To what do you owe your love of storytelling?
Oh, I don’t claim to be a storyteller. Sure, I’ve managed to tell a few stories in my books, but that was more or less by accident. I don’t quite know how it happened, how they got from the beginning, to the middle, and from there to the end.
I’m really a poet, and the poet’s art is much lighter, more fleeting than storytelling. It’s about glimpses and glances, about moments and pictures, vignettes and memories. A poem is about walking down a street and seeing a moment of someone’s life through a window, and not stopping to see how it turns out… just noticing what can be caught in that moment… how things stand at that time.
(Of course, poems do a whole range of other things too – sometimes they’re just telling jokes, and sometimes they do tell whole stories… but it’s trying to catch and capture the essence of the moment that I most enjoy, perhaps…)
Why do you write for young people?
I started working with and for young people when I found I was trying to make a living as a full-time poet. Doing the gigs and the poetry slams was all well and good, but it didn’t pay the rent. One of the few ways poetry can actually earn you cash is by going and running workshops, and one of the places that will invite you in to come and run the workshops is a school. And so, many years ago now, I started visiting schools, sometimes on my own, sometimes with great performance poet/educator-friends like Dreadlock Alien and Steve Larkin… After a while I found I was happier in primary schools than secondary schools (our senses of humour matched up better), and so I started writing ‘kids’ poems’ so I had things to read. Eventually, after some prompting, I had a go at writing a story, which turned out to be Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away From the Circus (And Joined the Library), which, in turn, was picked up by Bloomsbury, who asked me to write more… and here we are.
So, the short answer is: by accident. But like some accidents, it’s turned out to be a very happy one.
What were your all-time favourite childhood books or stories?
Some of my favourites, at different times, included: Gentleman Jim¸ by Raymond Briggs; The Calculus Affair, by Hergé; The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien; Silly Verse for Kids, by Spike Milligan; The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. In fact, now I think about it, I wrote a blog plost some years ago about some favourites: https://afharrold.tumblr.com/post/115699032220/ten-books
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot or avatar?
Oh, an avatar is easy – the cat. Or more precisely the Kipling cat, the one who walks by himself and to whom all places are alike.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
As far as I’m aware, none. Other than to the library and to the bookshop… which are the best places to meet your literary heroes… far better to meet them in their books than in real life.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I feel the younger me did alright, to have ended up in a position where the older me is being asked to go back and give him advice. Any advice I gave the younger me would change what the younger me did or does, which could very well send the me in between off in a different direction (closer or further from what actually happened), which may have ended up publishing different books at different times and not being invited to come to Australia this year and be asked to send advice back through time, which would mean that the advice didn’t actually get there and everything unfolded the way it was ‘supposed’ to and so nothing changed and I did get the invitation to Australia and the opportunity to send advice back which would… oh, you should be careful with these questions because they may end up disrupt the space-time continuum, and now we no longer have the mighty Stephen Hawking standing guard, all hell could break loose…
What do you think most characterises your writing?
That’s a question to ask the people who read the books. All I know is I put words down, one after the other, in patterns that please me. The readers are the ones able to pick out what patterns they find, and who decide what it all means.
What do you do when you are not writing?
99% of my life is spent not writing and a lot of that is filled up with the same nonsense that fills up everyone’s life. Some of it is filled up with visiting schools and reading and performing poems and all that sort of thing. Some of it is filled up with playing boardgames and reading books and doing the washing up. But most of it is filled up with having baths.
Where do you find your ideas?
If I could answer that, I’d go back there.
How do you know when a story is finished?
Well, you get to the end and there’s nothing important left to say. It’s easy to know the end. On the other hand, if you mean when you do you stop fiddling and tinkering with the words that make up the story… there comes a day when my editor, Zöe, says we can stop. I listen to her. There’s an old saying, which might be E.M. Forster or might be da Vinci, ‘A work of art is never finished, only abandoned,’ and there comes a point in time where you just have to stop fiddling because the printer is waiting to make the book… The motto is: Trust Zöe.