Updated: Jul 23
Andy Stanton studied English at Oxford but they kicked him out. Before becoming a children's writer, he was a film script reader, a cartoonist, an NHS worker, a part-time sparrow – and a plum. Today, he is best known for the hilarious Mr Gum books. His favourite expression is 'Good evening'.
When did you know you were a writer?
I'm still waiting to find out that. You never know you're a writer until the next book again. When I was at school, I used to write very silly stories, and if I look back at my schoolbooks, they're quite similar to how I write now (laughs). I was always trying to break the convention and muck around and be surreal. I had a brilliant teacher at primary school, called Miss Yates, who I totally fancied and she was a big fan of mine. She would encourage me, but when I went over the top with my excesses, which happens when you're a baroque surrealist – even at eight years old – she would rein me in. And that was really useful. So she was like my first editor. I remember once she said, 'This story's really inventive and funny, but where's the emotion?' And that was my first ever piece of really useful writing advice: don't forget emotion, even when you're doing something funny.I guess I always knew I was a reader, and I've always wanted to be a writer, but you're not a writer until you do the work, are you? It took me a long time to do the work.
Is there anything with writing that you find easy?
Not really (laughs). I think if you find it easy, you're either very lucky or not trying hard enough. I find editing much easier... well, not much easier but more enjoyable than the first draft. I do find getting to the end of the first draft the hardest part of the whole experience. But I love editing: that's when I get to really play with it and fake it and think, OK I've made a mess here but I like it well enough that I can clean this thing up. I love editing. I'm such a big fan of it. I think a lot of people who want to write find it a big step and can't take it. It's having the courage to edit. You can be drastic, it doesn't matter, as long as it's for the good of the work.
Does that mean that there are several passes?
Personally, yeah. For every Mr Gum I wrote – and there are about 11,000 words on average – I've got a terrible shooting ratio. I probably wrote 30,000 words plus for each one to get to the right words. Maybe 50,000 for some of them (laughs). I'm quite a fan of comedy being short and sweet. Not overstaying its welcome. But at the same time I make it very dense. You can go back and unpick it and see how it works, or see how you think it works.
Who makes you laugh? Or what makes you laugh?
Lots of things make me laugh. Frank Zappa from 'the world of music'. Bill Hicks. Some of my biggest influences were The Young Ones, The Simpsons, Vic and Bob. But even when I love comedy I don't revisit it. Once I've internalised it, I don't want it in my head – I just don't want to go anywhere near it, as a rule. So even my favourite comic sitcoms and comedic influences, I feel like they've all mulched down now. I don't need to go and re-examine them and have them in my head again. For instance, are you a fan of The Mighty Boosh? (Yes.) Because I've never watched it in my life. Because I expected that it would make me double-think or second-guess myself. Sometimes people say, 'Your stuff's a bit like The Mighty Boosh,' and I think, Great, but it wouldn't have been if I'd have watched it. Because I would've consciously tried to avoid what they did, and then I would've found myself in a corner.
Where does the seed of a story come from?
(I'm wondering about Mr Gum...)
The first Mr Gum book [You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum!] was just years of frustration – of never finishing anything. I thought I'll sit down and see if I can get a story that goes from start to finish, and I'll read it out to my little cousins on Christmas Day. This was Christmas Eve when I wrote the story. I had a fragment. I had a line or two about a horrible old man called Mr Gum. What I accidentally found out was that it was quite useful to start with a villain, because a villain will make a story happen. They're a good engine to get a story going. So I wrote that first Mr Gum in one night. And you don't get many nights like that in your life. You can find a story anywhere. I'm looking for stories all the time if I have to write a book: rejecting and selecting ideas, weighing them up. If I get an inkling that there's a nice angle and I can see some sort of ending, and I suspect that there's enough legs there to get me through the middle, I'll have a go. Often I find out I'm not that interested in the middle, so it's not an idea and it doesn't have legs. But when it does, usually by the time I'm getting to the end of the first draft, I've got a better ending in mind anyway. It's getting something that you suspect might have enough ups and downs and twists and turns to get you to the end. Sometimes [the seed of a story] is just a newspaper headline, as well though, like the death of John Lennon.
Do you toss out a lot of your writing?
