First things first, when did your love for writing begin?
My love of writing owes a lot to discovering the magic of books as a child. I was lucky. My mum used to take me regularly to the local library where I grew up, in Surrey. She used to read to me at bedtime – sometimes picture books, sometimes poetry by writers like A. A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson. My dad would take a book to read to me and my sisters when we had a holiday. He chose special stories like TREASURE ISLAND, JAMAICA INN and THE WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN. And I went off on a reading adventures of my own from the age of about six.
You have written both teenage books and books for younger children, what’s your favourite thing about writing for both age ranges?
They are very different sorts of challenges. Writing a novel is like building a house. It needs preparation, pre-planning, strong foundations and building materials in bulk. Writing a picture book story is more like making a little piece of jewellery. It has to be strong and well-crafted. But it’s a more delicate sort of making, with focus on each small detail. When writing is going well, the delight you feel is very similar whether it’s a picture book or a novel. Then again, the frustration and doubts you get when it’s not going well is also pretty much the same!
What was the first story you ever wrote?
I couldn’t tell you. But an early story-writing memory I have was being told to write ‘a story featuring the sea’ during an English/literacy lesson when I was 7. I was completely stuck. I sat there for twenty minutes…with a blank page in front of me…not knowing how to do it. By the end, all I had managed to write was, “A turtle was on a rock. The sea was all around him.” My teacher, Mr Beard wasn’t very impressed with me. I wasn’t very impressed with myself. But, looking back, I’d say Mr Beard didn’t know enough about creative writing to be teaching it. It’s no good just giving a class of 7 year-olds pieces of paper and assuming they know how to write ‘a story featuring the sea’. Creative writing is hard. A good teacher will warm the children up before setting them off writing. They’ll make sure the children can see a path ahead. And they’ll help young writers understand that story making is not a purely imaginative exercise, nor is it a purely practical exercise. Stories come to life when you can dream-up characters and elements of plot, then bring them to life with some technical story-writing know-how.
Where did the inspiration for ‘My Mum Always Looks After Me So Much!’ come from?
I wrote it when my two sons were very small. So I had fresh experience of the drama of going for injections. But it was also inspired by my wife. She is a wonderful mum who always looks after our boys ‘so much’. Most of the time that feels wonderful. Occasionally it feels like too much. I wanted the book to capture the resistance children feel about their mums loving them so much – and the way that resistance usually masks much deeper gratitude and love.
Where is your favourite place to write?
I have a writing studio, up in the attic of our house, and that’s good. There’s some space. I have two desks – one with paper on, for writing, and one with a computer on for the other stuff. (I find it helpful to keep the two apart.) But, interestingly, I sometimes get to a stage in my writing (perhaps at the beginning of a story, perhaps when I’m polishing a finished draft) when I will feel like escaping, to work somewhere different. Then I might go and sit in the sunshine coming through our bedroom window, or in our back yard, or go out to a library or café. The long and short of it is that availability of writing space and access to a variety of spaces feels important to the process. Part of learning to write is learning to make or find the writing spaces that you will need.
If you could give aspiring Young Writer’s one piece of advice, what would it be?
Always keep a notebook in your pocket. And a pen to write in it. Then scribble. Look, listen, be curious. Collect things people say, interesting words, ideas for characters, bits of humour and drama. There are seeds for stories and poems all around us. Writers spot them and write them down.
Is there a particular author you look up to or idolise, if so who and why?
I was lucky to cross paths with the poet, author and political campaigner Adrian Mitchell before he died. I love the rhythms, the word-choices and the warm-heartedness of his books. He encouraged me in some simple, wise ways that will always stay with me. I dedicated my picture book IT’S A GROOVY WORLD, ALFREDO to him like this:
In memory of Adrian Mitchell, 1932-2008.
He pulled music, unicorns, pirates and rockets
from his magical coat of umpteen pockets…
You’ve spent time in many countries throughout your life, if you could only re-visit one again, which would it be?
Brazil. It’s where my wife is from. I have many much-loved friends and relatives there. I speak the language (Portuguese.) It’s where my children did a lot of their growing up. And I’d say I did quite a lot of my own growing up there too. I’m very lucky to have a deep connection with such a different country to my own.
Do you have any plans to write any more books?