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Paul Jennings Interview

Friday, 05 July 2002

Paul Jennings is perhaps the most popular children's authors to have emerged from Australia in recent years. He was in London recently promoting his new book Tongue-Tied! (Puffin), we caught up with him at the Greenwich Festival of Writing and took the opportunity to interview him.

Jubilee Books: I was wondering about your writing process. Once you have an idea does the story come spontaneously or do you rework your ideas?
Paul Jennings: I start with a little germ of an idea like 'what if an eye grew on the end of a finger?' or 'what if you could read someone's thoughts?'

So I begin with a germ of an idea and work out a series of events in an exercise book. I'll do that for four hours a day for about two weeks which is exhausting. I used to think at the end of every day that I had achieved nothing, but now I've realised that's the process you have to go through.

You just have to keep your bottom on the seat and keep going and going. An insurance salesman once told me that what they think of when they were knocking on doors was pebbles on the beach, some have little gold nuggets underneath and if you find one it's worth turning them all over. That's how he thought of the doors and that's how I think of the stories.

You've collaborated with a number of illustrators. What do you think the importance is of the artwork in your books?
Well it's very important for the reluctant readers to have illustrations, to give them a pointer to what's happening. I always make sure that the picture about a piece of text is on the correct page because I think it's very confusing if it's not. There are two different sorts of picture books; there's what I call a picture book and what I call a picture storybook.

In a picture book the illustration works integrally with the text, sometimes you don't even need the text. I've got a book about a little fish, the last one of those fish in the world swimming around and you can see the hook hanging down on the page. On the next page you can see the hook going up but there's no words, so the illustrator of those sort of books is telling the story too. I sent the story to Jane Tanner (illustrator of the book) when I wrote it and the fisherman had caught the little fish, saw it bleeding and felt really sorry so he threw it back in the water. Jane said to me 'no, no, no Paul, it's so masculine. Why does he have to throw it back, why can't he just put it back?'

She then did this beautiful drawing of the hands going into the water and so she was telling the story too. She actually said to me 'don't come and look at the drawings, you're not seeing the roughs, this is my baby now'. She's so well known and I wanted her to do it so badly that I accepted her terms and I didn't receive her drawings until she's done all her artwork.

A picture storybook is more like a novel. I write the story and then the illustrator might come along and add pictures to it.

If you could have your books illustrated by any artist, who would it be?
Jeez, that's a tough one. I think I'd be revealing a secret if I said. I've had some really great illustrators who've done my covers, like Bob Lea, who lives up in the Cotswolds, and has done my latest set of covers. I think I'll have to pass on that one, I know it sounds wimpy but so many of them are my friends and I've got someone in mind that I'm going to ask to do a book soon and I don't want to reveal who.

You've also collaborated with Morris Gleitzman on a number of books. What's it like working with another author on a book?
Absolutely terrible. Morris would say it too. Morris and I are great friends, still! The way we did the book was that I'd write one chapter then send it off to him and he's write the next chapter.

There were two main characters, a boy and a girl who are stepbrother and sister, he liked writing the part for the girl and I liked writing the part for the boy. In the story the boy would tell his bit of the adventure, then the girl would take on the story in the next chapter from her point of view. In the first book it was agreed that the two kids didn't like each other but gradually by the end there was going to be a romance.

What happened is that I identified with my character really strongly because the boy in the story is always me. Morris identified with the girl, or some part of Morris' feminine side identified with her. In one chapter of the book I touched her hand and sent it off to Morris but got no reply, so I wrote another one where my character tells the girl how nice she is and I sent it off but nothing. So I wondered what was going on. Well, he just couldn't do it, he couldn't let my boy kiss his girl.

It was very, very hard and Morris and I, when we finished the first one, agreed that we'd never do it again. Then two years later Penguin talked us into doing another one, which we're very proud of. Morris won't mind me telling you this because we're great friends but he changed a bit one night without telling me.

Morris was born in England too, although he moved to Australia when he was 14 so he's kept his English accent and dialect. I was reading through something I'd written when I read the words 'I've not done that' and I thought to myself 'I don't say I've not done that, I say I haven't done that'. So Morris had changed a part of it without telling me and I know it's only small but you don't want someone fiddling about with what you've done. So we're very proud that we pulled it off as two egotistical writers.

What writers have influenced you the most?
When I was a boy I loved the Just William books by Richmal Crompton, I was devastated when I found out Richmal Crompton was a woman. William was a naughty little boy and you used to get about ten short stories in a book.

