Philip Ridley had his own theatre group when he was six, completed his first novel at the age of seven and had his first solo art exhibition at the age of 14. At 17, he began a degree in Fine Art at St. Martin's School of Art. The pace of Philip Ridley's life has not noticeably slackened since. A Renaissance Man for the multimedia age, Philip juggles artistic endeavours in many areas. He has written plays for radio and stage and screenplays (including the acclaimed and controversial The Krays). His first film as writer and director, The Reflecting Skin, won eleven international awards and prompted Rolling Stone magazine to describe Ridley as "a visionary". He has also written fiction for adults and, of course, children. Far from simply getting on the bandwagon of children's literature, Philip sees his children's books as "the backbone of everything that I do". His bestselling, award-winning novels have proved as popular with literary critics as with young readers. Ridley confronts contemporary issues like bullying, family breakdown and homelessness from a child's point of view. The themes of childhood anxiety and fantasy give his novels a strong contemporary agenda which is reflected in their style. Philip has said that his children's books are influenced as much by movies, computer games, comics and pop lyrics as by traditional concepts of the novel. The result is a swiftly paced, humorous and poetically arresting style which - together with Ridley's distinctive and dramatic take on magical realism - is both timeless, yet thoroughly of our time.
London; 29 December 1964
Stig of the Dump by Clive King
MOST FAVOURED POSSESSION:
A photo of me aged 18 months writing and drawing
'Wild Is the Wind' sung by David Bowie
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
When did you start writing?
For as long as I can remember I've been telling stories. Before I could write words I used to do little drawings to tell my stories, like hieroglyphics. Symbols of men, women, birds, crocodiles, flowers etc. All joined together to tell a story. I also used to tell stores to my brother who is three years younger than me. Bedtime stories to help him sleep. I wrote my first novel (unpublished) when I was seven years old and my first novel (published) when I was nineteen.
Where do you get your ideas?
My ideas come from everything around me. I live in the East End of London (where I was born) and all the locations in my books have their roots in real places in Bethnal Green where I live. The same with the characters, they're all based on people I know or combinations of people. The lead character is usually a facet of me.
Can you give your top three tips to becoming a successful author?
1. Read as much as you can.
2. Write as much as you can.
3. Keep a diary.
Sitting on a train and realizing the person opposite was reading one of my books. They were smiling and looked so engrossed. I went through my own stop just to continue watching them.
Favourite place in the world and why?
The Empire Cinema in Leicester Square in the West End of London. Because I've seen so many wonderful films there going back years and years.
What are your hobbies?
Collecting stamps, old paperbacks, comics, model robots, model crocodiles, model Cadillacs, gardening, model making, old photographs.
If you hadn't been a writer, what do you think you would have been?
A waste of space.
How did you get into writing books for children?
Well the two things I’ve always done are draw and write stories. All the while I was at St. Martins College studying painting, I was writing stories. In fact, one of my term essays became Crocodila, my first novel! I never made a conscious choice to say ‘I’m going to write for children’ – it just happened that way. I wrote something called Mercedes Ice, which I didn’t think of as a children’s story or an adult’s story – just a good story. I gave it to some friends and they all said ‘children might like it’. So that’s how it started.
What do you see as the main theme / themes of your book?
I think it’s most important to write about things that are relevant to today’s kids. When I was growing up and starting to read children’s books, there didn’t seem to be anything that was really related to things I was going through. Every child in every book I read seemed to have a mother and a father and a very stable home life, living in what you’d call a sort of paradise-suburbia. Dad always seemed to work in a bank. Mum stayed at home and did the housework. And they never argued. Well, that wasn’t my experience growing up in the East End of London. Living in a tiny flat I was used to lots of arguments. And I was used to hearing other brawls on the street too. I was used to not having any money. Or my family not having any money. And that wasn’t reflected in any of the books I read. I yearned to read books that were about parents arguing and kids with no gardens. Just so that I didn’t feel lonely. Just to feel that I wasn’t the only one going through that sort of thing. And that’s what I really wanted to do in my books.
Can you describe the room in which you do your writing?
