Katherine Rundell

For certain writers, it is a significant event, often in early life, that dictates their creative path. So it was for Katherine Rundell, multi-award writer of fiction for children, and of nonfiction for adults. 

Born in the UK in 1987, she spent her childhood in Zimbabwe, and it was a time of unbridled freedom. She ran barefoot and dodged imaginary crocodiles in rivers. While she learned to read fairly late, she completed her first novel, Sally’s Surprise, at the age of eight, as a birthday gift for her father, and sewed a cover for it in blue silk that she embroidered with stars. But this idyllic upbringing was poleaxed by the death of her older foster sister. ‘She got sick when I was nine and died when I was ten,’ Rundell tells me when we meet in London on a winter’s afternoon. ‘After her death my parents were very preoccupied, so I spent a huge amount of time on my own, reading.’ 

Petite and sprite-like, Rundell is a delightful, thoughtful, and giving interviewee, with the slight otherworldliness of someone who spends a lot of time curled up in her own imagination. Her early desire to write children’s fiction was spurred (or so she thought) by the influence of that voracious childhood reading. ‘If you’d asked me when I was 21 why I was writing for children, I would have said it was because of the fiction I had loved as a child, especially the kind that bites onto your ankles and won’t let go. But now I can see it isn’t an accident that I write books for children who are around the same age as I was when my sister died.’

It is indeed striking that Rundell’s principal child characters suffer slings and arrows in early life. In The Girl Savage, for example, Rundell’s debut children’s novel, Wilhelmina Silver from Zimbabwe is sent to an English boarding-school following the death of her father. In Rooftoppers, which won a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award in 2013, Sophie is orphaned in a shipwreck in the English Channel but remains convinced that her mother is alive and crosses the rooftops of Paris in a quest to find her. And The Explorer, which won the Costa Children’s Book Prize in 2017, is about four children stranded in the Amazon jungle when their plane crashes. Forthcoming in September is Impossible Creatures, the first in a major new middle-grade fantasy novel series, which features a magical world in which mythical creatures live and breed and thrive alongside humans. But the animals are in danger, and her child protagonists must put themselves in danger to save them.

In her first book for adults in 2019, a short and playful polemic entitled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, she states: ‘Those who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true… I still read Paddington when I need to believe… that the world’s miracles are more powerful than its chaos.’ 

Though packed with peril and chaos and often sorrow, Rundell’s children’s novels are also terrific fun: full of thrills and spills, eccentric adults and extraordinary animals, exotic destinations and wild dreams. Reading them as an adult reminded me of the kind of books I read under the sheets at night, torch trained on pages I couldn’t turn fast enough. And indeed Rundell is delighted to have her books consumed by grown-up readers. Referring to W H Auden’s assertion that there are no good books that are only for children, she adds, ‘it’s to children’s fiction that you must turn if you want to feel awe and hunger and longing for justice.’ 

Rundell has no longing to be a child again, however, and insists, ‘I vastly prefer adulthood. I love voting and drinking and working.’ But in the wake of the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016, she returned to reading children’s fiction once again. ‘I was finding a lot of the politics in the adult literature I was reading a bit sparse and a tedious’, she tells me. ‘The politics of children’s fiction isn’t always positive, of course. Classic children’s books often foreground the white, the quiet, the middle-class, the well-behaved and the rich. But because they are written for those who do not have their own political enfranchisement, these books so often consider what it’s like to be in a world where you are somewhat powerless. And if you’re powerless, what then still matters? What is there to still believe in? What the best of children’s fiction replies is: love matters, endurance matters, hope matters; care, carefulness and wit matter; and so does a kind of passionate focus on the reality of someone else’s interior heart’. 

Rundell and I are discussing all this over mint tea and cake in the café in the Crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. We could scarcely have chosen a more appropriate place to meet, but more of that anon. My suggestion of mint tea is enthusiastically received, for, as she tells me soon after sitting down, Rundell made herself allergic to coffee some years back by drinking it in such quantities, while writing in the wee small hours, that it poisoned her. Since becoming a Fellow in English Literature at All Soul’s College in Oxford at the age of 21 – for which the selection process is famously intellectually rigorous – she has combined writing with teaching, and still gets up early to work on her books.

