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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward

When you were originally interviewed by ACHUKA (nearly five years ago), it was principally as a non-fiction author, although you revealed that you had written a number of picture books under a different name, and that your first novel, Awful End, was soon to be published by Faber. Speaking as mainly a non-fiction author, you were happy to concede that 'Fiction’s the exciting stuff' and that 'Non-fiction books are ‘background’ books'. Well, life has certainly become exciting for you since then, and you have become very much a 'foreground' author following the success of the Eddie Dickens and Unlikely Exploits books. Has success 'changed your life' as a writer, and if so, how?

When I said that fiction is the 'exciting stuff' and non-fiction are 'background books' I meant in people's perceptions, not in the actual writing of them. There are a whole host of fantastic children's non-fiction titles out there, it's just that they're not given the prominence in reviews and general conversations. Writing non-fiction can be equally exciting. Having said that, the success of my fiction titles has certainly changed my life, though not necessarily my writing. After years of writing non-fiction and, admittedly, being a regular bearded face at book festivals and events around the country, the success of Awful End made people in the book world suddenly view me differently. I'm really enjoying primarily writing fiction at the moment, but I'm still employing the styles and 'tricks' that I used in some of my non-fiction but without the restraints of trying to stick to facts! I suppose what I'm trying to say is that yes my life as a writer has changed: I earn much more -- the Eddie Dickens books are in 26 different languages -- I tour much more, I travel abroad, people are far more interested in what I'm up too, and I can afford to write far fewer books. . . but the actual process of writing (my in-front-of-a-computer time) is much as it was before.

Your novels began to appear more or less simultaneously with the Lemony Snicket books. There are superficial similarities. You both write short, illustrated, comic novels aimed at children aged 8+. You both frequently interrupt the narrative to address the reader. But there are significant differences as well. What do you see as the main distinctive features of your books?

To be fair, I've only read one of Lemony's 'Unfortunate Events' so I'm no expert but, of course, I can see similarities. The whole Philip Ardagh/Lemony Snicket thing is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's useful for booksellers to say 'if you like Lemony Snicket you'll love Philip Ardagh' or vice versa but, on the other, I sometimes wish that we hadn't appeared on the scene together!

I think what we both share is a love of language and showmanship. In both cases the narrator is almost a character. My stories are far more ridiculous, though. More preposterous. I suspect that he's more concerned with plot than I am! I'd say that he's going more down the Edgar Alan Poe route -- being an American -- whereas I'm in the shadow of Mr Charles Dickens. I love going off at terrible tangents and bombarding the reader with apparently irrelevant backstory that sometimes, somehow, miraculously turns out to be not quite so irrelevant after all.

I've also always felt that it's villains in children's books that often let the side down: the unconvincing stepfather, the mad scientists who wants to rule the world -- but then what? -- which is why my stories, however off-beat, deal much more in shades of grey. There are no real villains in the Eddie Dickens books. Okay, so the Cruell-Streaks, who are running the St Horrid's Home for Grateful Orphans in Awful End, aren't the nicest folk around (but they only merit a few lines) and there are, indeed, escaped convicts up on the misty moors in Dreadful Acts, but escaped convicts are pretty much a prerequisite up on misty moors, aren't they? And as for Lady Constance Bustle, the ladies' companion in Terrible Times, she may have been bumping off former employers, but very politely.

In my Unlikely Exploits, the apparent 'villain' of the piece, Mr Maggs, turns out not to be quite so villainous after all and, anyway, his Manifesto of Change includes the likes of positioning the letter 'q' further down the alphabet, to be with the 'v', 'w' and 'x' where it belongs, and to ban the collective term 'cruet' when referring to salt and pepper. There's not a secret hideout in a distinct volcano or places to create a slave race in sight.

