SCBWI FACES Claire O'Brien


SCBWI Faces goes behind the scenes to meet the volunteers who keep our society ticking. This month, Philip Kavvadias chats to Claire O'Brien, co-organiser for the South East.

Claire O'Brien

Claire grew up in Nottingham, playing in abandoned allotments and riding her bicycle for miles. After many years in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and a short spell in Edinburgh, she now lives in a cottage near woods in Buckinghamshire with her husband and adopted lurcher, Whiskey. When she isn’t tutoring or volunteering, she likes making chocolate truffles, reading and watching historical stuff, comedy and gripping thrillers. She has been a practising Nichiren Buddhist for thirty-two years.

What do you write?

Funny stories and retellings of traditional tales for children. My current projects are a MG fantasy, a reworking of 17th century fairy tales for lower MG, and a historical novel for adults set at Versailles. I also write non-fiction for adults, on Buddhism and menopause.


Do you have a ‘day job’ as well as volunteering and writing?

I’ve just been appointed as a tutor with the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, which I’m really excited about. My first career was as a primary school teacher, then worked as a manager in the NHS, writing policy docs and info leaflets. Later, I was part of an internal communications team at a university in London. I’m very fortunate not to have to commute any more, but that took many years.


Describe your writing space.

I have occupied a corner of spare bedrooms for many years. I dream of having a writing cabin at the end of a long garden.


Claire's writing assistant, Whiskey

How long have you been a SCBWI volunteer?

Just over a year.


Describe the main tasks of your role as a SCBWI volunteer.

As well as putting members in touch with their local groups, I run two online critique groups, who each meet once a month. I also help to organise competitions with Philip Kavvadias, my co coordinator. We recently ran an online Work in Progress party, and we’re now organising a ‘really chilled retreat’ in September, down in the New Forest at The Sustainability Centre. It will be our first in-person event, so I can’t wait!


Do you do any other volunteering?

I do lots of voluntary work for my Buddhist group, helping support women who are practising Buddhism with our school. I occasionally give lectures, and I help organise a monthly schedule of meetings and study events.


Has volunteering influenced your writing in any way?

Oh yes, it’s really refreshed me, built my confidence and made me see that I have something to offer. Critique groups give me a fantastic boost.


What are the advantages of being a volunteer?

You make wonderful, supportive new friends with a great love in common, writing for children.


How many hours per week do you spend volunteering?

About half a day a week divided into a little bit each day. I expect to be busier as we get closer to our retreat dates.


Do the boundaries between volunteering get blurred or do you have clearly demarcated writing/volunteering times/space?

There are days when everything is a big pot of interactions, usually emails and other connections, but when I’m working on my own writing, everything else is forgotten for a while.


Favourite children’s book?

Tough question. I’ll have to have more than one. In Fantasy and magic, The Owl Service by Alan Garner and I Coriander by Jamila Gavin, although Philip Ridley’s Krindlekrax is fab. In Historical, Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Margorian made me weep. Smith by Leon Garfield is utterly gripping, and Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin is beautiful and scary. In Realist fiction, I love Gumbles Yard by John Rowe Townsend.

Photos courtesy of Claire O'Brien


Philip Kavvadias grew up in Athens and now lives in Windsor. He writes stories, screenplays, sketches and poems. He also has a day job in Sustainability for one of the biggest brands in the world. 

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