the easel, but I’m really focused on writing books. Once I get going, I write fairly quickly and I now have twelve novels, plus a manual on Creative Writing, in publication.

LC: Could you give some background of ‘800 work bites’:

JW: I think it started when everyone got involved with the internet, and life seemed to speed up.  Before then lots of the weekly and monthly magazines were publishing long short stories, often up to 5000 words, and I sold quite a few, but then they found that readers didn’t want to spend up to  an hour or more reading a long story, so the 800 bite story took its place. I wasn’t interested in writing those, and in any case it coincided with a new job as a magazine editor myself, so I stopped writing stories altogether.

LC: Have any of these stories been republished?

JW: I do have two short story collections. One is The Floater and the other is The Girl At Table Nine. Some are a bit dated now, I expect…short stories are supposed to be back in favour, mainly in specialist magazines.

The author’s work space.

LC: Was reading and writing encouraged and supported in your family:

JW: I don’t think anyone else took an interest really, until I married my second husband who was also an avid reader. We spent long hours with our noses buried deep in our books—which may sound anti-social but was actually quite lovely! He was very supportive when I started writing and even took over the cooking to give me more creative time. My two children, who live in the UK, also enjoy reading and often help to publicise my novels. Sadly, my stepchildren don’t read books at all!

LC: How do you suppose your unusually dynamic, creative family influenced you as a child, and now:

JW:I had two older brothers who were reasonably good at drawing, but I didn’t know about the earlier generations until I was around 11 years old! It was then that I first met my maternal grandmother—my father had caused a rift in the family when he eloped with my mother, and the rift wasn’t healed until after he (and the grandfather I never met) died.

My grandmother came to live with us, and brought with her the little brown case that later formed the basis for my novel The Boy Who Could Fly. The case, full of old faded photographs, in memoriam cards, and the poster which later triggered me to write that book, fascinated me. I used to visit it whenever my grandmother was away from the house, and those snapshots of the past still fascinate me.

As well as the family members who performed on stage and in the circus, I found a singer/composer (my great-great-great-grandfather) whose songs are still performed by well-known folk groups, several violinists (my two daughters both play violins and other instruments) and several artists. Genes! Aren’t they wonderful! I don’t think any of us can take sole credit for any creative successes we have!

LC: What are the songs still played that were written by your great-great-great-grandfather:

JW: Johnny, I hardly knew ye and Ten thousand miles from home were two of them that have been recorded in recent times. His name was Joseph Bryan Geoghegan and he was born in 1815.

LC: What are some of the books you enjoyed as a young reader, and which ones still hold up:

JW: Henrietta’s House (written by Elizabeth Goudge) was my favourite of all time. I read it when I was seven and obsessed with everything connected with painting and writing. When I read about Henrietta, who was given a whole house, a wardrobe full of beautiful dresses  and best of all, a desk whose drawers overflowed with paper, crayons, paints, inks, pens and pencils, that was me—incommunicado for the next two or three years! It’s out of print now, but still available through some of the secondhand book dealers. If you can find it, give it to any 7 to 10 year old you know (there’s a great adventure in it for boys, too).

I don’t remember the authors of others so well, but those I bought for my own children, and would 100% recommend, include Tom’s Midnight Garden [ed.: by Philippa Pearce], The Mouse and his Child [ed.: by Russell Hoban and Tamsin Oglesby], The Wolves of Willoughby Chase [ed.: by Joan Aiken] and Goodnight Mr. Tom [ed.: by Michelle Magorian].

LC: Those all look lovely! What books are you reading now, or have you read recently:

JW: I’ve just finished Big Sky, Kate Atkinson’s latest Jackson Brodie novel. I love Neil Gaiman and have just started The Graveyard Book. I often reread favourite books such as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, anything by Anne Tyler or Margaret Atwood—and  am planning to reread Melvin Burgess’s teenage book Doing It—very rude but hilarious! I thought I might also reread Anyone Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald, a biographical very funny novel set in the USA during the economic Depression of the late Twenties. Thought it might come in useful!

LC: Did you go to the library when you were growing up, do you still:

JW: From a very young age I used to visit the library twice a week, staggering home with as many books as they would allow me. Sadly, many of the public libraries in the UK have closed, or are being run part time by volunteers.

LC: There are similar problems in the US. What do you like about being a writer:

JW: Everything! My husband died three years ago. (Coincidentally my first husband died a few months previously. Oscar Wilde might have considered it carelessness to lose two in the same year!) So now I live alone, and of course I have also self-isolated.

But the greatest thing about living alone as a writer is that, in fact, you’re never alone! My head is permanently buzzing with the latest characters I’ve invented, who grow there and become a second family.  And I am never, never bored! Planning and plotting may be hard work but it’s so absorbing and so enjoyable.

I have to discipline myself to take time off to cook meals, clean the house and try to control the garden.

LC: Do you have any pets?

JW:Not now, but we used to keep chickens. I loved them, such individual characters. I’ve actually written a short book (from the first person chicken viewpoint) but I don’t know what to do with it.

LC: You mention a garden. Are you a gardener?

JW: I have a very large garden and love it but it’s too much work for one. I was always the garden designer and my husband did most of the hard slog.

LC: What interests you enough in an idea, character or setting to write a book:

JW: I don’t think any of my books started with a setting. It’s usually a particular character or a situation. The discovery of my amazing great-great-uncle, ‘Una The Human Fly’, triggered my circus book, The Boy Who Could Fly.

The idea for Cabbage Boy came when tractor drivers deposited a new kind of manure, processed from human waste, on the large field behind my house. It started me thinking about DNA and the next day I had my two main characters, a mutant cabbage and the nervous OCD teenage boy who protects him.

The Girl In the Attic started with the idea of a desperately lonely ghost, murdered 75 years ago but still too scared to leave the attic in which she was captive, even while the house falls to pieces around her.

LC: How have you adapted or changed as “writing implements” have evolved (paper and pencil, typewriter, desktop, laptop):

JW: Ah! Scraps of paper, pencils and pens, later progressing to a typewriter, which speeded things up. I’d been trained to type at 80 wpm! I left school long before the advent of computers, but later, much later, I bought a desktop computer and taught myself how to use it. Later still, I bought my first laptop.

By then I was writing full length novels, and I decided from the start to self-publish, so I downloaded a free graphics programme and had a go at designing my own covers. Some steep learning curves, but satisfying.

LC: Do you have anything to say for writers who don’t get encouragement, or are actively discouraged:

JW:Writing is a solitary activity, even for those who have supportive family and friends. In the end, we all write alone. And writing—the structure of writing—is a craft, something we all have to learn. Even when we’re skilled, writing a best seller is pie in the sky for most of us. Some of my books have done well, others languish unnoticed (including some I’m particularly proud of).

Write because you love it, because it absorbs and fulfills you. If it gets noticed, that’s a bonus. When you type THE END, ask yourself what those non-supportive friends have done that has given them as much satisfaction?

Self-portrait of the author

Thank you, Ms. Wodhams. This has been a pleasure. I have downloaded There’s A Lion In My Bed, and look forward to reading it soon. Maybe one day we’ll see that chicken story!