So what's the most distinctive feature of my books? The fact that I'm constantly reminding the reader that they are reading a book. I'm trying to make it a unique-to-books experience. I refer them back to earlier pages, and even earlier illustrations. In some books I even use illustrations from previous books and tell the reader so. In Eddie Dickens's adventures, one character -- Eddie's father, Mr Dickens -- actually knows that he's just a character in a book but, because none of the other characters does, when he comments on the fact, it makes no sense to them.

And, oh yes, people who know me say that reading one of my novels is like having me talk to them.

Heir of Mystery, Book 2 in the Unlikely Exploits sequence and just out in paperback, has a dedication to a Coronary Care Unit 'all of whose acquaintance I unexpectedly made when reaching the closing stages of this book'. Put our minds at ease. This was for research purposes, or in connection with an elderly relative. The Walking Beard IS as robust and healthy as he appears, isn't he?

Sadly not research, no! I was just coming to the end of Heir of Mystery -- which begins with the line 'This is a book about death.' -- and due to go on holiday to France the following day. Instead, I had pains in my chest and ended up being taken to hospital in an ambulance. It wasn't the heart-attack they suspected but something called pericarditis, where the sack around your heart misbehaves, making it difficult for your heart to function properly. I was in there for about a week and I think it was more scary for my wife seeing me that way than it was for me. I'm fine now. . . in fact healthier than I've been for years,

The final book in the Unlikely Exploits trilogy, The Rise Of The House Of McNally, is just out in hardback. The dustwrapper features another terrific cover illustration by David Roberts, the illustrator for all your novels. He seems to have captured the unique character of your humour right form the start, when he illustrated Awful End. Had you worked together before that? Can you imagine your books without his illustrations?

I'd seen David's work so, when I was asked if I had an illustrator in mind for Awful End, he was my number one choice and I was lucky enough to get him. When I write a book, I leave gaps where I'd like the illustrations to go, and I write very detailed descriptions of what I'd like the pictures to contain (including character descriptions). David then does some pencil sketches based on these, I comment on them --'Could you make the nose beakier?', 'Could you add a few more sheep?' -- and then he draws them up in ink. It became obvious from Day One that David had a real understanding of what I'm about, and the more we've worked together the more amazing he's been at realising my characters. When I saw his first sketches of Mr Maggs they were exactly how I'd imagined him when I'd created him. Spooky!

To make a clear distinction between my Eddie Dickens and my Unlikely Exploits series, there was some talk of finding a different artist for the latter. That idea lasted about three seconds. I can't imagine writing these kinds of books without David's illustrations. Foreign publishers are, of course, free to choose to re-illustrate my books with whomsoever they please but, I'm very happy to report, that -- so far -- every single one of them has stuck with David's fabulous drawings.

Monday 29th Mar 2004 at 02:15 PM - a date and time that will go down in the history of children's literature, as the moment when Phil Ardagh (pronounced to rhyme with 'harder') began to keep an online journal. This can be accessed via your website www.philipardagh.com which, for anyone who has not previously experienced your work, is an excellent introduction to the weirdo workings of your mind. What made you start the journal? Is it a chore or a joy to maintain? Are you able to add entries directly, or do you have to submit them to a 'webmaster/mistress'?

Although an official website, I don't run it. Of course, I supply much of the material, but I leave it up to Faber & Faber and a specialist company called Lateral to deal with the nuts and bolts of it all. . . but I wanted to be a little more 'hands on'. I can actually access the journal from home, typing in entries, amending, etc., etc., etc. which is great. I also have the technology to add photos, but not the know-how which is why my entries are picture-free at the moment! Once I've mastered the technology, you should begin to see more and more pictures of people and events. In the meantime, I may ask those nice Faber folk to drop in the odd one here and there.

This is a nice way of keeping the website current. There's nothing sadder than a good-looking website that hasn't changed for months! Having said that, I don't feel the need to write entries every day -- I've got to find time to write books, do events and respond to fan mail -- so I don't expect it to become a 'chore' as you put it.

