Karate princesses, seasick pirates and demon vacuum cleaners... where else could these characters spring from but the playground that is the quirky imagination of Jeremy Strong?
Jeremy Strong talks about new character Krazy Kow, typing cats, and his love of cheese in our exclusive interview In the Spotlight.
Born: Eltham, South East London, November 18th 1949
Jobs: Head Teacher, Teacher, Caretaker, Strawberry Picker, Jam Doughnut Stuffer (yes, really!)
First book: Smith's Tail, 1978
Jeremy Strong's work is characterised by humour and direct child appeal. He thinks his writing has been influenced most of all by Spike Milligan, but also by falling on his head when he was three years old. He was not allowed to read comics as a child, and consequently discovered The Beano at the formative age of sixteen. Jeremy Strong's ideas come from everywhere - his childhood, his children, over-hearing conversations, something he sees - and he constantly makes notes.
WHAT HE SAYS...
"My sense of humour got stuck at age ten."
"When I was about eighteen I started writing very serious stories for adults, but none of them was published. By the time I was twenty-one I was writing stories for children and I quickly realised that I loved writing funny stories and making people laugh."
"I have no axes to grind, and no neuroses to reveal. (At least, I don't think I have. You may think otherwise.)"
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT JEREMY STRONG...
"The slapstick comedy and parental retribution are wittily handled." Sunday Times on The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour-Dog
"We all loved Jeremy Strong's The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour-Dog." Mail on Sunday
"A lively, amusing farce where junior minds try to pit themselves against adversity." Scotland on Sunday on The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour-Dog
"Strong (writes with) humour, invention and grasp of human nature." Books For Keeps
"Piracy on the high streets leads to a glorious sequence of mad misunderstandings and domestic catastrophes." The Independent on Indoor Pirates
"Great fun." Young Telegraph on Karate Princess To The Rescue
"The obvious silliness of There's a Pharaoh in our Bath is pitched at just the right level for younger readers." Yorkshire Post
"Jeremy Strong's feel for the funny throwaway line is sound to the last page." Books For Keeps on My Dad's Got An Alligator!
"Jeremy Strong's comic tale...crackles with good humour and invention." TES on Lightning Lucy
The Children's Book Award 1997 for The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog
The Sheffield Children’s Book Award 1998 (Shorter Novel category) for Pirate Pandemonium
The Sheffield Children’s Book Award 2000 (Shorter Novel category) for Dinosaur Pox
Jeremy Strong in the Spotlight!
We tried to pin Jeremy down to give us some insight into his bursting imagination!
How do you stay in touch with children's imaginations?
I make many visits to libraries and schools, talking and working with children and trying out new material. Children often tell me about things that have happened to them, and listening to them - the way they speak, the language they use - helps keep me in touch.
My years as a teacher remain useful too. I can remember the children's delight when they heard a funny word, or picked up the rhythm of a poem. I remember their excruciating jokes, their love of slapstick, insults and "rude" bits. These are things I still enjoy myself so in that respect maybe I am a bit of a child. I hope so.
As a child, which books set your imagination running?
I was about 10 or 11 when I had an extraordinary experience. I had been put off poetry at primary school by being forced to learn poems like Wordsworth's Daffodils.
One day I was out in the garden idly fingering a poetry book belonging to my older brother. I came across a poem by Ogden Nash, called Ode to Parsley. It went:
Utterly brilliant! That poem was my road to Damascus.
Do you read other author's children's books?
I confess I don't read many children's books because I don't want to know how good the competition is. Those whose work I have glimpsed - such as Jacqueline Wilson and Gillian Cross - have been worryingly brilliant. The Ahlberg's The Jolly Postman is very, very clever - the sort of book that leaves you gasping with admiration and seething with envy.
When you start writing a new story do you have a set routine?
Normally I start with an idea - it could be a particular character, a situation or a place, even an actual title. I think and plan for ages usually, because I like to know what most of the story is about before I start writing.
I can write at almost anytime of the day or night, either because the mood has seized me or because I have finally persuaded myself to at least try. (I am a bit lazy.) I hate starting, but once I am sitting at the computer I usually get on a roll.
I write a whole chapter and if things are running well I will go straight on to the next chapter. Once the first version is complete I do a complete re-read and again re-write as I go. I read aloud to myself and our two cats, so I can hear the characters and feel how the story flows.
Do you mind being interrupted when you are writing?
When the words and ideas are tumbling out like the Victoria Falls in full spate, I hate interruptions, but these occasions don't occur every day.
The worst culprit for interrupting me is our youngest cat Ducatti. (He purrs like a motorbike.) He sits by the monitor and tries to catch the cursor. He also enjoys writing. He will stand with both front paws on the keyboard and then all I get isss...ssmmmmm-----88888888;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;kkkkkkkkkkk etc etc.
