An Interview with Elinor Brent-Dyer

This interview never actually happened. Rather, it is an amalgamation of information EBD gave to her readers in the Chalet Club News Letters.

Question: Where did you get the inspiration for the Chalet School series?
Answer: "Years ago, I was spending a holiday in Tirol and the friend who was with me and I made our headquarters at a chalet by the shore of the beautiful lake you know as the Tiern See. We met two other girls stying in another chalet and we four became good friends and made many expeditions together, though they were there for only three weeks and my friend and I stayed for nearly eight.
"Later on in the year, I decided it would be a lovely setting for a school story and wrote the first. Little did I think when I wrote THE SCHOOL AT THE CHALET that it was the beginning of such a series. The next one seemed to follow on as a matter of course - and the next - and the next. By that time, Joey, Madge, Grizel and Simone, Frieda, Marie, Wanda, the Robin and all the other had become living friends to me and every year for a long time now, more news of them has come through me and so the books have been written."

Q: Who exactly were your companions in the Tirol?
A: "If you want to know their names, you will find them in the dedication of THE SCHOOL AT THE CHALET which was the first of the series to be written."

Q: Is the Chalet School a real school?
A: "I'm sorry, but the answer is No. It exists only in the books, though quite a number of ideas and episodes come from schools that do exist. There is such a school now in Switzerland - The Chaletard School on the shore of Lake Geneva."

Q: What about the Tiernsee? Is it a real place?
A: "Yes, the Tiernsee does exist - as the Achensee in Tirol. All the places are real, though, for the purposes of the stories, I have altered some of the names."

Q: How do you create your characters?
A: "Make no mistake! So far as I am concerned, the people are there, just out of sight, but otherwise alive and panting to tell their stories. I am merely the loudspeaker through whom they broadcast to the world of girls who have made friends with them and wish to know what happens next. It is they who tell the stories. I am merely the instrument."

Q: Do you draw all of your plot-lines from real schools or do they, like your characters, just pop into your head?
A: "I can't say that any particular plot comes to me from which the story grows. What happens is that someone jogs my mind and says in effect: 'Let me speak - let me speak!' She is all ready and once I begin to get things down on paper she and the other folk take charge and the story unrolls itself accordingly. I have never yet succeeded in making any character go as I wished unless she wished it too. Oh, I have done to a certain extent, but it was a waste of labour and paper. When I read it over I've simply had to crumple it up and throw it into the w.p.b. That chapter just wasn't alive!"

Q: Do you base your characters on real people?
A: "Never! The Chalet School folk refuse to tick over that way. I don't consciously draw any of my characters from my friends, though bits and pieces creep in from all of them."

Q: So Joey Maynard (nee Bettany) isn't based on yourself?
A: "People have accused me of writing myself into Joey. I haven't done so consciously. It's true I always loathed maths. When I got my Matriculation, my maths. mistress said that the examiner must have muddled my papers with someone else's as she simply couldn't believe I'd passed. I also dislike needlework, though I am very keen on knitting. And, of course, Joey and I both write. Apart from that I don't think there is much likeness. Oh, yes; we are both musical. I used to play the piano and 'cello and sang too. Like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she 'growed'. Jo is based on no one in particular and certainly not on Jo March or myself.
"I'll tell you one person who did really exist - Matron in THE PRINCESS OF THE CHALET SCHOOL. We were at daggers drawn and when she left the school I very meanly took my revenge for certain episodes which occured during our connection - and sent her the printed book! Horrid me! I have heard nothing of her since then."

Q: Do you still practice at your music?
A: "Alas! I am so busy these days that I have no time for practice and my music has gone with the wind, though I still listen to the Proms, the symphony concerts and everything else in the way of good music. My tastes are almost severely classical. My favourite composer is Bach which should tell you!"

Q: Do you ever invent names for your characters?
A: "I never invent, though I often use continental names which are not commonly used in our country. Very often the names are other versions of quite usual ones with us. Otherwise I use C. M. Yonge's History of Christian Names."

Q: Joey is an avid reader of the 'Elsie' books. Do these books really exist?
A: "The ELSIE BOOKS (mentioned in Jo of the Chalet School) are very real. I have most of them. There were 28 of them and six MILDRED BOOKS in which Elsie Dinsmore, the heroine of the ELSIES, appears considerably. They are still to be had secondhand."

Q: Your frequent slip-ups in the details of the stories are infamous. In hindsight, do you yourself ever notice these mistakes?
A: "A friend of mine, the father of a grown-up girl, still reads the books and he knows them so thoroughly, that if I make in slips in references to past stories, he corrects them without hesitation. I wonder how many of you could do as much?"

Q: Related to this, where does Tom Tackles the Chalet School fit into the series?
A: "Actually, that story was first told as a serial, running through Nos II and III of the Chalet School Annual. When we gave up the Annual, it was decided a few years later to produce these two serials as one book - TOM TACKLES THE CHALET SCHOOL. Unfortunately, it was listed in the order of publication, although Tom's debut took place some books earlier and should, as someone points out, really be No. 21. I'm sorry, but there it is."

Q: People have often wondered when Joey became a Roman Catholic. Can you shed any light on this mystery?
A: "Joey began life as a member of the Church of England. She became a convert, the year before her marriage to Jack Maynard who was a Catholic, in a book which has never seen the light of day."

Q: What made you reintroduce lacrosse to the school in the later books?
A: "It's a fine game, very swift and exciting. I played a little myself at school - it was introduced by a new mistress during my last year - and I liked it enormously, though in the beginning, it wasn't easy. But once you get the main movements, you keep them - like getting your balance when you first begin to ride a bike."

Q: Will the school ever return to the Tiernsee?
A: "The Chalet School seems to be settled in Switzerland for the moment. I don't see much chance of the school's returning to Tirol as the original buildings are now in the hands of the reservoir folk. In The Coming of Age of the Chalet School the girls go to the Tiernsee for half-term weekend, but, apart from the Maynard family and their friends, I'm afraid that is as far as they will manage for the present."

Q: Would you like to see a Chalet School book televised?
A: "It would be great fun, of course, but there's a good deal of work attached to it. Why not write to the B.B.C. about it if you want it?"

Q: Do you have any advice for any aspiring authoresses out there?
A: "In the first place, pay attention to your English lessons. I know that grammar is boring, but you can't produce good work without it. Learn to use words well and correctly, so that you don't use adjectives when you could use adverbs, or infinite parts of the verb when you are writing a full sentence. Vary the words you use. Our language is one of the richest in the world, so don't be satisfied with six or seven hundred words. Use a couple of thousand or more and use them in their proper meaning. Above all, learn to spell and punctuate your work correctly. An editor or a publisher is far more likely to consider a manuscript properly spelt and punctuated than one which has to be corrected in almost every line. A publisher's reader has far too much to do to correct manuscripts before they can be sent to the printer.
"Another way in which you can prepare is by reading - not just 'comics' and light reading, but the standard authors, such as Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and, to come to our own time, Conrad, Chesterston, Shaw, Daphne du Maurier, and others. Above all, study the books of Winston Churchill. His English is a joy to read.
Write about people, placesand things that you know. Otherwise you may make fearful mistakes. The use of dialect can be an awful stumbling-block in a story unless you know it pretty thoroughly. Slang can be another trouble."

Q: Any advice to potential illustrators?
A: "First of all, remember that pictures are meant to illustrate the story, so find out what has been said about the characters you choose for your picture. If a girl has straight hair, for instance, don't give her elaborate waves. Don't, if you are drawing a small girl of ten, make her look as if she were only six or seven - there is quite a difference between the two ages. Look at similar girls that you know and see for yourselves. If your heroine is described as sitting on the fence, don't set her on a wall. It is details of this kind for which you have to look out to make your illustrations convincing.
"Illustration is is a very satisfying form of commercial art as some of my artist friends have told me. Oh, one last thing - do draw your people in proportion. And I mean in proportion to themselves as well as to other characters in the picture.
"Now, having digested all this, go ahead, and practise, practise, practise! Nothing else will get you anywhere."