Absolutely. There's tons of it. There's deviations and chapters and digressions, and whole twists and turns of plot that I didn't think were useful ultimately. I've got it all filed away. Tons of it. And you think, Oh that will come in useful later, and it rarely does. You keep them and sometimes you get to use them later. But even if you think there may be some good lines in there, loads of good jokes that have never made it to the page, there's no point keeping a whole morgue of them. By the time you look at them later, it's not where you're at anyway. But there is stuff I've been trying to crowbar in there for years... I'll split the difference: I'd say you've got to keep it all, because you don't want to miss it if there is anything in there (you should always keep everything you've written digitally or otherwise), but I've got a very good memory and think, Ooh didn't I have something that might work like that? And sometimes it works. You'll think, I know I had a good line for that somewhere, and go hunting on Word.
Do you have loads of ideas?
You don't think: Where am I going to get my next BIG IDEA?
Well, I do think that, too. Because I do have loads of ideas but most of them are so abstract, or I just reject them without examining them. I'm constantly rejecting them. Actually I don't think there's such a thing as a bad idea, I just think there's a bad treatment of an idea. I think if you had to sit down and write me a story about a boiled sweet, then what's the problem? You can do it!
YOU might be able to do it!
Oh, everyone can. I might not be able to do it well. But someone could. Because people are always saying, 'I've got this idea, it's about a kid who gets a magic sweet, or whatever. Do you think that's OK?' And I say, 'There's nothing wrong with it.' To make it into something brilliant, it's as good a place to start as any. That's all stories are, isn't it? We have to care about something underneath them, and the things on top – the actual details – are to some extent dressing.
For you personally, what's so special about writing?
Most people want to give some sort of good account of what they are in life. And if you want to be a writer, or you're bursting to do something creative and it's hard, but you're even more miserable not doing it, then you should follow that. You should be a writer or an artist, or whatever it's going to be. That's what it's like for me. I find it very difficult to write, but it's very, very satisfying when I get my stuff across. And I love that my characters get into children's heads. When you first get a book published, and you get a copy from your publisher through the post, you go, 'Oh, look at that! I wonder if that's a real book?' And you can't really believe it is. Then you put it on the shelf, and you walk by it nonchalantly and think: That must be what it's like to walk by my book on a shelf in a bookshop. Kids repeat your phrases back to you, and your characters live in their heads – and then you think: That must be a real book, because that's how I am when I'm a fan of other books. So now people are doing that to me, so it's very vindicating. It's really satisfying.
Is that what drives you, or continues to drive you, to keep writing? Probably.
Or is there a bigger driver than that? (Andy's phone bleeps.)
Oh, shut up.
No, not you. (both laugh)
It's a big part of it. But I think it's about giving an account of myself, and seeing what happens, even despite the fear and lack of confidence, and tiredness with myself... and if I keep pushing to do some good work, then something else interesting might be round the corner. It's a good experiment in doing the best you can and learning to live with it. Nothing's perfect and sometimes people don't like your books or your work. You just go, 'OK, I can't please everyone. And that's interesting. I've grown from that.' Hopefully the people who do like it have grown from it, too, so it seems like useful work.
Does that sometimes mean that each successive novel becomes more difficult?
Yeah. More and more pressure each time. I would liken writing a book to scaling a castle. The first draft is scaling the castle, and there are people trying to pour hot oil down on you, and [the walls are] very sheer, slippery and high. That bit's tough, but if you can get to the end of the first draft, that's scaling the parapet. Then if you think of one of those movies where they do that, for the next five minutes, they're just running around on the ramparts, running everyone through with their swords. So if I can get to the end of that first draft, then the next two weeks is my running around, and that means I won't sleep, I'll eat jelly babies for breakfast, I'll wake up at three in the morning with an idea on how to improve a scene – and that's the joyful bit. Because then I've got my teeth into it. But every [new] book, you look up at that castle again – and it's got higher, and it's got sheerer and the sides are slipperier and there's more people pouring oil down on you. (both laugh)
Great. Well, not great.
Not great. The opposite. But it's satisfying when you do it.
Do you ever surprise yourself as a writer?