I'm not too worried about competition from him yet, but he's young and learning.
I have never expected to win any award, so I was very pleased when I found myself short-listed. I went to the awards ceremony with no intention other than to enjoy the company and the lunch (my wife and I were also hoping to meet Terry Pratchett but he wasn't there). I was delighted when I won my category, and totally gob-smacked when I won outright. It was truly one of the best things that has happened to me, and the fact that the award is actually judged by the audience for which I write was quite wonderful. I couldn't ask for a better award.
What is it like having There’s a Viking in My Bed! made into a TV programme?
This was really exciting. I went to see some of the filming and to meet the actors. I was amazed at how many people it takes to put a TV series together. I loved watching the stories come to life. Each character is so well done.
What tips could you give any budding young authors out there?
Try and people your story with really strong, interesting characters. Get your story off to a cracking start that will make people want to read on. When you have finished, read your story out loud to yourself. This helps you to see which bits sound rough and need working on. You will also notice where you have repeated words too often and need to change them. Read your story to other people, or give it to them to read - then LISTEN to what they say about it, ESPECIALLY if it is criticism - they might be right! You can use people's criticism to make your story better.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am putting the finishing touches to a new story called Krazy Kow Saves the World. (Well, Almost.)
This is about a boy who wants to become a famous film director. He has created an amazing cartoon character called Krazy Kow, but when he tries to make his film he runs into very big problems, the biggest of which is Krazy Kow herself.
How did it feel when you got your first book published? Does it still feel the same?
I was over the moon! It was the most wonderful moment in my life apart from when my girlfriend said she loved me too. (And then we got married. Ah!) I still get enormous pleasure and excitement when I hear that one of my stories is going to be published. Writers put a lot of thought and work into their stories, and it is a BIG relief when the publisher says, "Yes - we will publish this one!" I still get excited now, although not quite as excited as I did that very first time; after all, I had been trying to get published for five years, so it had been a long wait.
What is the best part about writing funny stories?
Getting paid for it! No, only joking! (Well, sort of.) There are lots of things I enjoy. I love making other people laugh and seeing smiles on their faces. I like it when I'm writing and I suddenly think of a really funny bit and it makes me laugh too. I love getting letters from children - and often from parents too - that tell me that they laughed until their heads fell off. Finally, I wanted to be a writer ever since I was about nine, and here I am doing just that, so I think I am a very lucky person.
What is your all-time favourite thing to eat and drink?
To eat: For everyday noshing I would choose Fried egg, Bacon, Chips and Mushrooms.
For dessert I would have Chocolate Roulade. And I ADORE cheese. (But not as much as Kaye Umansky, who can eat a whole cheese shop in ONE DAY!)
And to drink: A really nice wine, red or white - I don't care!
South-east London; 18 November 1949
The House at Pooh Corner
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION:
The Ying-Tong song: 'Ying Tong Tiddle-I-Po!'
Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers
When did you start writing?
When I was about six, but I was about eight when I began to feel that writing stories - inventing things and using my imagination - was absolutely brilliant. When I was about eighteen I started writing very serious stories for adults, but none of them were published. By the time I was twenty-one I was writing stories for children, and I quickly realized that I loved writing funny stories and making people laugh.
Where do you get your ideas?
Anywhere and everywhere - from my head, from places, things I see or hear, from history, from friends... The best ideas usually come when I'm not thinking about writing at all.
Can you give your top three tips to becoming a successful author?
1. Don't give up! Keep trying. As long as you keep trying, you will have some chance of success.
2. Listen to what other people say about your story, and be ready to re-write the whole thing if you know you can do it even better!
3. Keep a notebook for your ideas, and for noting things you see or hear that you might want to use in your writing.
Happy: when I got my first book published. It was called Smith's Tail and it was about a cat.
Sad and happy: we had a cat called Machiavelli, who got killed by a car. Of all the cats we have had he was the most beautiful, the most loving, and the most wonderful. We shall always treasure the time he was with us.
Favourite place in the world and why?
Bed! I love sinking into cool sheets and feeling the darkness invading my whole body as I drift off to sleep (I'm always yawning!)
What are your hobbies?
Exercising my imagination; food and wine; walking in the countryside; listening to music; paintings and art galleries and exhibitions; sleeping.
If you hadn't been a writer, what do you think you would have been?
Very disappointed and sad! I always wanted to be a writer. (I also wanted to be a Grand Prix racing driver.)
My favourite books - Jeremy Strong
So what is Jeremy’s favourite book?