Well, I live in a very small flat in the East End of London. In fact it’s the same block of flats that I was born in! I now live above the flat where my grandmother used to live. It’s a very tightly knit community – it’s a typical East Ender type of situation. It’s a very small flat, and I’ve got a little back room that I do everything in; I write there, I paint there. I’ve got a desk in the corner that is just piled high with notes, and all around me are images that I think might help in the book – images from newspapers, photographs of the landscape. For example with Mighty Fizz Chilla, which is set in Cornwall, I spent many months exploring the landscape of Lands End. I had thrilling times delving into the endless caves and watching the crashing waves. I took lots and lots of photographs of the cave I thought Capt Jellico lived in and lots of photographs of the kinds of things you find on the beach. To help bring the atmosphere of the place back into my East London flat I collected jars full of seawater and sand and shells and seaweed. I also made cassette tape recordings of the atmosphere of the beach; the surf, the seagulls, the sounds of distant ships. When I was sitting at my desk I tool the lids off all the jars and played the cassette and – bahn!! I was back on the beach again!
Have you ever thought of adapting one of your books for a film or TV series?
Well there have been lots of offers to do it right from the beginning. But it’s a case of waiting for the right offer really – I want to wait until there’s somebody out there I can do it properly with. But it’s something that intrigues me a lot. Particularly KrindleKracks and Kasper in the Glitter, which both lend themselves very much to a cinematic approach. But I want it to be done it a way that will make it a good film, because you only get one chance at it.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
I’m in the first stages of writing a new book – I’m getting the layout, the characters, the setting right. Sometimes I start to write and then about half way through I realise where I’ve gone wrong, so I go back to the beginning again. It’s a bit like ironing a shirt. Every time you iron one bit flat you end up creasing another bit that’s underneath, so then you have to iron out that crease. But in ironing out that crease you create another crease. Gradually though, the creases get less and less and the flat bits get more and more. At the moment, the project I’m working on is more creases than flat bits!
Which other children’s writers do you admire?
My favourite kid’s book is Stig of the Dump by Clive King. I think there are big elements of Stig in books like Kasper in the Glitter. But most of the work I do is not influenced by other children’s writers. My books are very autobiographical. MFC is autobiographical in the sense that my life was greatly changed by art at about the same time that Milo’s life is changed in the book. When I was 13 years old I visited the Tate Gallery in London and saw a painting called the Sleeping Fool by Cecil Collins. The moment I saw this painting it was like seeing an old friend. I understood everything about the image. It was so perfect it made me feel like crying. I had to find out more about the artist so I read books and visited other art galleries. I started to draw and write with more intensity that I ever had done before. The whole world of the visual arts and literature opened up before me in a way they had never done previously. And it all came from looking at that one painting. I can divide my life between B.C.C (Before Cecil Collins) and A.C.C (After Cecil Collins, in much the same way Milo’s life changes during his week’s stay in Cornwall. He discovers the art of storytelling and he, like me, will never be the same again.
What other jobs have you done?
Well, I’ve had lots of jobs that just saw me through periods. I worked as a DJ in a nightclub, and that was the main thing I did. I got into that while I was at college and I occasionally still do it for people who remember my hey-days! I’ve also done things like photography – just of family and friends. I’ve also worked in a pie and mash shop in the East End of London, a betting office and a chip shop!
If you could escape to anywhere in the world, where would you go and who or what would you take with you?
I don’t think there’s a place but I have a kind of image in my mind, which is very close to what you’re saying. I always imagine myself in a kind of space capsule, perhaps no bigger than the back room where I work at home. The capsule is very similar to the spacecraft used in a film called First Men in the Moon. I have an image of being in this capsule and I have everything I want; I’ve got my favourite music, I’ve got my favourite books and I’ve got piles of paper to write on and millions of pens and I just float off into space. I look through the window and I see all these new planets going past and I see shooting stars and galaxies and I’m playing the symphonies of Shostakovitch as I whizz across the Milky Way!
How do you make your books so different and distinctive in their style?
I’m very attached to rhythms of speech and what I try to do in all my books is to give each character a very distinctive way of talking. In MFC, for example, the whole central section between M and Captain Jellico (where the Captain tells Milo about the story of MFC) the whole episode is conveyed purely through speech. And yet, hopefully, the reader is always absolutely sure who is speaking because, this time, they have become totally familiar with the speech patterns and fave words of each of those two characters. The Captain has an elaborate, rhythmic, poetic way of speaking, a language full of images and colours and sounds. Milo, on the other hand, has a style that is as simple as a supermarket trolley. It is very direct and his poetic images tend to refer to the dilapidated council estate where he lives. (For example, lift shafts, cracked pavements, screeching bike breaks and empty crisp bags.)