Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Nicholas Allan is the award-winning and best-selling author and artist behind some of our most popular picture books, including The Queen’s Knickers and Father Christmas Needs a Wee. Here he talks to Graham Marks about the journey down the creative road he’s travelled, how he works, as well as his latest picture book, The Big-Hearted Book…
You were obviously a very creative person right from the start as you made your public artistic debut at the age of twelve with a model galleon made out of a walnut shell…
That was in the Royal Academy.
How did it get there?
Well, it was a national competition for children, to produce a work of art, so I entered and I was one of the lucky ones. There weren’t that many of us and it does mean that you can say you exhibited at the Royal Academy - that was the prize. When, subsequently, I’ve tried to get something in the RA, they’ve asked if I’ve exhibited before and I can say I have.
Have you had anything else accepted by them?
I did have a go this year…I did a painting of a light switch, which looked like a real light switch; when it was hung on a wall people tried to press it. Anyway, it got short-listed, and right on the final day they said it didn't make it, but it did get that far.
And was making things your first love, or just a part of what you did as a child?
It was all I did, really…I didn’t have any other interests, so I was always making things. I think my mother pushed me to do it; she was a child psychologist and there were four brothers and she picked the one she thought had the most talent, being an expert on little children, and just pushed. So I’ve always felt I didn’t have much choice.
You then wrote your first novel two years later, when you were fourteen - which is kind of the definition of precocious, and quite an achievement at that age.
To write a novel?
It was something I’d always wanted to do, and it was sent to Macmillan, who didn’t take it; but they asked to see my second novel, which was encouraging.
Was that first novel ever published?
I did actually completely rewrite it and it was published much later as a Young Adult novel called First Time, and in some countries it was published as an adult novel, a cross-over.
Have you written another novel?
I have been trying, and it’s something I’d like to do, but it is very difficult.
Isn’t writing the first one, proving to yourself that you can do it, the most difficult thing?
I suppose so, I don’t know…once you’ve done something you don't think of it as difficult any more – I always think it’s the second thing that’s the most difficult.
Has that been true of your picture books as well?
No, actually it hasn’t…the first one took years, but I suppose with the second one it all made sense and I could do it. I don’t find writing children’s picture books easy, though, I find it gets more difficult as it’s harder to think of new ideas. Ideas are the hardest bit, it’s all about the idea…you have to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and think of something no one’s ever thought of ever, and something people want to look at. It’s the problem of art and the problem for all artists: how do you think of something new? Sometimes ideas come from titles, quite a few of mine have; you think of a wacky title and then you get a story from it.
Writing does seem to have come before illustrating, because you also did radio plays before picture books.
Yes, I did three in the end, for BBC Radio 4; they were the first things I had professionally done. [The BBC] were very encouraging, and called me in to talk about the play I’d sent in…they nurse you into writing better plays. That’s one of the great joys of writing, that you send something in cold, [you’re not there with it], so if they send it back no one knows, and when they accept it it’s nice. Not like an audition, where everyone knows how awful you are.
There’s a large element of privacy involved.
Yes, there is, no one has to know you’re a writer, really. I love the idea of going in cold [with an idea]; it’s purely on whether it’s good or not, because there’s nothing else to judge it on.
In fact you do quite a lot of events, so there is something of the performer in you.
That’s true, although I’m doing less of them now…I used to do magic when I was a child and I realised that children liked it and so now I use it in performances. It helps break things up: I can write and draw, and then do magic and produce chocolate, so that’s all you need.
Brilliant, I wish I could do the same thing myself!
Do you not do events?
I do, but I don’t do magic and I can’t produce chocolate, which I think is an absolute winner!
It is a winner, yes, but you could learn – although you don’t have to do the magic, just produce the chocolate!
Would it be right to say that throughout your childhood you were experimenting with different mediums, trying to find the one that suited you? By the time you’d got to the Slade School of Art had you made your mind up?
No…interesting question…because I could always draw and I could always write, sort of, anyway, but whenever I did one I always felt there was something missing; so, it was with the picture book that I finally realised I’d found the perfect medium. It's an organic process with me, when I’m creating [a book] I do everything at the same time, I don’t do the writing and then the drawing. It’s all one thing because sometimes a picture works better than words, and vice versa.
So I finally found out what I could do well – perhaps I can’t write or draw that well, but not many people can do both, so in that way I have an edge on people who only do one thing or the other – although when I took my first story in to my agent, and said I could do the drawings, he said ‘No, they’ll want to get someone good to do that’! Most of the best picture books are done by one person…there are a few exceptions, but I think the very best ones are.
Have you ever written a book for someone else?
No, but I’ve done the pictures…I did it as an experiment and I didn’t enjoy it at all.
