Giles Andreae speaks to Graham Marks
Giles Andreae is not only the bestselling author of such award-winning picture books as Giraffes Can’t Dance, Rumble in the Jungle and The Lion Who Wanted to Love, he’s also the man behind the entertaining world of Purple Ronnie, as well as The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton. Here he talks to Graham Marks about all the many and varied bits of his very creative life, including toilet brush poetry.
You don’t have the typical career path of children’s author. Or a poet. Or a cartoonist, for that matter. Was there ever a ‘Grand Plan’, or have you simply followed where the wind has blown?
Well, my career started by accident…it actually began with something completely different, which was a stand-up comedy routine…it began with Purple Ronnie, which was part of a terribly bad amateur Oxford University review group. There were magicians, musicians, sketches and comedians and I was this weird street poet, if you like. So Purple Ronnie began as a live street poetry act in a comedy review. And that’s what turned into my writing career.
My first children’s book grew out of an idea for a Purple Ronnie calendar, which we would produce every year; it was themed and one year I thought I should do animals, so I wrote twelve poems about animals and submitted them to my publisher. But, because Purple Ronnie is a bit more grown up and naughty, he said ‘They’re no good at all – there’s no bottoms and willies and farting and drinking and falling over. They might as well be a kid’s book!’. And I thought ‘Well, yeah, they might as well be’, and that’s what became Rumble in the Jungle; my first children’s book was a rejected Purple Ronnie calendar.
Have you always had what you could call ‘little big thoughts’, and were your exercise books always covered in comic doodles? Is this something you’ve always done?
I think because I’ve done Purple Ronnie and then The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton, people assume I’m an illustrator, which I’m not, really. I do illustrate Edward Monkton, only because it’s meant to look quite bad, but Purple Ronnie I’ve never illustrated and I wouldn’t go near trying to illustrate a children’s book. I’m very much a word guy and everything for me begins with the words…and to answer your question, from a very young age at school I remember being absolutely transported by the elegance and wit of comic verse, by which I mean, I suppose, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan and particularly Dr Seuss. I just have always loved verse and comedy, and that’s where everything sprang from for me as a writer of serious and less serious books – and some of my books I probably think are more serious than other people might give credit for!
I wonder, if Purple Ronnie had either failed or not existed, do you think you’d still be doing something like this?
Yes, I think I would be…the Grand Plan was actually to go into advertising, to end up as a creative. I had a very traditional education and my father was a rather boring businessman – by which I mean the business was boring, not him – so advertising, training to be an account executive, was the closest to being creative I could get without risking the disapproval of my parents. I think I thought I could wangle my way from management to creative, but that whole career path was interrupted by the fact that I got cancer and had to take a year off for treatment.
In retrospect, I think I would have ended up doing something pretty much like what I’m doing now…part of it is that I’ve always loved children and family, I’ve always loved engaging with people of all ages – I grew up in a very, very big family and I loved it. I’ll keep returning to this word probably, as it’s the most useful word to understand what I do, from a holistic perspective, which is ‘playful’ - I just love playfulness and I think you can do a lot more with it than some people might give such a juvenile word credit for. I don’t want to collapse into cliché, but it’s the child within the adult that we tend to lose so often as we become grown up.
I personally don’t think you can be creative as an adult, without having a very a strong connection back to play and childhood.
Well, I would completely agree…I don’t know if I would make that a general rule, as I simply don’t know, but for me that’s absolutely it.
When you wrote originally for Purple Ronnie, you wrote in that particular way, and you have another style for Edward Monkton; when you write for children, do you have to censor yourself?
Everything I write always starts with a voice, really, and everything has a different voice. Once you find a voice it takes you in a certain direction and you don’t have to censor yourself; I never find myself longing to start writing about sex and alcohol when I’m writing for children.
What’s the best thing about working with illustrators?
