Sometimes I think the family I was brought up in was 100 years out of date. A gong would sound to announce a dinner prepared by servants, and if you didn't have good conversation, you were sent away to eat upstairs; it was like The Remains of the Day. In reaction, I have done everything I can to make my family feel modern, connected, close, without secrets.
Until he lost all his money, my father was a successful north London Jewish businessman. He was unusual among his immediate family in that he was enormously cultured and had an incredible library. It wasn't possible to be close to him – he wasn't unloving, but very distant and private. What he would do was talk to me about his love of books, especially Dickens and Trollope. He never read to me, but the fact that he clearly adored it just seeped into me. One of the saddest things for me is that he died the year before my first book was accepted for publication. The notion that I become a writer was not possible to him – he ridiculed it.
My mother was an extraordinary woman; I miss her to this day. As a medium-elderly widow, she became intrigued by the drug culture. Between the carnations and tomatoes she grew marijuana, although she never managed a harvest. When my father died everything vanished, like a curtain falling. (He had put his money in a Swiss bank account but never told us where it was. We never found it.) Having had a Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur and no experience of work, my mother just got on with it. In some ways, she was happier in the last 10 years of her life than she'd ever been. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer she said three words to me: "What a bummer."
All my family have featured in my books. I parodied my father in Groosham Grange as the mad father in the wheelchair. The only one to get a whole book to herself was my mother's mother in Granny. She was a tiny, matriarchal monster, wielding huge influence over our family and, although wealthy, extremely mean. Every Christmas she gave me the same abominable present of Terry's All Gold chocolates – a bit thoughtless to an overweight child. At the end of her life, when everyone else was dead, I was the only person who went to visit her regularly. It was a very weird feeling because I hated her.
One impetus to become a children's author was a childhood surrounded by these Gormenghast-style relatives, but once I stopped looking at the insular world of Stanmore, north London, and looked at the real world, I started writing books that were more universally acceptable.
My wife, Jill, and I have an incredibly close working relationship, and an incredibly happy married one. We met through work. I was the world's worst advertising copywriter. She had the misfortune to be my account director, so from the very start she was my boss, and she still is.
If my children were as unhappy as I was at school, I'd send them somewhere else, but it never occurred to my parents. You weren't expected to love school and if I was unhappy, it was in some way good for me. As a result, I've done everything to be close to my two sons. We all make mistakes, but I hope mine are better ones.