With several best-selling children’s books to her credit, everyone’s favorite Fair Lady is finding new ways to promote her lifelong passion—reading.
We’ve seen her as Mary Poppins, descending from the heavens, feet pointed out, with one hand gripping a serviceable black umbrella. We’ve watched her as Maria, arms outstretched, filling the hills with the sound of music. More recently, we’ve heard her as Queen Lillian, mother-in-law to Shrek; and we’ve loved her as Queen Clarisse Renaldi, veddy refined grandmother to actress Anne Hathaway in the Princess Diaries films. But these days Julie Andrews is spending more time creating characters than portraying them.
Collaborating with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, she has some fifteen picture books, novels, and Early Readers to her credit. Her memoir, Home, is her first “adult” effort and earned five-star reviews as it leapfrogged to the top of the bestseller list this summer.
“Writing has taken front and center,” Andrews says of the two careers that compete for her attention. “I write in the morning, certainly four hours a day, if not more. When I get toward the middle of a book, the story begins to assume its own momentum. At that point I write by day and edit by night. As an author you never let go of a story; it’s always in your head.”
At age seventy-three, she exudes enthusiasm as she talks about her passion for books and her belief that children should read more of them. She and Emma oversee The Julie Andrews Collection, a publishing program that includes high-quality works by established and emerging authors as well as “out-of-print gems worthy of resurrection.” She admits that the books featured in the collection might be a tad old-fashioned, but they emphasize virtues—integrity and creativity among them—that never go out of date.
“We’re not as edgy as some authors,” she admits, “but we believe in all the decent things that we hope will help children find their place in this world.”
Andrews recently took a break from her writing regimen to talk with the Post about Home, Whangdoodles, and a new fairy princess who is still in incubation.
Although you’ve been writing books since 1971, most people think of you primarily as a performer. Do you find that it’s harder to interpret someone else’s words as an actress or to create your own words as a writer?
Hmmmm, good question. This may sound odd, but I think it’s more difficult to create words as a writer because there’s always that feeling of insecurity. It’s true that I’ve been writing for more than thirty-five years, but those are my children’s books. Home is my first adult attempt, and I feel like I’m still learning. For me, writing is a joy, but it’s also hard work. There are days when I get horribly stuck. I’ve heard people say that writing is a lonely profession, but I never feel lonely when I’m working on my children’s books. I have companions the whole way because I’m creating things that I love, like the Whangdoodles. [Explanation: A whangdoodle is “a fanciful creature of undefined nature” and the subject of Andrews’ classic The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.]
In your memoir, Home, you manage to recall your early years very vividly. Did you keep a journal when you were growing up?
Yes, but somewhere along the line the very early diaries went missing. As Eliza Doolittle says, “Somebody pinched them!” So, I wrote Home in fits and starts—writing passages as the memories came back to me, then putting them all together later. I remember thinking that I wanted to write about the sights, sounds, and smells…the things that make a book seem very real. Of course, there is such a variety of smells in England, from the terrible railway trains to the beautiful spring lilacs.
How difficult was it to relive the past and confront some events that might have been painful? Did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?
It was an interesting experience and, yes, there were moments when it was painful. But much of what I write about happened fifty years ago, so I’ve had time to put it into perspective and then put it to bed. A lot of it was surprising to me…things that I discovered as I wrote. For example, I had always thought that I had a very happy childhood. I was an optimistic girl, and I had a lot of nice things happen to me. It wasn’t until I started writing that I said to Emma, “Gosh, this seems awfully depressing!” I had forgotten how dark it was at times.
Did you fear a negative response from fans who might prefer to believe you had a fairy-tale existence? Did you wonder how they might react to learning about your mother’s alcoholism and the fact that your biological father was someone other than the dad you adored?
The people who mattered were my family, and since I had never mentioned some things to my brothers and sisters, I first cleared the book with them. After all these years, we are brothers and sisters, whether I’m a half sister or a whole sister. The truth is, I cannot be absolutely certain that what I wrote is the truth. I only wrote what was handed down to me. I can’t prove it without taking DNA tests or whatever. So, the family and I talked about it, and in some ways that brought us even closer together because we realized that it doesn’t really matter…our bonds are so strong.
Since Home only takes us through 1962, can we assume a second book is in the works?
I don’t know if I could do it. The sad truth is that so many people I wrote about are no longer with us. They’ve passed away, so I felt I could write honestly but truthfully and not hurt anybody. We’ll see….
Your daughter, Emma, helped with Home and has been your collaborator on many of your children’s books. How did the partnership start?
My publisher asked if I had any book ideas for very small children. At the time Emma had a young son, so I said, “Emma, if you went to the library to find a book for Sam, what would you choose?” She said, “No contest, Mom! It would be about trucks.” She told me that the only truck books that she found were the very practical variety rather than the whimsical or family-oriented kind. “Well, shall we have a crack at trying to write one?” I asked her. That led to our first series about Dumpy the Dump Truck.
Every team has to have a leader. Who’s the boss, you or Emma?
[laughs] We’re both fairly bossy people, and so at first we wondered if we would be compatible. We discovered, to our delight, that we have an absolutely wonderful time. We laugh a lot, and when we talk, we even finish each other’s sentences. Still, we’re very different. I think she’s a better writer than I am; she’s very structured, whereas I’m given to flights of fantasy. We defer to each other when one of us feels passionately about an issue.
In spite of your busy performing career, you obviously instilled in Emma a true love for books. What advice would you offer parents who want their children to grow up with an appreciation of literature?
Reading to children, even before they’re verbal, is so important. Sit a child on your lap, hug her close, and read. Take a picture book or a magazine and trace the words with your fingers. Talk about what you see; discover together the wonders that are under our noses every day.
What new wonders are you working on now? What should we be looking for in the future?
We’re doing an anthology of some unusual poems, songs, and lullabies that I love. It’s been a joy to pull it together. Right now Emma is typing madly to meet our first deadline. We’ve also been asked if we could do something in the princess genre for young children. We came up with the title The Very Fairy Princess about a girl who is convinced that she’s a princess and that she can do anything. Everyone around her says, “No! You can’t be!” She proves that she just might be a princess if she looks at things in a certain way. We hope it will evolve into a series.
Do you anticipate your two careers intersecting at some point in the future?
It’s happening already. A number of our books are packaged with CDs containing songs, and now a couple of the stories—Simeon’s Gift and The Great American Mousical—are being adapted for family theater. When I began writing, I wanted to combine all the lovely things I used to treasure as a child…the written word, the spoken word, and fine quality artwork. I think to some degree, we’ve succeeded.