I do a lot of visits to schools, libraries, festivals, conventions, conferences and all sorts of other places where people have a passion for books. These are the kinds of questions I get asked on a regular basis.
- Where do you get your ideas?
- What made you want to be a writer and illustrator?
- Who were your favourite authors when you were a child?
- Who are your favourite authors now?
- Who are your favourite illustrators?
- Who has influenced you most in your life?
- Did you ever want to be anything else?
- Where did you learn to write and draw?
- What was the first book you ever got published?
- How and when did you first get published?
- What does a publisher do?
- Where do you work?
- Do you have a routine when you work?
- How long does in take you to write a book?
- Do you design your own covers?
- Which of your characters is your favourite?
- Are any of your characters based on real people?
- Which do you prefer, writing or illustrating?
- Which type of book do you prefer working on?
- What do you do in your spare time?
- How much money do you make?
- Do you know any famous writers or illustrators?
- What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a writer or illustrator?
- Have films or television had much influence on your writing?
Where do you get your ideas?
I wish I had a simple answer to this. Some ideas just pop into my head out of nowhere, others come from things read about or watch on telly see in films. Most of my ideas come from the ordinary things I see everyday. Whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I’ll look at something ordinary and think of it in a weird or exaggerated way – like a girl struggling with her hair not because it’s tangled or untidy, but because it’s alive and trying to ruin her life. Or I’ll think of something outlandish and put it in an ordinary setting, like finding a flying saucer in the small ads in a newspaper. The world around us is full of things that will stimulate ideas. Most of the best ones can be found in the little details of life.
What made you want to be a writer and illustrator?
I’ve wanted to write stories for as long as I can remember and since the first stories I read were illustrated, I always figured I had to illustrate mine too. But the most exciting time in my life for reading was when I started tackling novels, when I would stay up late at night, unable to put a book down. The best times were when I was tucked up in bed and the wind was blowing against the window and I was in a world of my own. I thought if I could do for others what these writers were doing for me, that would be the ultimate buzz.
Who were your favourite authors when you were a child?
It would be impossible to do credit to all the wonderful authors whose books inspired me as a child. The ones I think of now are those who had a lasting effect on me because I read a lot of their work. When I was very young there were the picture books of Dr Seuss and Richard Scarry. As I got older I enjoyed the wackiness of Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm and then was baptised in the savage imagination of Roald Dahl. After that there were the spellbinding Narnia books by CS Lewis and whole host of boy’s crime and adventure books including The Hardy Boys by Franklin W Dixon and Willard Price’s wildlife adventure stories like Whale Adventure and South Sea Adventure (Willard obviously wasn’t very imaginative when it came to titles). My parents also plied me with the classics, some of which I dismissed completely, but I was transported away by the likes of Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Watership Down, Masterman Ready, The Wind in the Willows, The Iron Man and Moby Dick. These marked my first forays into adult literature, moving on to books like The Lord Of The Rings, by JRR Tolkien, anything by Stephen King, the westerns of Louis L’Amour and the Cold War thrillers of Craig Thomas and others. For a better description of my childhood reading see the article I wrote for Inis. I read a lot of comics too, particularly anything by Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Pat Mills or Grant Morrison.
Who are your favourite authors now?
I don’t have any clear favourites, but in the young adult category I like Philip Pullman, Jonathan Stroud, Terry Pratchett, Eoin Colfer, Philip Reeves, Michelle Paver, Conor Kostick and Kate Thompson. My favourite ‘adult’ writers would include Iain Banks, Chuck Palahniuk, Raymond Chandler, China Mieville, Noam Chomsky, Michael Crichton, Ernest Hemingway and George MacDonald Fraser. I’ve also been heavily influenced by screenwriters such as the Coen brothers and William Goldman and I enjoy the films of Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan.
Who are your favourite illustrators?