You are notorious for your beard, the size of your feet and for carrying a green towel with you whenever you make a public appearance. What is the green towel for?

IOne of the questions I like to ask children is: 'What do you think most writers spend their time doing?' Answers usually include: 'reading', 'writing', 'thinking about what you're going to write' and, on rare occasions 'observing people'. These are all very valid but I point out that, in my case, I probably spend most of my time sleeping, eating and going to the toilet but, when I'm not eating, sleeping or going to the toilet -- I'm sorry, but you did ask -- I'm usually sat at my desk writing; for hours and hours and hours on end. And this isn't the greatest way to keep fit. So, when you're 6ft 7in (2 metres 2 millimetres) tall, overweight, with a big bushy beard covering much of your face, and you're at an event leaping around the place, you find yourself breaking out into a sweat very easily. . . and having a towel on standby is a very handy way of mopping myself down. As to why it's green, the answer is twofold: firstly, most hotel towels are white so, if I'm on tour and walking through a hotel lobby clutching it they won't think I'm stealing one of theirs; secondly, I own about fifteen green shirts, so it goes well with them. What other author offers the spectacle of a colour-co-ordinated sweat towel, huh?

You have recently become a father. Do you sense that fatherhood is changing your approach to writing in any way?

I need a bigger house, so that I won't hear his cries, gurgles or squeals of delight when I'm trying to write. It's not so much that he breaks my concentration but that I want to go and spend more time with him too!

You are one of a collection of children's authors used by The Guardian to review other children's authors' books. As a fellow author would you feel inhibited from making too-critical comments about someone else's work?

This situation hasn't arisen so far. There are so few column inches given over to reviewing books across newspapers and magazines that I'm saddened if I read a really critical review of a book when that space could have been given over to reviewing a book -- perhaps by a lesser-known author, even -- that the reviewer really liked. Of course, there are certain books which are 'news' and should be reviewed -- a new Philip Pullman or JK Rowling -- and, if they fail to live up to the reviewer's expectations the reviewer should say so, but there are so many other books out there itching to be reviewed, that I'm delighted to be given the opportunity to review the ones I like. There may be parts of a book that I don't think work as well as they could, and I'd say so, but it's a fairly safe bet that, if I'm reviewing a book, I like it.

Whilst we're on the subject of the Guardian, could I just add that I was really pleased to have been one of the judges on last year's (2003) Guardian Children's Fiction Award. I'm very proud that we were one of the very first to recognise Mark Haddon's truly remarkable The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Your current high profile has no doubt brought about a big increase in the amount of correspondence you receive and the number of invitations you get to appear at events. How do you respond to fan mail?

Interestingly, I received a fair amount of fan mail very soon after the very first printing of the very first edition of Awful End was published. Perhaps it had something to do with the 'why not write to the author?' suggestion at the back of the book (since removed from later editions of the book). This came about because Malcolm Saville had encouraged readers to write to him, which is what I did as a child. I really treasured his hand-written reply, so wanted to offer my readers something similar.

To begin with, I was in a position to write individual replies but, as time went on, and sales grew and grew and grew, the number of letters -- now from all over the world and not always in English! -- became far too great for me to be able to do that. Fans now receive a standard letter with a genuine [!] signature, plus some handwritten 'PS's responding to some of the comments. It's great -- and sometimes very humbling -- to receive such lovely letters (and sometimes drawings) from children.

I get letters from all ages. The youngest ones are usually around five or six and have their mums or dads reading Eddie Dickens to them. The eldest was, I think, from a doctor who was commenting on the treatment Dr Muffin gives Eddie's parents (which involves setting fire to their bed)! I get photographs, stories, presents -- some edible, though I've never actually eaten any of them -- plus lots of queries about writing. Quite a regular trait in my postbag is that readers write to me in their version of my writing style. It's very flattering and often very funny.

After a Herculean effort, the backlogue of letters from the UK has been sorted, so there shouldn't be such a long delay in getting a reply now. Unfortunately, those writing from the US, Australiasia and the rest of the world will still have a bit of a wait. Could I take this opportunity to remind those who do write to me TO INCLUDE THEIR ADDRESS. I have some wonderful letters which I'll never be able to respond to.

As for events, I've been appearing at book festivals for over ten years now and seem to be attending more and more as the years go by. Most of them are great fun! I also receive lots of requests to appear at bookshops and schools and libraries and, difficult though it is, I have to say 'no' more and more. I hate doing it, often feel guilty and wish I could do more, but there are only so many hours in the day.

You're about to fly off to America. Is this for a promotional tour or to discuss things with the moguls of Hollywood? Your big break into fiction came on the heels, so you tell, of a knock-down, stand-up performance at a Faber sales conference. If that guy can be as funny on the page as he is on stage he should be writing comic fiction, was the reaction. Are there any 'bits' of your humour that you fear (or you've found) the Americans don't get?

A couple of years ago I was in the US to launch the Eddie Dickens Trilogy. I started off in new York and ended up in California, with plenty of internal flights and appearances along the way, before spending a further week in Canada. This year, I'm starting off in New York again and ending up in California again (before flying back to New York) but I'll be promoting The Fall of Fergal (the first Unlikely Exploit) and will be stopping off in different towns and cities to last time.

I may try and catch up with someone from Circle of Confusion, the production company which made The Matrix, who are developing the Eddie Dickens books for a proposed series of films with Warner Brothers (who've optioned the film rights). I won't be going to Canada this time around because I want to get home to my wife and Freddie who's only six months old at the moment.

As for the American response to my humour, this is the weird thing about the Eddie Dickens books. A lot of the humour seems particularly British, so who'd have thought that it'd end up selling around the world? The German editions have won two very prestigious children's literary awards! In the US versions, apart from changing the spelling here and there, not a single word has been changed. There are glossaries in the backs of the books explaining to American readers what, for example, battery hens are, but they're a fun addition as much as anything else. . . and they get it. I can tell from the US fan mail and the response at my events. THEY FIND IT FUNNY! What more can I say?

 

© ACHUKA 2004



THE ORIGINAL 1999 INTERVIEW

Philip, ACHUKA is two years old and you are only the second author of non-fiction titles invited to be a Special Guest. What is your view about the greater attention given here and elsewhere to fiction?

When we talk about books, most of us take it for granted we’re talking about fiction. Fiction’s the exciting stuff isn’t it? It’s the Philip Pullmans and the J.K. Rowlings (though I know you’re not a Harry Potter fan, yourself). That’s what gives us the buzz. We can’t wait for the new one to come out to find out what happens next. Non-fiction books are ‘background’ books, but there are far more of them. We simply treat them differently. If we read a brilliant novel, we tell our friends about the book. If we find out an amazing fact in a non-fiction book, we tell our friend the amazing fact, but rarely tell them about the book we found it in. But that makes sense to me.

I think it’s right for ACHUKA and others to concentrate on fiction, with a nod in the direction of non-fiction once in a while – and many thanks for asking me to be this month’s special guest, by the way. I think people come to non-fiction books from a different angle. They’re interested in a subject, say Egyptian curses and mummies, then find a book on it.

When people complain about boys never reading, I think they often mean never reading fiction. I know children who are supposed to be ‘poor readers’ who have piles of books on sport or cars or music . . . These books all contain words and sentences, don’t they? It’s just that, being non-fiction, they’re seen in a different light.

How did you begin writing information books for children?

After a few years in advertising, I decided that I’d rather be putting all that writing energy into something I thought a little more rewarding and (for me) worthwhile. Whilst writing for myself - in other words without a contract or any guarantee of publication - I earned money doing a variety of different jobs including hospital cleaning and working as a highly unqualified public librarian. Whilst in the library service, I applied for a job as a children’s editor. I didn’t get the job but one of the interview panel did hire me to do some freelance writing. It took off from there.