When I was a child my big brother and I had a bedtime story just about every night. Our granny, (the one that used to ride a Harley Davidson), would read to us. She had spent much of her life on a farm in central Africa and my first favourite book came from South Africa. Jock of the Bushveldt was about a dog who was always saving his master from lions and snakes and buffalo and all sorts of dangerous beasts - pretty exciting stuff for a five year old. The earliest story I wrote, saved by my mother, was a rehash of Jock¹s adventures. And so began a reader¹s childhood filled with stories about animals.
Jock was too difficult for me to manage, and the first book I read to myself over and over was Winkie the Squirrel. I can¹t remember who wrote it, but I do recall that Winkie loved eating digestive biscuits, so I wanted to eat them too. I would eat them as he did, nibbling slowly round the edge until there was no biscuit left. It used to drive my parents mad. I can still hear them telling me to stop playing with my food. Digestive biscuits remain a big temptation. (But I don¹t pretend I¹m Winkie any longer.)
After that I moved on to two huge favourites. The first one was The Long Grass Whispers. It was a Christmas present from an aunt in South Africa and the book was full of African folk tales about animals with fabulous, exotic names. There was a clever and funny rabbit, Kalulu. Then there was Njobvu the elephant, Fisi the hyena, Nadzikambe the chameleon, Mkango the lion - and so on.
The second book was Rudyard Kipling¹s Just So Stories. I still think they are quite brilliant; in places they read almost like poetry. (Another favourite is Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, and that often reads like poetry too, especially the first chapter.) My favourite chapters are The Cat That Walked By Himself and The Beginning of the Armadilloes. Kipling’s own illustrations are wonderfully quirky and probably impossible to better.
After that I didn’t read much for about two years. That was largely because my parents kept telling me I should. They used to point at my big brother and say: “Look at him, nose in a book. Why can’t you be like him?” Well, I mean, really! There was no way I wanted to be like my big brother. So I didn’t read at all.....
....until I picked up Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, and the reading-fest began again.
Finally there was one book I went back to over and over again throughout all those years, even when I wasn¹t reading much at all. It was The Faber Book of Nonsense. I loved the ridiculous word play, the surrealism, the sheer silliness. It certainly influenced my writing and the way I thought about writing and probably cast its crazy shadow right across my life. It has remained an influence in ways I shall never even fully fathom myself.
Before becoming a writer, you were a teacher. What was best thing about being a teacher?
What was the worst thing about being a teacher?
Weekdays, wet playtimes, dinner duty, getting cross.
What do you like best about being a writer?
Nobody can tell you what to do and maybe just for once finishing a new story with the feeling that you've actually got close to achieving what you set out to do.
What is the worst thing about being a writer?
Not achieving what you set out to do!
If you really don't like someone do you sometimes put them in your books as a form of revenge (as nasty characters, of course)?
But of course - doesn't everyone? It's a great way to deal with inner feelings.
What book (by another author) would you most like to have written and why?
Oh boy, you do like asking difficult questions, don't you! Um, this is really hard. I could say any Harry Potter (so I could have all that dosh!!), but I think I'd go for something fairly simple like Allan Ahlberg's Jolly Postman - it is such a lovely, clever, funny, rewarding book. I would also love to have written Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, which is so warm and real it almost made me cry, even though it's not all that sad.
Where did you get the idea for Dinah the Mynah?
When I was a teenager our next door neighbour had a pet mynah bird in a cage in her garden. Our cat tried to catch it, unsuccessfully. It used to say various things (Quite probably things like "HELP! THERE'S A CAT IN HERE!"). As for the name, that was pretty straightforward, I think!
Which of your own books do you like the best?
I have a big soft spot for KRAZY KOW. Friends still send me things to do with cows when they find them. I've got a bouncing cow, a flying cow, and a talking cow amongst other items. The most recent addition was a cow cake slicer!
Which is your favourite amongst all the characters you have created?
Oh come on! This really isn't fair! There's Krazy Kow, Sigurd the Viking, Miss Pandemonium, Streaker the dog - not to mention almost everyone in Nicholas' daft family AND Arnold Teabag from The Beak Speaks. You choose!
If you couldn't be a writer, what would you like to be?
Oh I would so like to be able to play the piano really, really well, or be a terrific artist. It would have to be something creative.
Do you use bookmarks or do you dog-ear books?
Both - depends how valuable the book is and whether or not it belongs to me!
When you are not writing, what do you like to do to relax?
I love listening to music. I go for long walks. I like cooking and eating.
What is your favourite word?
'Have some more dosh.' NO! I can't say that, it's four words anyhow. Um - I think at the moment it would probably be - OOPS.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
In bed, in a cosy room, in a little house, surrounded by lovely, quiet countryside, with a blackbird singing outside and the butler just coming in breakfast on a tray (kippers - yum yum!) and the morning post, including a letter with a cheque for a zillion pounds.
If you were an animal, what would you like to be?
An easy one at last! It would have to be a cat - any kind of cat, big or small, I don't mind.