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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
Are there going to be more Gaskitts books?
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.
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?
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.
all your recent titles, which is the one you would most like to
have had Janet illustrate?
the truth is - all of them.
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?
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.
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)?
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.
Why do you support West Bromwich Albion?
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.
Turning back to The Man Who Wore All His Clothes, what prompted
the idea of the hilarious car radio that 'sometimes gets
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.
Which of the visual jokes in the book do you enjoy most?
I like the talking fridge.
not sure. It's quite a while since I looked at the whole
book. I think I'll have to pass on this one.
At what stage did the story become divided into 11 chapters?
difficult to answer, but I suspect there wasn't one stage,
but more likely eleven little stages.
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.
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.
© copyright 2001 ACHUKA