The remarkable thing about writing picture books is the reservoir of massive illustrative talent. I think it’s one of the few areas where there’s a real opportunity for someone with ability to let go with their creativity, and one of freest areas for illustrators to work, and so it tends to attract incredibly talented people…it always feels like an enormous privilege to work with them.
To me there doesn’t seem to be such a great divide between your ‘simple thoughts’ work and your texts for kids – both are direct, both ingenuous, in the best sense of the word, and both very disarming – do you think about them in different ways?
It’s all different bits of me. I believe in everything that I write, I wouldn’t write it otherwise, because you have to choose what you’re going write. I say that as if I’m terribly multi-faceted, which I don’t particularly think I am…and it just comes back to the fact that everything I do is playful, in one sense or another.
Is it like tuning a radio for you, there’s just various stations on the same waveband?
Um, it’s a clever metaphor, and probably right, but I’m not ever turning the dial, I’m always on a certain preset! For instance, a book I’ve done with Orchard, Me, the Queen and Christmas, is a short story written in the voice of a seven year-old girl which literally came as the result of a dream; I rushed down in my dressing gown and found myself instantly writing in the voice of a seven year-old girl. If I’m doing Edward Monkton, I’m a 50 year-old philosopher. Expressed like that it sounds extraordinary, but it doesn’t seem so weird to me. It’s all bits of me and it all seems to be there when I want it to come out. Which means that I find the notion of writer’s block hilarious.
You have an obvious love of books, as a means of communication, and a strong need to communicate how you feel, particularly about love and happiness – in another era do you think you might have been an evangelical type?
Well I don’t think I’m not in this era, I just do it lightly. I don’t have the extrovert personality in order to stand on a soap box and preach, which is really why books, and to some extent television and the Internet are very good media because you can hide behind them. And as you know, I further disguise myself by using different personalities…I am evangelical about love and happiness, I actually think they’re the only things worth writing about, they’re certainly the two fundamentals upon which I think you can build a meaningful life. And as I say that I think I probably just said something fairly evangelical.
You do seem to think that’s a message which is as important for children as it is for adults.
I think children engage far more naturally, and possibly richly, with those two subjects than adults do, as a rule.
Do you go out and do events with children, in schools and at festivals?
I do, but not as much as a lot as a lot people. I temper everything I do with playfulness…I don't stand there and tell children how important love and happiness are, I tell them funny stories, because I think the best way to tell any child something important is with humour.
A moment of epiphany for me was when I was five or six and my mother was reading me Dr Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, which is a remarkable story, as are all his fables, and I remember being completely overwhelmed by this hilarious story about a little turtle…I remember thinking it was funny, but that I was learning something incredibly important about society. And I was five and it was about turtles and burping, and it was an amazing moment for me…you can tell children very important things in a very light-handed way, and it works with adults, too.
You mentioned the word fable, using it in conjunction with Dr Seuss, and I wondered if it was a tradition you have an affinity for – are you a fan of Aesop?
Am I fan of Aesop? [pauses] Well, I’ve read them time and time again, and I guess, because I’ve grown up with them, I take them for granted; I sort of think they’re all right…
[he sits back and thinks about what he’s just said, then in a self-deprecating drawl says: ‘I think Aesop was all right’ and laughs].
…no [pauses]…actually I probably would stick by that; they’re fairly good, traditional morality tales, but then if you go to Oscar Wilde, for instance, he’s in a completely different class, just because what he writes is so rich in sentiment.
I would then move towards talking about sentimentalism, which I think is a good thing and I think it’s a real shame that the word ‘sentimental’ has become corrupted to mean ‘cheesy’. I think sentiment is great and Aesop doesn’t have a lot of sentiment for me, doesn’t have a lot of charm, whereas and Oscar Wilde or Dr Seuss do.
You do get criticized for the sentiment in your work, I suppose because it’s quite an easy target; does that annoy you?