A lot of my favourite illustrators when I was growing up were comic artists. I loved Bill Sienkewics, Geoff Senior, Cam Kennedy, Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry, Kev Walker, Joe Colquhoun and so many others. I also liked the work of commercial artists like Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta, the dramatic Celtic legends of Jim Fitzpatrick, the optical tricks of MC Escher, and the oddball humour of Gary Larson cracked me up. He tops a whole host of cartoonists and caricaturists who have influenced my work. There are a lot of wonderful artists whose work I admire in children’s books too these days, such as Shaun Tan, Mark Oliver, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Niamh Sharkey, Chris Riddell and Dave McKean (who also came from a comics background).
Who has influenced you most in your life?
It sounds obvious, but my parents have been the biggest influence. They gave me that mix of curiosity, passion and imagination that has served me so well. After that, the likes of Roald Dahl and Tolkien took over and made sure I’d never have a proper job.
Did you ever want to work at anything else?
Loads of things. Both my parents came from scientific backgrounds, so when I was in secondary school, I decided I should be a scientist. The only thing that really appealed was zoology (studying animals), so for a few years, that was what I had my heart set on. I also considered being a carpenter, a detective, a special effects expert or an astronaut. As a young child, of course, my future profession changed from week to week.
Where did you learn to write and draw?
I learned to write just by reading loads and seeing how my favourite writers did it. My English education came entirely from primary and secondary school, so my teachers deserve some credit too. I went to art college for a couple of years, but most of my art skills came from constant practise and learning from the people I worked with. Observation is vital too: you have to look at the world around you. If you love drawing and painting, you’ll keep working at it and you’ll keep learning. I still am.
What was the first book you ever got published?
The first bit of fiction I got published was a piece from The Gods And Their Machines. It was part of a book of collected stories called Irish Writers Against War, edited by Conor Kostick (who also writes young adult fiction) and Katherine Moore. My first published books were the first two Mad Grandad books, Flying Saucer and Robot Garden. The first novel published was The Gods And Their Machines, but the first book I wrote was The Harvest Tide Project, which was published later the same year. Confused yet?
How and when did you first get published?
I was living in London when I wrote The Harvest Tide Project and had started sending it out to agents, but without any luck. I moved back to Ireland and set myself up in freelance illustration. I showed my portfolio to the designer at The O’Brien Press in an effort to get some work, and she liked one of the styles I worked in but said they had no books suitable for it at the moment, but they were looking for writers for the 5-8 year-old range. I needed the illustration work, so said I’d have a go at writing one. By this time I’d also finished The Gods And Their Machines. I wrote three stories, two of which were published and as the first Mad Grandad books. O’Brien then asked if I’d ever considered writing something longer. That was in 2003. For more information on how to get published, see the Writer’s Tips section, or go to cb-info, on the Children’s Books Ireland website..
What does a publisher do?
A publisher turns stories into books. There are different kinds of people who work in a publishing company and they all have an important role in getting a book to the people who will read it. First, they find a story and read it to see if it will make a good book. If they don’t like it, they won’t publish it.
If they decide to publish it, an editor takes the text of the story and reads it to check for any mistakes and to ensure that the story makes sense and whether it can be improved (always a touchy subject). When the text is ready, they decide if it will need illustrations. Each page is then designed and typeset (which means they lay out all the words neatly) so that it is attractive and easy to read. Sometimes the designer does all of this on computer, but with novels, the typesetting is more often done separately by the printer.
This is all put on a printing machine, which makes thousands of copies of each page. The designer also creates the cover of the book using illustrations, photographs or computer graphics. In novels or other less illustrated books, the cover is often printed separately to the rest of the book. When all the inside pages of the book are printed, they are bound together inside the cover, using stitches, staples or glue.
Once the books are printed, it is the job of the marketing people to come up with ways to tell everyone about these new books. Then the salespeople have to take the books to shops and libraries and persuade them to show them on their shelves where readers will see them (really important). Then, if all of that works out and people like the look of your book, they might actually buy it and read it. And that’s all that most writers want.
Where do you work?
