Phenomenally popular children’s writer Andy Griffiths is the author of the Just series, The Day My Bum Went Psycho, The Bad Book, and most recently, The Big Fat Cow that Went Kapow! and the Schooling Around series. Andy will be appearing at the 2008 Melbourne Writers Festival. Jo Case spoke to him for Readings.
I read that you got the idea for the Just series, and naming the character of Andy after yourself, from watching Seinfeld. How did that work?
This was around about 1995, 1996, when I was trying to figure out how to make a really compelling book with a voice that would really speak to my audience. I played with first-person, second-person, choose your own adventure … and I couldn’t make it work. And I started watching Seinfeld because everyone told me I should. I’d resisted for a long time – it was an American sitcom, and American sitcoms are the most unfunny thing in the world. But finally I watched it and just loved it. And the fact that he’s in his own sitcom! That’s how I told stories to kids as I grew up and even now. I’ll tell my daughter an outrageous thing that happened ‘I was on my way home …’
So, that was your natural storytelling mode?
It was my natural storytelling mode, but it was so different to what anyone else was doing. And I was thinking, really, putting yourself as the character hasn’t been done before in Australian children’s fiction. So, it might not be regarded as proper writing.
I’m sure it is now.
Well, it depends who you talk to. But, at the time it was a risky strategy. But at the time I also thought ‘well, what have I got to lose?’
You self-published the first Just book?
I published a book of 200 practical jokes. No, that wasn’t … I did begin self-publishing lots of little books. 12-page books. And I’d sell them at markets – Monash Uni, Melbourne Uni, they were lucrative places. I’d spend all day and sell 50 books for $1 each.
Was that something you did more for fun?
No, it was trying to make some money from writing. Which everyone said was impossible. You know, ‘you can’t make a living from fiction writing in Australia’ was just a given. This was going back to 1992, 1993. I’d left teaching to come back and study writing in Melbourne. I lived off savings. And I was trying to make those savings stretch. And that’s why I started self-publishing in little book form. So I could make them for five or ten cents each, sell them for $1 or $2.
So, you were doing that in your kitchen?
Yeah. I’d get a printer to print them up. And I’d sit there stapling them. But I could make $50 or $60 a day from my creative writing. And that, to me, was wonderful. I thought ‘I’m doing it! I could do this forever!’
And how did that go to the next step then?
Of the little books I had, the funny ones were the ones that really captured people. The Day My Bum Went Psycho was a short story before it became a novel. I thought, humour is obviously my thing, so I’ll stop doing everything else.
So, originally you were doing other kinds of writing?
I was doing more serious kind of fiction writing, more adult. And some freelance journalism. I thought I might go into that. But of everything I did, the funny stuff would get the reaction. So I thought, okay, I’ll just concentrate on that. I thought ‘I’m just going to do the stuff that amuses me, no matter how weird or wacky it is’. If they don’t sell, then they don’t sell. It felt risky, but in the end it was a good idea. Because I wasn’t going to second-guess kids. I wasn’t going ‘oh, what do kids like?’ Poo, bums, okay, I’ll write poo and bums. I was amusing myself in a Monty Python type of way.
So, you just wanted to make a living from writing and not have to do something else?
Yeah. When I was a teacher I was tormented by ideas for books and torn between following that and actually doing my job. So, that was hard. So, when I committed to this, I just thought, ‘I can buy food. And pay rent.’
So, the first thing that you actually had published was an educational textbook?
Yeah. That was my grunge collection, which was called Freaking Out. I sent it to an agent who sent it round to all the publishers and they all politely refused, because they couldn’t see any commercial potential whatsoever. Then an educational publisher, Longman, said ‘this would be a great little creative writing book’. And they assigned Terry Denton to the project as Freaking Out’s illustrator, just because they knew he had a good sense of humour. I didn’t meet him. And the book came out, and it did really well, because it was a kind of kooky, funny … it brought humour to the process. You know, writing was this deadly serious thing. There’s one book called There’s No Magic Formula. And mine was called Swinging on the Clothesline: And Other Instant Stories.
And one of them sounds like a teacher talking to you.
Exactly! Then there was another one of those called Rubbish Bins in Space, which Terry also illustrated. By that time, I was starting to get offered invitations to go into schools and run workshops with the kids on the basis of my educational publishing. And I’d be presented as a writer, and the kids would say ‘well, what have you written?’ And I’d say ‘I’ve published ten books’ and I’d produce these little self-published books. I’d sell them to the kids for 20 cents each. And I’d literally walk away with shopping bags full of 20 cent pieces.
How did you go banking them?
