“Don’t believe everything I tell you…”
We interviewed A.F. Harrold, author of two illustrated novels for older readers that we love. His clever and imaginative style will appeal to fans of Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman, and we spoke to him about music, bullies, books…and biscuits.
BRK: Congratulations on The Song From Somewhere Else! What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
AFH: My only hope is that they’ll have enjoyed it, or that if they didn’t enjoy it that they’ll find a book they do enjoy and give their copy of TSFSE to a friend so it has a second chance at being enjoyed.
BRK: What was the idea or spark that inspired Frank and Nick’s story?
I was thinking about how, when I was at school, there was a lad in my class, called Nick, who was massive. He was taller and wider than anyone else in our year, always at the back in the school photographs, being mistaken for the teacher… that sort of big. And he was a really nice lad too, well-liked and kind. But I got to wondering about how maybe a kid like that might be different to all the normal-sized kids, what his secret might be, and that led to parts of the story, and to the book’s original title, which was Trollsong. As the thing got itself written the other thing that stepped into it were the bullies who are tormenting Frank, and they are simply my bullies from when I was her age, transported by the magic of fiction into a story where reality can unfold differently for Frank than it did for me. So those two things collided and became the story that ended up being this book.
BRK: Why is it important for you to have illustrations in your works? How did you find the right artist (Levi Pinfold)?
I like pictures. I like illustrated books and I’m fortunate enough to have a publisher who likes them too. Bloomsbury decided to ask Levi and Levi liked the story enough to say yes and the next thing we know he’s done all this amazing, moody, atmospheric work and the book is in the shops!
When I got to the end of The Imaginary I knew I had to go back to the beginning and add in the Christina Rossetti poem that opens that book. It was a poem I’d read at my dad’s funeral, at my mum’s request, and then we put it in the little memorial booklet thing we had made for her funeral. And so when it came to TSFSE I knew I wanted to open with a poem again, if only to make a formal connection with The Imaginary, and as the story grew it became clear that The Stolen Orange was the right poem. In a way TSFSE is just Brian’s poem, with a plot added and stretched out to three hundred pages. It also, coincidentally, is the other poem I read at my dad’s funeral, so we’ve got the full set ow. And also, also, Brian was a great influence when I first started writing poetry as a teenager, and he gave me encouragement over the years, and I wanted to repay that in some way.
BRK: Music plays a crucial role in the story, for both Frank and Nick. Is music an important part of your life and writing?
I like music very much. I listen to it and I make it. It’s a nice thing to make, because, in contrast to writing, you don’t have to have say anything – you don’t have to make sense, or have a point or a plot… all the hard things about writing. All music is decorating time. It helps fill the gaps between breakfast and baths.
BRK: What was your experience of writing this book? Did you have any particular music (or snacks) as part of your process?
For a variety of reasons, some that I understand and some I don’t, writing this book was like pulling teeth. It took forever and was utterly horrible. For the longest time it didn’t work, wouldn’t appear. But eventually it got there and it seems to have turned out okay. I don’t listen to anything while I write, but I did probably eat too many biscuits. Far too many.
As a kid I loved Fighting Fantasy books, a choose your own adventure series written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone that began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I also loved Raymond Briggs’ Gentleman Jim. And Return of the Jedi comic, and later 2000AD. And I loved Herge’s Tintin books, especially the mysterious Flight 714 and the Cold War Le Carre-ish The Calculus Affair and the space adventure Explorers on the Moon. Loads of good stuff, but that’s just a taste of things that I liked, the key is to find what you like and not worry about other people and their recommendations.
BRK: What’s up next for you?
The next thing is a new ‘funny’ book, now that the Fizzlebert Stump series is complete, which is a thing called Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space, which we’re just looking at illustrators for right now. That should be out (in the UK) next September, and hopefully down your way at a similar time. I’ve been editing a collection of poems for kids all about food, which should be out in time for Christmas 2017.
And I’ve written the next novel in the Imaginary, Song From Somewhere Else ‘sequence’ – (I use the word ‘sequence’ advisedly, the three books are linked by one character, but still, they are linked) – which, in contrast to the writing of this one, was gifted to me earlier this year, a simple, smooth and pleasurable writing experience, like a seal sliding into the sea… but that won’t be out until 2018, so I shouldn’t even be talking about it right now. I ought to be writing the second Greta Zargo book, which is currently called Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters from the Middle of the Earth… but everything is subject to change. Don’t believe everything I tell you.