Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Mick Inkpen, the award-winning author/illustrator - known to his millions of readers world-wide as the creator of Kipper, Lullabyhullaballoo, The Blue Balloon, Penguin Small and of course Wibbly Pig – has two brand new Wibbly Pig books publishing in September: Wibbly Pig has 10 Balloons and Oh no Wibbly Pig, not a rabbit!. Here he talks to Graham Marks about this, that and quite a lot more...
Were you the kind of kid who just drew and drew and drew all the time?
What I used to do was paint like a maniac when I was a kid, even right up to my early teens…I’d just get out the paper and paint and get so absorbed in it, that kind of absorption you experience where you haven't noticed how many hours have gone by. So, not drawing as such…I did the usual drawing at school, but I like paint and in some ways that’s in contrast to the way I work in illustration, which is very precise.
Were you an oil painter or more a watercolourist?
No, no, no, just very humble, cheap poster paints, whatever I could lay my hands on. I just like splashing paint around, really.
So is what you’re doing now what you always wanted to do as a kid?
No, when I was a kid I wanted to be a railway signal man, I wanted to be the guy who pulled those levers. When I was at school I loved English - creative writing - and art in equal measure, I was always torn between those two disciplines.
Do you remember the first drawing you did that got a reaction from people?
My friends will tell you that I have an appalling memory, which is not what you want to hear when you’re interviewing someone…I can’t remember anything specific, but I always generally had praise for my art at school – I won the art prize, that sort of thing. I was slightly precocious, overly self-confident about my work, I think I expected to get a reaction to my work. I felt I had some talent in myself.
Did you realise that you had the storytelling gene in you, were you someone who told stories a lot?
It was all really in the context of school, the storytelling. I just loved writing creative essays at school, so I suppose that’s where the storytelling started, writing imaginative essays.
You must have had a good teacher…
Oh, yes…a guy called Victor, who we called Vic, a man with immense authority but the quietest of voices; some people have that kind of natural authority about them and don’t have to raise their voice. He was unusual in a sense, I suppose he could relax in his teaching because he was an archetypally good teacher, and he did really respect us as individuals, probably more than we deserved, as we were just a bunch of feral kids. He pretended we were grown ups and therefore we were far more apt to behave like grown ups with him than in anyone else’s class. He was just a really great teacher of English and English Literature.
Where was that?
The Royal Liberty Grammar School in Romford, Essex.
So if you can use your battered memory, can you recall where the idea for Kipper came from?
Well I had been a graphic designer, leading up to my career in children’s picture books, so I was used to being set briefs by people and used to sitting down at my desk and thinking through ideas, so this was very much a practical approach, not something that I was carrying around with me, not based on any dog I had or had seen. The reality was that I’d done a few books that’d been successful, one of them being The Blue Balloon, and Hodder asked for a follow-up to it, but The Blue Balloon is a fairly singular idea and there isn’t really any room for a follow-up, The Blue Balloon is The Blue Balloon and that’s it. The fact is that it’s much easier to market a series of books based around a character than lots of one-offs.
So my entire career has been a balance between the excitement of the completely blank page, which is what I enjoy most, and producing books around a character that I can build up over a number of years. And Kipper was the response to that, and I thought ‘What kind of character do I want to draw?’, and realised that dogs gave me a lot of latitude; so I made a list of names and chose one that struck the right balance between oddness and familiarity.
So the character came first and then name later?
I think that was the case, yeah…except, if you think about it, he was the boy’s dog in The Blue Balloon, but on all fours and very much a bit-part character. It was my wife who suggested I use him to build a series around, so I stood him up on his back legs, essentially made him a kind of substitute for a child and that’s how it all started.
Was he an instant, overnight success?
He was a slow, steady build, but successful enough for Hodder to want to keep on publishing him…I think there was more chance then for that to happen, more chance to build your craft.
Would it be simplifying things too much to say ‘and then along came Wibbly…’?
Hodder just asked me if I fancied doing some board books, and that was a lovely brief, about as open a brief as you could get, and I thought ‘Yes I do!’. They’re a lovely little things, board books, a very simple format in which to build a very, very small story and quite a challenge to do something that has any satisfaction in such a small book. I said yes, but can I do six because as soon as you start kicking round ideas they spawn other ideas…I wanted to do a collectable set.
Did your editor want a new character?
