Ep 290 Meet Matt Stanton, author of the popular ‘Funny Kid’ series.

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In Episode 290 of So You Want To Be A Writer: We ask the tough question: should you cull your books? Meet Matt Stanton, author of the popular Funny Kid series. The Adventures In Reading event is this weekend. Plus, we have 10x double passes to the psychological drama/thriller Who You Think I Am to give away.

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Show Notes

Shoalhaven Readers and Writers Festival

Word Mothers review of So You Want To Be A Writer book

Does It Spark Joy? Learning to Let Go of My Books

MS Readathon

Writers in Residence

Matt Stanton

Since Matt Stanton burst onto the children’s publishing scene six years ago, he has quickly made his presence known with eighteen original titles, four bestselling series and over half a million books sold. In 2017 his premier middle-grade series, Funny Kid, debuted as the #1 Australian kids’ book and is now finding fans all over the world. He lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, bestselling picture book creator Beck Stanton, and their three young children.

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Interview Transcript

Allison

In seven years, children’s author and illustrator Matt Stanton has created 23 original titles, four bestselling series, and sold more than 800,000 books. In 2017, his premiere middle grade series Funny Kid, which he writes and illustrates, debuted as the number one Australian kids’ book, and is now finding fans all over the world. The latest instalment in the series, Funny Kid Slapstick, is out now. Welcome to the program, Matt.

Matt

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me, Allison.

Allison

All right, so let’s go back over those relatively short seven years. Like let’s face it, you’ve produced a lot of work in seven years. What was your first book and how did it come to be published?

Matt

So the first book that I published, I created with a friend of mine, Tim Miller. And that was a picture book and it was called There’s a Monster Under My Bed Who Farts. Not leaving much to the imagination there.

And so Tim and I both worked in book publishing at the time. I was a graphic designer and art director, designing book covers for all sorts of different books. And Tim worked in the kids marketing team.

And we both wrote. Like we were both at home at night working on our various projects. I was working on an adult thriller. Tim was working on an adult fantasy novel. And we’d been talking and we would walk to the local servo every afternoon and get a drink and kind of catch up on the day each day.

And we’d started chatting about kids’ books and picture books. And we started throwing around ideas. And the idea of creating something funny, I wrote and drew, Tim writes, and I was designing. And so we started dreaming up different ideas for picture books. And then we really created that first one for fun.

So I had always wanted to be a writer, since I was seven years old. And that was the whole reason I was working in book publishing in the first place, was to try and learn the industry. But that first kids picture book really kind of panned out almost by accident.

Allison

That’s really interesting because the… Yeah, I’m going to ask you a little bit about your writing and illustrating. Because you always wanted to be a writer, but you ended up in graphic design and art direction. So what happened there? You’ve obviously always been interested in both and that’s what won out? Or how did that work?

Matt

So I left high school knowing that I wanted to be an author. But obviously there’s no job ads out there for novelists.

Allison

Funny that!

Matt

Apply here! Yeah. So I needed another, I needed a kind of plan B career, really. And so for a little while there, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. And I went off to uni and started heading down that track. But then sort of had this moment of, what am I doing? I’m heading off somewhere, that I’m not passionate about the law. And I’m really passionate about books, and I’m not anywhere near the sort of space that I want to be.

And so I was thinking about publishing. I was thinking about the book industry. And I’d read all the advice online about query letters and how to make sure your manuscript submission gets read and all of that sort of stuff.

And what I, the thing that caught my imagination was, well, hang on, there’s a whole group of people on the other side of this. There’s the publishing industry. There are the people who decide what gets published and what doesn’t. And I want to learn how that works. So that I can understand the business of this and how books are selected, why some books connect with readers, why some don’t, why some books are put at the front of the bookshop and others aren’t. All of those sorts of questions. I realised I knew nothing about it.

So I contacted the closest publishing house to my house, which was Harper Collins. And just started harassing their human resources department for any entry level job I could get. And I said, I’ll make coffee, I’ll sweep floors, I’ll do anything. I just want to be in the building and start to learn where I can.