Your first picture book was The Hefty Fairy, which seems to set the style for the books to come: a slightly sideways take on a well known subject. Were you always that kind of observer type, looking at the world from an unconventional angle?
Um, I don’t feel I see the world as a child…I see grown-ups as odd, not children. I don’t quite understand adults, I think, and looked at from that point of view, that’s how I see the world. I find some things quite daunting – I could never get a car, I don’t think, I just find them such extraordinarily powerful machines, something for grown-ups. Strange, really, as I can drive and I do have a licence; I took the test because I thought one day it might be useful, although I’ve never used it.
Looking at what you do, I don’t see a child-like view; what I do see is what you often get from children: a view which is from an angle an adult would never have thought of. That’s what I’d say was one of your strengths.
In a sense I think I might know what children like, because it’s the same thing I like. A book has to have something for me in it when I do it…I don’t ever feel I’m writing for an audience, I’m just writing to have fun, so the book must be fun for me.
I was wondering where you thought this work process came from – are you basically playing when you work?
Yes, exactly. I don’t do anything else, I don’t have any other interests…when people say ‘what do you do when you’re not working?’, I think it’s an odd thing to say. When you write or draw it’s playing. Orwell said that all the great sculptors were basically mucking around in sand making sand castles, and that’s what it really is, playing about - I particularly sense that with Picasso, when I look at his work and how he worked, he was always playing, really.
Taking that thought on a step further, you have a very distinctive art style, it’s a technique that looks deceptively simple - but it’s watercolour, so it can’t be. Did you develop that, or did it come naturally?
It just seemed to be the easiest way to do it, I think - The Queens’s Knickers was meant to be [as if you were] seeing through the eyes of a little girl, so a lot of that was trying to draw like a child and it developed from there. But the later books, like Father Christmas Needs a Wee, have been done in oil paint, which is what I used at art school.
Looking at The Big-Hearted Book, haven’t you gone back to doing that in watercolour?
Yes, I have, it’s in the same style as an earlier book I did called Heaven. I switch, I use whatever the story needs, and I’ll use any medium that makes the story the most effective it can be.
Do you now use computers, or is your work still done the way it always has been?
It’s all hand done…there’s a funny thing about computers, I find people who use them a lot, their art becomes very homogenised; I like the accidents in art and that doesn’t seem to work when you use computers, so I don’t use them, no. If I’m writing something I’ll write it longhand, then put it in a computer. I’m probably losing out somewhere, wasting a lot of time as well.
It’s an interesting comment about computers, because when you use one you are having to put your work through someone else’s program and fight to make ‘you’ come through the machine.
They’d deny that, people who use them, because they’d say it’s just an extension of your brush; but I have noticed that the work of artists who have changed has become deader, the line is dead because it’s all the same. If you’re using a dip pen, you can vary the thickness and thinness in a microsecond, just using pressure, and that comes out in illustrations which are done by hand. There’s such a random element, especially with watercolour.
In The Big-Hearted Book I had a rubber stamp made to do all the hearts, but it still means all the hearts are different as you can’t make identical imprints with the stamp.
Do you work with a designer, or do you lay all your books out yourself and do your own typography?
I do a compete book, [as a rough,] and send the whole thing in, not just an idea. And it takes three minutes to reject it, if that’s going to happen, and lots do get rejected, until they find one they like. They’re looking for ideas that stick around, rather than be on the shelves for a year and then disappear. I’m glad that’s the way they think, so they can bin loads of them until they find one that think might have a chance to last.
The Big-Hearted Book has a slightly unusual provenance in that it’s an idea which came, in part, from someone else. Did that in any way make it harder to do?
That’s absolutely true, it was different from how I normally work. The publisher, who had with worked with me on some of my earlier books, knew that I’d been born with a heart problem; so when Helen [Bower, Mass Market Sales Director at Hodder] had a heart problem and wanted to do a book about it for the International Children’s Heart Foundation, the publisher got in touch with me, which is how it came about. Once I had an idea, I was pretty much left alone, but it could well have been that I wouldn’t have been able to think of a story, and then it wouldn’t have happened.
What was your jumping-off point for the book, the moment you knew you had something you could run with – was it the story or the characters?
There was a book that I’d written years ago which never got published, but I remembered it had a string of hearts in it, so I used it for The Big-Hearted Book.
Will there be any more Babette and Bill stories?
There could be, if I could think of one!
You’ve done books about bums, religion, sex, art and the Queen’s knickers, are there any subjects out there you are still waiting to tackle?
I‘m always looking for them, and always looking for new ones. I did one on cannibalism, but they didn’t take that.
I was wondering if there were any subjects that had been deemed too scandalous and unacceptable, and I suppose cannibalism does fit that bill!
That was quite a nice one, it was called The Cannibal’s Picnic and was about food and nutrition; but they said forget it, so I suppose it’s the Pope’s next!