Aaron Blabey - Interview (December 2016)
What five words best describe you?
Not Hugely Comfortable Defining Myself
What prompted you to sit down and write your first story?
A gaping hole that I had never been able to adequately fill, by any other endeavour or activity, since childhood. Writing my first book – on the back of a boarding pass, and refined that night on a length of toilet paper in a friend’s guest room – was a genuine light bulb moment for me. Everything else I’d ever tried to do in my life immediately became ridiculous.
What comes first in your creative process: illustrating or writing?
The words and pictures are entirely wedded together in my head so it’s hard to pin this down but, more than anything, it’s all about the idea for me. I search high and low for something that I think will make a good story and then I just play. With picture books, especially the ones in verse, I’ll often walk for several days just feeling the rhythm of the meter and typing lines into my phone, trying not to control it too much. Or if I’m working on The Bad Guys, I’ll sit down and write it like a screenplay, figuring out a structure on my white boards and typing dialogue onto my Mac. The pictures are in my head and, generally, I’ve learnt to trust that they’ll spill out onto a page when I need them too. Again, I’ve learned to relinquish the need to control it too much. I like getting surprised by a story.
Is there any part of the creative process you don’t like?
No, I enjoy all of it. I get nervous from time to time but I have a rule of never working on any less than 5 projects at once and I find that very helpful. I think there’s a real danger – for me anyway – of turning into Gollum when you work on only one thing. A single, all-important project can become your ‘precious’, tormenting you when things aren’t going your way. But if I work on multiple projects all at once, with a reasonably disciplined compartmentalization of time, I find that I’m less worried and more playful. It’s a trick of the mind. That’s also why I don’t use handsome notebooks anymore. They demand reverence and make me self-conscious. I use disposable mediums like phones, whiteboards, forearms and napkins because they make feel free.
Are you a plotter or a panster? (Plotter =Plotting out your manuscript before you write it. / Panster = Putting pen to paper and plotting as you go along)
I don’t pre-plot picture books at all. I maybe have an endpoint in mind, but how I get there is up to the muse really. I just start with the strongest idea I have – and a clear sense of what I’m trying to say - and then I walk and type and mutter and think and get distracted and walk some more until there’s suddenly a book in my notes app.
With the Bad Guys, I map out a structure with certain key moments locked in place, but then I clear my mind and try not to control how I get from point A to point B. I let the character dynamics and the dramatic problem at hand dictate the story, with as many gags as possible thrown in along the way. Again, for me, it’s largely about relinquishing control and being open to surprises.
What excites you about the future of children’s books?
They do seem to be hanging in there. I started to sell a lot more books at precisely the moment when everyone was saying “PRINT IS DEAD, YOU’LL STARVE, THE DREAM IS OVER”, so I don’t really know. I do know that what is most important to me is ideas and stories. I don’t really mind what medium I use to convey them. But books are certainly my favourite.
What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during a read aloud session?
I reckon I’ve been asked the same dozen questions about 40 million times but I’m still not tired of answering them. I love talking to a large group of kids. It’s always great. My favourite question from a kid wasn’t directed at me though, it was a story I heard that wonderful Irish comic David O’Doherty (the guy with the Casio keyboard) tell on a panel show once. He was performing for a bunch of kids when a boy in the audience raised his hand. O’Doherty stopped and said “Yes mate, what’s your question?” and the boy replied “Is this going to get good soon?”. I just love that. Performing your work to kids is exhausting. You have to be ON. They can smell a phony from miles away. I’ve now spoken to tens of thousands of kids and the effect of that on my writing is incalculable. I have a sign on my desk now that just reads – DON’T BE BORING. I think that’s the most valuable thing I’ve learnt in the last 10 years.
What’s next from Aaron Blabey?
I’m busy on a kind of pathological level. I have two more books out this year – Bad Guys Episode 4 and Pig’s Christmas book, Pig the Elf, along with a couple of new plush toys. And then I have five releases scheduled every year until 2019, at the time of answering this question. I realise that sounds bananas – it probably even sounds like I’m lying – but I’ve just hit a very purple patch. I have two popular concurrent series (Pig and the Bad Guys) which explains the bulk of my output, but I still have a number of alternative ideas that have all evolved into additional titles. I suspect I’m dead in the middle of the most productive period I’ll ever have in my life, so I’m just happy to ride the wave.