And in the end, an admin job opened up in the design and production department, which I got. Purely to shut me up, I think. And so my job was to do people’s timesheets, and open the mail and all of that sort of stuff.

But I realised when I was there that there was this whole career of book designer, which had never occurred to me before. My two favourite subjects at school were always English and Art, and it had never occurred to me that there is this career path that kind of combines these two passions really, really well.

And so I stayed at Harper Collins but I went to Uni at night. And I got a graphic design qualification. And then I kind of worked my way up the ladder at Harper Collins over 13 years and ended up becoming their head of design and art director. And all the time learning how the industry worked, learning how books get made, learning how books get sold.

And all the time writing at night, working on a whole range of different projects from adult literary fiction to thrillers to screenplays. Nothing of, nothing happened with any of those projects. But I was always working on that craft. And knowing that at some point things might come into line, an opportunity might open up. And that turned out to be children’s books. Which I then realised was perfect for me and what I’m most passionate about.

So it’s been a really interesting story.

Allison

That is really interesting. So you’ve got a whole raft of adult manuscripts sitting there on your computer just lurking away at you. Would you ever go back to those? Is that something that you would ever revisit, do you think?

Matt

Maybe. I’m not sure. At the moment, I’m really passionate about kids publishing. I love that when you’re creating books for readers at this primary school age, and high school – although I’ve not written for high school yet – you really have the potential to really impact somebody’s life.

And I mean that in the sense that you can… Potentially the book that you create can turn someone who is not a reader into a reader. And the idea that they may go on and then read books that are much more important than mine and have a life of reading is incredibly exciting to me.

So I really like working in this space. Particularly with reluctant readers. Particularly with kids in early primary school. I find that incredibly meaningful and stimulating at the moment. So that’s kind of all I’m thinking about. But, you know, never say never. And those projects are there and my books on who becomes a terrorist and why are all sort of still in a box somewhere.

Allison

Geez, I’d love to see you use one of those in a Funny Kid book somewhere. Use that theory! That’ll work out well.

All right, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about farts for a moment. Because that’s kind of where you started. And generally speaking, when you’re talking to children’s authors, at some point farts will come up. So you started out with farts. And you’ve also recently, I think you and Tim have just released a new junior fiction series regarding farts. Is that right?

Matt

Yes. So we created this fart monster character. Which was basically just a riff off the idea of a monster being under the bed. And then what happens if you invert that concept? So what happens if rather than the monster under the bed being scary, what happens if the monster under the bed is smelly?

And so we created three picture books in that series as well as a number of other bodily function themed picture books.

And then what we’ve done is we’ve taken that fart monster character into very early novels. Tim writes these ones and I illustrate them. And so they’re 64 pages, 1000 words, black and white. To help kids potentially who are using school readers and things like that, that are looking for subject matter that’s a bit more entertaining to them. So they’re kind of junior novels in that space. And we’ve done four of those so far.

Allison

Okay. And farts are funny because clearly they must be because kids are, that’s the theme of a lot of particularly early primary work.

Matt

Sure.

Allison

You’ll see them come up a lot. You’re drawing them. I’m pretty fascinated by how you actually do that. But it’s clearly a skill that you’ve acquired over some time.

Matt

Yes. 10,000 hours, you know. If you put the work in, you get there.

[laughter]

Allison

All right. So as an illustrator, you work with Tim, but you also work on picture books with your wife, bestselling picture book creator Beck Stanton. Do you enjoy that collaborative aspect as an illustrator of creating work with somebody else?

Matt

Yeah, I do. Particularly when it’s completely collaborative. I think that’s… I’ve only done one project which was a kind of a more traditional illustration job, where I illustrated a picture book that had been written by another author. The publisher had already acquired the manuscript, they were looking for an illustrator. And so I’ve done one of those projects.

