Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Fantastic Mr Dahl - 20 years on

It's hard to believe but this year it's 20 years since Roald Dahl died.

Roald Dahl, 1916-1990
Generations of children have grown up on his stories and if proof were needed of his continued influence, I was served some on a plate this week.

I was in a bookshop when an enthusiastic young boy - aged six or seven - wandered in with a grandparent and asked where he could find the Roald Dahl books.

I think Fantastic Mr Fox was the first Dahl book I read - it had the pre-Quentin Blake illustrations, so it must have been 1975 or 1976.

I then devoured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before working my way through the rest that had been published at that time.

In my teens I discovered his grown-up stories, the wonderfully macabre Tales of the Unexpected, and promptly became addicted.

I still have my well-thumbed hardback collection of them on my bookshelf.

The TV adaptations shown on ITV on Sunday nights in the late 1970s were a guilty pleasure (when I could convince my parents to let me stay up and watch them).

In 1989 I had a short spell training to be a teacher before realising I wasn't cut out for the job, switched courses and launched myself into the world of journalism instead.

But during the few weeks I actually did teaching practice (in a multi-cultural primary school in Blackburn) I read the children The Witches, which had just been published. It was a delight to see Dahl's storytelling working its magic on the youngsters.

In 1990 I considered writing a fan letter to Dahl. So I acquired his address - Gipsy House in Great Missenden - from the college library.

But for some reason I put off actually committing pen to paper. It's something I've regretted ever since, for he died that November.

In 1999 I made a Roald Dahl pilgrimage to Great Missenden with my wife, herself weened on his books.

Dahl's writing shed at Gipsy House
We found our way to Gipsy House, a beautiful rambling whitewashed Georgian house, along a winding country lane, and spied the fabled writing shed with the yellow door in the back garden where Dahl conjured up those wonderful works of fiction.

In the lane at the side of the house we were greeted by an old-looking Jack Russell terrier that sniffed inquisitively at our feet before being called to heel by its owner, a dark-haired lady in her fifties.

Dahl with two pets - Chopper the Jack Russell is on the left
It was later we realised the lady was the author's widow Felicity and the dog Dahl's beloved pet, Chopper.

We then paid our respects by visiting Dahl's grave in the churchyard of Saint Peter and Paul Church on the hillside opposite the village, reached via a footbridge across a busy dual carriageway.

In those days the grave was marked by a simple, small memorial plaque. Chocolate bars had been placed on the grave by fans in tribute to their chocoholic hero.

My wife and I have often talked about that visit over the years. So in October 2008 during a trip to the London area to celebrate my fortieth birthday we took our two young children to Great Missenden.

Roald Dahl also wrote macabre short stories for adults
 Our daughter has read a few Dahl books, her favourite being Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so she was excited about visiting the village where he lived and worked.
The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, in Great Missenden
The main appeal this time around was the new Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

It can be found on the high street in the village, close to various buildings and landmarks associated with the great author's stories, including the old-style petrol pumps from Danny the Champion of the World, and the building that was Sophie's 'norphanage' in The BFG.

Besides being a state-of-the-art repository for his letters and manuscripts, the museum is a brilliant tribute to the great man entirely in keeping with his spirit.

His life story is told in a variety of rooms with fascinating displays. I particularly loved one of Dahl's monstrous sandals which he sent to illustrator Quentin Blake as a model for the BFG's footwear.

Chief among the exhibits is in the main part of the museum - an exact recreation of Dahl's writing shed, complete with armchair, green baize-covered writing board and 'memento-table' with the head of his femur acquired during a hip replacement operation and a foil ball from all the bars of chocolate Dahl ate over the years.
Dahl at work in his writing shed

Children cannot fail to be seduced by the activities on offer - they're given the opportunity to create their own BFG-style nonsense words and are given tips on how to write their own stories.

There are also storytelling workshops, where the children are treated to performances of Dahl's rhymes by museum staff.

The day we visited, Great Missenden was covered in snow. After the museum, we trudged up the lane to Gipsy House, which looked gorgeous blanketed in white.

