Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
James Campbell is a playwright, a comedian, a storyteller and he does comedy workshops. He has been described as ‘the only stand-up comedian for children in the known universe’. Last but not least, he’s also an author, of books. Here he talks to Graham Marks about his latest book Boyface and the Tartan Badger.
Would you describe yourself as primarily a stand-up comedian?
No, absolutely not! I describe myself as a writer, and stand-up comedy is a part of that…I have been a performer but I’ve always been a writer, and when I was about 20 I started going round schools and talking about writing and performing and I was [there] as a storyteller – but I always wrote my own stories, not using anybody else’s. So it all grew from that, really.
Why for kids, particularly?
I don’t know, it was a long time ago when I decided…when I was, I think, about 19…I was helping a friend of mine with her A Level English. She was struggling with her essay writing, I was quite good at essay writing, and I thought ‘I like this, I could do more of this’. So I put an advert in my local newsagents window saying ‘Experienced English tutor has some vacancies’. A woman phoned me up and said that her little boy, who was seven, had dyslexia and could I help?
I said, well, I don’t know anything about dyslexia, or children, or anything, really, but I’ll come and see you. I’d just won a playwriting competition, so I had some credibility as a writer, and I told her I wouldn’t charge her…it was just at the beginning of the summer holidays and I went round once a week for an hour for six weeks. I got him up from being the bottom of the bottom group at school to being in the middle group. And it turned out he wasn’t dyslexic, he was just a bit disenchanted or hadn’t been engaged, and all I did was I wrote silly poems and stories for him with a view to teaching him how to read and write.
I just used common sense…[it was] common sense and being good with children – I was only 19 and not long ago been a child myself – and I had that wonderful thing you have when you’re young, of not being afraid of failure. I just sort of got on with it and within a couple of weeks I had eight children I was seeing once a week - word had spread – and all these piles of poems and stories were accumulating.
At the same time I was doing some voluntary work at a school, [as well as] working as a chef and writing plays, and what happened was the children’s stuff just sort of took over. And then one of the teachers said that her husband was Head Teacher at a school down the road and she’d been telling him about me and did I want to go there and tell stories? And that’s how it started, I just said ‘Yes’ to everything.
Sometimes that’s what you have to do when you’re starting out, isn’t it.
I think so, yes…now I have to try and say ‘No’ to things sometimes as I haven’t got enough time! I mean, I was always honest with people…one day a school rang me up and said they’d heard good things about me and did I do Shakespeare? I said, well, I know about Shakespeare…so I did about six months of turning Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth into storytelling pieces, and that didn’t go any further than that, but it really informed my ability as a storyteller.
What’s tended to happen is it’s usually been the times when something unexpected happened that I grew…there was one day when I was doing the upper end of Primary, 10-11 year olds, and I’d done my hour - and that was it, every story I had for that age group – and I was just finishing off when the teacher said ‘Oh, we were told you were doing two hours…’. So I said, OK, and just made up the second hour and of course if was better than the first hour.
Gradually people heard about me, and then some comedy club rang up and said they’d heard that I did stories for children, did I fancy doing funny stories for grown ups? I’d never been to a comedy club before – this was in Inverness, I’d strayed into Scotland by that point – so I went along and had a look, and I saw Scottish comedians talking about rude things in rude ways, and I thought ‘This is what I do, but I don’t swear, and it's for children’. So I thought I’d have a go and for about three years I was on the Scottish comedy circuit and doing schools. Most days I was in a school somewhere, then I’d run to a comedy club and be on stage until midnight, then be in a school at 8am the next day.
What happened is that the storytelling became more like the stand-up, that edge became part of my storytelling; it became much more of a two-way thing, much more of an interactive thing, rather than ‘Here is my story, sit down and listen’. It became more of a jam, and I learnt that from jamming in basement bars in Glasgow.
Have there ever been situations where you have to self-censor and go ‘I’m in a school now…’ and ratchet back the language?
That was never a problem, it was more that when I was in comedy clubs I had to deliberately swear…it was more the other way round, swearing isn’t something I naturally do, really. And if you’re engaged with your audience you don’t do anything that’s inappropriate for [them], I believe. I think it would be difficult to do that, if it is genuinely a two-way thing, and you’re engaged in the feedback from your audience. So, no, there’s no ‘off’ switch!
