Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Andy Stanton

Andy StantonFor many young readers, especially boys, books that make you laugh are the doorway into reading. The current generation are chuckling their way through the highly comic ‘Mr. Gum’ series by Andy Stanton. In this interview with Pam Dowson, this much acclaimed author who has received the Blue Peter, Red House and Roald Dahl funny prize awards, tells us about the influences on his writing, how his books developed and how they are received by both children and adults.

You have said that Dickens is one of your favourite authors, and your own narrative voice has some Dickensian echoes. Are you conscious of any Dickensian influence on your own writing?

Dickens is such a part of our cultural currency that his motifs and values are instantly recognisable – they’re a real shorthand to suggest ideas and elicit emotion. I love the Dickensian mixture of darkness (social deprivation, hideous villainry, melodrama) and sentiment (goodness and decency will win out in the end) and I use those both those techniques quite a lot. And I love old-fashioned details, especially from the Victorian age. It’s a kind of low-rent, tongue-in-cheek cosiness and I’m sure even young kids get that and in some way yearn to be in those days of cobbled streets and gaslights… Plus I always say that my heroine, Polly speaks like a cross between a Dickensian urchin and a Mississippi bluesman. She has appalling diction and I’m very proud of her for that.

I’m sure I’m not the first to link your humour with Python and even Blackadder, but it seems you’ve successfully adapted it - consciously or unconsciously - for a younger audience. Can you comment on this?

The influences I always cite are The Young Ones and The Simpsons, because both those programmes break conventions and are very meta-referential. And Lamonic Bibber is in some way an homage to Springfield, the way you can populate an entire town with characters and locations. But there’s a ton of other stuff in there too – when I first saw Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out it was like someone had taped my dreams and put them on TV. I am a Blackadder fan, but it’s not particularly an influence. It probably seems it should be, as I use convoluted similes in a similar way. But I think I always did that anyway, it didn’t come from there. Monty Python is just… well, it’s like the Beatles of comedy, it’s just always there as a touchstone and bedrock. In short, there’s a load of influences on my work but I try to keep them at bay. If I feel like a joke’s been done elsewhere, or if something seems recognisably to have come from somewhere else, I take it out. I try to keep as honest as I can. I used to paint, and if I felt that any mark or line was ‘dishonest’ or wasn’t pulling its weight, I’d paint over it. It’s the same with the books – anything that’s lazy or derivative in the first draft, I try to improve upon.

When you first created Mr. Gum, how confident were you that your very individual style would be accepted readily for publication?

I never believed for a moment I’d find a publisher. I thought that some people might quite like it; but that they wouldn’t know what on earth to do with it. And in the event, that’s pretty much what most of the publishers did say (OK, a couple of them didn’t like it at all, but that’s life). When Egmont emailed to say they loved the book and wanted to meet me and my agent, I was happily astonished.

The Mr. Gum books are cleverly designed, with short chapters and fewer than usual words to page, so a young reader feels as though they're reading a substantial volume, sliding through the pages almost effortlessly, which is particularly good for boys. Is this just a natural style for you, or was it a deliberate choice?

Egmont gravitated towards that design quite instinctively. The books are quite short (around 12000 words each) but very dense – you can go back and read them again and again, and find new things in them. And because of that density of ideas and images, coupled with the baroque style, I think Egmont wanted to present them in a very accessible and child-friendly way. The format they hit upon was absolutely brilliant, and allowed me to play lots of tricks within the stories – a one-line chapter; a ‘mis-printed’ chapter from another book; interjections on typed notepaper from the fictional editor ‘Mr Egmont’. Each of those tricks has a real presence and weight, because the books allow such generous space for design. And each book is designed with incredible attention to detail. I have a lot of say in that – I’m really precise and demanding. So the initial vision was Egmont’s, and they’ve let me run amuck with it. 
You visit lots of schools – what do children tell you are the things they particularly like about the Mr. Gum books – and do their teachers generally agree?

First and foremost, the characters. It is absolutely amazing to see kids responding to my characters in the way that I myself respond to fictional characters. Dennis the Menace, Rupert Bear, the Famous Five, Mr Fox – all those characters live in my imagination and I know them intimately. When it’s my own creations that have made it into the imaginations of others – wow, that’s something! Children also comment on the tricks I play – ‘Why did you have the same chapter repeating eight times?’; ‘Why has Polly got such a long name?; ‘How come there was a bonus story at the end of the “real” story?’ So they’re very aware of, and fascinated by, all those conventions being mucked around with. And the strange similes – kids and teachers seem to bond over those. I’ve met lots of teachers who tell me I’ve introduced their pupils to the idea that you can really go nuts and play around with language like that.