Oh yeah, I do. And that's a good reason to write as well. If you're bored of how you're doing something, you can get to a point where you're just sooo bored, that you break it in a new way that you didn't expect. You can't see it coming, but suddenly you just find a new solution: how to stage a scene, or you find a new way for a character to do something you didn't know they could do. As a writer, you can't make your characters do what they don't want to do, but sometimes something unlocks and you find... Ah, that's absolutely fine: they can do that… freedom! So, yeah, you make a little cell for yourself, or a maze for yourself, but if you keep at it – and you can bear the pain (laughs) – you can keep finding interesting escape routes. If you get back into what you're writing, and suddenly you're feeling that beat, and the rhythm and the pulse of it... that's a great feeling. That's a brilliant feeling. When you know you've got a good idea. Or when you think, I'm on the scent of something good here. That's exciting.
What are you most proud of as a writer?
Well, I'm proud of putting a kink into kids' literature, and sending it slightly sideways. Mr Gum came along at the right time, not by design, just came along at the right time – and it's definitely changed the course of children's literature in the last fifteen years or so. In Britain. Not a lot. But a little. No... but enough. It's swerved everything a bit left, and I like that.
The design of the Mr Gum books – from Egmont, my publisher – was really brilliant, making a somewhat longer story look like a bigger book with fewer words on the page. Putting smudges on the pages, playing around with fonts and format... I'm proud that they feel like kid-friendly artefacts. If I imagine a Mr Gum book, my mental image is of the book stuffed into some kid's back pocket, as they race off down the playground, with dust at their heels from their trainers, as if Mr Gum's something to be mucked around and enjoyed. Not to be scared of.
Do you sometimes consider your writing as some sort of legacy?
(laughs) I think Mr Gum will last a bit. I don't how long. It's probably not The Beatles. I think it'll be read in x number of years, where x is a number bigger than 20, and that's quite good.
And if you weren't a successful writer, what might you have become?
I can still see myself doing other stuff, but I think I'm probably at the right place at the moment. The books I write bridge my love of books and comedy, but now they also bridge my love of music, because I finally made Mr Gum into a musical.
That's Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear. That must be an amazing experience.
Yeah, it is amazing. That squares another circle. As you know, writing is very solitary, and... I think maybe all of this stuff is ultimately therapy... but if other people enjoy it too, then that's a bonus (and if you can pay your mortgage with it, that's a super bonus). Really, this job has given me all sorts of things to be fearful of and to try and overcome, and working with all those other people and giving your baby over to be dressed up in a moustache and a top hat, and a robe or whatever...
Was that difficult to do – to hand 'your baby' over to someone else?
That was difficult. I was incredibly involved in the production from start to finish. Working with other people, and knowing some of the answers, but also knowing that if I tried to steer it, there would be no life in it. It has to become everybody's show and that was a brilliant, brilliant experience… and absolutely emotionally draining. Very different emotional draining than from a book, but really worth it. I've learned tons, so I'd like to do more of that maybe.
I wasn't surprised that you chose The Dancing Bear for the musical, because that's got more of a story arc...
It's got more of an emotional arc. We looked at all the books, and I chose that book, and I interrogated that with the director.
It's one of my favourites.
Yeah, it's one of my favourites. And, in a way, that is one of the most personal books to me in the series. I think they wanted to do Biscuit Billionaire [Mr Gum #2], and when I looked at it with the director – and we plotted out all the books on the wall – we surprised ourselves [with The Dancing Bear]. But it wasn't really a surprise, deep down, because it has got that emotional depth.
Does that make it more difficult, if it's more personal?
No. But I'd say [The Dancing Bear] is the saddest book that I needed to be amusing for. More than the others. They came to me and said do you want to make a play, and I said that I always thought it should be a musical. And they let me... WoW!
And you wrote all the lyrics for the musical?
Yeah. But that also dictates the spirit and the scale of the show, and what you're trying to do. It would've been way easier to have done it not as a musical. What I love about musicals is that they're such a blend of incredible craft and sophistication, but at the same time, they're incredibly manipulative. All the string pulling. To me, it's hilariously brazen, the way they manipulate emotions...
You do that in books, too.
That's Mr Gum all over. You show the mechanics of it, but you also do it at the same time. And that makes me laugh. We just expose a bit more of those mechanics in Mr Gum books than in some other books.
And kids enjoy seeing that. And getting the joke.
They can handle both. So long as you keep the silly stuff tempered with the emotional stuff. And that you're always running the emotional through it, even while you're pulling the table-cloth away. That's the trick: pull the table-cloth away, and keep the breakfast service on the table. And that's how you do it. It's hard, but it's worth it.