In the nine years since our previous visit, fences had been erected around the property, which meant we couldn't see the writing shed.

There was no sign of Mrs Dahl on this occasion while Chopper no doubt had long gone to meet his master in heaven.

But we paused under the railway bridge on the country lane where Dahl used to take his children at night to listen to the last train to London thundering overhead while telling them ghost stories.

Roald Dahl's grave
We finished our trip by revisiting the author's grave. Naturally, the churchyard was completely white, but the grave was easy to find as a wonderful slab tombstone now adorned the plot.

  And perhaps the sweetest thing of all were the concrete BFG footprints leading to Dahl's grave from a commemorative bench nearby, bearing a lovely quote from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

The BFG's footprints
 If you are a fan of Roald Dahl, I can't recommend a visit to Great Missenden highly enough. And in this anniversary year, surely there is no better time.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Interview #1: Curtis Jobling

I first met Curtis Jobling two years ago. He visited the newspaper where I work. We'd invited him - the world renowned designer of Bob the Builder - to help publicise Local Newspaper Week.

I chatted to him for a couple of hours, grilling him about his work, purely for selfish reasons

So, as we live in the same town he was the obvious choice for the inaugural Bookengine interview.

When I told him about the blog he emailed me: "That sounds terrific, good on you, sir. The more folk enthusing about children's literature the better in my opinion."

Curtis Jobling sketches Frankenstein's Cat
during a visit to the Warrington Guardian office
We arranged to meet at Starbucks in town - "that most Bohemian of cafes" (Curtis's words).

When we shook hands at the allotted time, he'd just finished writing a thousand words on his laptop at the coffee house.

"I'm about 25,000 words into the second book for Puffin," he told me as we queued for our caffeine.

He's rather excited - and rightly so. His first novel, Wereworld, is being published next January and he's currently working on the second in the series after signing a two-book deal with the legendary children's imprint, renowned for such classics as Stig of the Dump and Watership Down. He has until Christmas to deliver his manuscript.

He feels particularly proud of the novel, he said. It proves he's a 'proper' novelist.

Of course the name Curtis Jobling is known all over the world as the designer of phenomenally successful children's TV programme Bob the Builder and creator of television programmes and picture books such as Frankenstein's Cat.

But this counted for nothing, he said, when it came to pitching his first full-length work of fiction to publishers.

"It was like, OK, but can you write a novel?"

He went on to show them that, yes, he could. To those who know Curtis Jobling, there could hardly have been any doubt.

He is a man of great talent and creativity, bubbling over with passion and enthusiasm for his work.

I remember watching him at the Warrington Guardian offices (see the photographs in this blog entry) as the pencil in his hand swiftly conjured up Frankenstein's Cat in sparse, exquisitely drafted lines and circles. In a minimum of ink and effort he also dashed off a picture of Bob the Builder for my daughter.

During our chat at Starbucks he proved himself to be a talented comedian and mimic, regaling me with asides about Nick Park (with whom he worked as an animator on the Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave), the late Frank Sidebottom (aka Chris Sievey, who was an animation colleague for a time) and Caroline Aherne.

And so it was with great enthusiasm and - pun not intended - animation that he told me about Wereworld.

It is the story of a 15-year-old shepherd's son, Drew, who discovers he's the last of a long line of werewolves and the rightful ruler of the land of Lyssia, where Werelords reign. The press material promises 'an epic journey of fantasy and horror, from one deadly encounter to the next, meeting exotic Werelords at every turn as he’s drawn inexorably towards his destiny'.

The second Wereworld novel comes out in 2012. It's as yet unnamed, although it does have a working title, which Curtis forbids me from revealing (I scratch heavy lines through it in my notebook) not wanting to become a hostage to fortune. It was this book he was working on before our interview.

Cover art for Wereworld
As we sipped our coffees, Curtis pulled from his laptop bag the dummy cover for Wereworld. It looked fantastic, with that metallic sheen redolent of many young adult fantasy books. But he was keen to point out that it was not aimed at that market. Indeed his agent, John Jarrold, does not represent children's or YA fiction.

