Andy Griffiths: Laughing all the way to the top
Fran Cusworth, 24 July 2012
Exploding bums, evil pencils, disgusting brussels sprouts ... Fran Cusworth attempts to get inside the mind of children’s author Andy Griffiths.
AT the Children’s Book Festival in March, a queue zigzagged across the forecourt of the State Library. About the length of a city block, the line was made up of children waiting for author Andy Griffiths to sign their copies of his latest book, Just Doomed!.
My seven-year-old waited 30 minutes before we persuaded him to leave, his lip trembling as he cast longing glances back to where Griffiths sat chatting to the child at the front of the line.
Weeks later, I am lucky enough to interview Griffiths, one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors. His books, such as The Day my Bum Went Psycho, have featured on the New York Times best-seller lists and he has sold more than five million books worldwide.
Worshipped by young fans, adults might dismiss him as the writer who uses toilet humour to hook in pint-sized readers.
But not those who have read his hilarious, original books, which spin great stories out of tiny moments – like pretending you’re dead to get out of going to school, or hunting for your lost Jaffa in a crowded cinema, or chasing after the rubbish truck with your bin.
He is like Seinfeld for children – an observer of life who takes ‘‘what ifs’’ to their limits. Little wonder his upcoming appearances at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival sold out within hours.
Just Doomed! is Griffiths’ 24th book and the eighth in his best-selling ‘‘Just!’’ series (other titles include Just Stupid! and Just Disgusting!).
It examines all the ways we can be doomed (‘‘#1 The school bully says, ‘Touch me again and you’re dead’ ... and you touch him again’’) and finds humour in the fact that, by virtue of being human, you are doomed.
“I love it when kids come clutching books to their heart and tell me they’ve read them 10 times,” says 51-year-old Griffiths, a wiry father of two, with wise eyes and a peaceful demeanour.
“That’s really valuable, because they’ve got this little area of madness in their life, no matter how proscribed the world might be by the adults around them.”
Griffiths’ immense respect for children is evident. He has recently returned from Tasmania, where more than 1000 people turned up for a 40-minute event, then queued for nearly three for autographs.
“There was one kid who finally reached the front and said his mum had made him choose between getting fish and chips for dinner or waiting for an autograph. He chose the queue,” says Griffiths. “I told his mum she should still buy him fish and chips.”
He confesses to a little dismay at such monster queues, not for himself but for the children. “But it doesn’t matter how long they are, I don’t rush them. There would be no point. I have a chat with each kid.”
At his public events, he throws open the floor to questions from children, and his humour is black, ironic and a little unnerving.
‘‘Next time you’re in the car, kids, and dad’s driving, a fun thing to do is to put your hands over his eyes so he can’t see!’’ he told a gathering of spellbound kids recently.
I later felt the need to spell out to my two boys that such a prank could kill us all (like the sort of over-cautious mother Griffiths probably dreads) but he has total faith that his young readers can recognise a joke.
“When I hold an event or start a story, they know they’re entering a playful zone where you leave everything you know at the door,” he says. “When I wrote Just Annoying!, there was this concern that if you told kids about being annoying they’d go out and do it, because they’re just monkeys who don’t know the difference between entertainment and what’s appropriate in real life.”
Unlike his fictional namesake, the luckless and chaotic Andy, Griffiths the author seems careful and considered; he has analysed theories of creativity and comedy, is patient through a long photography session and, when he spots the dog-eared copies of his books I’ve brought along for reference, he insists on signing every one for my sons.
But his dogged determination to make a living from fiction, and his prolific output, suggests he shares the fictional Andy’s ruthless single-mindedness, the quality that led Andy to silicone up a shower cubicle and nearly drown, and to pursue a world record for fastest ever clothesline swinging.
Griffiths was a singer-songwriter in a punk band before becoming an English teacher, scribbling short stories to entice reluctant readers in his classes.
He then decided to take a gamble, saving $10,000 to fund two years’ leave from his teaching job while he wrote fiction and lived ‘‘a monastic lifestyle’’ on his tiny nest egg.
He refused to do any paid work during that time, after spending two days as a labourer on a jackhammer.
“I thought: ‘I’ve got to commit to this. If I fail, I fail, and I’ll settle down to teaching, but I don’t want to fail because I didn’t try hard enough.’ And I knew writing is one of the hardest things to get into.”
During his two-year writing stint, a publisher knocked back his book of practical jokes so he rewrote it as a narrative, spun around practical joker, Andy. Just Tricking! was picked up by Reed and now Griffiths is married to his first editor, Jill Griffiths, who remains very involved in his work.
He is also still in a fertile creative partnership with his first illustrator, Terry Denton.
His 24 books seem to tap directly into a child’s mind. How does he do it? How does he keep that mischievous inner child alive in an adult world of responsibility and parenthood and deadlines?
Griffiths says he listens to a lot of music, and watches, reads and studies a lot of comedy. He loves comics. ‘‘I read them and I’m instantly 10 years old again,’’ he says.
He speculates that children’s writers may be arrested at a particular point in their development.
‘‘For me it’s that period just before adolescence when the whole world is a field of possibilities,” he says. “I remember it vividly.’’
The other characters in his Just! books – best friend Danny Pickett and grade four love object Lisa Mackney – were named after real people from school.
‘‘I went to Danny’s 50th last week,” Griffiths says. “His sons have enjoyed the books – they say: ‘God, Dad, you were so dumb!’ I do point out that these characters are highly exaggerated.’’
The real Lisa Mackney rang him out of the blue after a few books were published. “She was very kind about it.’’
He volunteers that he would like to write an adult book, although an advance he received for the puropse had to be repaid because he hadn’t delivered the manuscript.
“It just wasn’t coming. The really tough thing for me is kids will try to read it, and that will dictate the things I can write,” he says. “It’s hard to write about sex and drugs if I’ve got every 10-year-old looking over my shoulder.”
But he says he’s starting to see a way forward on an adult book – maybe shifting the focus of the Andy stories rather than making a radical departure. “It would be great to see Andy from the point of view of his father,” he says.
He admits to a fondness for Andy’s dad, who features in short stories such as Mudmen in Just Crazy!, where he and Andy end up nude and camouflaged in mud in front of Andy’s dad’s boss, and where Dad experiences an epiphany when he is sacked on the spot.
‘‘I’ve been living a half-life!” cries Andy’s dad. “A safe life. I’m crazy, all right. Crazy for life! I want to take more chances, climb more mountains, swim more rivers and watch more sunsets.’’
‘‘That,” says Griffiths, directing me to these lines, ‘‘is as close as I get to a personal philosophy”.
But then he quickly shies away from such seriousness, insisting that making someone laugh is, for him, the ultimate aim.
‘‘Adults think, ‘What’s the purpose of this book, what’s the meaning?’ But the meaning is the laughter – that’s more important than any message.’’
Just Doomed! by Andy Griffiths (Pan Macmillan, $12.99).
His next book, The 26-Storey Treehouse, is due out in September 2012.
He is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival, August 23 – September 2 2012.