In inventing the characters for the Mr. Gum series, did you deliberately seek to create a balance of good and bad characters, or did they evolve along with the storylines?

The first Mr Gum was basically an improvisation written in one night to make my cousins laugh one Christmas. I was so sick and tired of never developing any of my ideas that I sat down with the express intention of finishing something for once. I started with the idea of a feud between a horrible old man and a dog –the rest of the characters crept in as and when they were needed. When I got to chapter five or so, I realised that a children’s story should probably have a child in it at some point. And as most of the characters up to that point had been unpleasant, grubby old men I decided to make my hero a heroine. Bingo! Up popped Polly, and she’s the best thing I ever wrote. I’m really proud of her. As the books have gone on, the characters have developed, each with their own set of likes and dislikes, weaknesses and strengths, obsessions and rituals. I’m constantly finding out things about them. And it’s definitely true that if you try to force your characters do something that’s not right for them, they simply will not do it. They can be very stubborn like that.

Your website is highly interactive and child-friendly. How important do you think this is in attracting and maintaining a young readership?

I don’t think about it in those terms. I’m sure it’s really important and all that, but I just want it to look good and have tons of good content. I write almost everything on that website, it nearly kills me but I figure that it should all be of one voice with the books. I’d hate to have a single child disappointed and it be my fault.

It could be said that with your quirky plots, inventive language and mixture of lovable and loathsome characters, that you’re taking up where Roald Dahl left off. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s very flattering but also quite embarrassing. If Monty Python is the Beatles of comedy, Roald Dahl is the Beatles of children’s books and I don’t think I’m heir to that. Anyway, Roald Dahl doesn’t need an heir! His stories are hard-wired into my system and of course I cite him as an influence too; mostly in terms of setting. The town of Lamonic Bibber is a sort of ersatz version of a 50s English town, with its cobblestoned high street of locally-owned shops, green meadows and rolling hills. I’m sure that comes from a Dahlian ideal I’ve internalised at some point

What is your response to those who consider humorous fiction to be second-rate fare for developing readers?

It’s nonsense of the worst kind. There’s good books and bad in every genre. I could write paragraphs on this, but I’d just be reiterating myself in an increasingly angry manner. 

How much collaboration do you have with your illustrator David Tazzyman? Are the visual manifestations of your characters purely his?

I’d actually drawn sample illustrations for the first book, so I knew what most of the characters looked like. To cut a very long story short, Egmont eventually decided to use David, and I’m very glad they did. But because I had most of the characters fixed, David was able to take those designs and develop them. Some, like Friday O’Leary, he changed completely. But Mr Gum and Billy are pretty much as I originally designed them. Here’s my original designs for those characters.

billy gum

As the series has progressed David and I have become good friends, and nowadays we collaborate a lot. Usually David will nail a new character first time, but occasionally I step in and ask him to redraft. For instance, his first version of Captain Brazil in Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear wasn’t at all as I’d imagined him, so I sent David a bunch of reference art and a quick sketch and he re-jigged it from there. For the record, I absolutely love David’s work. He doesn’t come from a book illustration background, and his stuff is unlike anyone else’s in the world of children’s books. It looks deceptively simple, but it’s full of beautiful little details – the more you look, the more you see. And really importantly, he doesn’t dumb things down.

As you’re well-known for the Mr. Gum series, and have won several major awards for them, how does this affect your writing – has this success created a pressure to stick with Mr. Gum (no pun intended!), and does it make each subsequent title more difficult to write?

Success in general creates pressure – you’re always being judged against your other books, and the more successful you are, the more people will judge you. I’ve stopped reading my Amazon reviews now as there’s just too many voices out there, and I’ll always take the negative comments to heart. When it comes to criticism, I’m like a shark sensing a single molecule of blood in a billion molecules of water. The real pressure comes from sustaining a series with the same characters. How do you remain true to those characters whilst keeping it fresh and different each time? And writing humorous stuff comes with the worst pressure of all. Is it still FUNNY? For the most part, each subsequent book has been harder than the last – but for all sorts of reasons. I hope I’ve done a good job.

What future plans do you have for Mr. Gum & Co – and do you have any other ventures in the writing pipeline?

There will be a special edition of something Gum-related next year, but I shan’t say what. That aside, I am planning to take a break from Lamonic Bibber and write some other stories, probably stand-alone books rather than a series. I’d quite like to write a more ‘serious’ book at some point but whether that will actually happen is anyone’s guess. Oh, and I’ve a picture book out with Puffin next year, illustrated by my friend Noëlle Davies-Brock. Again, I shan’t say too much, other than it is absolutely revolting… Keep your eyes peeled.

Share this page: