Working with Words: Andy Griffiths
Working with Words is a series where we talk to writers about their work – and other bookish things. This time, we talk to Andy Griffiths, Australia’s most popular children’s writer.
Andy is best known for the comic pulling power of books like the Just series and The Day My Bum Went Psycho. But while his books are seriously funny, he’s just plain serious about the business of writing.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Well, if you want to go right back to the start it was in 1975, when I was 14 years old. Pursuit magazine, a Victorian education department publication which was distributed to schools across the state, published my short story, ‘Lost in Time’.
It was about being at a cricket game at the MCG with my dad and then, while attempting to buy three packets of potato chips and two cans of cola, suddenly finding myself transported 100 centuries into the future. It contained many of the same hallmarks of my work today … a first-person narrator (ie. me!) a believable everyday setting, a bizarre occurrence, some fun and games and then my desperate attempt to put things right again – but only making it worse in the process. It also contains my hopeless attempts at descriptive prose, which were no better then than they are today. My wife still laughs about my attempt to describe a complex time machine: ‘a room full of electronic controls, levers and switches – there was just about everything an electronics enthusiast could wish for’.
Nevertheless, I was paid ten dollars for my story. When they sent the payment, I initially thought it was a fine for an overdue library book called Lost in Time. Ironically, many years later when I submitted a story to Pursuit as an adult it was rejected. It took me a number of years after this to recover the pure storytelling voice I possessed as a 14-year-old.
What’s the best part of your job?
Having the time and freedom to follow my imaginative ideas and hunches and over many days, weeks and months watching them slowly coalesce into coherent characters, situations and stories – there’s nothing more exciting, satisfying or mysterious and I never get sick of this process.
I love nothing better than sitting down with a blank piece of paper and playing with words and ideas, challenging myself to come up with something new. The knowledge that you have to write something that you know is going to be read eagerly by many children – and the strong desire not to let them down – can really get the creative juices flowing.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Sitting down with a blank piece of paper and playing with words and ideas and NOT being able to come up with something new – especially when an urgent deadline is looming. Mostly I avoid deadline panics by being fairly organised well ahead of time (I usually know what I’m going to publish at least a year or two in advance), but there’s always surprises and last-minute schedule changes. I find my creativity works best when there’s plenty of time to revise, rethink and backtrack if necessary – I have to be relaxed so I can enter the playful state of mind I need to be in to create an entertaining story. My audience is too critical, and too savvy to go out with anything less than the best I’m capable of.
Of course, once a book is published I can always see ways I could have improved it … that’s the other worst part of the job!
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
There’s been a lot, but maybe the one that comes immediately to mind was the opening night performance of Just Macbeth! by the Bell Shakespeare company at the Melbourne Arts Centre in September 2008. My wife Jill and I worked on adapting Macbeth for young people for almost three years. We wanted to fully involve them in the action and immerse them in as much of the original language of Shakespeare’s original script as we could get away with. Oh yeah, and it had to be funny as well.
It was an insanely difficult project and we gave up on it many times. But Bell Shakespeare were persistent and we always ended up going back to it. By the time it got to opening night, we were pretty sure we had something that worked, but there was no way of knowing until it was performed for real in front of a full house. Fortunately it worked. I’ve never sweated so much in my life.
It was significant for many reasons, not the least being that children are capable of understanding a great deal if you don’t patronise or talk down to them.
What’s the best (or worst) advice about writing you’ve received?
I had a number of great and inspiring writing teachers, such as Carmel Bird. They all gave me useful pointers and lots of encouragement, but perhaps the most practical advice I received was from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She advocated vast amounts of writing practice.
Writing is a muscle, and like any muscle it gets stronger with use. In her book, Goldberg advocates doing a number of hours of timed writing practice each day. In these practice sessions, you set a countdown timer for a particular time and then write as fast as possible in order to evade the inner censor/critic that lurks in all of us.
By following this method you start discovering who you are as a writer and what subject matter and style really turns you on. It helped me to stop imitating other writers and find a voice that was all my own.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever read or heard about yourself?
At the height of the controversy over The Bad Book – a book of cautionary tales gone mad – a feature article in the Herald Sun accused me of coming up with the idea for the book with my accountant as a way of swindling children out of their hard-earned pocket-money. I had to laugh at that one. Despite the success stories, if there’s one field that you DON’T go into to make money, it’s children’s writing. If you have a sincere desire to tell stories and entertain children and you’re willing to do that whether anybody pays you or not, then maybe you have a chance.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I strongly suspect I’d still be the secondary English teacher that I was when I began writing funny stories to inspire my Year Seven English class to get excited about reading and writing. Either that, or a stand-up comedian. I employ a lot of stand-up comedy in my talks to children and I often think of my stories as extended stand-up monologues.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?
I think the principles of good writing can be taught – there are proven methods to improve a piece of writing. And I’ve had a lot of success at getting kids – and adults – to tell entertaining stories based on the events of their own lives.
The question of whether somebody is naturally suited to being a good storyteller, however, is a little more open I think. There are plenty of good writers who, for all their strengths, are not so great at telling story – and plenty of good storytellers who are pretty average writers. But in the end, I believe you get better at most things with a sincere desire to improve and the discipline to learn, study and practise.
In April 2013 I’m planning to publish a book called Once Upon a Slime: 50 Fun Ways to Write Stories … Fast! It will be a book of resources for school teachers, creative writing students and children to have fun with writing and storytelling.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to write books for children?
In a nutshell, I’d recommend that you write the sort of books that you loved to read as a child. And when you think you’ve done it read it out aloud to a small group and see if you have their complete attention. And if you don’t, be prepared to go back to the drawing board/writing desk for as many times as it takes. Did I mention persistence? Oh yeah … persistence!
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I’ll love bookshops and paper books until the day I die, but I must admit I’m enjoying e-books – especially for non-fiction. I prefer to buy them through Booki.sh, so that I’m still supporting an independent bookshop.
(NB: Of course, as the proud author of my first and recently published digital-only book, Andypedia: A Complete Guide to the Books, Stories and Characters of Andy Griffiths, I may be open to accusations of a conflict of interest on this subject. I stand accused.)
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The Catcher in the Rye. I never got over the surprise and delight of the idea of an unreliable narrator. And Holden Caulfield is one of the most funny, sad and complex of all unreliable narrators!
Andy Griffiths is one of the guests for our Children’s Book Festival, a big day out of free fun held on the lawns of the State Library of Victoria on Sunday 25 March. You can check out the full program here. Andy will be signing books at 1.40pm and 3.40pm.
Andy was one of the 12 guests for this year’s Wheeler Centre Gala, Stories to Believe In. You can watch his talk here. His next book, the much-awaited Just Doomed!, will be released in April.