Andy Griffiths is one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors, best known for the Treehouse series, the JUST! books, and the delightfully titled The Day My Bum Went Psycho.
The 65-Storey Treehouse hit shelves in August 2015, to the great excitement of children everywhere. And amid this furious launching frenzy, co-host of our top-rating podcast So you want to be a writer, Allison Tait, chatted with Andy about his writing journey to date, along with some insights into how the books are made. You can check out the entire interview here.
On his serious start:
“At the beginning it wasn’t necessarily my aim to be a comedy writer, it was to be a serious writer. I thought, ‘Oh, this comedy stuff is all very well, but you really have to write literary short stories to get people to take you seriously.'
“I did that, but my heart wasn’t it. It was always this lunatic tone that was coming through and breaking it, and wrecking everything that I tried to do. At that point I went, ‘Yeah, I get it. I’m a stirrer and a comedian at heart, and somebody that just likes, in its purest form, entertaining my reader.' That was kind of news to me after trying lots of different styles.”
On finding a unique voice:
“I think that’s the great battle for an emerging writer, you always feel what other people are doing is the proper stuff. It must be, it’s getting published. And the stuff that you’re doing almost feels so idiosyncratic, so oddly you that you think, ‘Well, this can’t be real stuff.' And, yet, I think that’s what we’re all craving as readers … for someone to be utterly themselves in the fiction.
“I am fascinated with the process of how people find their voice. I love looking at the career of someone like David Bowie who, in his early years, was casting around trying to find where he fit in, and he did some really quite different stuff to what we know him for now. But, he’d try it out, ‘No, that’s not working.' Try something else, ‘No, that’s not working.' Try a little song about being an astronaut in a rocket that can’t get back to Earth, ‘Ah, yeah, that’s the one that everyone’s waiting for.' But, you can see he didn’t know.”
The importance of free writing:
“I discovered a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, who was very keen on writers putting the hours in and putting the practice in. She has a method of time writing practice, which was to write non-stop on any subject without editing, without thinking, without trying to control it – just get words on the page for a five-minute period and then repeat it again and again and again.
“That allows you to access your subconscious without the editing function getting in the way, going, ‘Well, that’s a bit silly,' or, ‘That’s a bit rude,' or, ‘That’s not appropriate, as if bums could grow arms and legs. Let’s get onto something a bit more realistic.' You need to escape that voice when you’re getting the raw material on the page. You bring it in later to edit what you’ve done and to tidy it up. But, too often it’s fused at the creation stage, so people are very timid and very restricted in what they feel they can write.
“It’s like footy training; you don’t just play the game, you actually spend a number of nights each week practising your skills, and that’s crucial. I think it was crucial for me to just learn how to develop and be comfortable with putting thoughts into words, and also comfortable with my own internal landscape of ideas psychology of it. You end up not being able to shocked by anything that comes up.
“I still use free writing, it can be in the form of a list, say, 50 new levels for the treehouse, and I’ll need to get it done in half an hour. Then I will just be pulling anything out of the air, 80 per cent of it will be garbage, but within that craziness there will be 10 per cent potentially useable and one per cent that’s definitely useable. But you don’t get the one per cent unless you put in the whole 100 per cent.”
On the biggest challenge of writing for children:
“It’s a little more complex because you can’t just write to the child. In normal writing, it’s you who writes a story that you like to the audience that you think would like it, and that’s a straight transmission. But, to get to a child you have to go through ‘gate-keepers': librarians, teachers, parents. What a parent finds amusing is not necessarily what the kid finds amusing, and vice versa.
“You need to somehow get to the craziness and sometimes the rudeness across in a way that doesn’t offend the older readers, and is acceptable. There’s quite a little balancing act that a lot of people aren’t aware of. You can’t just fill a book with poo and bum and stuff, because as adults we just go, ‘Oh, this is disgusting! I don’t want to read this.' So, there’s that.”
On why being married to an editor is a good thing:
“Jill is crucial. She’s the editor. She tells us when we [Andy and illustrator Terry Denton] are getting too far down the rabbit hole of conceptual humour. She brings us back to characters and voices and conversations, because left to our own devices we can do a dozen pages of a dog barking. Seems conceptually very funny. She might go, ‘Really? Twelve pages?' She says, ‘Oh, I think two would be better.' We go, ‘No, no, no, six — six.' We’ll agree on four.”
On the role of social media for an author:
“I think it’s important, but it’s important not to get the cart before the horse in this respect. I think the work really has to go into the books and reading. Where I see the danger of Twitter and Facebook is that it’s another distraction that can take you away from rereading one of your favourite books, which will inspire you to write a much better book, but if you’re too busy tweeting back and forth with this and that, you’re not going deep.”
Why school tours are very very good:
“I do think that there’s no substitute for having a live audience in front of you, and that can be as few as half a dozen kids. To read them a story and then to observe them very closely and see if they’re responding to what you are writing.
“A lot of writers are scared of that because it’s kind of you’re putting yourself out there and what if it fails. But, I would rather it fail in front of six kids than work on an entire book and then put it out and find that no one is very interested. So, I’ve always totally believed in getting an audience at the right time and testing it out and adjusting it and going, ‘They seemed a bit bored at that introduction, what if I get rid of the introduction and start with something that just grabs them straight away?'
“You only learn that in front of an audience, unless you’re a literary writer who’s not terribly concerned about that, that’s a different type of writing. But for me it’s always been a conversation, and a conversation involves two people, not just you.”
One of his pieces of advice for aspiring authors:
“Read and reread your favourite books – the things that really inspire you, even if they’re not acceptable literary classics, such as Enid Blyton, or my collection of horror comics that I’ve still got from when I was 10. I get so much delight and inspiration from those. That delight and inspiration goes directly into what I’m writing, so you’ve got to read and you’ve got to keep discovering new stuff and that’s like the compost that enriches anything that you do.”
And on that organic note, be sure to listen to the entire interview or read the transcript – both are available on episode 67 of our podcast.
The 65-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton is out now in every single bookshop in the land. Plus, here’s Andy’s webpage.