Tuesday 23 November 2010

His Royal Beardship Philip Ardagh Responds to Writerly Questions

Posted by Candy Gourlay

 The SCBWI* gang recently had Philip Ardagh as guest author on the SCBWI message board.
(*Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators British Isles - phew!)

Photo © Angus Bremner

Philip was just one of many excitements on the SCBWI message board since we introduced competitive moderation - in which moderators change monthly and try to outdo each other in turning the message board into a more stimulating experience.

Well Mister Ardagh, he of the luxuriant beard and author of such comic titles as Grubtown Tales and the Eddie Dickens trilogy, was the star turn of moderator Jackie Marchant's turn at the list serv tiller.Philip answered all and sundry questions from SCBWIites, as long as they addressed him as Mr Ardagh Sir.  Jackie and Philip have kindly agreed to let me show you an excerpt on this blog. The names of questioners have been removed to protect them from accusations of sycophancy.

Does being funny all the time ever fill you with the desire to write tragedy?

US cover. Published by Faber in the UK
I certainly have the desire to move people. To make them feel what I want them to feel. You can actually tackle serious subjects and sadness in humorous writing.

I start off my Unlikely Exploits with the book The Fall of Fergal, and said Fergal falling from a window and being killed in the first paragraph. The reader doesn't know him. The choice of words is generally funny... but then the book takes us back to the lead up to the events, so that we get to know and care
about Fergal and his family, and also goes forward after his death to see the effect it has on his family...

...it's still 'funny', but there's a lot more going on there: alcoholic father, mother died in childbirth... In the second book another major character is killed. In the third book, we come to see this character in a totally different and sympathetic light.

The great thing about writing funny children's books is that you can actually write about anything and everything, including tragedy.

I think this is so true - it's not what you write but how you write it. I think the opening to The Fall of Fergal is brilliant - you are genius in making a tragic event funny!

Thank you. Can you hear that low humming? That's me BLUSHING!

Have you got a thing about cows?

Good question! I suspect this arises from the fact that in my Eddie Dickens books, Even Madder Aunt Maud lives inside a hollow cow called Marjorie and in the second Grubtown Tale, The Year that It Rained Cows , it -- er -- rains cows...

...my honest answer is that I wasn't conscious that I had a thing about them but it seems to have been brought out in the writing.

That's the strange thing about being lucky enough to spend your working life writing, writing, writing. The sheer body of work means that you're bound to find out things about yourself from the recurring themes in your prose...which, in my case, seems to include cows!

You mentioned how you like to just write and plot as you write the first draft but when it comes to the humour how much work do you put into making it as funny as possible or should the humour be as spontaneous as possible and come out fully-formed on the page? Can it be overworked? And do you think being able to write something humorous is an innate part of the writer or can someone learn how to be funny? Thank you your royal highness Lord personage, Mr Ardagh, Sir

A reviewer once commented "Ardagh can't help writing funny" (or words to that effect) which just about sums it up. I never think of a character or situation and then impose funniness on it or try to work gags into it. It has to be organic. The people, the dialogue, the description all have to bubble forth funny and to stay that way... and that's just how I am and who I am.

Can one be taught to write funny? I think the answer to that is the same as simply, "Can one be taught to write?" If someone has an ability to write, they can be helped to write better. If they don't have the germ at the outset, there's no hope. It's just one of those things. I am useless at sport. I can tell the time, but have no idea how to drive a car. We're all different.

Someone who can write can probably learn tricks, methods, etc. to write humorously -- Douglas Adams famously said that writing was easy, all he had to do was bang his head against a blank page until the blood formed the words -- but for someone who is 'naturally' humorous, it's probably that little bit easier.

What do you do on those days when you just aren't feeling funny? The days when piranhas have nibbled your luxuriant facial hair or the birds have deserted your garden for the promise of worms elsewhere. Are you able to summon up funniness at will? Or do you just do something else instead?

As a young man.
As a fulltime writer, I work office hours (or longer). I try to be at my desk by 9.00am and I finish around 5.40pm. I take the weekend off. I used to work much longer hours and seven days a week but, fortunately -- touch wood -- I don't need to any more (and I have a young son).

Of course, I also spend a great deal of time appearing at events in the UK and abroad, so have to do most of my writing then on trains, planes and in the backs of cars. But we're talking typical 'at-home' days here.

Some writers only work in the mornings, or at night, or always seem to be driving their sit-on lawn mowers when the publishers call, but not me.

