Andy Stanton is probably best known as the author of the Mr Gum series of books (technically aimed at 7-10 year olds, but I started reading them at 24), and the mastermind behind hit TV show Bag of Sticks. If you haven’t read anything by him and you’re not sure whether you’d like to, my rule of thumb is to suggest you head to your nearest book shop or library, pick up a copy of You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum!, and turn to chapter 4. If it doesn’t make you laugh, there’s probably something wrong with you.
I interviewed the man himself on Monday afternoon after a hectic weekend at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Here’s what he had to say.
The book festival event this year was really manic and fun. I tend to keep new material for Edinburgh and use it as a sort of testing ground, so this year I read outtakes of bits that never made it into the Mr Gum books to 570 kids and their parents, and afterwards I signed books for two hours.
It says in your biography that you used to do stand up comedy – would you go back to it?
Actually that story isn’t quite true. When I was at university I did about five or six stand up shows, but they stressed me out so much I never wanted to do it again. I spent my 20s hardly able to watch stand up because it made me feel sick for the performers, but at the same time part of me also wished I’d pushed it a bit more. When my first book came out and I was being asked to do events to support it, Egmont asked me for things from my life they could use to promote it, and one of the things I mentioned was those gigs. Somehow in the world of PR it became this story I was a stand up comedian, then I read somewhere a bit later that I was an acclaimed stand up comedian, and at that point I took it out of the bio altogether before it became that I’d won the Perrier or something like that.
How much time do you have to spend touring and talking about your books? You seem to be in Scotland quite a lot…
I do a disproportionate amount in Scotland! Scotland is absolutely brilliant at dragging authors up to it from all over the place, there’s a brilliant set of very passionate people making this happen. The Scottish Book Trust have definitely had more than their fair whack out of me. You should definitely put that on your blog: anybody who writes a book anywhere in the world should expect to end up living in Scotland for at least half the year.
I think if you add up all the festivals and school visits, I’ve done about 400 in the past 5 years. This year I’m taking a bit of a break from schools. It’s a nice thing to do but it drains you, and doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. So this year I’ll do the festivals and anything weird or a bit different that comes up maybe, but fewer schools.
Do you do a lot of audience interaction when you’re visiting schools?
Depending on the group I do like to get banter going at my shows. The right heckle from a really enthusiastic kid can lead to a whole new bit of improvisation. There was one show where I was doing the bit where I read stories from my old school jotter, you can see that on the Scottish Book Trust webcast, and there’s a line that goes, “after tea, we played with a stick.”
Now, I sometimes put a bit in before I get to that that going, “this is absolutely true, because when I was a kid we didn’t have nintendos or iPhones or television or the internet.” So I said all that, but before I got to the stick, this one kid just shouted out, “WELL WHAT WAS THE POINT OF BEING ALIVE, THEN?” He brought the house down. Sometimes you have to accept that the kids will have the funniest lines.
The first Mr Gum book was written as a Christmas present for your little cousins – did you have any desire to be an author before that?
I definitely wanted to do a book for a long time, but it was one of those things that was on the dream list – you know, I’ll write a book, I’ll write a children’s book, a picture book, a sitcom, a film, I’ll make a brilliant album that will stand the test of time… I had all the daydreams and none of the development, really. I never finished anything, I had too many ideas. I mean any idiot can have an idea, making it happen is the improbable bit.
What is the best thing about your job?
Having readers who like your stuff. Your ideas are inside other people’s heads, and that’s magic. I also like that I have kids sending me letters with pictures of them dressed up as my characters, stories they’ve written… My books are real to them. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by it; when I like a story it’s real to me too, but it’s great to have readers who love the stories and respond to them. I also like the idea of getting kids reading. That’s the extra side to being a children’s author and it’s quite a noble remit. It’s nice to be doing something you believe in.
How about the worst?
The worst thing is being under contract, the pressure of keeping coming up with new books. You have to keep writing, even if you don’t feel like it or you think it’s awful.
I’m quite hard on myself, so I’ll sit there thinking oh god, I’ve got to be funny… but I’ve also got to do something sort of the same, but fresh. My worst nightmare is the same as a lot of comedians I suppose, that review saying “he’s not as funny as he used to be.”
There is a bit of a tendency for funny books to be dismissed because they are ‘just’ funny, the implication being there’s no message because it isn’t serious. Do you find that annoying?
I think it’s nonsense. That’s a silly way of looking at things. Humour is just another tool a writer can use, and funny books can lead you on to thinking about stuff just as much as serious books can. I do think that funny on its own can be tiresome, but when you use it in addition to character and plot and all these other elements of writing, it can be a great tool. I think funny is an extra, it happens on top of the other stuff rather than in place of. You don’t seem to get it in quite the same way with adult books either – a book can be “darkly comic yet deeply moving,” and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Why should books for children be any different?
