WRITERS' MINDS Philip Ardagh

When the Edinburgh International Book Festival opens its doors, you never know who you might meet in the sun-filled gardens of Charlotte Square. On one such sunny day this August, Words & Pictures writer Sarah Broadley enjoyed a cuppa, talking all things writing, publishing and beards, with the legend that is Sir Philip Ardagh. Here she shares his answers to her questions.

Winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Philip Ardagh is an author, poet, reviewer, and commentator with over 100 children’s books to his name. His fiction works include Eddie Dickens, The Grunts, Unlikely Exploits, Grubtown Tales, Norman the Norman and Stick & Fetch.

1.  When starting a new story, what comes first – character, title or time in history?

Sometimes the title. Sometimes an era. I once sold a fiction series on the basis of three titles and the sketchiest of outlines. A title is all-important. It’s often what grabs the reader’s eyeballs and says, “Love me!”

2.  Do you think the writer has a responsibility, particularly for historical novels, to fully research their ideas?

Responsibility is a big word. Thirteen letters. Thank you for letting me pause to count them. It depends. My trilogy, Eddie Dickens – which was published in over 35 languages – is fiction. Though set in Victorian times, it’s disgracefully unresearched Victorian times: what you kinda reckon life was like in Victoria’s reign without reaching for a reference book or Googling. But that whole series was about unreliable adults and fun. When I’m writing a genuinely historical piece of fiction, however, such as my Secret Diary series, I spend plenty of time researching to make sure that the whole background and feel is true to the period.

3.  Of your previously published books, are there any that you wish you had written a little differently, or perhaps chosen a different main character for?

The hardest thing to decide is when the book is finished. You can keep polishing and polishing something until you wear it away and are left with nothing of what made it fresh in the first place. I always try to leave a bit of headspace to go back to a story just before it goes out. As for characters, I’m in an interesting position right now where I’ve taken a minor character from a book I wrote ages ago, and am writing a story with a young her at the heart of it.

4.  This is your 21st appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year. Apart from the height of the yurt doors, what keeps bringing you back?

Edinburgh is an incredibly welcoming city, and so is the book festival. Just look at this setting. I keep coming back because I keep being asked back, so I like to think I’m doing something right! It’s nice to catch up with familiar authors and illustrators and to meet new ones. New to me, that is. Of course, there are also all these amazing fringe shows on, which I rarely get to see. Having said that, Macmillan are taking me to A Sock Full of Custard, a two-hander about Spike Milligan. As for those low, low, low yurt doors, it’s lucky I’m as supple as a limbo-dancer … with lumbago.

Sarah Broadley on armrest duty for Sir Philip Ardagh, who stands at 6ft 7in tall. Photo credit: @edbookfest

5.  You work with the amazing illustrator Axel Scheffler. Can you tell us how your collaboration came about?

The first time we were in the same room together, Axel was too shy to come and introduce himself to me! Or so he told me. (True story.) How times change! Of course, it’s a huge honour for Axel to work with me, as he regularly mentions. (Untrue story.) When I was first approached by Nosy Crow to write books for them – when they were starting out as a new publishing company – I asked if Axel would like to work with me on The Grunts, beginning with The Grunts in Trouble, and he agreed. Axel is a control freak though. If I asked him to re-draw an illustration, he’d say, "I don’t have to. I drew the Gruffalo", and would then go and count his money. (Unlikely story.)

6.  If you found a notebook, would you read it, keep it or hand it in?

I wouldn’t read it and I would hand it in. If it were written in beautiful script, with maps with big Xs on them, passages in code, and so forth, then I might peruse it a little before handing it in. But no plagiarising!

7. Fairy tales – gruesome or fantastic?

Hmmm. The gruesome originals still have their place. Nowadays there’s a whole generation of people who only know what were once the turning-tales-on-their-heads versions. The Big Bad Wolf wasn’t bad, he was misunderstood! Villains are often now the good guys. Fairy tales should be both – how can you slay a dragon if it’s nice? And we need to know that there are dragons in the world which can be slain. I remember a gruesome line from my childhood which I loved: "Eaten Father. Eaten Mother. Now to eat my Little Brother …"

In a sense, the most incredible fairy tale is WWII. Gruesome? Unbearably! But against all odds – as in many fairy tales – the little guys won against incredible evil. It offers hope and belief in other such tales.

8.  Do you receive letters or e-mails from readers?

Many letters. I’ve lost count. What is so sad is if a child writes me a beautiful letter without a return address. They must assume that I can’t be bothered to answer. I fear that some may be saving up for a sniper rifle with their pocket money and will one day track me down ... But I am innocent!

I once had a boy write to me to say that he was on the way to a funeral by train. He’d brought one of my books for the journey and it had made him laugh at a time when he wondered if he’d ever laugh again. It had affected him enough to write and thank me. To get something like that through the post is very powerful and very gratifying.

9.  And now for something completely different … Tea or coffee? 

Coffee, milk, no sugar, please. And any chance of a choccy bicky?

10.  Does your beard have a name?  

If you know a beard’s name you have power over it, so it must never be spoken. It’s a free range, or ‘organic’ beard as the Beard Liberation Front (BLF) describes it. Not chopped and primped – if there is such a word – and preened and kept in place, but very much left to its own devices to wander my face at will. It was voted Beard of Summer in a recent public vote held by the BLF.

11.  Dark or milk chocolate? 


12.  Laptop or notebook for first draft?  


13.  Cats or dogs? 

Cats. My son’s cat is called Ginger Biscuit. Handsome devil (the cat, not my son.) I’d love a dog if it didn’t smell of dog – as 99.73% of dogs do – and if it didn’t chew cuddly toys and shed hairs. I own a lot of cuddly toys.

In conclusion

"Thank you Philip."

"No, thank you, Sarah. That was fun. Now, if you’d like to curtsey and then get me my coffee and biscuits …"

Philip collaborated with Sir Paul McCartney on the ex-Beatle’s first children’s book, High in the Clouds. His non-fiction covers numerous topics from science to history across many an age range. The Secret Diary series for Nosy Crow and The National Trust is a fiction/non-fiction crossover. 

Adults can follow Philip on
Tmblr: @philipardagh
Facebook: Philip Ardagh
Twitter: @PhilipArdagh

Feature photo: Philip Ardagh. Photo by Dotty Hendrix

Sarah Broadley lives in Edinburgh with her family. She has two cats that bring her dead things in the early hours of the morning. Sarah co-chairs the SCBWI SE Scotland network and wins invisible prizes for her outstanding procrastination skills. 
Twitter: @sarahpbroadley

Carry de la Harpe is features editor for Words & Pictures
Twitter: @Carry_delaHarpe
Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org

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