CKT Writers’ Festival – Q&A with Andy Griffiths

Andy Griffiths

Andy Griffiths began writing at the age of six, not because he wanted to be an author but because he loved making his family and friends laugh. This entertainment factor still drives him to write – he has to be amused by what he’s writing, then he’ll check in with kids to see if they’re amused by his words.

He became a high-school teacher, and saw his writing as a way to encourage reluctant readers. He noticed that there was a gap in the market for stories aimed at kids who were disconnected from books and reading. Early in his writing career, he took loads of how-to-write courses and attended plenty of kid-lit conferences. He soon discovered that everybody was saying different things! So he decided to only take in the advice that made the most sense to him.

His ‘aha’ moment came when he was at a poetry workshop. The poet running the session did not like Andy’s poem at all and said that it had no literary merit. He encouraged Andy to read Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. This helped Andy tap into his stream of consciousness. You start with a random topic, set a timer for three minutes, and start writing (without stopping!). By doing this, you often first recall memories associated with the topic, then end up diving deeper into seemingly unrelated ideas. Andy’s advice when you do this writing exercise? ‘Don’t let the editor brain take control. It censors your thoughts.’

Like many writers, Andy has had his share of criticism. He bounces back from harsh comments by realising that they are just one person’s opinion – and they’re not necessarily right or true. He tries to avoid upsetting people with his writing, but when he does get a negative response he treats it as great feedback that deserves to be explored.

Not surprisingly, considering the success of his Treehouse series, one of Andy’s greatest influences was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series. When he was a child, he loved books that made him feel excited or swept away, contained magical food or an unusual land, and did not have adults in the foreground of the story. It was all about the elements of danger, pleasure and escapism. Consequently, when he writes, he asks himself: ‘Is what I’ve written going to get the response that I want? Is this the best book I’ve ever read? Is it going to excite a child?’

The Treehouse books exude the spirit of experimentation and collaboration. It takes a year for Andy to write the 10,000 words in each one, and he is not afraid to delete some of the text if the story is better told by Terry Denton’s illustrations. The important thing about the Treehouse books is that readers can follow the story visually – this encourages reluctant readers who baulk at text-heavy books.

Andy truly believes that the more you write, the more you get right. He tries to make the ridiculous seem real (like relabelling a jar of corn relish as ‘Andy’s own vomit’). When you’re writing, you’re trying to surprise the reader: what’s the opposite of the expectation? Lead the reader in one direction, and then startle them. Access creativity by asking questions and making lists (for each Treehouse book, Andy comes up with 50 new levels and then chooses the best 13).

Although he is at the top of the kid-lit tree now, Andy is always keen to learn more about the art of writing. His favourite reference books include Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic (an inspiring volume about playing with creativity), George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which looks at editing as part of the creative process) and Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks (which reveals that literature is all about the effect writing has on the audience).

Report by CKT Author, Dannielle Viera

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