We enjoy reliving the excitement of our last meeting, a couple of months earlier, on stage at the presentation of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2022, for which I was chair of judges. It took our panel a whole ten minutes at our final judging meeting to decide that Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne should win the award. Arriving on stage to accept it, a stunned Rundell admitted, ‘I’ve been drinking, very much assuming I wasn’t going to win’. She then announced she was donating the £50,000 prize money, dividing it between marine conservation charity Blue Ventures, and a refugee charity Sea Watch. Because, she said, quoting John Donne himself, ‘no man is an island’.

That is probably Donne’s most famous quote and, thanks to reading Super-Infinite, I now also know the lines that follow it: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the seas, Europe is the less’. Written in 1624, how loudly those lines ring out 400 years later, in today’s world of climate crisis and desperate migration. 

Rundell is evangelical in making a case for Donne as one of the finest writers in English, who ‘belongs alongside Shakespeare’, arguing that ‘to let him slowly fall out of the common consciousness would be as foolish as discarding a kidney or a lung’. Wearing her immense erudition about Donne’s famously difficult work like gauze, her passion, playfulness and sparkling prose seduced us Baillie Gifford judges right from the moment, near the beginning of the book, when she describes an early portrait of Donne as being of a man wearing a hat ‘big enough to sail a cat in’.

Rundell first encountered Donne’s poetry as a child, when she was paid to memorise his ‘Go and catch a falling star’. ‘Both my parents loved poetry and thought their children should too. So they used to stick poems up where we brushed our teeth, and paid us 50p to learn the longer ones by heart. Even though I didn’t understand Donne’s poem, I loved it – it became part of my sense of what rhythm and sound could be like.’ 

Later, as an under-graduate studying English at Oxford, she encountered his poetry properly, and grew to love his work so much she did her master’s on his sermons, and subsequently a PhD.

And here we are now, sipping mint tea in the crypt of St Paul’s, with John Donne’s mortal remains lying buried in the magnificent cathedral above our heads. Yet despite Rundell’s academic grounding in his work, or perhaps because of it, she found Super-Infinite a fiendishly difficult book to write.

‘Donne’s work has been one of the greatest joys of my life. But writing that book was not! It was an often painful and doubt-ridden experience,’ she says. ‘Sometimes when you’re reading a book, you feel the writer has included something because it took them a long time to find it out – so they decide the reader should know it too. You can hear the faint sound of the writer patting themselves on the back for imparting their great wisdom. But that can be a distraction from the tide of the book you really want to write. I so wanted to captivate people from the beginning, and pull them through Donne’s life and work, so that in the end he would get right under their skin and into their blood, so they would have to go away and read him. But the first version I wrote was all back-patting.’ She eventually rewrote the book in its entirety three times. 

Winning the Baillie Gifford Prize – becoming the youngest ever writer to do so – was a vindication of that long labour of love. And it was the culmination of a what she refers to as a ‘life-changing’ year. As well as Super-Infinite she published two other books in 2022. 

The first of these was The Zebra’s Great Escape, a picture book for young children, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. She created it as a salute to the ‘loveliness’ of zebras because ‘they are so startling and different in their beauty’. 

The other was The Golden Mole, a natural history and conservation book with a glowing jacket, which sold in arkloads over Christmas. Alongside illustrations by Talya Baldwin, it profiles 20 endangered animals, from pangolins whose ‘scales are the same shade of grey-green as the sea in winter’ to mountain hares, whose ears are ‘lined in pink velvet’. 

Her aim with this and the zebra book was to render us ‘awestruck and lovestruck with the beauty of the world, its fragility and its strangeness’. Of seahorses she writes: ‘We live in a world of such marvels. We should wake in the morning, and as we put on our trousers we should remember the seahorse and we should scream with awe and not stop screaming until we fall asleep, and the same the next day, and the next. Each seahorse contains enough wonder to knock the whole of humanity off its feet, if we would but pay attention.’

At the beginning of this interview, I described Katherine Rundell as a writer of fiction for children and nonfiction for adults, as if to set those two genres in opposition. But all her work – from her picture books for the youngest readers to her prestigious prizewinning nonfiction – channels a spirit of wonder that returns us to the idea that the world’s miracles are more powerful than its chaos. 

This is, after all, the primary reason for Rundell’s ardent devotion to John Donne. For despite living through religious persecution, war, imprisonment, poverty, bouts of severe fever – and the deaths of his wife and six of his 12 children (Rundell writes that he ‘walked so often in darkness that it became for him a daily commute’) – he insists in his work that, to use Rundell’s words, ‘it is an astonishment to be alive, and it behoves you to be astonished’. This would not be a bad sentence for any writer to copy out and stick above their desk.