I have a small studio at home where I do most of my work, but I also carry a notebook wherever I go. I’m quite partial to sitting down in a quiet café and writing out ideas for stories or anything else that pops into my head.
Do you have a set routine when you work?
I normally don’t start work as soon as I get up. After we get the kids ready – and if I can fit it in – I prefer to do something active first, like go for a walk or a run, or even just do some housework. I can draw and paint all day, but rarely write for more than three or four hours. I like working in the evening, but that’s hard to do very often, as that’s normally family time. I’m pretty disciplined, but all the promotional work and other parts of running my business (every writer is self-employed) do often get in the way of actually producing books. It’s funny, but it seems the more successful you get, the less time you have to do the work.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on the type of book. I could probably write one of the Mad Grandad books in a day, but it takes a long time to come up with the ideas. They have to simmer in this little cauldron in my head before they’re ready. Stories like The Evil Hairdo take less than a week to write, but again, the ideas take time to work out. A novel normally takes between four and six months, but the first one took nearly three years because I had to learn how to write a book of that length. Sitting down at the computer only comes at the very end of a long process of thinking, making copious notes and planning out the story. And even then, it’s far, far too easy to get distracted by… oh, anything – like, say… sitting down to write out answers to Frequently Asked Questions, or doing some work on my website (and at least that’s doing something constructive).
Do you design your own covers?
No. That’s done by the designer in the publisher. But with my Irish and UK publishers I always get a lot of input into the covers and if it’s an illustrated book where I’m producing the pictures, I’ll normally do any illustrations needed for the cover too.
Which of your characters is your favourite?
It would be hard to pick just one. The whole point in creating characters for your stories is that you should be able to relate to them. You know a character is working when they start to make decisions in the story before you can make them yourself. I’m pretty fond of Mad Grandad now, because he was published first and I’ve drawn him a LOT and I’m still not tired of him. There’s plenty of room for more Mad Grandad stories, so I did something right there.
Are any of your characters based on real people?
Not directly, but most of my characters would have traits taken from real people. I think it’s more fun (not to mention safer) to mix and match, rather than depict characters from real life. That said, there are always people I’m tempted to bring into a story…
Which do you prefer, writing or illustrating?
I couldn’t choose. It’s like eating and drinking. Sometimes you want some chips, sometimes you want an orange juice. Getting one doesn’t mean you want the other any less.
Which type of book do you prefer working on?
They serve very different needs in me. The novels obviously give me plenty of room to explore ideas, build up atmosphere and tension, and weave complicated plots, but sometimes you just want a bit of a laugh. The younger kids books let me be silly and sometimes you need that after months of working on a novel. Besides I don’t get to do much illustration for the novels.
What do you do in your spare time?
I like to read, of course, and I watch a lot of films. I love hillwalking; there’s nothing like getting to the top of a hill with your muscles burning, your lungs straining and then you lift your head to take in a sight that takes the last of your breath away. Food tastes best at the top of a mountain. Other interests include art, children’s books and education, the news, martial arts, long drives and… oh, everything really.
How much money do you make?
Less than I’d like but more than I used to. People often assume that if you’ve got your name on the front of a book then you must be rich. In fact, most published writers (even many quite well known ones) still have to have another job. A lot of children’s writers start off as teachers, believe it or not (including JK Rowling, Eoin Colfer and Roddy Doyle). I make my living from my writing and illustration now, but for the first couple of years, I still had to work as an illustrator for other people. Only the really, really big name authors are rich. Most of us are happy to get by.
Do you know any famous writers or illustrators?
I get asked this all the time. I’ve met a lot of big names at conferences and festivals, but we don’t really hang out in author/illustrator clubs and I’m not a great name-dropper. It is good to meet people in the same line of work as you and find out how they’re getting on. It’s a solitary business, and writers and illustrators like talking shop as much as everyone else.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a writer or illustrator?
I get asked this a lot too. So I’ve done a whole section on it. You can find it here.