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Eva just gets better

Last time I interviewed Eva Ibbotson, four years ago, Harry Potter mania was at its most manic.

Eva Ibbotson

Last time I interviewed Eva Ibbotson, four years ago, Harry Potter mania was at its most manic. Back then, I remind the Newcastle author, J K Rowling was "the bee's knees".

Back comes the breezy reply: "And her knees get ever beesier."

Ms Rowling has certainly made a mountain of money. But none of her books will make me smile as broadly as Eva's latest, The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle, which is meticulously written, beautifully rounded and a hoot from start to finish.

It even looks fantastic, with a cover illustration by David Roberts which would be good enough to frame.

Clearly a middle-aged bloke is not representative of the target readership but my nine-year-old daughter is also now whipping through the tale of Madlyn and Rollo who go to stay with their uncle and aunt, Sir George and Miss Emily, the dotty owners of a fairly clapped out stately home in England's border country.

Eva is well aware of what publishers now call "crossover" books, those enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Rowling and Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, have benefited from this phenomenon and Eva says it's hardly strange and certainly not new. "So many adult books don't tell a decent story so people turn to children's books.

Eva Ibbotson is a national treasure. Her publishers threw a party for her at London's Dorchester Hotel to celebrate her 80th birthday in January.

The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle is Eva's 10th book for children. Her ninth, The Star Of Kazan, is just out in paperback and her eighth, Journey to the River Sea, garnered a rich haul of awards and critical plaudits.

Three of her earlier ones, The Secret of Platform 13 (which pre-dated Harry Potter in describing a special hidden departure point from King's Cross station), Which Witch? and Dial a Ghost are being considered for films.

In my view she just gets better. The new book skips along in crisp prose with a good joke or an astute observation on every page.

"I feel sometimes hellishly old but it's a funny thing about writing," says Eva whose life is made no easier by a debilitating condition which causes painful joints. "If you have done it for a very long time it's as if it becomes some part of you.

"You find yourself going about and feeling old and feeble but when you sit down to write, words do come to you. I suppose it must be due to practice but all creative people have to learn their craft. There is a lot of hard work involved."

Eva Ibbotson was born in Vienna but came to Britain in 1933, the year Hitler seized power in Germany. Her father, who was Jewish, had fortuitously been offered a job at Edinburgh University.

Eva's childhood was characterised by upheaval, by frequent moves - Paris, Berlin, London, Edinburgh She first came to Newcastle when her late husband got a lecturing job at the university.

"I'd hardly heard of it," she confesses. "When the train stopped at York I got the children to put their coats on, but we were on the train for another hour. That was 45 years ago and I'm still here. I suppose God thought I'd done enough travelling."

For most of that time she has lived in the same house in Jesmond although her imagination has wandered all over the place, providing the material for many stories.

"For the first eight years after I moved up here I wrote magazine stories. Then when the children were old enough to go to school and out of my hair, I wrote a children's book and then an adult novel. For 10 or 12 years I alternated. I like doing that."

After the death of her husband, Alan, she wrote Journey to the River Sea. It helped her in a personal sense and in critical terms it eclipsed all she had achieved with her adult novels. The predictable outcome is that she has concentrated on children's fiction for the last few years, benefiting from its resurgent prestige.

Back to the latest Ibbotson cracker. Sir George and Miss Emily, it turns out, are desperate to attract day trippers to Clawstone Castle not for the love of money but for the upkeep of a herd of wild white cattle.

This will ring a bell with many North-East readers and Eva can hardly deny the Chillingham cattle were her inspiration. Two or three years ago, she says, her daughter took her to see them and she found both them and their story enchanting.

In her story, the cattle become the pawns in a dastardly plot hatched by a rival stately home owner with lots of money but no soul. It falls to the resourceful Madlyn and her gentle, animal-loving brother to save the cattle and the castle - which they do with the aid of a posse of hilarious ghosts.

Eva is at pains to point out that while the Clawstone cattle might have been inspired by the Chillingham cattle, the same can hardly be true of the respective castles. Unlike Clawstone, Chillingham is a prime and thriving tourist attraction.

I would have thought it can only stand to benefit from the book which is fresh, funny and astonishingly current. Eva says her seven grandchildren, aged from three to 27, help to keep her in touch but in any case she regards her books as "timeless".

She applies a similar thinking to her writing career, for which all fans, young and old, should be thankful. "I like to think I have a great writing future," she says cheerfully. "It's best to think like that."

* The Beasts of Clawstone Castle (Macmillan, £12.99); The Star of Kazan (Macmillan, £5.99)

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