But am I writing or researching all that time? No, there are invoices to be generated, VAT returns to be filled in, fan mail to be answered, receipts to be made sense of and Facebook to be visited...

...so, if the writing just ain't gelling, I switch to a bit of admin or, say, work on a 'serious' review for The Guardian. I also like to be working on more than one project at once so, if something isn't quite working over here, it might well be working over there.

Also, it usually not so much a matter of not feeling 'funny' as the writing process itself not being quite so willing to co-operate.


I'm a laugh a minute, me.

On a scale of I'll-see-where-this -takes-me to demonic-plotter - where do you fall? I can usually guess from the writing but so many peculiar things happen in your books I'm really not sure....

With knitted beard presented to him at
2009 SCBWI Conference
I'm certainly the former in that I see where the writing leads, but -- as I try to explain to children -- because 'proper' writing involves rewriting, this is in a sense a form of plotting because what appears in an early draft may never make it to the final book.

Whereas some authors may work everything out in notebooks or on Post It notes or index cards, which they can shuffle about before writing a single word of the manuscript, I am in effect doing something similar, but in my first draft.

I like the fluidity of this approach, and seeing how a single turn of phrase or choice of words can lead me in a whole new (and unexpected) direction. Sometimes, I end up in a blind alley. Sometimes in fertile fields... it's an adventure.

In a book there's the plot and how you tell it (the story itself). Early drafts may feel like they're storytelling but turn out to be telling me what the book will be about... which I then go back and tell from a different angle.

Does that make sense?

It does and Hoorah! I write exactly like this but often feel I'm cheating when I hear about the spider-ven-post-it -diagrams that others do...

Mr & Mrs Ardagh. Phillip
is said to take after his mother's
side of the family
When I was at school, we were sometimes required to write a story plan at the top of page before writing the story. I, like many others, left a space at the top, wrote the story then filled in the 'plan' once I knew what had happened.

I know some published authors like that. There's they way they really write and the way they tell people they write, because they somehow feel they're cheating!

My feeling is whatever works for the individual. If one can write a masterpiece in one draft, then why bother rewriting... but it's RARE!

I am constantly amazed at the miracles of rewriting. Chapters I've written and rewritten countless times and yet you'd never know that to look at them. Of course, that doesn't make the smoothing any easier, but it's worth it for the end result.

So true. The paragraphs which caused the most pain to the author are often the ones most easily read by the reader, who simply takes them in their stride because the words are, by then, so RIGHT that they don't get in the way.

As you say, humour is subjective. Who really makes you laugh? And what do you enjoy reading (children's books or otherwise)? I enjoyed your post in the Guardian this past weekend about your experience on the judging panel for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. Are you at liberty to say which book you `called in' as an eligible title for the prize, that HADN'T been submitted by a publisher? Or am I prying too much?

Let me start by telling you that the one book which was called in was Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates and -- er -- IT WON the under 6 category. Yes, it won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2010, and her publisher hadn't even submitted it! It really is a lovely read and I throughly recommend it.

As for who makes me laugh: mid-period Woody Allen, early John Irving, the wonderful Raymond Chandler. In fact, despite all the praise heaped upon Chandler, I STILL think he's one of the most underrated great writers. Because he helped to create a genre which has been flogged to death since, we forget
just how original he was. The detective element is also a distraction from the fact of just how superb his prose is, and just how FUNNY. (I think the same can be said of Ed McBain.)

Speaking at the SCBWI Conference:
"Not laughing might be dangerous to
your health"
I don't generally read humour for pleasure. I live, breath and write funny.

Gissa break! ;O)

Most professional writers I've met seem not to believe there is such a thing as writer's block. However, we all get times where the words just won't come - well, not the right words anyway. My question is - if that happens to you - how do you 'unblock' yourself (apart from the Fruit 'n' Fibre)?

I think I've sort of answered that in response to another question. Over the years, I've disciplined myself to keep certain hours -- and not to be distracted by creating complicated sandwiches or by watching (much) daytime television -- and being at my desk for these periods.

If I'm struggling with the actual writing, I tackle admin but stay at my desk. What I DON'T go and do is wander around the garden or nip out to the shops.

With Alison Green, the editor who
picked The Gruffalo out of the
slushpile. Philip, after a radical
diet has succeeded in
shrinking to Alison's size 
I think it's really important that writers have time set aside for writing. I'm luck enough to do it full time but, even if a person only has three hours a week, those three hours should be sacred and if in those three hours the writing ain't flowing, the person needs to stay at their desk and do writing-related activities [!] so that special time isn't eroded by 'putting away the clothes from the airing cupboard' instead.