Well, I didn’t. I spent them. But I was being paid for the schools, too. And that was incredible money. That was $300 a day, all of a sudden. Coming from $60 a day. And I’d be entertaining the kids and running ideas past them. And that was really valuable feedback. Because day after day, session after session, I’m confronting the audience. I can watch an idea die, I can watch an idea work … and then see it die. I was honing the Just Tricking approach all through that.
And Terry offered to illustrate it for me. That was the big step into real publishing, was he was an established illustrator, and they knew that they wouldn’t lose all their money.
I heard that you did a stand-up comedy course in order to get better at doing your school appearances.
Yeah. This was right at the beginning when I was getting invited to schools and I was talking to groups, and sometimes they would laugh and sometimes they wouldn’t. I could go five minutes without a laugh, and then I’d go … this is good. And they’d just stop again. I didn’t know what was funny.
Where did you go?
There was a little ad in the paper. Peter Croft’s. He’s an ex stand-up comedian. He got out of stand-up and into teaching the techniques of audience psychology and how to make an audience laugh, how to relax them, how to charm them, how to make them like you. The first, number one, thing. Most comedians aren’t trying to make you laugh, they’re just trying to make you like them. As a visiting writer, I would often be introduced with great fanfare. ‘You all be quiet, we have a writer, he’s going to teach you something.’ I knew what they were thinking: ‘who’s that wanker?’ So you break that down first, make them laugh. So yeah, part of the course was doing stand-up comedy in pubs.
So, you did stand-up comedy in pubs?
Yeah, about a dozen.
Did you enjoy it?
No, not enough to keep going. I won a few and lost a few and drew a few … And my first love was always books. So, it was books and then the comedy. But I got really good at speaking. I still love it. You take a thousand kids, orchestrate them. It’s great fun.
The teacher character in your new Schooling Around series (Mr. Brainfright) is great. How did you come up with Brainfright?
In one of the Just stories, there’s this teacher, Mrs Livingstone, who Andy meets his match with. She tells these ridiculous stories. A tear comes to her eye as she remembers these cannibals in Africa who ate her husband. And the kids are like ‘ohhh, did she really lose her husband to cannibals?’ So she gives as good as she gets.
She was an early model for Brainfright. I thought, let’s bring a really wild teacher in there. And that’s what I did in the classroom to a lesser extent. I couldn’t bring myself to do the deadening textbook stuff. I’d go, ‘this is not teaching English. This is child-minding’. And so I had them making little books, or we’d put things into jars and write labels for them. So, you’re engaging creativity and a sense of playfulness. And of course they want to do it, they’re being inventive. And they’ve got an audience, in each other. And it’s that audience that you get the general engagement with the writing.
There’d be nothing like having your peers like what you write.
That’s what I say. I say ‘it’s not for me, everyone in this class is going to see it, so you’d better have something good’. So yeah, Brainfright is my idealised teacher.
Just as Andy is my idealised prankster self. He does stuff I would have liked to. If you were brave enough and stupid enough and careless enough of the consequences, that’s what that is. And he’s a proxy to come in and try all that stuff and then watch it create anarchy. And he gets punished mostly. He never, ever succeeds.
My son pointed that out to me recently, that in your books, bad behaviour never turns out well. I wonder if the kids get the morality of the tale more than the grown-ups.
He must be very perceptive. Because most radio hosts, I’ve been doing interviews with over the past few weeks start with ‘there’s no educational value and no morality in these books, they’re just wild’.
Very early on I realised that if Andy’s playing all these pranks on people and succeeding, he’d actually be a very unlikable character. So, I’ve said he can play any joke no matter how horrible, as long he’s the one who ultimately suffers. And I think we know, on a subconscious level, that that’s fair game, that we can enjoy that. Because nobody’s getting hurt, except the person who deserves it. Whereas if you push a little old lady over and make her slip on a banana skin, it’s funny to a degree, but it’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s funny until the bit where you cut the tape and show them in pain. I wrote a story about that actually. ‘Unfunniest Home Videos’ [in the latest Just Shocking]. I thought Andy would be the kind of kid who would film his friend Danny having an accident to win the money. And then the formula is, how is this going to backfire so he’s the one who ends up getting hurt?
I wonder, did the storm over The Bad Book take you by surprise?
A little bit. I fully expected it with The Day My Bum Went Psycho, and we got it, and it was just enough to give it super publicity. It was perfect. The Bad Book did take me by surprise, because I’d grown up with cautionary literature. It was really a parody of that cautionary children’s literature. It’s quite black – you know, kids falling into fireplaces and the terrible things that happen. So, when we did it, what we did was update it to modern things. So for instance, there’s a kid asking if he can do this really dangerous thing. ‘Can I feed the lion?’ And his mother says yes.
That’s one of the Bad Mummy stories?
It’s called ‘bad mummy’, but they don’t read that. Everyone’s being bad. I did have a lot of fun with it, but then everyone got really upset about it. The cat story was changed (in the next printing) as a result.
