My interview with Helen Brain

12 Mar

Because it (WAS) Christmas, and Christmas is a time for children, I interviewed another good friend: writer Helen Brain. Author of 30 books for children, an adult memoir and lots of short stories, Helen lives in the most fabulously decorated house in Cape Town.
What’s the first book you remember loving?
Elfrida Vipont’s The Lark in the Morn and the Lark on the Wing. And John Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet.
When did you know you were a writer?
I started a diary at 16. I’m still keeping it, 32 years later. But I only began to be able to say, ‘I am a writer’ without a sense of being a self delusional, self promoting fraud about two years ago. Of course, being a children’s writer means I am not a real writer. Rachelle Greeff and I have this horrible trick we play on each other. When we go out together, one of us always explains to the waiter or cashier that the other one requires very special attention becuase she is a famous ‘authoress.’ It’s hilarious when I do it to her, not nearly as funny when she does it to me. I suppose I feel more comfortable being an ‘authoress,’ which is a dilettantish sort of occupation one does while lying on a pink velvet sofa, drinking champagne and dictating to a nervous lady secretary.
What was the first children’s book/story you wrote, and why?
I was ten. It was called Margaret at Christmas. I still have it.
What’s the hardest thing about writing for children?
The hardest thing about writing for kids is sitting down and doing it. And dealing with publishers and doing admin. It’s all hard. It’s a horrible job. But someone’s gotta do it.
But the nice thing about writing for kids is that other kid’s writers and illustrators are so warm and kind. I think most people who write for children had nasty childhoods in some way or other, and learned to escape into their own world. Now they write for kids because they remember that world they created. They developed both their imagination and their empathy for children.
This makes them nice people – the sort I like anyway. They’re not cutthroat self promoters who bitch about other writers or illustrators who are successful. In South Africa anyway, children’s book creators are a warm supportive community.
Do you get fabulous letters from kids/parents about your books?
Sometimes I get wonderful letters. Sometimes I get criticism. I have a system where I see a child who begets a story in me, so I begin to write a chapter a day and send it to the child’s parents to read them at bedtime. Then I get a daily response if I’m lucky. Their eagerness to read the next chapter keeps me working every day.
Sometimes they just love every chapter and send me glowing words of praise and pictures. But sometimes they are cool and critical, and that makes me try harder and harder. I actually prefer the slightly aloof readers, as they keep me hopping. The hardest was Kate Higgs, Colleen Higgs’ little girl. A delicious child who looks like a mermaid. But very slow to praise. Her letters read, ‘Dear Helen, Chapter three was too short.’ and ‘Dear Helen, we liked chapter 7 but not as much as chapter 1.’ I tried harder and harder to please her, which makes for better writing.
What are you busy with right now?
Right now I am nursing my very ill husband, and have been since April. He has fourth stage colon cancer, and has just had half his liver removed. He starts chemo again next month. looking after him and dealing with all the emotions that severe illness brings and trying to make money to pay the medical bills means that I have not really done anything creative for months and months. But I consider this as a fallow period, where the ground is being rested, and I have no doubt that something really rich will grow in it when the time is right. I’m using the time to read and think, as when I’m writing I can’t read other writers. So I’m quite enjoying reading a lot.
Are you a “write when I’m inspired” kind of person, or a “write every day no matter what” kind of person?
I used to be an inspired only person, which was really just an excuse to be scared and avoid stretching myself. Then my friend, the artist Jenny Parsons taught me to stop whining about how hard it is to be a creative person and to work even when you don’t feel like it, and to do it every day regardless. So that is what I do. I write every day, but at the moment its articles, my weekly column, whatever earns me money.
Anything else you want to say?
What else do I want to say? Do my course. I teach a “writing for children” course which must be the best value for money ever. It should cost double what it does. You come out at the end with an edited book. I have students from all over the world, who have come to me via my articles at Suite 101, and my blog.
Read my blog at
Read my latest articles at
Sign up for my online writing course at:


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