Basically, it seems like it’s about writing and performing for you, that the two things are joined together seamlessly, and always have been.
They have…I didn’t used to write things down, and I just kept everything in my head. Then what used to happen was that I’d have an idea for a story and I’d try it out in a school, or it would pop into my head in the middle of another story; on my way home I’d think, ‘That was nice, I’ll have a think about that’ and I’d write it out the next day and it would grow. Over time it would turn into a ‘thing’.
I have what I call ‘greenhouse stories’…so, if I have a new idea I can pop it in to an existing story - it’s very easy to have some stories where the main character meets certain things along the way that are increasingly funny, and one of those things can be a new funny thing that I’ve thought of. And that way it’s safe, it’s in the greenhouse where it will grow and when it’s ready to be transplanted into a whole story, then I will do so...
What a very nice image.
Well, there’s something about telling a story to the point where it’s become a ‘thing’ and then writing it down…then the next time I tell it after writing it down I have new information, it’s different after writing it with a pen.
At the moment, for example, I have this great little story about lollypop ladies turning evil and biting children on the feet. I’ve been telling this, as a performance piece, for about two or three years now and it’s grown and it’s changed and it all started out as an off-hand remark which has become this great long thing.
I’ve been trying to find a way of writing it down and I couldn’t work it out…I had all sorts of ideas of what it could be, one was that maybe it could be a sort of children’s version of Silence of the Lambs, but it wasn’t quite working. Then I came up with a character, who came up accidentally, and I’ve put them together with the story and it is working. What’s nice is that I know the story because I’ve been telling it for two years.
With the Boyface books, it was lots of little ideas that I brought together in the book, as it were…I’m still finding new ways of writing and seeing how it works.
With Boyface, have elements of the stories been road-tested out there in the real world?
Yes, definitely, and schools like that as well, they really do like it – I used to think you had to go in with a perfect performance, but what I’ve found is that when I bring out the folder – not the book, the folder and the notepads and handwritten pieces of paper – and I show them the process, they find that fascinating. They get to see that my handwriting’s really bad, they get to see how disorganised it is and they see the mistakes and the bits crossed out, and I think that’s good for them.
It also means I can test things out; my instinct a lot of the time is to read the bit which I know definitely works, but sometimes I have to deliberately read the part I’m not quite sure about to find out if it works. Obviously there’s a big difference between performing a story and a child reading it - it’s always going to be better when I perform it, hopefully - but it’s a really important part of the process for me. I wouldn’t write anything down until I’d tested it out!
I’ve not had the benefit of watching you live, but there is a very distinct ‘voice’ to your writing; I wondered whether I would hear that same voice if you were on stage?
[thoughtful intake of breath] Ooh, I don’t know…I think you probably would. The editing process has bashed out a lot of my colloquialisms, and technically I don’t know what I’m doing with a lot of writing, [the] grammar and things. [You should hear] some of the conversations I’ve had with my editor where she points out these things, and I end up going ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t know that, that’s brilliant, thanks…you’ve obviously been to university or something…’. Obviously that is important, though.
The other thing I’ve been doing over the years is writing plays, as well. When I had an idea for a story, partly because of the frustration of thinking that if I wrote it as a book the publishers would ignore me, [I thought] if I wrote it as a play I could put it on at the Edinburgh Fringe and people could see it. And of course, when you’re writing dialogue it doesn’t have to be perfectly correct.
That’s the great thing about dialogue!
Yes, and having to write decent prose has been quite a new thing for me, but I have noticed that, as the manuscripts have gone on, there has been less red ink all over them so I’m clearly getting better. But I think there’s still my voice in there.
Have you had to fight to keep in what you consider to be important colloquialisms in your books?
Do you know what? I haven’t. I expected to, I thought that was going to happen, that I was going to have to fight, and I put some things in that were deliberately outrageous, which I knew would get batted out immediately, as bargaining chips…‘All right, that can go, if I can keep this’ kind of thing. A lot of things get left in because they’re ‘my style’, because obviously they don’t want to break my style, do they? Presumably the reason they hired me is because they like my style - one would hope!