No, they wanted Kipper, but I found there wasn’t enough room in a board book for a chorus, if you like, for a foil between the idea, the author and the child reader. I wanted a better toddler-substitute than I felt Kipper would be in that format, and I’d always liked pigs, I’d always felt they were comical and cute in equal measure – sorry to use the word ‘cute’ but we don’t have a good alternative for it - and it’s as simple as being pink and round-headed and making a very good baby/toddler substitute. So I found I could do books that directly referred to the very simple life of a young child. But if it had been Kipper it wouldn’t have been as good, because he’s older.
Your drawings appear to be such a simple combination of line and colour, but I’ve an idea they’re a lot harder to create than they look – true?
I’ve never considered myself to be a natural draftsman - I have some facility, but I’m not your Quentin Blake. I’m not one of those people who always have some pens and pencils in their pocket to scribble on a napkin in a restaurant. I’m not that kind of illustrator, I draw to furnish the ideas I’ve had so I’ve always limited myself to what I know I’m going to enjoy drawing; and I have a relatively perfectionist streak in me, not too bad, so by limiting myself I know I can produce something I’m happy to put out there.
The happy by-product of that is my work suits the medium I’m working in, although what took me some time to realise was how exposed that left the image on the page; you do need to get everything right, it all has to work because with no detail on the page there’s nowhere to hide.
In terms of the difficulty, you grow, you develop your own way of working; I work fairly slowly and never do ‘live’ drawing for audiences – as I say, I’m not a natural illustrator in that way. And I think I find the writing easier than the drawing, but the hardest part of both is the editing, what you mentally and practically chuck in the bin. As you grow you do that editing earlier and earlier and end up going down fewer cul-de-sacs, you become more aware of the processes.
Your drawing style seems to be tailor-made for animation, which I know it has gone into – was that at all in the back of your mind when you started out?
Not when I started, no, and the only series of books I’ve ever produced with animation in mind is Blue Nose Island, a series that’s been ‘in development’, as they say, with Aardman [the studio behind Wallace and Gromit] for a number of years now, and still are. Whether they’ll ever get the green light I’m not sure. But they were designed from the outset with a cast of characters and locations which had animation in mind.
Is the text in Wibbly Pig based on your own handwriting?
Very loosely…not my actual handwriting, but it is a hand-drawn font, based on what I drew in the first Wibbly books; Hodder very kindly said they’d get someone to tidy up and make a proper font out of it.
Do you still draw all your artwork in the old-fashioned way, or have you moved onto computer?
A bit of both, really; I still draw in exactly the same way, usually with an HB pencil on a nice, toothy paper. The biggest improvement for me in technology is actually writing the books straight into a full-size double page on a large screen. This means I can see exactly how the words relate the space and the pictures, and get a much better idea of the geography of the books. That’s been the biggest change for me, but I’ve never drawn on a tablet or anything like that.
In your head are there ideas which are just right for Kipper and others which only work for Wibbly – or do the characters have to fight over them?
No, it’s the other way round - I usually start out knowing which character I’m working on and it proceeds from there.
Did you ever road-test your ideas on your own kids when they were young?
I used to show them everything at every stage, I couldn’t resist it, but really you’re on a hiding to nothing doing that because it does depend on what they’ve had for breakfast! I remember once I showed my son, who was I think about seven at the time, some of the pictures from The Blue Balloon - which was the first book to be in piles in the bookshops, and the one which really put me on the map, I suppose – and he just looked at me and said ‘It’s not your best work is it, Dad?’.
I think your stories are like little plays…
[interrupts] Did you see that in something I wrote?
Well, that’s exactly how I think of my books, I’ve always thought of them as taking place on a little stage, and not the kind which has a realistic set either. I call it ‘whiteworld’, a blank stage on which anything can be played out, and I think of the page turn as akin to a new character coming in from the wings. There’s a kind of freedom in thinking like that, in that you’re not tied into real locations and things can become much more universal. By leaving things open you allow the reader to overlay their own emotions, for example, on a expression; by not nailing everything down there’s much more interplay between author and reader, even if your reader is three.
It’s important there is a structure, though – I’m a traditionalist in the sense I believe in beginnings, middles and endings - because you want there to be that satisfying journey through a story. The magic of storytelling is universal: What happens next? Well, you sit down and I’ll tell you.
Are you allowed to tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m working on a dinosaur idea…a couple of dinosaurs appeared in Oh no Wibbly Pig, not a rabbit!, but it wasn’t about dinosaurs. I enjoyed drawing them, but the idea is in the early stages so whether it’ll progress to a fully-fledged book I’m not sure.