But what I find much more creatively rewarding is working really collaboratively on the whole concept of the book. And just especially when you’re creating funny books, the freedom to look at every aspect of the book all the way through the project in the interest of trying to find the funniest angle or the most surprising or interesting approach. So where nothing is sacred, if you like.

So I find that very helpful, being a designer as well. Because as far as I’m concerned I’ve kind of got three toolboxes that I can dip into. The writing, the illustrating and the design, all to look for the funniest opportunity all the way through.

And so Beck and I… Tim and I work very collaboratively. And then obviously Beck and I, being married, it’s another level of collaboration again. Cos it’s in the house, it’s…

Allison

Yeah I was going to say, my question there was, like, working that closely together, do you ever have artistic differences that end up with flinging wooden spoons at each other across the kitchen or anything fun like that?

Matt

Not quite as dramatic as that, very unfortunately for your podcast, I’m sorry.

Allison

Oh come on.

Matt

But certainly artistic differences, and certainly it’s a process of working it through. What we tend to do mostly is a lot of… So the series that Beck and I have done together is the Books That Drive Kids CRAZY! series. There’s This is a Ball, Did you take the B from my _ook?, The Book That Never Ends. There’s five of those.

And these are read out loud, interactive picture books. And so they’re very concept driven. And so most of the work in creating those books is really nailing that concept. And so that happens between Beck and I in conversation over time. And it’s while we’re washing up, it’s while we’re bathing kids, it’s while we’re driving. It kind of just fully integrates into our family life. And so we’re bouncing ideas back and forth off each other.

Then the actual building the book is kind of… because we both write, we both illustrate, we’re both working on the design, so sometimes we’re sitting down together. Sometimes we’re sort of taking it in turns, working on the manuscript for a bit, flicking it back to the other to have a go.

But it becomes quite similar I guess to any other aspect of being in a partnership with someone, a life partnership with someone, is that you’re working things out and collaborating. And yeah, we really enjoy it.

Allison

Fantastic.

Matt

It’s really good.

Allison

Do you think the idea, there’s that idea that picture books are harder to get right because every word and image has to work as hard as it possibly can, do you think that’s true? As someone who has done longer works as well as picture books as well as worked in book design, etc, do you think that that notion about picture books being among the more difficult things to do is true?

Matt

Ah, not really. As in I think, I just think they’re different. So I probably wouldn’t say one is harder than the other. I think certainly with a picture book, there’s a lot of weight on every word, on every rhyme, on every… Like everything on the page really has to work really hard and there’s nowhere for anything to hide, really.

But I wouldn’t say that’s harder than a novel. It’s kind of a different canvas, I think. And the interaction between words and images is quite different. There’s a lot more story telling that needs to happen through the visuals. And so how those two narratives interact becomes really important. And that can be quite delicate to get right.

Allison

Well, that was the question I was going to ask you. Because your Funny Kid series is very graphic. I can totally see why reluctant readers love it. I particularly, I was flicking through, I’ve got a couple of the latest issues, the latest books here.

And I’ve got Funny Kid Get Licked, which is the one that is before Slapstick, and I love the opening pages. If I was a kid, the opening page shows Funny Kid with, ‘Stop! If you are allergic to animals put this book down immediately.’ And I’m in! Like, I’m over the page and going, you know, what’s happening? And then you lead me through that into the actual start of the book, etc. Is that something, do you plan that out from the start? Are you planning it from start to finish? Or are you working images in organically as you’re writing?

Matt

Um, I’m… So those, the sort of prelim pages there that have the character leading you through, that’s something I bring in towards the end of the process. So I always know that I’m going to do it. The general idea being that these books are designed to really suck kids in, to draw them through the book. I want them to laugh their way through the book and not even realise they read it. That’s the kind of feeling that I want to have happen.

And so traditionally in a novel you’ve got five to six pages at the front that have title page, dedication, the copyright page, all of those sorts of standard introductory pages to a book. And I didn’t want kids to have to flick through them before the story started. So it was like, well, how can I use those pages, how can I make them work just as hard?

