Q&A with Colin Thompson

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Since he started writing and illustrating children’s books in 1990, Colin Thompson has had more than 65 books published. He has received several awards, including an Aurealis Award for the novel How to Live Forever, CBCA Picture Book of the Year for The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley and CBCA Honour Book and the Family Therapists’ Award for The Big Little Book Of Happy Sadness. He has been shortlisted for many other awards, including the Astrid Lindgren Award – the most prestigious children’s literature prize in the world. Colin lives in Bellingen, Australia. His books with Random House Australia include How to Live Forever, numerous picture books, The Floods series, The Dragons series, The Big Little Book Of Happy SadnessFree To A Good Home and Barry.

Author Lives In: Bellingen, NSW, Australia

thompson, colin

Courtesy: Random House Australia

Colin, welcome to Just So Stories!

Reading the biographical details on your website, your life has been a mix of various locations, jobs and interests and your writing career did not kick off until relatively recently. Can you tell us about any interest in books and writing when you were a child/teenager/young adult whether favourites or what you inspired you and then, perhaps you could share why you started to write professionally?

When I was a child there were only fourteen children’s book in print and they were jolly super-wizard japes and pretty boring apart from one or two such as the Wind in The Willows which is probably still my favourite children’s book. There no books with no nasty common working class people in – unless they were burglars and the only books with coloured pictures were annuals of the comics I read, like the Beano.

Nothing inspired me to be a writer. I had no desire to be one and the thought never once  entered my head until I was 49 and went to see some publishers in London to see if I could get some work illustrating children’s books. I couldn’t, but one publisher told me to go away and write a story. I said I didn’t know how to – I was rubbish at English at school – but she kept pestering me until I got so fed up with her that I sat down and wrote Ethel The Chicken. (You can read this in my collection of stories Wild Stories which is a collection of three books of short stories re-published here by Random House)

So I started writing because a publisher told me to.

Out of your many published works, I have many personal favourites (though a couple of picture books particularly hold my regard – The Short & Incredibly Happy Life of Riley and The Last Circus for example). I am in awe of your versatility in being able to both write and illustrate though sometimes you collaborate with another illustrator as in those two examples. What makes you decide whether you will illustrate your own work?  Also, do you confer with an illustrator if not yourself about your ‘vision’ of the illustrations?

Actually I did not collaborate with Amy Lissiat on Riley. I am actually an 85 year old French lady and the fact that Amy Lissiat is an anagram of ‘it’s my alias’ is pure coincidence. If someone else illustrates one of my book. I do NOT confer at all and any author who does with an illustrator should not be allowed to. If they (or me) think they know how the book should look, then they should do the pictures. Otherwise leave the illustrator alone. It’s none of your business. I’m not sure I will be doing any more collaborations. Might do, but at the moment I prefer to illustrate my own stuff.

‘Dust’ was a book that I found both important and poignant. In my libraries I have shared it with dozens of children and it always makes such a profound impact. What was it’s genesis?

I got the idea after seeing news on TV about the famine in Niger which their government said wasn’t happening. No doubt it wasn’t for the government. So I decided to try and raise some money. Initially I approached Medicine Sans Frontiers, but they were ridiculous and impossible to deal with so I went to Save the Children who welcomed DUST with open arms. I’m not sure how much we’ve raised, but I think it’s at least $500,000. Save the Children took my wife and I to Cambodia to see the work they were doing there and that gave me the idea for the follow up book The Bicycle. I though the least I could do after such a stark book as DUST was to produce an upbeat book!

Not only are you talented in the picture book genre, but your novels for older children such as The Floods and The Dragons are wildly popular with both boys and girls. Can you tell us how these two series came about?

My publisher at Random house took me out to lunch and suggested I might like to write a series. I hadn’t thought of it until then and decided that I was so TOTALLY bored with all the witch and wizard books, many of which are really bad, that the genre needed sending up. If you look at the Harry Potter books, I think you’ll find that there isn’t one joke in the entire series. I don’t know this for certain because I got really bored after the first two. I know they’re good, but I think they are all at least 50% longer than they should be. I just don’t have the patience – which is why I’ve never read Lord of the Rings either.

Writing picture books is a really good way of discarding the fluff which so much writing is full of. Some of my picture books do have longer stories than average, but it does teach you to only say what you need to, not show off with all the clever words you know. Stephen King says – ‘the adverb is not your friend’ If you plan to be a writer, go and get that advice burnt into your skin.

So having taken, to put it bluntly, the piss out of witches and wizards with, The Floods I then decided to do the same to King Arthur and dragons with my Dragonsseries.

See below for my new series.

And then of course, there are the poetry books (is there no end to this man’s talent?!) – what inspired the poetry books which are enormous fun especially as read-alouds?