However, given the insatiable bloodlust for vampires and werewolves currently, it's hard not to imagine Wereworld picking up interest from that market.

He's thrilled the books are to be published by Puffin. During the party to celebrate Puffin's 70th birthday, Curtis bumped into stablemate Charlie Higson, author of the tremendously successful Young James Bond series and erstwhile Fast Show writer and actor.

"We got talking when I said I'd worked with Nick Park (on A Close Shave) and one of my favourite Fast Show sketches was the spoof Charlie did of Nick," said Curtis, revealing that the two authors are now following each other on Twitter.

Puffin wasn't the first publisher to show interest in Wereworld, though.

"Bloomsbury (publishers of Harry Potter) were very interested in Wereworld at the start, but they wanted lots of rewrites. They liked Act One, but they said Act Two and Three they'd seen before. So I ended up rewriting 70,000 words.

"It was hard. And then they didn't take it. But Puffin did. And I think it's a stronger book because of that."

Unusually, given his background as an illustrator, Curtis is not responsible for the front cover artwork.

"I didn't want it to be like Dennis Waterman (a reference to a Little Britain sketch) - you know, write the theme tune, sing the theme tune, although I have done some black and white illustrations in the book," he said.

Wereworld marks a real departure for Curtis, who until now has been associated with TV animation and children's picture books. Although there has been some interest in turning the books into a film, so far he has not sold the rights.

He's enjoyed the level of artistic control he's retained writing the novels, compared to TV and film which are collaborative media.

Frankenstein's Cat

Wereworld aside, he is still very busy developing children's television programmes. He's done Super School with HIT Animation, about pre-school super heroes, and Raa Raa, made by Chapman Entertainment for CBeebies.

Raa Raa in particular caught my attention. Curtis passed me his business card which has his illustration for the show emblazoned on it. "It's about a little lion with a big mane and a big attitude," explained Curtis.

My three-year-old son is the target audience for this show, so I'm sure we'll be tuning in when it airs next year.

Chapman Entertainment is the company formed by Keith Chapman, the creator of Bob the Builder. The world-famous TV character celebrated his tenth birthday last year and Curtis was involved in much of the media celebrations with Chapman, including an interview on BBC Breakfast Time.

How does he feel about his most famous programme?

Bob the Builder - who else?
"Well, I have nothing to do with Bob now, but he's been good to me," he said.

Interview over, I told Curtis that I'm planning to do an in-depth piece about the late Robert Westall, who lived near Warrington.

"I used to have the same agent as him. Laura Cecil. She used to come to Warrington once a year, to drop off royalty cheques," he laughed.

And with that, we shake hands, and I leave to return to the day job. Curtis goes back to his seat in Starbucks, his laptop and his fantasy world of werewolves.

What a way to make a living!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Writer's nugget #1: David Almond

Here's David Almond, author of the brilliant Skellig, with some tasty advice on the art of writing:

David Almond
Writing can be hard, but it's also a kind of play. I do lots of fast scribbling in notebooks. I mess about with words, ideas, images, characters, and test out all kinds of possibilities. I allow myself to write lots of rubbish and to be surprised by what comes out of my head. When I start to put a story together, I try to stay relaxed, and to allow the story to grow organically. Sometimes I write very quickly, sometimes slowly. Sometimes I'm confused by what I'm writing, sometimes It all seems very clear. I put the story together sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and try not to worry too much about how it will end.

To write a long story, write it in a series of parts/chapters. That way, you just have to concentrate on one piece of the story at a time. You don't need to hold the whole story in your head. At the end of each part/chapter, move on to a new page. Your parts/chapters can be very short. If you write in this way, it's possible to write a really long story that's filled with interesting scenes and events. Give your story a title from the very start, even if you know you'll change it. The title will help the story to take on a life of its own.
The full article is here.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Interview with Curtis Jobling

Fantastic - children's author and illustrator Curtis Jobling has agreed to be the first interviewee on Bookengine.

Curtis, of course, is famously the man who designed Bob the Builder. He is also well known for Frankenstein's Cat and has worked on various TV and film projects, including Wallace and Gromit's A Close Shave.

Watch this space for more details.