There’s a book I bring up all the time which is my favourite children’s book, The Eighteenth Emergency by Betsy Byars. I got it out of the library when I was about eight because I liked the cover, and it’s funny but also melancholy and bittersweet. Danny the Champion of the World is another one which is funny, but it’s also exciting. It’s all about relationships and it’s the warmest book I know of. There’s also Ribblestrop, by Andy Mulligan, which is a rare example of a really well done funny book for kids – that’s probably the only book I’ve been jealous of in the past ten years. And there’s Holes, by Louis Sachar, which is like Kurt Vonnegut for kids, it’s a modern classic.
I like to think that the Mr Gum books do a bit more than just being funny, too. With them I hope I’m really pushing inventiveness and love of language and the sound of words. That’s the secret agenda. It hopefully shows kids that you can muck about with conventions and break all the rules about what you should have in a story. There are literary references in there too, some that kids pick up on immediately and some just plant seeds. I think of them as time bomb jokes.
Mr Gum has been translated into a lot of different languages – how does that work, given a lot of the humour is based around wordplay and silly phrases? Do translators do it word for word, or is there a level of interpretation goes on to make it equally silly and nuanced?
I make up a lot of the words in Mr Gum so it’s interesting going through foreign language editions and trying to work out where the made up ones are. I think a really good translator will try and find an equivalent nonsense word in that language that sounds right to the ear. But if you take Polly’s name, which is really long and a lot of the words in it are made up (for those who don’t know, Polly’s full name is Jammy Grammy Lammy F’Huppa F’Huppa Berlin Stereo Eo Eo Lebb C’Yepp Nermonica Le Straypek De Grespin De Crespin De Spespin De Vespin De Whoop De Loop De Brunkle Merry Christmas Lenoir), some versions repeat it verbatim, but others try to translate it to different sounds. For example one of her middle names is ‘Berlin’, and at least one of the translations has changed it to ‘London’.
As I mentioned before I had this list of things I’d love to do, and a picture book was one of them. I’ve always loved reading children’s books just for the joy of it – I was reading children’s books on the tube before Philip Pullman and Harry Potter made it cool! – because a good book is a good book. It’s the same of picture books.
Anyway I suddenly realised if I wanted to do a picture book, I was now in a position where I could probably get someone to listen, I just needed the idea. I came up with the idea of the poo bus going down the road one day and wrote it down on a scrap of paper, then I forgot about it for six months. I stuck the paper to the wall above my desk, and at some point I pulled it off again and thought ‘right, what can I do with that?’ It had been fermenting in my mind for six months, and the rhyme just came to me, I wrote it in about twenty minutes. I’d had a couple of other ideas for picture books that hadn’t really gone anywhere, but for some reason Puffin liked this one.
It might sound a bit unlikely but I don’t really like kids books that rely on toilet humour, I think it’s a bit easy and lazy. The Mr Gum books are a bit grubby, but they don’t rely on those kind of jokes – although in retrospect there are two or three jokes I think now probably shouldn’t have gone in. But the poo bus is just so over boiled, it was a case of if we’re going to do this, let’s do it properly. It’s a bit like a fever dream for four year olds.
Sterling and the Canary just came out under Barrington Stoke, who publish books aimed at kids who aren’t that confident about reading – how did that come about? Did they approach you or did you go to them with the idea?
I wrote a book for Barrington Stoke once before actually, The Story of Matthew Buzzington. I remember actually I met Cathy Forde for the first time and she asked me if I’d been approached by them yet because it’s a real rite of passage for authors, and I was like ‘funnily enough,they rang me this morning…’ It was good because that target audience makes me write in a different way, it’s a bit quieter and softer. You have to think these kids might not be having the best time, so I tried to make it a bit more gentle. I was pleased with Matthew Buzzington, but I’m really proud of Sterling and the Canary.
Would you want to write books for adults?
I’d love to, but it has to do with organization and drive, and also having the right idea. I mean if I wrote the right book it would probably help a bit that I have an agent and a track record as a published author, but nobody would ever publish it just because of that – it needs to be the right book. I’m quite fortunate just now in that I’ve got more people wanting me to write books than the other way round.
Any more Mr Gum in the pipeline?
I actually had a Mr Gum related idea this morning which came out of something at the Edinburgh show, but I’m not really sure what’s going to come of that. In October we’re going to re-release one I did for World Book Day a couple of years ago, The Hound of Lamonic Bibber, with a lot of bonus material. There’s an origin story in there about how Mr Gum met his friend Billy William the Third when they were both ten, which has a kind of Victorian feel to it although it would probably only have happened 50 or 60 years ago… I like to keep things muddy.
Thanks to Sam and Chris for letting me use their photos of Andy, please check out their websites: