The Hollywood star on turning her talent for acting – and love of kids – into a series of smash-hit stories
Words Helen Baron
Isla Fisher has come a long way – literally. Born in Oman and raised in Oz, she’s now a Hollywood fixture, living with her family (she has two children by her husband, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) in Los Angeles.
Isla has also covered a lot of ground professionally, starting out as a child actor, moving on to portray classic character Shannon Reed in Australian soap Home and Away, and finally making the jump to bona fide film star with roles in hits from Wedding Crashers (her performance gained rave reviews for her comedic skills) to The Great Gatsby.
In recent years, she has pushed herself still further, moonlighting as a children’s author with her acclaimed Marge series. Launching in 2016 with Marge in Charge – three anarchic tales about rainbow-haired babysitter Marge, whose innate unorthodoxy and talent for chaos causes no end of adventure for her charges, Jemima and Jakey – the books have been lauded by comic figures of no less standing than Davids Baddiel and Walliams. More importantly, they’re loved by kids across the world.
We spoke to her about the latest instalment – released this month – Marge and the Secret Tunnel, and ask why she moved into children’s writing in the first place…
“I felt that for emerging or reluctant readers, there weren’t that many comedic books for kids who were just beginning to read. And then once they get a little older, there are all these really sophisticated authors, like Roald Dahl or Jeff Kinney or Francesca Simon. So I wanted to just make kids read more. It felt like a lost opportunity during that transitional phase, so I created material that I hoped would engage young readers and not push them beyond their years socially.”
She’s referring, in one sense, to the character of Marge – any child’s dream babysitter; the type who cooks chocolate soup for dinner and eats too much cake at a birthday party. She’s essentially a child in adult form, able to get away with all the things children are routinely forbidden to do. We ask her if this idea – that children should worry less about being “good” and simply enjoy being children – is reflective of how she raises her own children.
“Yes,” she says. “Even older children… are so risk averse. They’re taking a certain job or study a certain subject because that’s going to help them get on this other subject; there’s just so much anxiety. And then with the internet and Instagram and how that’s impacting teenagers and children socially and emotionally, it feels like we need to do more to let them be children.”
But where did the character of Marge spring from?
“I feel like if my two best friends had a love-child it would be Marge, because one of them is sort of an eternal Peter Pan who’s in total denial about reality, and the other one tells magical, amazing stories. The Marge stories are a bit like The Cat in the Hat meets My Naughty Little Sister, which are the books that I love to read to young children, because I just think that kids find it hilarious when adults misbehave; they’re used to other kids misbehaving, but, when Marge does it, it’s not like it’s in an intentional or mean-spirited way, she’s just encouraging them to unlock their creativity, challenging Jemima’s need to stop following rules for rules’ sake.”
It occurs to us that Isla has considered this stuff before – it’s not mere media training. She’s genuinely engaged with the power and possibility of children’s fiction. Does she, we ask, have strong views on storytelling as an artform? What does she look for in a book? “You know what, I used to read two books a week before I had kids. And now I have to read so many scripts that I know what to look for in a script. But books are a luxury I don’t get to indulge in as often as I’d like. I’m not a literary snob. I‘m one of those, ‘I’ll pick up anything: fiction, non-fiction’. I’m attracted to strong characters and an interesting plot, and the style of writing has to be engaging. But acting is sort of still the business of storytelling and, for me, it’s about helping me to create strong characters who have an emotional arc. I also try to keep all of the characters voices sounding different, and then when I’m writing a scene it’s the same as when I’m acting; I prefer if a scene starts in one place and ends somewhere surprising. I kind of like acting and writing equally, because I get lost in both experiences. And I do have a wonderful consistent dialogue with my editor, so it’s not such a lonely experience.”
When we ask, however, if there are plans for more Marge stories in future, we’re surprised at Isla’s response. “Right now I’ve sort of said to myself that this was the last book in the series, because I’ve written them at quite a cracking pace considering I’m not really a true author. It’s been work, and I’m really grateful for the experience and I’ve loved it, but I’m just looking forward now to spending time with my family.”
So, while writing is all well and good, family is her true passion. And, she admits, motherhood has changed her in some ways. “Motherhood is my favourite topic… but I really want my kids to have a normal childhood without the pressures of scrutiny. Kids have the right to just be kids and play with their friends, and not worry about their photo appearing online. So I don’t really talk about them in public – I suppose motherhood has made me more protective.”
Yet, for those who will mourn the end of Marge, there is some hope. We ask Isla about the writing process and her sources of inspiration, and the final part of her answer suggests that as far as future endeavours are concerned, anything is possible.
“You know, I’m not really an author as a job. I’ve just been really lucky to be able to do it on the side of acting and it’s been so rewarding for me. And I’m still inspired continually.”
Isla Fisher really has come a long way, from teen soap heartthrob to bestselling author and renaissance mother. But there’s clearly much more to come…
Marge and the Secret Tunnel by Piccadilly Press is out now