In all your time going into schools or performing on stage, what's the best question you've been asked by a kid?
Are you a balloon?
What was your reply? Do you remember?
I just ran around the stage going, 'pluurrhthshhhhhphshthsssshhh.' That was a gift of a question!
Do you plot your stories at all?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. I usually find the plot: I have an idea for what might be an interesting springboard, what might be an interesting ending, and just a hunch that there's enough to get me there. Sometimes I plot more than others. No, I usually take the long way around.
When you're into writing a story, what's a good day's work for you?
It can be anything. It doesn't have to be I got through two chapters today. It can be I believed in the emotion enough to actually work on a couple of paragraphs. Not in that way that you're over-editing, but just in the way that I got to really work on one plot point and felt the reality of it. It can be lots of things. Sometimes it's the feeling that the words are talking to each other. Sometimes they sound like so much noise: they look filthy on the page, they look like an embarrassing mess. And then other times, a really good day's writing can involve no words at all. Or it can involve 2,000 words. Or, if you're really lucky, 5,000 words. It can involve zero to x.
How would you describe your writing in 3 words?
Baroque, warm and honest.I'm going to have one more word: nutritious.I don't think there's enough nutritious books for kids, and I want to challenge readers and give them something to chew on.
What are you like for deadlines?
I'd get it done... except for about six years, when I couldn't write anything. But that was a bit of a doldrums. Well, it was a big doldrum.
After the end of Mr Gum?
Yeah, I just got so burned-out on it.
But you were still writing picture books?
Well I just about kept alive. No, I got really frustrated and I probably should have taken myself away for a bit and relaxed, but I just got really down about it.
You've bounced back with The Paninis of Pompeii.
The first one's out, and I'm meant to be writing the second one any day now (laughs). So how am I with deadlines? We'll see!
You've written Natboff, too, which was all sorts of different styles.
Yeah, I love Natboff. It was brilliant, because it was a chance to write in all these different voices, with my voice underneath them all. Broadly, pastiches of historical styles. Some of them are a little more respectful than others. There's a World War One poem in there, a poem from the trenches, and I didn't want to be glib about it. To me it's really important. It looks like it's going to be silly, and then it's not. It turns on you, a bit like 'Blackadder Goes Forth', I suppose. But then, my favourite one to write was the Victorian diary, that was great. All those long words like 'perseverance': 'we are great perseverers, us Victorians, great perseverers indeed.' I love that language. It was really fun to use so many different types of language.
Are you a competitive person?
Yes and no...
But now you're a very successful children's writer, do you want to be the best?
It's a double thing. If you want to be, it just makes you unhappy. If you keep looking left and right, you'll never win, because all you're going to do is just go, 'Oh, they're ahead of me... he's selling more... she's selling more... oh, they're coming up...'I just honestly try to avoid it as much as possible. It really doesn't matter so long as you keep producing work that you think is worthwhile. So yes, I am [competitive], but I try not to worry about it. I don't read any reviews these days. I don't like reviews.
What's the best writing advice you've ever received?
To get to the end of the first draft! No, keep it emotional. Always keep it emotional. You've got to have characters that people care about. Otherwise it's just so much noise. And be firm about what you want to write. Everyone always tells you to write this or write that. I don't listen to any of it.
That would be death, writing what someone else wanted.
Yeah. Do you remember when Twilight [by Stephenie Meyer] came out? Then suddenly there were 800 other vampire books for teens published? Maybe two of them, two series, got the leftovers from Twilight. No one remembers them now anyway. But, trust me, there are people whose whole job is to be success-chasers. They've probably got manuscripts lying around and they go, 'Well, this one was about mermaids, but if I just do a find-and-replace it's about vampires now, and I can sell it.' There is no point trying to chase the last trend. You make the next trend.
And, finally, what are your expectations of yourself as a writer?
[I want to do] more and more... as long as I'm interested in having something to say. Keep it honest, or don't bother. Nothing else is good enough – especially for kids. You can't let kids down. You cannot. If it's a fake, forget about it.
So, if people don't like your stuff, then at least you can look at yourself in the mirror and say:
'Well, I did it, not for gain, not for the hope of the next thing... I just did it, because that was the best I could do, that's all.'
Link to Andy's website: www.mrgum.co.uk
Publisher's website: www.egmont.co.uk
(see also Hodder Children's Books & Barrington Stoke)