Reading Time: 5 minutesANDY GRIFFITHS FAMILY EXTRAVAGANZA
Children’s author Andy Griffiths recently joined Bookazine and The Hong Kong International Literary Festival to share some wacky tales from his new books, 156-Storey Treehouse and the 13-Storey Treehhouse. We caught up with Andy to ask him about the man behind the bestsellers.
What were you like as a kid?
I enjoyed a free range adventurous sort of childhood growing up on the edge of bushland near Melbourne Australia. My friends and I would go out in the morning and climb trees, play in the creek, ride our bikes and get up to all sorts of mischief that our parents had no idea about. The only rule was we had to be home before dark. I was a pretty happy kid, always coming up with some new plan. I used to collect, type and edit a joke magazine called Popcorn for my classmates, which I’d sell to them for 3 cents a copy to cover printing costs. I loved seeing my words in print and making my friends—and teachers—laugh!
What are your favourite children’s books? Is there anyone who was an inspiration for your Writing?
I loved books like ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carrol, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish’ by Dr Seuss, comics of all sorts and ANYTHING by Enid Blyton, especially ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘The adventures of the wishing chair’. I guess all the books I loved were funny and offered the possibility of escape, fantasy and adventure. Enid Blyton was very influential—she knew how to get a story going really fast!
Your books are very funny, are you a big joker or is it just for the kids?
I laugh a lot and love all sorts of comedy, but people are often surprised to find that I can be quite serious and philosophical! I’m very serious about the power of humour and laughter to enrich our lives and our relationships with other people. Even from a young age I’ve always enjoyed telling children ridiculous impossible stories and trying to get them to believe that they REALLY happened to me. It’s like a game that I just can’t help playing—and the kids love it too.
Your first book features your alter ego, Andy. He then recurs in your later books. Why did you choose to write from his pov?
I always have to imagine that I’m experiencing the stories and just telling the reader what happened. It helps me to convince myself that what I’m saying is ‘true’ no matter how far-fetched which helps me to convince the reader that it’s true as well. It’s like a written version of the story-telling game I mentioned in the previous answer.
How did your collaboration with your illustrator, Terry Denton, begin? Were you already Friends?
After a stint as a vocalist in a punk band and a couple of years as a high school English teacher I had a collection of short funny stories that I would use in the classroom to entertain and inspire my students. I sent them around to publishers and an Educational publisher saw the potential and told me that a freelance illustrator called Terry Denton would be perfect to provide pictures because they could see a shared sense of humour and love of silliness. They were absolutely right and we’ve been working together ever since. We’re like brothers and entertain and inspire each other enormously.
I’m sure many parents were glad of your books during recent lockdowns! What do you think that reading brings to children that they can’t get from engagement with a screen?
I think of books as a collaboration between the author (who provides black marks on the page) and the reader (who has to bring those marks to life in their imagination). As such I think a book requires a little more active involvement from the reader to build the world of the story in conjunction with the author. It can be a very personal process in which you feel you get to the know the characters—and indeed—the personality of the author in a very intimate way. Some of my best and oldest friends are fictional characters! I love screens, too, because they can do things that books can’t, but I try to maintain a healthy balance between screens, books, and of course, the real world!
The Day my Bum went Psycho has to be one of the best titles of a book ever! How did you balance the toilet humour to make it into an engaging story?
I started with the absurd premises that bums could detach themselves from the human body, but I approached the telling of the story with absolute seriousness as if I was writing an action thriller. I never let on that it was a joke, which I think made it all the funnier. I also never used the word ‘poo’ or ‘fart’ (except for once on the final page) as I discovered that people laughed harder when you implied these things without actually saying them. The plot of the book is completely ridiculous and I later used that plotting style for the Treehouse books which have a lot less words and a lot more pictures.
There are some darker moments in your books, but always presented with humour, do you think this is important in kids books?
Stories allow us to explore the things that frighten and disturb us in safe ways. As children the world can be a potentially frightening place and stories provide an opportunity to put a name to our fears in the form of villains, monsters and challenges of all sorts. They allow us to experience bravery and courage vicariously through the characters. The great thing about humour is that it acts as a sort of valve to release the scariness. Drama builds tension and laughter releases it. The humour also acts as a reminder that we are playing a made up game and that the ‘trauma’ of the story isn’t real.
There are a lot of scientific inventions in your books, do you do any research or is it all made Up?
The inventions usually evolve out of wish-fulfilment, for instance a ‘Once upon a time machine’ that will write and draw the book for us. An ‘automatic mind-reading sandwich making machine’ that saves you the bother of having to decide what sort of sandwich you want and relieves you of the bother of having to make it. There’s absolutely no research on my part—just laziness! Fortunately Terry loves drawing complicated machines which look like they could do the thing we want them to. As far as I know they wouldn’t actually work in real life—and in the books they usually malfunction in spectacular ways.
Have you seen the stage show? How is it? And will it be coming to Hong Kong??
The treehouse stage shows have been running for many years in Australia and I love them. I don’t write them but I’m involved in the rehearsal and development weeks with the actors, director and writer and I get to make suggestions how to keep the productions true to the spirit of the books. When I’m in the audience they provide me with a unique opportunity to experience the books from the outside as a reader might experience the books—which helps me better understand what the readers like about the stories and how to improve each new book to include more of what they like. I’m not sure if the theatre company has plans to bring the production to HK … but hopefully they will!
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