Author Jacqueline Wilson has had to revise her own estimate of her demise. She used to tell her fans that she would write her 100th book “and then keel over”.
But as she is about to finish that landmark tome, despite suffering from kidney failure, the bestselling children’s writer admits it might not have been the best thing to say.
“I am a bit worried,” she chuckles, sounding remarkably cheerful despite her medical woes.
“To be honest, until recently I had lost count of how many books I’d written. When children asked me, I said ‘I will carry on until I’ve written my 100th book and then I’ll keel over’.
“I’ve had to revise that now, I say I’m aiming for 120 books!”
Dame Jacqueline, 68, has sold more than 35 million books in the UK alone. They tend to deal with difficult topics such as abuse, divorce, grief, foster care and mental illness.
Her Tracy Beaker books were turned into a hit TV series and now her historical character of Hetty Feather is to star in a play.
It will be staged at Birmingham Town Hall at Easter and Jacqueline hopes to be there – health permitting.
She undergoes kidney dialysis three days a week while waiting for a transplant.
“I’m still dogging along,” says the divorced mother-of-one, with not a trace of self-pity.
“The dialysis takes about six hours by the time I’ve got there and back.
“I try to use the time for reading or I have a long-suffering friend who comes along and types one-fingered while I dictate to her.
“The nurses have become like dear friends now.
“I have to be tremendously good at fitting in the rest of life on the days when I’m not on dialysis. I am fortunate though, last year I felt dreadful and couldn’t promote my books or go to any literary festivals, and I missed that.
“But now I’m feeling much better and have a full diary. I want to make the most of whatever time I’ve got left. I am on the transplant list but I don’t want to live my life thinking ‘Will it happen? I can’t manage without it’.
“If I do get a transplant, that would be wonderful, it would mean I can travel again and it would give me a whole new lease of life.
“But there are thousands and thousands of people waiting for a transplant in Britain and I don’t want to waste time being fixated on that.”
Several friends have offered to donate a kidney to Jacqueline, but none have been a match.
Her 100th book, published in September, will be called Opal Plumstead, the name of a spirited Edwardian girl who is forced to leave school at 14 to work in a sweet factory.
It’s a new character and “a bumper book to show I’m not fading away and there’s a lot of life in me yet”.
The novel also deals with the Suffragette movement and the outbreak of the First World War.
“If readers like Hetty, I think they will like Opal,” says Jacqueline, whose latest book, Paws and Whiskers, features her favourite stories about cats and dogs from the world of children’s literature.
The former Children’s Laureate wanted to write it as the patron of Battersea Cats and Dogs Home and it includes a brand new story from her pen. Naturally, it topped the bestseller lists on publication.
Hetty Feather is a spirited little Victorian girl, abandoned at the Foundling Hospital as a baby. At 10, she runs away to join the circus.
“I thought I would take a risk with it and write it for me, and it wouldn’t matter if no-one else liked it,” remembers Jacqueline. “I just wouldn’t do any more.
“But to my great delight, lots of children said Hetty was their favourite character of mine and I’ve written three more books about her.”
Hetty will be brought to life on the stage by 30-year-old actress Phoebe Thomas, who played nurse Maria Kendall in Holby City.
The show is adapted by Emma Reeves, who also wrote the Tracy Beaker TV series, and directed by Olivier Award-nominated Sally Cookson.
“This is the first time Hetty will appear in the flesh in front of everyone,” says Jacqueline.
“Phoebe is exactly right for the role, slender with naturally bright red hair. She could have been knitted for the part!
“It’s too hard to use children in a stage production because it raises all sorts of problems. Because of work legislation, you have to cast several children and have chaperones and it’s not possible if you’re not a big show.
“On screen, to have an adult playing a child would look grotesque. But people will suspend their disbelief in the theatre far more. And children are actually very sophisticated about the way things are made, they are willing to see something a little bit different.
“Adaptations can be tricky. You always have to remember that, while you are in control of your book, people are going adapt it in different ways.
“But I’ve always been quite pleasantly surprised by the way people have adapted my work. I have a feeling that it’s going to work splendidly.
“All the cast will learn circus skills and I think those scenes will look dramatic and colourful, a contrast to the bleakness of the Foundling Hospital.
“I will be there at first night in Kingston upon Thames, which is luckily where I live so I don’t have far to go. I don’t think I’ll have first night nerves, I will just sit back and enjoy it.
“If any children spot me in the interval and assume it’s all down to me, I will bask in their praise!”
Dame Jacqueline can also lap up the accolades next month when the V&A Museum of Childhood in London opens Daydreams and Diaries, a major seven-month free exhibition exploring her work. It will feature her notebooks, childhood toys, school reports and diaries.
The adaptation of Jacqueline’s Tracy Beaker books has certainly been a great success story. The Story of Tracy Beaker ran on CBBC for five series and 120 episodes, from 2002 to 2005, starring Dani Harmer as a girl in a care home, nicknamed The Dumping Ground by its residents.
Jacqueline has a good relationship with her young fans, though she admits she doesn’t understand teenagers as much as she used to.
“In my last Hetty book she is 15. I feel very happy writing about a Victorian 15-year-old but not a modern 15-year-old. I used to write lots of books for teenagers but I’m not so sure I could manage it now.
“The whole concept of being a teenager has changed so much, with all the social networking it’s such a different world.
“I like a bit of a challenge but it’s easier to write an historical novel about a young person down on their luck, who has to earn a living, rather than a girl worrying about exams or whether her hair is nice enough.
“I don’t really understand how Twitter and Facebook work. My publishers have set up accounts in my name where they post messages about me, and I can see they can be a useful way of getting information out there. It doesn’t do to be too stick in the mud about it.
“But it always surprises me that professional writers would want to go on Twitter or write blogs. For me, I do so much actual writing, that it doesn’t appeal at all. Especially limiting myself to 140 characters, I don’t see the point!”
If she does manage to come to Birmingham to watch Hetty Feather, top of Jacqueline’s list of things to see – even before her beloved Pre-Raphaelites at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – will be the new Library of Birmingham .
“It’s wonderful that the city is investing in a library at a time when many are closing,” smiles the Dame with genuine pleasure. After all, in 2004 she replaced Catherine Cookson as the most borrowed author in Britain’s libraries, a position she held for four years until overtaken by James Patterson.
“What a golden example you are!”
* Hetty Feather plays Birmingham Town Hall from April 22-27. For tickets, ring 0121 345 0600 or go to www.thsh.co.uk .