As we drain the final dregs of our mint tea, Rundell urges us to do this: ‘Find the thing that is worth your awe, and use it as the galvanic engine of your action, your politics, where you put your time, your money, your focus. Our attention can be so refracted from the many different chaoses we are living through right now. But we owe our resilience and our astonishment to the world’. 


First memory

‘Hiding behind curtains, playing hide-and-seek with my siblings and cousins. I remember very vividly that mixture of triumph (at my brilliantly original hiding place) and gleeful fear. I would have been very tiny, perhaps three or four.’

First writing

‘Little doggerel rhymes on scrappy bits of paper as soon as I could physically write. And when I was about six, I wrote a story about the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe and how she was unfairly maligned (although I wouldn’t have used those words) and was just doing her best in a chaotic situation.’

A book that influenced me

‘I loved Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books – especially Charmed Life – for their glorious wit, and the way she refused to talk down to children.’

Thanks to...

‘My parents – they are people who understand a great deal about love.’

Advice to my younger self

‘As a child I feared that adulthood would be arid and exhausting, so I would say, “The things you love are worth loving, and you will find more and more things to love the older you get".' 


100 ways to write a book: the Rundell method

  •  Some of your novels have obvious sparks – the idea for Rooftoppers arrived while you were up on a roof – but others are built up from scratches and false-starts, also images and anecdotes, ideas that are lifelong preoccupations, loves and hopes. The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya said ideas come and go like cats; you identify with that.
  • You always plan your fiction, but the finished novels bear only a vestigial resemblance to the book you planned. The plan is only a starting point.
  • You try to conjure a distinct world for children to inhabit, but also leave spaces where they can make the story their own – by leaving a day empty in your plot or giving them a detailed description, but leaving other bits to be filled in.
  • There is no typical day, but if you have written something creative before ten in the morning, the day feels sturdy and stout with promise in a way that it doesn’t if you don’t. Your perfect imagined day still has work in it somewhere. Writing is such a joy and compulsion that it only rarely exhausts you.
  • You often listen to music to summon the right mood for writing. Miles Davis is a favourite: you find his music is like a starting pistol going off in your head.
  • You try to work fairly steadily, but there are days when you only write three sentences, which you later delete, and nights where you write until seven the next morning. You love those times when the world is asleep and your time belongs entirely to you. In your twenties you’d work on your fiction between four and nine in the morning, before your day job as an academic – until one of your eyes began to flicker with the effort.
  • You are trying to be more flexible with your writing time, following  C S Lewis’ advice to learn to write in snippets, on trains and buses, and not just when you have the whole afternoon ahead of you.
  • Reading poetry – and the work of novelists like Hilary Mantel and Marilyn Robinson – has taught you to distil, distil, distil. You love writers who are able to put something so starkly and beautifully that you can carry it with you, and this is what you always aim for.
  • You try to channel John Donne’s understanding that ‘flair is a kind of truth’. If you want to make a point, he seems to say, make it so vivid and strange ‘that it cuts straight through your interlocutor’s uncomplacent attention’. This applies to your writing for children or adults.
  • You see writer’s block as a kind of haunting. Your blocks are mainly fear and doubt. With the Donne book you sometimes felt paralysed by the thought of what the Donne scholars you respected would think.
  • You don’t allow yourself to conclude you are a terrible writer until you’ve edited a text many times over. You edited your children’s novel The Explorer 17 times; your book about John Donne was revised many more times than that. 
  • There are always moments when you look in disgust at what you have written and are tempted to give up. At that point, you tell yourself that all writers produce gargantuanly terrible prose, but if they all gave up there would be no books.


KATHERINE RUNDELL is a novelist, playwright and literature academic, who grew up in Zimbabwe, Brussels and the UK. Her nine published books include six novels for middle-grade children, which have garnered a slew of accolades, including the Costa Book Award, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award. She has also published two nonfiction books for adults, one of which – Super-Infinite – won the prestigious Baillie Gifford Prize in 2022. As well as fiction and nonfiction, she has written an award-winning play, Life According to Saki, which opened off-Broadway in 2017; and two nonfiction books about animals for readers of all ages. A keen athlete, her hobbies include tightrope walking and roof walking.

CAROLINE SANDERSON is a freelance author, editor, books journalist, event chair and writing tutor/mentor. Her nonfiction books include a biography of Adele and a travelogue about Jane Austen's England. Caroline is also Associate Editor of The Bookseller, specialising in author interviews and nonfiction books; and Editor of ALCS News, the online monthly magazine of the Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society.

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