My mother liked quirky little stories so I was always influenced by that. I think I was influenced by Roald Dahl too, not so much of his children's stories but his adult stories with the twists at the end, I do that and it's sort of my speciality.

I also liked writers like Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Somerset Maugham.

What are some of the most interesting comments you've had from children about your books?
I've had many but the one I think I liked the most was one little boy who said 'Dear Paul Jennings, how come you know what it's like to be me?' and I think that's a big complement for an old person who writed chidren's books and, as I was saying this morning, you do feel the same inside as they do, so that was a lovely comment.

Where do you usually write?
That's an interesting one because I live in a house which I've just built right on the edge of the ocean,a  really wild place. It's sort of an Australian equivalent to Wutehring Heights and I can even see whales in the ocean, it's really beautiful and we've got this semi-underground house where I worked.

You look at it and think it's just the sort of place you'd like to think of writing in, but I actually write in a three storey Victorian office block in town. I go there because when I first started writing in this cottage in the back of my house and my wife was lecturing at university and I was there all day on my own and I was so lonely. I would sit in this idyllic cottage all day and I missed the staff room; talking, joking, the students, I was just so lonely.

So I said to my wife that I thought I'd like to write in an office block and now I go in every morning and write and write, I'll go and have a coffee with some of the other people in the bulding, the pub is just over the road. I write in about 40 minute bursts and then go and talk to someone.

Do you have any hobbies or interests?
Reading, walking, I love walking along the cliff. I used to really be into old English cars which I got from my mother and father; M.G's, Jaguars, Rielly's and those kind of cars. My father used to tell me they were the best in the world. I've got rid of most of them now but I have just bought a new mini.

When do you find it easiest to write, do you stick to regular hours?
Yes, the morning is the most productive time for me. I think that, like a lot of people, the night is a very fertile time, you're very close to your unconcious side and you're dreaming and so from 9am until 12pm or 1pm are the most productive times for me. After I've finished a book or a story I can't do it for a little while, I find it really hard to think of a new idea so I'll go and veg out for three or four weeks.

When you're writing a story do you go back and change it very often?
I never start a story until I know the end. I do a report form in an exercise book where I plan out the story and after about 10 goes I suddenly think 'YES, that's it'. Once I've got that outline I can do a short story in say 2 days. Then when it's finished I'm walking on air and my editor, Julie, used to live up the road and I'd put the story in her letter box the same day and I know she'll get it that evening.

If she doesn't ring me the next morning I know it's no good. Then I'll get her edits back, and I hate that, it's like I've said goodbye to the story and I don't want to see it again. The story will then come back with comments on it like 'I don't like the ending Paul' or 'the middle is weak', so I have to do the whole thing again. I'm very heavily edited and I've been with the same editor for eighteen years, I hate editing because I like saying goodbye to the story but you've got to do it, I usually do two or three edits.

You refer to this theme that you keep coming back to of separation and loss. Do you think that you reveal or expose a side of yourself in some of your stories that you weren't aware of doing?
I don't think so in the stories, I mean I've revealed a number of stories to you today and you would probably never know that, although you might pick up a theme.

There was a man, Matthew Ricketson, who wrote a biography of my life and that was incredibly painful. I let him do it because I thought someone was going to do an unauthorized one. I made a deal with him that I would give him complete access to all my stuff including my thoughts and so on, and that he could say what he liked about me as long as he agreed not to say anything bad about anyone else in my family because it's very hurtful for them.

So he agreed to that but I found it extremely difficult. He was very thorough, things like first girlfriends and people who didn't like me. The other thing is that everyone else came out of it like angels living with this chaotic, black character.

You mentioned your mother earlier on, did you share storytelling with her?
I can't remember ever being read to but I always had books, I remember Rupert Bear books very well. My mother loved books and poetry and I used to think I got that from her, but I now think I got it from my father. He was a Yorkshireman and a terrible exaggerator, he'd tell stories and I'd think 'you liar'.

When we first went to Australia we had a Morris Minor and went up into the mountains. We were coming home in the dark along this winding road amongst all these gum trees and we had to stop so he could get out and have a wee. So he got out and this wallaby bounded through the bush and he got frightened and jumped back in the car, and that was all that happened. But when he told it! We stopped about six times and every time we stopped there was a new creature, like a herd of horses.

A lot of writing is exaggeration, it's the ability to build a little thing up and he was a great storyteller. I used to get sick of it, hearing the same story over and over again, but he was a great storyteller and I think I got that from him and a love of books from my mother.