Interview with M M Kaye on 22 December, 1982
Part 1 of 4

Do you recall having childhood ambitions?

M M Kaye: My childhood ambition was to be a painter. I wanted to be an illustrator of children's books; I'm a writer entirely by mistake. I was going to be another Arthur Rackham. I was interested in mysteries because my father had been a cipher expert at the time Gandhi was around. He told me stories about the most peculiar things that had happened. I always kept them under my hat and I think I probably always will do. They were supposed to be strictly confidential. He died very suddenly in 1936; mother and he and I were supposed to go home to England. We got as far as Delhi - we'd been up in Kashmir on a houseboat - and he died of a heart attack. So mother and I went home alone.

Had you been home before that?

M M Kaye: Oh, I'd been home for school. I was kicked out of my school at the age of 16 because they said, "This girl does nothing but draw." I took a rather dim view of that because I had won, entirely off my own bat, a thing called the Cuthbert-Grandy Shield, which was given every year to the best record of art at any school (public and private) in England. I'd taken all the art exams and come out pretty high on all of them, and on the strength of this string of successes I practically won the Shield for my school single-handed. So I went to an art school… and I’m proud to say that I was actually accepted for the Slade. 

You had to produce about six portfolios at that time, because you weren't allowed to put just one or two drawings in - it might have been a fluke. I then heard what the Slade required, and I said, "No, this is not what I want at all.  I don't want the Royal Academy of Art, I want to go into book illustration."  I stayed in digs in London, in a place called Limaston Street, which is now about the most fashionable and expensive part of Chelsea, but in those days was about the cheapest.

Did you have any other brothers and sisters?

M M Kaye: I have one brother (Bill) and one sister (Bets). My sister also paints - she does pastel portraits, and still does them. Mummy used to paint, too.

When did you start illustrating for a living?

M M Kaye: I lived in a pension - one pound 15 shillings a week - the pound went a bit further in those days, but not all that - and I was earning money by selling designs for Christmas cards and things like that.

That's when you made the association with the woman who was doing children's books?

M M Kaye: Yes, with Margaret Tempest - she was a very famous illustrator. I knew her because she belonged to the studio that I had joined. It was called The Chelsea Illustrators - it was sort of a get-together of illustrators. We were a sort of a society in a way - we did Christmas card designs and show card designs, and illustrated books and so forth, and always in the back of them it had printed "The Chelsea Illustrators." And they gave the artist's name.  And any one of us who wanted a shot at a job could have it - if an order came in to The Chelsea Illustrators, we'd look at it, and we'd ask, "Does anybody want to have a go at this?" And if several people wanted to, several people did, it didn’t t matter - sometimes only one person would. That brought in a little money.

Now, do I have this straight: the first thing you ever wrote that was published was a children's book?

M M Kaye: Yes, it was called Potter Pinner Meadow. They were called the "Potter Pinner" books, because there was a series of them, but the first one was just called Potter Pinner Meadow. Margaret Tempest - she'd done the Grey Rabbit books - she did the illustrations for it.

How many of those books did you do?

M M Kaye: We did Potter Pinner Meadow, Black BrambLe Wood, Gold Gorse Common and Willow Witch's Brook. I wrote the words and she did the illustrations.

It was because you were reading all these children's books, to illustrate them, that you got the idea that you might write one yourself?

M M Kaye: Margaret gave us a big studio for all of us to work in - that was really the advantage of The Chelsea Illustrators. You not only had help and criticism, but you had a whacking great studio in which to do your work. And she worked there, and she had on the floor beside her - she was working away at illustrations - a typescript. And I said, "What's that?" And she said, "Oh, it's the latest Grey Rabbit book." So I picked it up and read it and I said, "Any chump could write this," or words to that effect. (It's incorrect, because any chump can't do it!) But she immediately said, "Well, if you think you can do it, why don't you do one? You write one, and I'll illustrate it for you." So I went out and bought myself a Woolworth notebook, and I wrote it in longhand. The only thing I did to make it a bit different was to do a little drawing of a mouse or some flowers, or something - daisies, I think - on the front of it, and I painted "Potter Pinner Meadow, by Mollie Kaye" on the cover. And I sent it in like that to Collins.

Billy Collins himself used to come in on Friday evening - he'd go down to a house in the country every weekend - and say, "Anything that you think is worthwhile taking down?" And they'd give him two manuscripts, or whatever they thought was any good. And he'd take them down and read them to his children (one of them told me only the other day that he remembered having my book read to him, which I thought was rather nice). Billy only took mine that weekend because it was so small! He told me afterwards that he had asked, "What's this?" and his secretary picked it up and threw it in the wastebasket and said, "Some idiot who doesn't know that you must send in a manuscript typed, one-side-of-the-paper-only, doubled spacing. Billy stooped and picked it out because he was going to a party and he was dressed in rather a nice suit, and he thought it wouldn't spoil the fit of his suit, which I always thought was rather nice. He put it in his pocket and took it down, and he read it that weekend to his children - straight out of the Woolworth notebook.

That was when you enrolled in the lending library?

M M Kaye: Well, that was what was called a "tuppenny library." You didn't enrol, you just produced tuppence, and you asked for a book. If you had ideas about what kind of a book you wanted, you had a look `round. I merely used to hand in my tuppence and say, "Give me a book." They never had anything really very good - they never had the expensive books, or anything. Seven and six was the cost of a new novel, so you never got a new novel. There were very few paperbacks in those days - but there were three-and-sixpenny editions, cheaper hardcover editions, so they had some of those, and some of what were known in those days simply as Penguins (when you said, "I want a Penguin," you meant any paperback, because there were no others). I think they cost sixpence.

That was in the late thirties, wasn't it'?

M M Kaye: This was about '37, '38, you see. I read those in the evening, and it took me about an evening to read them - they were mostly romances. And an awful lot of thrillers - murder stories. I was still a Chelsea Illustrator; during the day I was working, and I had friends around, but I did find the evenings - alone, and on my own in London - extremely long and dreary, and I was very upset, because I wasn't feeling particularly, social. I'd been devoted to my father, and I missed him like hell. So, rather than sit around in gloom, I wanted something to occupy my mind. Having drawn all day, I used to read in the evening merely for something to do. Most of the stuff I was reading was total rubbish, and of some of them I used to think, "Well, for goodness sake, I couldn't write worse."

And it was then that it occurred to me that whoever wrote these books was probably being paid a great deal more than I was with my drawings. So I thought to myself, "I’ll try." So I sat down and wrote one. I sent it off and immediately got 65 pounds from Hutchinson. It was called Six Bars at Seven, and it was my very first effort. Why on earth they published it, I don't know. By the time it came out, in '39, we were practically involved in a war - and my book was all about a noble fellow who managed to foil the villains who were proposing to start World War II.

Click here to go to Part 2