This helps with the focus. As for those days when a certain piece of writing just isn't coming together, I switch to another project: plans for a new book, a bit of research, or a review, for example.

What about you?

One thing I've learnt is to just KEEP WRITING. Where ever the words have gone, they will come back. Very rarely -  andwith no deadline looming - I will give myself permission not
to write that day and do something totally unrelated to my work. Invariably, the next day, I will find the answer straight away!

Spot on!

Sticking at the desk and writing through the block/hiccup/treacle is SO important. It's the key!

How much experimenting did you do (if any) before you settled on funny fiction for kids? And, this may seem a sneaky extra question but it's all linked, if you thought of your writing as an iceberg, with the published stuff above the waves and unpublished below what would the proportions be?

Ardagh has become so famous he
sometimes has to resort to a disguise
to avoid the attentions of fans
It's a fair cop. When I was a very young man I used to attempt to write sub-standard adult stuff (which often turned out to be funny, even if I didn't want it to) which I was far too eager to send to publishers in an embarrassingly unpolished form. I received numerous rejection letters, many written in the standard form but also some wonderfully encouraging letters, which spurred me on.
It was when I was about thirty that I turned my attention to writing for children and it FREED ME UP so wonderfully. Philip Pullman once described writing for children as such a well-kept secret: you get to write about anything and everything in an infinite variety of ways... and I haven't looked back.

PS. As for the ratio of published v. unpublished work, I probably have three fat manuscripts which have never seen the light of day -- and, boy, now I wouldn't want them to! -- compared to all my titles which are actually out there, so it would be an inverted iceberg if that makes sense.

Nowadays, I get commissioned on the basis of atitle and an outline and -- if it's a real departure from my usual work -- maybe some sample text, but I'm not writing a complete manuscript then submitting it.

Winners of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize Louise Yates and Louise Rennison
with Philip Ardagh, Michael Rosen and Liccy, Roald Dahl's widow. Photo by John Shelley
I never throw anything away, though, and have -- over the years -- cannibalized plot ideas and characters from pieces of incomplete writing I've done, and they've always been SO much happier in their new home.

On the subject of funniness . . . do you think it is age-related? ... what really confuses me is why adults rate funny books so low on the scale - just look at book-prize winners. After all, if anyone needs a good giggle, it's people who've grown up and realise it's the only sensible response to life. Any insights, O Wise One?

US cover. Published by Faber in the UK
Why people look down on humour as a lower art form (or not as an art form at all) is a mystery to me, and I think we'll have to save that debate for another day!

As for age-related humour, if we put aside willy-bum-poo ("laugh at anything") humour for very young children, I think it -- once again -- comes down to taste.

I don't write with a particular child in mind, or an imaginary 'perfect' reader. I don't even write for my 'inner child' [YERCH!]

I write for me.

I have to write.It is a need. And I satisfy that need by writing in the way that I do best, forever learning along the way. I don't generally read funny adult books for pleasure. (The likes of John Irving are very amusing, but humour isn't necessarily their primary function.)

Humour also changes with maturity. My Eddie Dickens adventures are really pitched at 8 plus. Some sixteen-year-olds may think they're childish, but I get letters from an awful lot of adults who love them...

...but, to some teenagers, my books are 'cult reads', so it's very difficult to pigeon hole humour by age, I'd say.

Do you ever lose confidence in a funny line? I’ve written stuff in the past that felt funny the first time round. I’ve looked at it a second time and it looked maybe a tad less funny, and by the third or fourth time I’m left wondering what on earth struck me as funny in the first place. How do you keep the humour fresh in your head?

There's a well-known story about a group of advertising executives who put together a whole year's worth of an advertising campaign to pitch to a client. When they win the business, they then start creating the actual ads. A few months in, they hold a big meeting and decide that they need a new approach. They need something fresh. "The public will be tired of these ads by now!" says one, and there's a general buzz of agreement... until one guy said, "But hang on, we haven't actually aired the first commercial yet!"

US cover. Published by Faber in the UK
Just because you've been working and reworking and reworking something, it's easy to lose sight of how a reader will react to seeing it for the first time.