In terms of what comes first, or how does the process work, illustration and writing, it’s become quite traditional for me now. As in, I write the full manuscript first.

Allison

Right.

Matt

And then what we do, we’ve had to work out a really good collaboration with the team at Harper Collins, and ABC Books, that publish these, where the book goes in, the book is all laid out into pages at their end.

So it comes back to me in the design style of Funny Kid but without any of the illustrations in it. And then I go through and I look… I’m looking at kind of each spread, each double page spread, where is the opportunity for humour here? Where is the opportunity to use…

I want illustrations on almost every double page spread to keep it visually interesting for kids at that age group. And so I’m looking for opportunities where I can pull the story through a more cartoon style. So I can, if there’s a lot of dialogue happening between two characters, well maybe that can happen in speech bubbles. So it breaks in and out of that all the way through. Yeah. So it’s that sort of process.

Allison

So how long does a process like this take? You said you write the manuscript first. Is there a drafting process for that before you even send it off? And then you’ve got to go through it all again and then you’ve got to add the illustrations. What is the timeframe for this kind of work?

Matt

So I deliver a manuscript to the publisher a year before it comes out. So I probably worked on it for about three months prior to that.

It’s quite… I approach Funny Kid as a sitcom. So I write it as a sitcom for kids. So I’ve developed this cast of characters with these books. And so for each of these characters, so there’s five kids and a duck, and so for each of those characters I know their deep drivers, the things that motivate them. And a couple of those characters are really deliberately set opposite each other so that it creates these nice recipes for conflict really naturally.

And then what I’m looking for is storylines that spring from those character traits. So Max, the funny kid, is basically trying to prove his greatness all the time. And so he believes in his own greatness, he just believes he’s undiscovered. And so he’s incredibly competitive. So I can throw a situation at Max and I kind of know what he’s going to do with it, he’s going to look for the opportunity to win.

So in Get Licked, which you mentioned before, it’s a competition in the class to raise money for an animal charity. So that each of the kids, they can get into groups, they have to choose an animal charity and they have to raise as much money across the week as they can for their animal charity. And so he is obsessed with trying to win this competition. For Max, it’s not about the animals. It’s not about the philanthropy. It’s about beating his classmates through whatever crazy means he can come up with.

Funny Kid Slapstick, which is the new one, the kids are all kind of forced against their will to join a junior ice hockey team. And so Max, who hates sport, suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea that, hang on, if he does this well, he could become a champion. And there’s nothing more enticing to Max than being a champion.

So I throw these story concepts at the characters. And then I’ve got quite a formulaic way of plotting that out. Then I write dialogue first. So I basically script the whole book. And then I work in around that.

So there’s these layers. I approach writing the way that I approach drawing, which is layer upon layer upon layer. And with each layer you’re looking for humour opportunities.

Allison

So the funny in funny kid comes from characters and situations. It’s not you trying to string a whole bunch of jokes together that you’ve thought up in advance or anything like that?

Matt

Definitely. I’m not a big of fan of jokes, actually. As in, I think, and I talk about this when I visit schools quite a lot is the power of storytelling. And storytelling to make your friends laugh. And how to construct a story and how all of the options that are available to you, whether it be funny words or conflicts or odd characters, they’re available to you in bringing out humour in your storytelling. I find that much more interesting than try and remember this joke word for word.

Allison

Yeah. Definitely. I’m terrible at jokes. So you are, you talk about speaking, you are in demand as a speaker. And you actually even have your own Matt Stanton TV channel, which is highly impressive. But is talking about and promoting your work something that comes naturally to you? Or is that something you’ve had to work at to build your thing that you do?

Matt

Sure. It fascinates me how much of a different skill set it is to the rest of the work that we do as writers. So most of the time, we sit in a room by ourselves in silence, or in whatever environment we’ve crafted, to work away on our solo project.

And then the other side of the job is go and stand up in front of 900 kids and keep them engaged for an hour. Which is a totally different skill set. So it’s something that I have to work on. I don’t mind being up in front of people. That’s not a fear or anything for me. But I definitely see it as acting.

Allison

Right.

Matt

So I perform, if that makes sense. I need to engage them, I need to hold their attention. And so that becomes a storytelling challenge in itself. The story of the presentation that I’m giving. The way that works together.

Allison

So you also, because this is the other thing I’ve thought quite interesting, because you write funny books and that brings the expectation that you will also be funny in person. So I don’t have the expectation of being funny because my books are not particularly, they’re not wildly humorous. So does that… I mean, clearly I am funny when I get there.

Matt

Of course.

Allison

Let’s not even go there. But there’s not the expectation. Whereas you have the expectation. Do you think that that brings added pressure? Or is that just a natural extension of your writing voice. It just sort of comes out?

Matt

It is an added pressure. And I’ve been talking a little bit recently to people about the vulnerability of that. Because when you are clearly trying to be funny, and you know, I’ve called my series Funny Kid. I’m shamelessly trying to be funny. It’s quite exposing, because you fail very publicly.

Allison

Yep, you really do.

Matt

And so there’s kind of nowhere to hide. I think it’s important. I find the best way to encourage kids that I might be seeing in a school to read one of my books is that the session itself needs to be funny. I need them to have a really great time and to have really laughed while we’ve learned things about story structure and all of that. That that’s going to be the best means for a kid to pick up one of my books, at least.

And so yes, there is the pressure to be funny. And that’s just a real case of trial and error.

I really love spending time with the kids. I really enjoy that. And so… And I love the fact that kids don’t laugh politely. So you’re really exposed, and you learn quickly.

And with each session that I’m doing, whether it be at a writer’s festival or in a school, I’m reflecting on that and kind of honing that session. It becomes a presentation. Or in the way that a stand-up comic would work, stand-up comics mostly are doing the same routine every night. And they’re perfecting it and perfecting it and perfecting it. And that’s how I think about school presentations.

Allison

Okay. Have you ever had a complete disaster?

Matt

Oh yeah.

Allison

Have you ever had a situation where you’ve got up there and there’s just been nothing? You got nothing.

Matt

Yep. Definitely.

Allison

What did you do? Did you cry? I would cry.

Matt

Sometimes… Well, that’s the thing, you never know what you’re, really what you’re walking into. Kids are different at different times of the day. So that session after lunch is a doozy, because they’re kind of half checked out, they’ve just spent an hour running around and sweating, and they’re kind of all hyped up. And so sometimes that’s helpful and sometimes it’s difficult.

Sometimes you’re not quite in front of the age group that’s perfect for your books. So I had one school where I ended up, I didn’t realise this until I was in the session, that I was in front of year six and seven. Now, my Funny Kid books are… Certainly year six is still doable, except for the kids, the really good readers have moved on to other things. But certainly by year seven, that’s a bit too cool for school. So that was crickets. And you’ve just got to get through it!

Allison

And that’s I guess… We’ve all been there, don’t worry. Year nine boys, Friday afternoon, that’s all I’m saying.

Matt

High school terrifies me!

Allison

Oh yeah. Really, it terrifies all of us, trust me. So I guess then all you can do there is fall back on your preparation. You just have to go through what you’ve prepared and do what you’ve done. Is that what you do in a situation like that?

Matt

Sort of. I tend to still try… I’ll try and reach that audience for the entire session. And so I will kind of modify into… So the older the kids I get, the more I will give them behind the scenes… Look, this is a picture of my career and my work and this is what I do. And you can just kind of be interested in that or not, that’s up to you.

But yeah. I think what I’ve found really helpful is the more interactive it is, the better. The more they get to speak into the session, the better.

So I’ve started doing this thing just in the last couple of months where I open a session with students by asking them to tell me the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in their life. So I basically get them to start storytelling. And I riff off them. And that creates a really nice connection really early on between the audience and myself. But it also gives me a pretty good taste of the room and which kids are really engaged and kind of what the tone is.