What is the biggest challenge when it comes to writing non-fiction for young readers?

Getting to understand a topic myself. I write books on a wide variety of subjects and I’d be a fool and a liar to claim that I’m an expert on any, let alone all, of them. I read around a topic as much as I can, in the time available, and try to talk to real experts when possible. Once I understand something, then the challenge is to put it across simply and in a way that grabs a reader’s attention.

Most of your titles are history-based. Do you think of yourself primarily as an historian?

No, no and no. My wife’s the academic in this household. She’s the one with all the letters after her name. I see myself first and foremost as a children’s writer, with a passion for history and archaeology. I actually write picture books for very young children under a different name and have a children’s novel called Awful End being published by Faber & Faber next year . . . October 2000, I think. I’m very lucky to earn a living combining two loves: writing and history.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you don’t write all your books under the name Philip Ardagh. Why is that?

It started out because I was wanted to write very different types of book, and I thought it’d be less confusing if I used different names. If you’re used to Philip Ardagh writing fun history books, it might be a disappointment to come across a Philip Ardagh book that was totally unlike all the others.

There’s a famous story about Queen Victoria reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through The looking Glass. Victoria loved them so much that she asked Carroll to send any other books he’d written. She received Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry. Carroll’s real name was the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and he was a mathematician! Writing under his name and a pseudonym usually kept these two worlds apart. And, no, I won’t even tell ACHUKA what other names I write under. That’s my secret.

Your series of History Detectives - Ancient Egypt, The Aztecs and just-published The Romans - employs the innovative idea of including a separately-bound mini-story book which interacts with the non-fiction text. Can you explain for ACHUKA visitors how the concept works, and how it's designed to enhance the contents of the main book? Was it your idea?

It was an editor at Macmillan - the publishers - who had the idea of a two-in-one history book, one fact one fiction, but I was brought in at the very early stages to see how we might develop it from there. The idea is actually very simple. The big book is a fact book all about, say, ancient Rome. But there’s a small book with it, in the case of The Romans, called Kidnapped!. It’s set in Rome and you the reader are a detective sent on a mission but, to solve it, you’ll need more than your detective skills to spot the clues hidden in the pictures and text of the small book. You’ll also need to root out some of the historical facts contained within the big book.

Most double pages in the big book are made up of a big illustration of a place or event in ancient Rome - a theatre, a bath house, a gladiator fight - with photographs of Roman artefacts in a ‘Discovery’ panel at the side. These are the kinds of clue investigated by another type of history detective: the archaeologists who use such finds to build up a picture of life in the past.

As you say, the main History Detectives books work to a tight format of two-page spreads for different topics and the side-Discovery-panel you described. I have heard people criticise junior non-fiction for being stuck in a single-page-spread rut, and for not encouraging children to turn the page. In terms of the History Detectives series, can you respond to this criticism?

I think History Detectives tries to address that. The little book has characters going from place to place and helps to breathe life into the Romans and ancient Rome. It also encourages the reader to go back to the big book and jump from place to place. Having said that, I think a well thought out spread working in its own right has merit. Look at the fashion spread in The Romans, for example. It’s set in a port with cargo being unloaded in the background and Romans in different styles of dress filling the scene. Here, we’re not only seeing styles of clothes but also the raw materials used to make them being unloaded. It raises other issues and, hopefully, sends the reader off in different directions.

When working on a lavishly illustrated non-fiction book of this type, whose job is it to find and select the illustrations - yours or the illustrator/designer?

I can’t draw to save my life, but that doesn’t stop me doing stick-men-style designs, positioning my buildings, people and proposed labels as accurately as possible. It would be impossible to write a series - particularly one where big non-fiction and little fiction books interact in this way - without having a clear picture in one’s mind’s eye about how it should all come together and look. These roughs of mine are then passed onto the illustrator, Colin King, along with an accurately positioned printout of the text and more detailed notes from the designer and editor.