So let me tackle it from a slightly different angle. You ask if I ever lose confidence "in a funny line". This suggests that it's a stand-alone line, which stands or falls on its funniness in isolation. I'd say that with a novel the lines are working together. If a character's saying it, he's saying it because it's in character and it's appropriate for the situation. If you're true to that - however silly the premise -- then it'll stand up and do its job.

Coming back to a draft after shoving it in a drawer for a while is no bad thing. You can often d a bit of a polish then, but if a line has been written to be stand alone funny, maybe that's when it has its potential to be at its weakest.

The Roald Dahl Funny Prize shortlist was announced as a set of 'bad' jokes. Would you consider writing a good joke book or do you prefer to write character-based humour?

Misguided fan ceases shaving,
 allowing Ardaghmania
to cloud her better judgement
Away from my writing, I'm never one for telling jokes, except ones which I consider exceptionally good and which can be told very quickly. That's probably because a well crafted joke needs to be told in a particular way and I like to be more spontaneous and free-forming. That's not to say I don't enjoy listening to other people's (good) jokes.

As far as writing is concerned, I often put humorous characters in silly situations behaving in a silly way, and the words I use to express this -- from my intrusive narrative voice - are just as important, but I don't really see any of these separate elements as jokes as such...

...so, although my writing isn't pure character-driven comedy, I much prefer that to a string of jokes.

The juggling act I perform with my intrusive narrators, present in Eddie Dickens, Unlikely Exploits and Grubtown Tales in subtly different ways, is what seems to mark me out from other writers in the minds of the critics. (Some love it. Some HATE it.)

It's a tricky balance because I'm interested in constantly reminding the reader that this is a book they have in their hands but, at the same time, want them to engage with the characters and to care about what happens to them.

One of the most difficult pieces of editorial feedback I have ever received was the suggestion that my novel needed to be "more funny." Have you ever received such a judgement and how did/would you handle it?

It's a bit like someone saying, "You're not as clever as you think you are." What are you supposed to do with that information... or is it more of an opinion?

I've never been asked to make a book more funny, but -- if I were -- I think I'd ask for more specifics: Crazier characters? Crazier situations? Crazier use of language? Only then would I have something to work on. 'Too funny' is just too vague.

And, once they'd told me I would explain why they were wrong and then e-mail them a photo of a large custard pie, with the instruction: "PLEASE PRESS FACE AGAINST COMPUTER SCREEN". I would then wait six minutes and phone them, shouting, "NOW WHO'S BEING TOO SODDING FUNNY?" at them, at the top of my voice.

Criticism is good. Criticism is useful. Sometimes.

When I was growing up I noticed that there were an AWFUL lot of stories in which children got eaten for minor misdemeanours such as playing the violin awfully well, excessive politeness and, well.... you get the gist. DId you notice the same? And if so, did you think such a comeuppance was justified? Or does that not really matter for the sake of a good twist in the tale?
When Philip Ardagh was banned by
Facebook for commenting too much (?!)
SCBWI members led a campaign for his
reinstatement by growing beards.
This was mine. 

I think children being eaten for nourishment, pleasure or discipline can only be a good thing, if done in moderation.

Many thanks to Philip Ardagh for allowing me to post his answers, to the SCBWI British Isles list serv for their wit and to Jackie Marchant for inviting Philip to be our guest.


  1. Even when he's being serious he makes me laugh. Hoorah for Beardy!

  2. Oh brilliant post and I am so sorry to have missed the "live event". Also extremely delighted to hear that the great Ardagh is not a plotter, whew!
    Thanks so much for doing this, Candy - and to Jackie and Philip, of course!

  3. It's a hard act to follow. I'm moderating at some point next year. How can I beat that? Jackie might have used up my famous friends quota.

  4. Simple, Candy: just wear the beard. Good things will certainly follow

  5. Very interesting blog. Love the beards! I want to hear more about his being banned from Facebook. Are they crazy?? I love seeing his comments.

  6. @Nina he was told by FB that he was leaving far too many comments - i think they thought he might be a spammer. so he was suspended for an undeclared period of time. we were so indignant we (led by kathy) started a group Bring Back Beardy - and we all put up profile pics of ourselves with beards. FB let PA back in - perhaps because the profile pics were getting far too hairy! people who had no idea who PA was such as my classmates from the philippines joined in - everyone deep down wants a beard.

  7. hi I am Zac .i am 12.I have loved reading your books.I have written a follow on called THE ADVENTURES OF JIMMY DICKENS the reunition of the dickens family
    i need your address i would like to hear your comments about it.I also disagree with Facebook banning you.your my favourite author.


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