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Allan Ahlberg was born in 1938, in south London. He was educated at Oldbury Grammar School and after National Service and sundry jobs, including a spell as a postman, he attended Sunderland College of Education, where he met his first wife, Janet. He taught for 10 years before embarking on the highly-successful picture book collaboration with Janet. As Anita Silvey describes their partnership in Children's Books and their Illustrators, and as is confirmed in the answer to Q5: "While Janet was primarily the illustrator and Allan the writer of this team, they considered themselves first and foremost bookmakers, deciding together on all aspects of production, from the book size and typeface to the endpapers, cover and jacket copy." Janet died in 1994. In the past few years Ahlberg has started to work busily again, collaborating with a number of illustrators.

DATE OF INTERVIEW: July 2001

ACHUKA Authorfile
Click here for a complete list of books by Allan Ahlberg

 
1. Amongst other things, you trained and worked as a teacher for some 10 years before you began publishing books. What influence did this have on the work you produced in those early days?

I am sure that working as a teacher has, pretty obviously really, influenced the things I have written - i.e. books for children! I find schools very interesting places, having seen them from both sides, as a pupil and as a teacher. A lot of funny and sad and weird things go on there. I like the idea of a school being a separate little world, and I like writing about it.


Order2. Did you and Janet have any idea at the time of working on books such as Burglar Bill, Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman etc. that you were creating lasting children's classics? Which of these is your personal favourite?

OrderWell, no, not really. Also, it is a bit early yet to talk about 'lasting children's classics'. Alice In Wonderland is a lasting children's classic - I think our books will have to stick around for a little longer than 20 years before they qualify. My personal favourite is probably The Jolly Postman but I seem to give a different answer to this question every time it's asked.


3. Your most recent picture book, The Man Who Wore All His Clothes (Walker), illustrated by Katharine McEwen, is a frantically fast-paced, Keystone Cops action story. Was it as much fun to work on as it is to read?

OrderYes, it was fun to work on, although the actual writing, on and off, took a few years. It took me a long time to work certain bits of it out and fit them together so that they work, like a piece of clockwork.

4. Are there going to be more Gaskitts books?

OrderYes, at least one more, which will be called The Woman Who Won Things. After that it depends on you! What I am hoping to do is to write six Gaskitts books altogether. That's one of the reasons why the first one took so long, because eventually I'd like to have these six clockwork-like stories, each a separate book, of course - but then all of them fit together, as it were to make a much larger piece of clockwork. So, for instance, when I'm writing the first story or the second, I have to be thinking about the other stories and be on the lookout for where links are etc. But, of course, if nobody buys the first two.. well, I can stop worrying. Put my feet up. Watch the football on TV. Have a beer.


5. When you worked with Janet there must have been instances when her artwork inspired/suggested revisions to your text? How does this process differ now that you are collaborating with illustrators who do not work under the same roof?

Order It's tremendously different, because Janet and I lived together and because our ideas about words and pictures were so similar. We could work on a book by day from its very first beginnings, usually as a bit of scribble, and knock it back and forth between us, like a tennis ball, with Janet helping me with the words and me helping her with the pictures etc. and both of us looking after the whole book from cover to cover. I'm really lucky now, I work with some marvellous illustrators, and every now and then, if we're lucky, we get fairly close to making a good book. But the process is different. No comparison.

 


6.Of all your recent titles, which is the one you would most like to have had Janet illustrate?

Well, the truth is - all of them.


7. Narrated by a polio sufferer and set in the 1950s, My Brother's Ghost was unlike anything you'd published previously. It prompts the over-used but ever-fascinating question: Where did the idea for it come from?

OrderI can't really remember. I had the title for a long while, I liked its simplicity, and then, eventually, I suspect, I just sort of started writing it, as if I'd begun a bit of knitting, just a few rows, or sentences at a time, without knowing (perhaps) what it was I would end up with - a scarf, a sock, a ghost story.


Order8. Your collection of poetry about school - Please Mrs Butler - was a huge hit in the 1980s and has been popular ever since. You have been rather self-denigrating about your poetry, calling it 'mostly verse' as poetry has to be 'more mysterious and beautiful', adding as proviso that "a good bit of verse is better than an ordinary bit of poetry." Does this self-assessment also apply to the poems in your new collection Friendly Matches (with line drawings by Fritz Wegner and all about your favourite game - football)?

OrderYes, I think it does. At the same time, I wouldn't want to be dogmatic about any of this - I'm no expert! For instance, for many years I wrote verse, enjoyed writing it, but rarely read any, which always struck me as a bit odd.

Order9. Why do you support West Bromwich Albion?

Well, somebody needs to. Also, in the usual way of things, the Albion are my team. It's their score I look for on Saturday. Actually, they did pretty well last season - made the play-offs. And when I was a boy in the early fifties, standing nose to nose with forty or fifty thousand others at The Hawthorns, they were one of the best (the best) teams in the land. Won the League - the Cup - the lot! But time passes - the world turns - and other upstart teams, Man. United etc., temporarily move into the limelight.



10. Turning back to The Man Who Wore All His Clothes, what prompted the idea of the hilarious car radio that 'sometimes gets things wrong'?

I don't know. The story takes place in a universe in which cats can talk, fridges (and doormats) leave messages and everything is animated. In this context a talking, dimwitted radio seemed entirely reasonable.

Order12. Which of the visual jokes in the book do you enjoy most? I like the talking fridge.

I'm not sure. It's quite a while since I looked at the whole book. I think I'll have to pass on this one.


13. At what stage did the story become divided into 11 chapters?

Again, difficult to answer, but I suspect there wasn't one stage, but more likely eleven little stages.

14. Did Katharine McEwen choose where to insert the pictures, did you give directions, or was this aspect left to a designer? I am thinking particularly of the spread on pp60/61, where on p60 the text is printed in three narrow columns, with an illustration above each one, followed by a sort of punchline and larger picture on p61.

The way the finished book came about is as follows: I wrote it - and as I wrote it, I imagined the pictures in my head and also wrote down many of the speeches, labels etc. that would be part of the pictures. Then Katharine did loads of pictures - rough versions - and we all looked at them. After that our marvellous, hugely talented designer, Amelia Edwards, took all these bits of jigsaw - words, pictures, type, white paper etc. - and fitted them together. And then we all looked at the results, and argued a bit, and fiddled around a bit etc., until we were satisfied.


15. What books do you have in the pipeline and what are you working on at present? Are we going to see more sustained fiction along the lines of My Brother's Ghost?

There's a book with Raymond Briggs due out in September, called The Adventures of Bert. A few short picture books with various illustrators that will come out sometime or other, and there's Gaskitts #2, The Woman Who Won Things. And yes, I have recently finished a short (longer) book similar in length to My Brother's Ghost. It's a kind of horror story. I'm hoping that might come out next year.


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