We have a good laugh about my drawings, but Colin assures me that they really are very helpful. Come to think of it, he could just be saying that to be nice . . .

As for the photographs of artefacts, I put in requests for photos of particular objects from particular museums, or of particular buildings or ruins. Sometimes I even ask for a particular photograph which I’ve found in another book, if I feel it clearly shows what I’m trying to get across. And that’s a lot of particulars! Then it’s down to someone called a picture researcher to get hold of all the photographs, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Finally, I go up to London and go through the pictures with the editor and designer to choose the best ones and to agree on the captions.

Your new series of GET A LIFE! books from Macmillan focuses on a single historical character per title. Inevitably, history in this style gets compared with Terry Deary's Horrible Histories, but my impression from the early titles in this series is that your primary aim is to explain, and if you can entertain along the way well and good, whereas in the Horrible Histories the priorities often seem the other way round. (Your resume of the Battle of Hastings is a case in point.) Does this seem a fair observation?

Yes. Though explanation and entertainment can go hand-in-hand, I’m very pleased to hear you say that. For me, the great thing about the GET A LIFE! series is that you really do get a sense of a famous person’s life: their growing up, the great events that they’re involved in and then their death. You asked me earlier about page-turnability, and this is what we’ve got here. It is a different approach to history. It’s not a jumble of funny facts about a period in history to dip in and out of, but the history of that person and the events surrounding them; some of their making and some beyond their control. I think Terry’s 'Horrible Histories' are a deserved success, but the knock-on effect has been book shops flooded with pale imitations rushed out by other publishers, most of which are diabolical – and that’s putting it nicely. With the GET A LIFE! series we want to give a bigger, more rounded, picture of important people in history.

Take Queen Victoria, whom I mentioned earlier. In a typical book, you might read that there were a number of attempts on her life and have them all described in one paragraph. In the GET A LIFE! version of her life, the attempted assassinations crop up one at a time in the order in which they happened, interspersed with other events in her reign, giving the reader a much stronger sense of how they fitted in with everything else that was going on around her.

In July (1999), when William the Conqueror and Queen Elizabeth I first came out, I went down to Pembrokeshire to do some events for the West Wales Children’s Book Group. The response to the books was tremendous. Yes, the children had good fun, but there was a real sense of tackling history too. It certainly helped that three of the events were held in the ruined Bishop’s Palace at St. David’s, a site which William the Conqueror himself had visited in 1081.

Of the eight subjects in the projected series, who did you enjoy writing about the most, and was there anyone you would have LIKED to write about, but your editor thought was wrong for the series?

The great thing about the series is that different people have to be tackled in different ways. Someone such as Henry VIII was so tied up in world events, a big part of the process is deciding what to leave out as much as what to put in. In the case of Marie Curie, though - a subject who normally only gets a couple of spreads in a book on famous scientists - it’s only her discoveries that are famous . . . and here I am presented with an opportunity to talk about her childhood and all the incredible things she did in her later life too.

I’m currently writing the eighth book, which is about Oliver Cromwell. What’s fun about him is that so little is known about his early life that earlier ‘historians’ just made it up, so I can look at (and expose) some of the myths as well as looking at the life of the real man.

Rather than saying which of these folk I enjoyed writing about most, it’s probably easier to say which I found hardest: Florence Nightingale. Most of the older books I’ve read about her present her as a too-good-to-be-true saint, and some more recent books have done what the press call ‘a hatchet job’ on her, making her out to be a selfish villain. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. I wanted the GET A LIFE! version of her life to show her as a person.

There are some people whom both my editor and I would like to do books about but don’t really suit the series style. Martin Luther King for example. Although - to use your own words - it’s explain first and entertain second - I think events in Dr. King’s life are too recent and too distressing to be interwoven with funny cartoons. He’s an important subject for a biography, but not right for the GET A LIFE! treatment. The good news is that there are now plans afoot for me to write another batch, and we’re in the process of deciding whom to include this time round. Writers, inventors, explorers, rulers, peacemakers . . . they all appeal to me.