So I find that really helpful. And so I will go more and more interactive. I will free them up to speak as much as they can about whatever they want to speak about, sort of the harder the room is.

Allison

Yeah. And I think that also, I think that come with confidence as well. Because I think that’s the kind of thing like once you’ve done your, once you’ve spoken to lots and lots of different school audiences, you have much more confidence in your ability to manage a room.

Because I think that that’s one thing, I remember when I first started out doing school talks, and you’d be sitting there and there’d be 100 Year Sevens looking back at you, and you’d just be thinking… All I could think about is my own children who were about that age going, god, mum, you’re so uncool. Do you know what I mean? There’s sort of that in your head the whole time.

But I find as I do more of those sorts of things, I get… Maybe I’m just getting too old to care. I don’t know.

Matt

No, no. Totally. It’s like anything, right? It’s doing it over and over again.

Allison

Practice.

Matt

It’s getting up there… And knowing that sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. And there’s only a degree to which that’s within your control. And so you just go and do your thing.

Allison

Do your thing. All right, well, thank you so much for that. And now we’re going to finish up today with our top three tips for writers. Hit me with your top three tips, Matt Stanton.

Matt

So two of my top three tips are pretty generic. They’re the ones that I give to kids all the time. And the third one is a little bit less common.

So the first one, and most of the time I’m answering this question to kids, but I think it applies to anybody, is to read widely. And that’s something that, having worked in publishing for 13 years, you read a lot for work. And I know as writers we read a lot for work. And I’ve had to really train myself, particularly in the last two years, I’ve made it a little project for myself to get back to reading just for the love of it. And to build that into your weekly rhythm.

So this year I’m all about reading a book a week. So that’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m pretty close to being on track so far. So that’s fun.

And so reading, and reading widely, and reading not just in the space that you’re writing, I think, is really important to stimulate your thinking and to open you up to ideas that you might just stumble across.

The second time is to write lots and not to worry about not finishing things. That was a really big thing for me as a kid. It was like, oh, I’ve got to finish everything. If I don’t finish it then it was a waste of time. And I think that pressure is sometimes unhelpful. There are times when you need to finish what you start.

Allison

Yeah I was gonna say, if you want to get published you need to finish it.

Matt

Exactly. But I think there’s also value in trying things and freeing yourself up to experiment in your writing. And if it doesn’t work out or if it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s all right. No one has to read it. Try something else.

So sort of freeing ourselves up. Sometimes we get a little bit intense. I know I do. And so that’s kind of helpful.

And then the third thing is that I encourage kids to share what they’re creating. So find a way to take the thing that you are working on and you’re writing and open it up to other people. Which is incredibly scary. And there are good ways of doing that and there are bad ways of doing that, in terms of who you show your work to.

But I think it’s really important, both in terms of improving, which is usually the way that’s talked about, like, find someone who is going to give you helpful but constructive criticism.

But also to have the experience of having someone really enjoying your work. The pivotal moment for me was, as an eleven year old, being forced to read my funny story that I’d just written in class to the entire school assembly. Which I was terrified of doing. And I was short and shy and didn’t want to do it. But when I got up there and I read my story, not with much expression, and it made kids laugh, and not just my friends but kids who were much cooler than me, I had this incredibly empowered moment of like, wow! The thing that has just come out of my imagination can bring joy to other people. And that’s incredibly motivating and inspiring. So I want people to experience that.

Allison

Yes.

Matt

And the only way you experience that is by being willing to be vulnerable enough to share what you’ve created.

Allison

Fantastic advice. Thank you so much. If you would like to have a look at Matt Stanton’s excellent work, you can find him at MattStanton.net, and it is a very, very nice website I must say, Matt Stanton. Thank you so much for your time today. We really, really appreciate it. And best of luck with the latest Funny Kid instalment.

Matt

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.


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