The Gruffalo writer Julia Donaldson on her new creation, The Highway Rat

The children's author shares the pleasures and pains of the writing process

Julia Donaldson (Getty,mh)

Where do your characters come from?


Most of my storylines come from traditional tales, especially trickster tales. The Highway Rat came from a poem I love called The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Of all my villains, I especially enjoyed writing him.

Where do you write?

In my study, which looks out on a busy street. All life is there and I get easily distracted, but I’m good at shutting it out if I’m on a roll. I like to use a pen and paper; I feel like I’m plugged in and ideas can flow from my head to my hand like an electrical current. I’ll start in the study and then I’ll keep thinking about how to solve a rhyme or plot problem in the bath, or while walking on the South Downs. Each couplet might take two days.

Do you think about how a character will look when it’s illustrated?

No, I have problems enough dreaming up a storyline; I can’t be thinking about what they look like. They’re Axel Scheffler’s vision, not mine. I trust him.

What did you read as a child?

I remember my granny reading me Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Then I grew into an avid reader — I collected all the Just William books by Richmal Crompton.

Did you always have a vivid imagination?

Always — as a child I liked making up plays. I liked writing, but doing it in a sociable way. I’d write a version of Cinderella with a twist or choreograph a ballet to Chopin and try to get my friends to do Les Sylphides.

How do you feel when you’re writing?

It’s horrible! But I always forget; it’s like having a baby. Every book feels impossible and I’ll say to my husband, Malcolm, “I can’t do this any more. This is rubbish compared to my other books!” And he’ll say, “You always say that,” which is reassuring.


The Highway Rat is on Christmas Day, 4.45pm BBC1