'The Complete Castle', another publication from Macmillan, is described as a 3-dimensional adventure which includes a laminated mat, 38 press-out figures, a fold out castle, and a booklet for which you wrote the text. Are you a toy-soldier type?

The Complete Castle is going back a few years now, but it’s a project I’m very proud to be associated with. It’s sold the world over. When I was in Wales, a Canadian special needs teacher on holiday there came up to me and said what a great book it was for getting her pupils involved! The chances of us both meeting by coincidence like that were mighty slim. Maybe I should try the National Lottery after all. Up till now, I’ve never bought a ticket . . .

...Castle was the brainchild of the paper engineer Nick Denchfield who designed the amazing 3-D fold-out castle itself but, beyond that, it was a real team effort. The editor and I had a number of brainstorming sessions which resulted in much of the detail that Steve Cox, the illustrator, put on the actual castle itself. As with History Detectives, the finished article has a real interactive feel. You have to find out who drowned Able Grout and - if you look hard enough - you'll find his feet sticking up out of a well!

Sorry. I was getting side-tracked there . . . In answer to your actual question: no, I wasn’t a toy soldier fan as in someone who fought pretend wars. I did have a set of plastic ‘cowboys and Indians’, but I was much more interested in making up stories and giving them characters than the ‘bang-bang-you’re-dead’ element. Perhaps that was a clue as to what I was going to end up doing for a living.

Can you describe how a non-fiction project comes into being?

Sometimes I get an idea forming in my mind and it’s weeks before I get any thoughts down on paper. Once I’ve put it into words, I might tinker with it to make it better and try to decide whether it’ll work best as a one-off book, or as a series. Then I’ll write a proposal, saying what the book’s about, what makes it different, why I’m just the right person to be writing it. I’ll even include details such as whether I think it needs colour or black and white illustrations and how many pages I think it should have. Then I’ll write a few sample pages, along with some of my stick-drawing designs. Once that’s done, I’ll post it to a friendly editor and then arrange to see them to discuss it. Sometimes it happens the other way around, of course. The phone rings and an editor says, ‘Hi, Philip. We’ve got this fab new book, and we think you’re just the person to write it!’ That can be equally exciting in a different way. The advantage of this second approach is that I know from the start that the publishers definitely want to do it. Some ideas never get beyond the development stage.

What kind of working hours do you keep, and do you work on one or more books at a time?

I’m always at my desk by 9:30 and I always break for lunch and Home & Away between 1.00 and 2.00, then it’s back to work until just gone 5.30. Then I watch Neighbours and, sometimes, the news headlines. I need the routine! After that, it’s usually back to work for a few more hours. If I’m not at my desk during these core hours it’s because I’m off at a library or museum or having a meeting with a publisher. It’s very unusual for me to be out on a walk or lying on the beach. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of not having to travel to and from work.

And, yes, I’ve always got a number of books on the go at once. I might be researching one whilst writing up another one or two, whilst checking the artist’s pencil roughs for his or her illustrations on yet another book and sorting out contracts for new work. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, there aren’t that many writers who earn their money just from writing. Many fiction and non-fiction authors write books as a sideline. They earn most of their money doing other things. Why? Because, unless you’re one of the few very successful authors who write bestsellers, writing children’s books isn’t a brilliantly paid job. Because I’m one of the few who earns his living simply by writing, I have to write LOTS. Secondly, I find that having a number of different projects on the go at once keeps me alert and on my toes . . . and if I get stuck on one thing, I can always have a break and turn to something else. Like any juggling act, it’s a skill that you get better at over time.

