Mary Hoffman interview
Bestselling children’s author Mary Hoffman talks to Lucy Coats about research, racism, and Martin Amis – and a rather sexy Florentine nude
PHOTOS: LUCY COATS
The crocuses are small orange and yellow flares on top of the old wall, huddled under bare trees. Their bright colours echo the huge striped peace flag hanging by the front door of the grey stone house – its presence makes a firm statement in this warlike corner of Oxfordshire, where military planes rumble overhead most days.
Mary Hoffman has tidied for me especially, she says, as her three Burmese cats twine to and fro about my legs, purring elegantly. She leads me through a hall piled with twenty just-taken-out library books (a symbol of her current campaigning zeal for Oxfordshire libraries threatened by cuts), and into a neat kitchen where I spy out homemade lemon cordial and jars of herbs and spices.
Soon I am ensconced in a deep red plush armchair in her office, drinking freshlyground hazelnut coffee. It’s an airy green room with large plastic boxes of writing research and filing all over the floor, and copious floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with a whole host of children’s and YA fiction.
Dotted about in front of the books are some of the talismanic objects which represent each title she writes – a small block of Carrara marble, a winged horse, a velvet bag full of mosaic tesserae. They are a focus for her writing, she insists, and ‘not fetishes in any way’. The walls are covered in original paintings from various eminent children’s artists who’ve worked on her books – a dragon by Chris Riddell, a fiery sun and a glowing moon by Jane Ray. There’s also a suspiciously neat desk with almost nothing on it. ‘It’s just for show,’ Hoffman says, laughing, when I ask. ‘I do all my writing on the sofa, with the computer on a cushion on my knee.’ Right now, she’s working on the edits for her latest historical novel, David – the fictional story of the model for Michelangelo’s famous statue.
Hoffman has been many things in her long career as a writer – a tenacious advocate of multiculturalism in children’s books, a journalist, a reviewer. Her Stravaganza series for teens has been published in 29 languages; she has sold over two million books worldwide and has been on the New York Times bestseller list with Amazing Grace, her picture book about a small black girl who refuses to accept that she can’t play Peter Pan just because of her sex or colour.
Hoffman speaks of her first Grace book in 1991 as one of what she refers to as her ‘career spikes’: ‘When you get past the gatekeepers – reviewers, librarians,
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