But I’m very wary of the idea of being seen as a comedian who has written a book, I suppose that’s what I worry about, but if that’s what people see, that’s fine, really. I know that I’m a writer first and the stand-up was a bit of a distraction!
Woven into the humour and wacky jokes are some philosophical moments that make you stop, turn back the page and have another look at what you’ve just read – for me that was the ‘Sometimes the best solution to a problem is to realize that there isn’t a problem in the first place’ moment. Do you think there’s more to humour than just laughs?
I think there’s more to books than humour, and hopefully more to me to humour. In some ways that maxim in Boyface and the Tartan Badger is almost like a joke…the climax [of the book] is kind of an anti-climax as there wasn’t a problem, but then I tell you that at the beginning of the book: Nothing is going to happen. As Chekov said, if there’s a shotgun mentioned in Act 1, it’s going to be fired by Act 5; if I tell you nothing’s going to happen in the first stripe*, then you know.
I do want to have more in my books than just gags, definitely, and that’s the same for me with the stand-up; my stand-up doesn’t have any party political message, but what’s hidden is this idea…what I’m saying to children is that we should look at things and question them and challenge them. A lot of my stand-up is ‘Why does this happen? What all that about?’, and a lot of it is looking at parents and teachers, and the authority figures, and just subtly getting children to ask ‘Why?’.
What I can’t do is a show called ‘James Campbell Challenges Education and Parenting’, it wouldn’t work…comedy at it’s best should make you think and laugh at the same time, and a children’s book should as well. There’s nothing particularly provocative about that, I think it’s quite a positive thing, and I’m not pretending that I invented it, but I am trying to put that in as well.
In the books the Machine’s full name is the Quantum Chromatic Disruption Machine – are quantum mechanics at the heart of your Boyface stories?
They are, but I don’t pretend to understand it! It has occurred to me that I should probably read a bit more about that…there was a period a few years ago when I was reading about Chaos Theory and then a lot of Deepak Chopra - the blurred lines between spirit and science, that sort of area - and I am not an expert on either of those subjects, but they interested me and they’ve fed into the books. But I would hope you wouldn’t want to learn anything scientific from my books, although if you’re inspired to find out more, that would be great.
Did you come up with the setting and the family - the story arc, I suppose - before the names, or had Stoddenage-by-the-Sea and the Antelopes been with you for a long time?
They kind of have been…they were characters that I didn’t know where to put, a lot of them. There’s a proto-Boyface hidden in my hard drive - he’s just called Antelope, his first name is Antelope – and I wrote a series of plays called The Onomatopoeia Society, years ago, and I was trying to turn them into a children’s book and I needed a child as a bridge between this weird world I’d created, and I came up with Antelope.
Boyface was originally a cross between me and my son – I used to call my son ‘Boyface’ when he was a baby, and also, when we were thinking of names for the baby, I thought Antelope was an excellent name for a child, but was shouted down. I thought, one day I’ll put that in a book, and that’s how the name came.
His character has developed, he started off almost like a comedy vehicle, really, and didn’t have much of a personality, but he’s now developing into a sort of Everychild.
I know Boyface is the star, but is there another character you’re especially fond of?
I love Mandala Eyelash, I think she’s lovely, and she’s a mixture of my wife and various waitresses in cafés that I write in. I spend a lot of time writing in cafés. And also my Mum used to run a tea room in Devon and used to hand-make 40,000 scones a year, or something ridiculous, and again that came from the stand-up…I used to talk about that on stage and then this idea that she read people’s fortunes from scones came out. And Mr Pointless as well, I like him, he pops in and out of the books…I think he might be a Zen master.
Do we ever find out why Clootie is wearing a saucepan on her head?
Yes we do, in Book 4…I’m just waiting for the editors to come back on that – as well as humour you can have child protection issues, in a humorous way! She’s got a bit of a difficult home life, that’s what’s going on there.
There’s a mad logic to what you write, which I think is very flawed but attractive and endearing – is this the real you?
Yeah…yeah, I’ll go with that!