Ancient Egyptians, Myths & Legends' from Belitha Press is the kind of title that gives you the opportunity to write in narrative-style (it is a series of retellings). What differences have you noticed between writing informatively and writing in narrative style.

I wouldn’t describe this as a pure narrative style in the sense of treating it as a straight story. In the back of my mind there’s still a slight non fiction bent to it. Many of the characters in myths and legends are gods and goddesses that the original storytellers believed or half-believed in, so, in a way, many of the more serious myths and legends are almost historical in tone, if that makes any sense.

I’d say that I apply my fiction writing skills to elements of my non-fiction and vice versa. The great thing about this 'Myths & Legends' series is the lavish illustrations. Each title is painted by a different artist and some of their work is breath-taking.

You are appearing at the Edinburgh Festival this month (August 1999). What will you be doing there? How important do you think author appearances at such events are?

This year I’ll be doing a GET A LIFE! history event – with a human time line made up of members of the audience, from prehistoric hunter gatherers, through the birth of writing and history, right up to the present day – and a Myths & Legend event, looking at the differences and similarities between these ancient tales from around the world. They’ll both be very different, but should be a lot of fun.

I spend nine-tenths of the year writing, but I do think that making appearances at events can be extremely important and rewarding for all concerned. As well as Edinburgh, I’ll be doing Cheltenham and Swansea in October, and I appeared at the British Museum and the Tate Gallery earlier in the year. It sounds a lot but, if you add up the actual days, they’re very few.

For an author, it’s a chance to meet readers and potential readers. It’s a chance to try out new material and ideas on audiences to see what works and develops into something. It’s also a chance to get feedback on existing books, finding out the likes and dislikes, and being reminded who your readers are.

I think these events are great for children because it’s a chance for them to see what a mixed bunch of people we children’s authors are. I think it must be very exciting to meet heroes such as Quentin Blake, but it’s also fun to discover that writers can be short, tall, big, small, male, female, serious and shy, funny and out-going, because we’re not only encouraging an interest in reading but in WRITING too. Some of these faces in the audiences will be our authors of the future.

When working on illustrated texts, proof-reading the final copy must become a complicated affair of checking information, captions and illustrations. Where does final responsibility for this lie - the writer or the publisher?

The last person to see the book before it goes to print is the editor, not the writer. At some stage, the writer has to let go . . . and it’s never easy, especially, if some last minute change has been made and you’re worried that an error might have crept in too. One of the problems with the modern way of printing everything electronically is that changing a caption on page 9, say, may affect some text on page 11 and, because no-one’s expecting that, no one thinks to look at page 11.

I’m considered irritatingly good at spotting typing and positioning errors, and even extra spaces between words, compared to some authors, but the more people checking a manuscript the better. The problem is that we all read what we expect to read, which isn’t always what’s actually on the page.

Between you, me and the visitors to ACHUKA, on one page in GET A LIFE! Queen Elizabeth I, there’s mention of someone called Wlizabeth with a ‘W’, which crept in after I’d done my final check. I had a very nice apologetic e-mail from the proof reader, in which every word began with ‘w’!

Annoying though these types of error are, I’d be more concerned if a fact was inaccurate or down right wrong. By the way, I think the advance copy of The Romans they gave you must be an uncorrected bound proof copy for ACHUKA’s eyes only. Any mistakes you find in there shouldn’t be in the final book!

One final question, Philip. Now that you’ve revealed that you write fiction as well as non-fiction, with your Faber children’s novel coming out next year, could you tell us what the biggest difference is between writing the two?

That’s easy. Although discipline, routine, and many of the thought processes are the same for creating both fiction and non-fiction, the biggest difference is team work. Writing a children’s novel can be a very solitary process. It’s all down to you and you alone, until you have a finished draft. With non-fiction, there’s much more input from editors, experts, designers, illustrators, consultants. It might only be my name which appears on the front of a non-fiction book, but there’s a whole host of other people working with me to make it come together.

 

© ACHUKA 1999

Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
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