No, not really…if someone says ‘These books are sentimental’, I think, yeah, they are. You can take [a comment such as] that however you like. My bestselling book is Giraffes Can’t Dance, which has a very Hollywood-style storyline to it, it’s that classic ‘follow your dreams’ story, which I have to say I don't necessarily believe in wholesale, but that’s a different matter.
If you read the reviews on Amazon, most people think it’s great, and some people say its cheesy and some of the rhymes are crap. Does that bother me? If most of the reviews were like that, it would bother me, but most of them say it means a lot to them and helped their children understand about equality. If I get a few jibes for that, that’s fine.
Turning to the I Love books…they have very short texts, a teaspoon of story, and a lot of input from the illustrator, Emma Dodd. How did that work?
How it worked was I’d written a poem called I Love My Mummy, which was even shorter than how the book turned out, and was actually for a collection of poems for Booktrust. My editor said ‘You know, this could be a book, if you added in a few more verses’; she said it was a really direct idea and they’d got this illustrator who worked in a very simple, iconic style. So I added in a couple more verses and when I saw Emma’s work I thought it was very natural and would go very well with my verse…but it’s really down to the editor, and a lot of that is down to trust.
Emma certainly felt exactly right for this level of text, just because, even though her illustrations look very simple, there’s a great deal of warmth and accessibility there which is hard to get with simple line and colour. And another word that’s so important, which Emma brings to a book in spades, is charm, simple charm.
Until I saw Emma’s work I wasn’t convinced the book would work because the text was so slight; but then the older I get and the more experienced I get the more value I place on very, very slight, simple…sorry, short is the best word…short texts.
I think brevity is a very difficult thing to bring to picture book texts, where the pictures are doing the bulk of the work; it seems to be very natural to you and I imagine you don’t need much editing.
No I don’t, and something I learnt over the years is that verse is different to prose; verse is fairly self-editing anyway, just because you need to hit those rhymes and you need to get the scansion right. Prose less so. And I think it’s about finding the kernel of an idea and paring away the layers to get to it. If you’ve got something good it can be a very small kernel, but it can really shine and the more you expose it the more it shines.
So do you now not need anyone else to tell you when you’ve hit the nail on the head?
It depends how risky a text is. I’ve just written one that’s thirty words long, and that’s quite risky. I suppose, because I’m lucky enough to have had a history of creating really weird things that turn out to be commercial – by which I suppose I mean Edward Monkton and Purple Ronnie - I know that if I’ve done something really weird again, people will take it quite seriously. And probably it’s the same with children’s books…I’m in the lucky position where I know, with anything I write, at least someone will look at it. I do think you have to have giant reserves of self-belief, to start and finish something creative, because if you don’t think it’s great what’s the point, really? And particularly if you’re doing something unusual.
What are you working at the moment?
There’s a book called Mad About Megabeasts, which is sequel to Mad About Minibeasts, believe it or not, we’re just putting to bed I Love Father Christmas, and we’re doing I Love You, Baby. What else have we got…oh, yes! I’ve got another book with Jess Mikhail! We did this book called I Love You Little Monster, which is not in the I Love you series, and I’ve got a new one with her called Matt’s Naughty Nits, which is about someone called Matt, who has naughty nits in his hair. Do you see what I’ve done there?
Do you think you’ve brought an unusually commercial mind to children’s books?
With greetings cards, for instance, there are only about five or six things you can say, and I’ve found a thousand of ways of saying them; the good thing about books is there are more things you can say and you’re freer. What I find interesting is talking to book writers about writing on other stuff, like chewing gum or loo paper. Quite a lot of them are a bit curious, but look down their noses…why would you do that?
But I find it really just as interesting writing a poem for, let’s say, a toilet brush, which I’ve done, than writing another book. For a start, commercially, there are many more shops that sell toilet brushes than sell books, and it gets your work out in front of many more people. It just so happens that I think I can say something entertaining and life-enriching on a toilet brush. Not everyone can, or wants to.