Liz Kessler became a published poet in 1976, at the age of nine, when her story Jinx’s Shop appeared in the Manchester Evening News. The shopkeeper’s USP was that, along with his products, he always “had lovely stories to tell.” It was many years before Kessler, now a New York Times bestselling children’s novelist realised that she, too, had stories to tell.
“I wanted to be a poet but then I suppose I got on with my growing up and forgot all about it,” she says. “In the sixth form, I had a brilliant English teacher and started working really hard (I was a bit naughty before) and did an English degree.” Jobs in journalism and teaching followed. But one day, she and her mother played a game called Five Fantasy Lives.
“I looked at [my list of alternative lives] and it said: ‘writer, writer, writer, writer, writer’. It was like I suddenly remembered that was what I wanted to do.” She began to study for an MA in novel writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. And again, poetry was the route to publication.
At the time, Kessler was living on a narrowboat on the Macclesfield canal (“I don’t like to be too far from water”). A poem formed in her head about a girl who played with mermaids — and, on the advice of a friend’s publisher, she turned it into a novel for primary-age readers. The Tail of Emily Windsnap appeared in 2003, the first of a series that has now sold around five million copies and is in development as a film.
“People say: ‘do you believe in mermaids?’” says Kessler, “and I say: ‘we can’t categorically say they don’t exist, so I’d prefer to think they might. The thing that excites me the most is not creating a made-up world but setting the story in the contemporary real world, with the possibilities of magic at the edges.” That way, readers can believe magical things might happen to them, too.
Emily is half human, half mermaid and the book, despite its young readership, touches on her struggle for identity — something Kessler was at the same time addressing for young adults in Read Me Like a Book, a novel about a girl coming out as lesbian, which she wrote for her MA but then set aside.
The Windsnap series grew and Kessler wrote further books for young readers, featuring fairies, time travel and Poppy the pirate dog (based on her own neckscarf-wearing Dalmatian, who is apparently an adept self-publicist, greeting prospective readers on seaside walks).
Some fifteen years passed, with the Windsnap books sailing along nicely, then Kessler’s boat was rocked by a series of news stories about teenagers committing suicide as a result of homophobic bullying; and Russia’s passing anti-gay legislation. She knew— and her publisher agreed — the time was right to bring that lesbian-coming-of-age novel out of the drawer and support youngsters who were struggling as a result of their sexuality. Read Me Like a Book came out last year and has prompted many grateful letters.
Although she had a pint thrown over her at university for being gay, coming out to her own family “was never a massive deal” for Kessler.
“My parents treat my wife Laura as their daughter-in-law and I’m close to her parents too,” says Kessler. “Laura’s not Jewish but we wanted to have a Jewish element to our wedding. My sister said a Jewish prayer and wrapped us in my dad’s tallit; it was absolutely beautiful. Where we live in Cornwall, we don’t have a synagogue but there is a Jewish community. Being gay, being Jewish, being a writer are all part of my identity.”
Her father, Harry, arrived in the UK in 1938 as a refugee from Nazis and is a member of Southport Reform Synagogue Council. Her mother, Merle, was born and brought up in north Manchester, where she played Anne Frank in a local amateur production. She recently wrote a book set among the Jews of 16th-century Cordoba.
Liz’s sister, Caroline, organises community events in the north and is a lay reader and cheder teacher, while brother Peter founded Eden Primary, the cross-communal Jewish school in Muswell Hill, north London and has made documentaries about the Holocaust.
Liz and Laura have written some books together — early readers about Jenny the pony — while Kessler’s latest novel for young adults, Haunt Me, was inspired by a strange experience the couple had when they first moved to Cornwall and rented a house.
“Odd things happened. There was one room with a teddy that sat on a shelf. Every time I went in, it was on a different shelf and I’d think, that’s funny, why did Laura move it? Eventually we both realised we’d been assuming the other one had been moving it around.”
An office chair spontaneously altered its seat position and one day they found the curtains lying on the floor, while the pole was inexplicably propped in the corner. There was no other conclusion — it had to be a ghost.
“I’d never believed in ghosts,” says Kessler. “We moved out in six months, thank goodness. And the experience went into the box in my mind labelled ‘nothing’s ever wasted on a writer.’”
Haunt Me is an intense love-triangle story, in which Kessler places the most insurmountable of obstacles between the enamoured teenagers — one of them is dead. The thrills are heightened by setting most of the story in one room and the rest amid Kessler’s beloved Cornish coastal landscape.
“The experience of writing Haunt Me was very emotional and intense and came about through going for walks with a playlist on my headphones. A song [musical influences included Christina Aguilera, Sam Smith and Katy Perry] would come on and it would be like the next scene — I’d go out and walk the dog and come home in floods of tears.”
Inevitably, poems play an important part in the book; they were written in collaboration with Ella Frears, shortlisted as young poet laureate for London in 2014 and are a way of accessing those angst-ridden, teenage emotions.
The effect is haunting.
Haunt Me is published by Orion Children’s Books