There’s a traditional verse called Little Willie He sets fire to his sister, cuts his sister’s head off, cuts the baby’s ears off. Quite traditional black humour. So I wrote, ‘Little Willie took a match and set fire to the cat / said Little Willie as it burnt, I bet the cat hates that’. Black humour. Understatement. But everyone said it was encouraging kids to set fire to cats. And then he sets fire to himself, sets fire to his bum. And then he sets fire to his head, and says ‘soon I will be dead’. And no one blinked an eyelash at those parts.
So it was the setting the cat on fire that was the big thing?
No more cats on fire!
That’s interesting. It kind of highlights what our modern taboos are.
Well, we found them! Talkback DJs around the country were able to produce instances of cat cruelty. Not from my book. I remember this redneck DJ in Queensland. And I said ‘for goodness sakes, a show like The Simpsons, you know, I’m operating on that level’. And he said, ‘Oh yes, well we could talk about The Simpsons!’
That sounds like it was a bit of a nightmare.
It became quite tedious. Halfway through. And I just thought … if people are doing that, they’re not laughing. And the publicity started affecting the book negatively, too. People didn’t have it in their libraries. Even now, the Victorian Premier’s Reading Challenge, which I’m an ambassador for, doesn’t have it on their list.
But it’s got your other books?
Yeah. The bums came on over a year or two.
I hear there was a controversy over a poster with the bums?
Yeah. Just the cover. We couldn’t have that cover [of The Day My Bum Went Psycho] on a poster promoting reading because some people might be offended by that cover. David Kemp, who was the Education Minister … They’d had done a deal with Pan that I’d be the ambassador for Reading Week. They did a deal that that book would be on a poster that would be distributed to every school. And they rang up Pan and said ‘we can’t have that cover on the poster, that’s too outrageous’. And my publicist went straight to The Age.
She was brilliant. So that story got us a lot of attention. But I knew the title would anyway. And I was partly challenging the librarians that I’d met promoting the other four Just titles. They were telling me that they would take my books out of the library if a parent complained. And I said ‘one parent can complain and you take the book out of the library? That’s not right. You’re the professional here and these books are clearly working for a lot of kids. Why don’t you just tell that parent that their kid can’t borrow it and leave it at that?’ But they’d never thought of that.
That’s an interesting approach.
I just thought, it’s around the wrong way. And a lot of writers still are scared to publish something like that. But it was exactly that attitude that was keeping the books boringly safe. So I came up with a deliberately out-there title. ‘Put that in your face. Deal with it. See if the world crashes down around us.’ And it didn’t.
So you deliberately conceived something that would push the boundaries?
It started as a joke. To begin with. I had that little book I sold at the Monash Uni markets. And then a journalist on a publicity tour in Tamworth asked me ‘what are you working on now?’ and I said ‘I’m working on a serious novel called The Day My Bum Went Psycho’. And she was quite straitlaced and she reported it on the news that night. And it became a running gag and then eventually, I’d written four collections of short stories and I didn’t want to get tagged with that forever. So I thought, I’ll write a novel, and I’ll call it The Day My Bum Went Psycho. And it served the purpose of putting it into the conservatives’ lap, who I felt were having this unhealthy influence over children’s publishing.
‘Children’s literature should be nice, it should be educational.’ No, that’s not it. The books I loved as a kid may have had those things, but that wasn’t their primary focus. Their primary focus was entertainment. Just whatever grabbed the imagination. That’s what I’ve always been true to. I think your first job as a children’s writer is to grab the kids’ imagination and take them on a … maybe not a wild ride … other people like gentler rides. And as I’ve gone along, I’ve tried the gentler kind of humour. The Cat on the Mat is Flat, the Schooling Around series.
Since The Bad Book, your books have been gentler humour, and I wondered if that was a reaction.
It sort of was. I remember a mother, at the height of The Bad Book, saying ‘what’s next? The really bad book?’ And saying ‘no, actually I’m going to write about kittens and puppies and ponies’.
You’ve said that you wanted to shake up children’s publishing a bit – that you felt children’s publishing was too tame? Do you think it has changed with the success of your books?
Not as much as I would have liked. I hear from publishers that there’s a lot of copycat stuff coming in. There’s a lot of gross-out books. People misinterpret what I do. And it grosses me out when I see them. ‘Little Johnny opened his lunchbox and ate his sandwich and it was a snot sandwich.’ There’s nothing else going on.
At the same time though, over that same 10-year period, there’s been *Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, Lemony Snicket, Diary of a Wimpy Kid*cal. That’s the stuff that we need. So, I feel much more relaxed now. I’m thrilled, because we have a range of at least half a dozen authors writing really good quality humour, which didn’t exist ten years ago.