I wish you would stop using the word ‘inspired’. Stuff just comes into my head and I write it down – or draw it. The inspiration word is a lot of people’s excuse for not doing stuff. ‘I need to be inspired’, they say which is crap. What they need is to do is to just get on with it and if they keep trying and can’t think of anything, then they shouldn’t be doing it anyway. They should just go and get a job – teaching writing or art is one job you can do if you can’t actually do it.

Writing poetry is strange. There are times when whatever word you think of, another one that rhymes comes into your head instantly. In my 3 poetry books there is only one poem that doesn’t rhyme. I think each book was written in about six long sessions over a few weeks and then things stopped rhyming. I have been toying with the idea of another book of poems.

Most of us know that you had some issues early in your life with depression. As we have just recognised Mental Health Week and thankfully are working towards breaking down the barriers and ignorance which surrounds this daunting problem, perhaps you could share some thoughts on the topic?

I think if the world in 2014 tells itself that everyone is more understanding and tolerant of mental illness, it’s lying to itself. Society has hardly become any more accepting that it was when I had depression fifty years ago. The general belief of most people is that sufferers could and should ‘snap out of it’. This of course is pathetic and implies that people with depression (I’m saying depression because that’s what sent me into three mental hospitals in my early 20’s) or other mental illnesses are putting it on deliberately and have some control over the situation, which of course is ridiculous. Anyone who has had bad depression will tell you, it’s not something you would ever choose to have. I think it was good of the ABC to host Mental Health Week and some of the programmes were really good. There was also some patronising rubbish too. I survived my depression and one genuine suicide attempt, but I can’t really say exactly how I got over it. Now, apparently, I have Aspergers instead which I must have got later because it wasn’t invented when I was born. When I was a child it was simply called being naughty.

The MOST IMPORTANT THING if you have a mental illness is to admit that you have a problem and then seek help. NEVER keep it to yourself.

Whilst not wishing to be impolite, you are nudging what some might describe as senior citizen status, yet I don’t detect any intention of slowing down or ‘retiring’- what is happening at present? What projects are you working on and what do you still feel needs to be written?

I want to say very rude words here. Stop trying to being polite. It is not impolite to tell someone they are old. It happens to everyone and it is not actually an insult.  I am not ‘nudging’ anything. Next week I will be 72. I am old, but I am as busy as I have ever been. Luckily I have not been cursed with maturity and Aspergers means you can do lots more in a day than other people.

Right now I am working on –

  • Illustrating a picture book called STANLEY, which I have just finished writing. It will be published next September. By the way, the third and final FEARLESSbook called Fearless Sons and Daughter will be published next year too (I think it’s March)
  • Editing and illustrating the first book of my new series which is called – Watch This Space. It will be published next May.
  • Writing the second book in the Watch This Space series – don’t know how many there will be
  • Drawing quite a few new pictures for more jigsaw puzzles for a company called Ravensburger. I’m currently drawing 2 that are 1000 piece puzzles and finishing one that is a LOT bigger. I’m hoping that when I’ve done a few more new pictures that we can put them all in a picture book too.
  • Working on a kind of novel/picture/chapter autobiographyish ( yes it is a proper word- Im an author so I know about this sort of thing) sort of book calledFITTING IN which is sort of about problems and other stuff like depression/Apergers/being different/shy/scared etc.etc. – not sure when this will be finished.
  • Writing an adult novel called The Mirrorball of The Gods.
  • Writing a book of adult short stories.
  • Writing another picture book.
  • Trying to find time to make samples of three ranges of models I’ve come up with. They will be for all ages between 5 and Pre-dementia.
  • Other stuff.

I have heard you speak to groups of students and inspiring them, but what advice would you give potential adult authors?

1 – Well then, get on with it.

2 – If you can marry someone rich, that’s a good idea. I am married for the third time and have never managed that.

Do you have particular authors and/or genres that you enjoy most? What are you reading right now?

I have two favourite books – neither are fiction.

1 – Botanica’s Trees and Shrubs – I read this all the time.

2 – At The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig – by John Gimlette. It’s about Paraquay and is like a cross between Monty Python and Saddam Hussein. I’ve read it about six times now. I also love two of his other booksThe Theatre of Fish and Wild Coast

My favourite author is Alan Bennett.

Finally, what would you like your epitaph to be?

Bloody hell, he must have been ancient. I thought he died years ago.

This, of course, will not be a viable epitaph for at least another 25 years. I’ve got a lot to do.

Please note the use of the word ‘died’ here. That’s what people do. They do not ‘pass over,’ they die.

Colin Thompson, I thank you so much for your valuable time and your generous sharing.

Bthank-you

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