A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Book Birthday Interview: Elli Woollard Interviews Clara Vulliamy about DIXIE O’DAY AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE!


The Dixie O’Day books by Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy are always such a delight, and Dixie O’Day and the Haunted House is no exception. The fourth book in the series, Dixie O’Day and the Haunted House sees intrepid hero Dixie and his rather less intrepid sidekick Percy set off on a camping expedition. Inevitably the weather does its worst, forcing the two campers to abandon their tents and seek shelter. The only shelter around is a tumbledown turreted house, with swooping bats outside and layers of dust inside. But is the house as deserted as it seems?

Shirley and Clara manage to achieve that wonderful spine-chilling spookiness, without ever making the reader feel too much like hiding under the bedclothes. It was real pleasure to be able to interview Clara about how the book was made.

I see that you’ve dedicated the book to your designer. The Dixie books are certainly a triumph of beautiful design. Please could you explain to a non-illustrator ignoramus like me how the roles of illustrator and designer co-ordinate on a book like Dixie?

I’m so glad you have noticed the stylish design of the Dixie series. I always work very closely with the designer on every book I make, learning new things all the time and being very open and responsive to their suggestions and input, but rarely more so than with the Dixie designer Ness Wood. She has an impeccable eye and imaginative flair, and as luck would have it she also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the period I have set the Dixie books in (the 1950’s and 60’s). The retro patterns and textures in the artwork are all her own clever finds. She pushes me to be the best I can be, which is exactly what I want and need.

You and your mother are a dream team on the Dixie books. Apologies if you’ve been asked this a million times before, but how do you work together? Do you keep the roles of author and illustrator separate, or is it very much a collaborative process, with both of you making suggestions as you go along?

We are a very good team! I am Percy, in the passenger seat, reading the map and looking after the custard creams. Mum is Dixie, always in the driving seat, knows what’s going on under the bonnet.

We do mull over the initial ideas together, over a cuppa at her kitchen table; we chat about what inspires us, what makes us laugh. She then makes a start on a new story and will usually read me a chapter or two every now and again, while it’s taking shape. This is my favourite part of our collaboration. But after that it’s very hands off: we work separately and give each-other completely free rein. Mum never suggests what a particular character might look like, whether it is human or animal for instance, which is incredibly restrained (and kind, because inventing the characters is my second favourite part).

There are so many brilliant illustrations in the book. Have you got a favourite one?

Thank you! There’s a very spooky picture that takes place in the haunted house itself; the people in the creepy old paintings on the wall seem to be following Dixie and Percy with their eyes.
I’ll show you a detail from it…


I’m very excited about Dixie O’Day On His Bike, the next book in this fantastic series. Aren’t bicycles a bit of a bugbear for illustrators though? I’ve heard that they’re nearly as difficult to draw as horses!

NOTHING is as difficult as drawing horses! But yes, you’ve heard right. A bicycle is fiendishly tricky and if you can hear lots of exasperated squeakings and rubbings-out from the general direction of my studio then that’s because I’m working on it right now.
But it’s good to master new things, and the sight of our heroes in their vintage cycling shorts, with Percy peddling away as fast as his little legs can manage, cheers me along greatly.

The villain, Lou-Ella, played a relatively small part in Dixie O’Day and the Haunted House (unless, of course she was somehow behind the hauntings. I wouldn’t put it past her!). Will she take a bigger role in the next book?

I don’t envy the children of Didsworth knocking on Lou Ella’s door at Halloween, hoping for treats!
I shall give you a clue, she’s not THAT into cycling, but she does set her sights on a career in the movie business in the near future…

Dixie and Percy have very different attitudes to camping – Dixie likes the outdoor life, while Percy enjoys his creature comforts. Are you a Dixie or a Percy when it comes to camping? (I am definitely a Percy!)

I’m so relieved to hear that you are a Percy – me too. And none more so than the author. Tents, campervans and shepherds huts – all dreamy to see and to draw, but lead me quickly to the nearest comfy hotel and proper bathroom, please…

claraPortraitClara Vulliamy
I was born in London, daughter of author illustrator Shirley Hughes and architect John Vulliamy. My first experience of making pictures was being allowed to use up my Mum’s paints at the end of the day, which was like scraping the icing out of the bowl after baking.
I studied Fine Art at Chelsea School of Art, The Ruskin and The Royal Academy. After graduating I began illustrating in newspapers and magazines, and doing a weekly cartoon in The Guardian. I started writing and illustrating children’s books when I had a family of my own, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve made around 30 books, including The Bear with Sticky Paws, Lucky Wish Mouse and Martha and the Bunny Brothers.
I live in Twickenham with my husband, our two grown-up children and a gang of cheeky guinea pigs.

Elli-013Elli Woollard
At the age of four Elli wrote her first picture book, involving her best friend, a tricycle accident, blood everywhere, and the author emerging as the hero. Several years later she completed an MA in social anthropology, moved out to Thailand, taught herself the language, and has since worked variously as a Thai to English translator, a copywriter for a domestic appliance insurance firm (about as interesting as it sounds) and an assistant editor in academic publishing. She now lives in London where she combines writing with freelance translation work, looking after her four children, butchering nice music on the piano and being dictated to by her deranged cat.


This entry was posted on September 25, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , .

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,314 other subscribers

Blog Stats

  • 202,704 hits
%d bloggers like this: