A photo of authors Greg James and Chris Smith on a blue and yellow, scrapbook type background with a picture Stephen Fry as Jeeves in a bathtub, in between Moomin book by Tove Jansson and Carry on Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
21 Questions

‘Michael Palin was my teen hero’: 21 Questions with Greg James and Chris Smith

The authors of The Great Dream Robbery on having Jeeves aka Stephen Fry serve them breakfast, the limitlessness of imagination, and sticking acorns up noses.

Authors of the hit Kid Normal series Greg James and Chris Smith have teamed up again to bestow upon the world another hilarious and rip-roaring middle-grade adventure. Their new book The Great Dream Robbery was dreamed up (pardon the pun) in 2020 after the standard lockdown activities we all partook in – mainly bread making – just didn’t cut it anymore. And what they’ve cooked up (again, pardon the pun) is an adrenaline-fulled caper young readers will love.

In The Great Dream Robbery, we meet Maya Clayton. She's a little different from other 12 year-olds in that she rushes to go to bed early. For you see, going to sleep is the only way she can save her dad, the very brilliant and eccentric Professor Dexter, who following a terrible accident has been in a state of unconsciousness for weeks. Before his mishap, Maya’s dad had invented a device that allows users to wander into other people’s dreams. And it turns out that the evil Lilith Delamere, the head of her dad’s company Somnia Incorporated, has trapped the Professor in a nightmare! It’s now up to Maya and the peculiar Dream Bandits to save him.

To mark the release of their new book, we spoke to Greg and Chris and asked them our 21 questions on life and literature. Below we learn about their favourite writing scenario (it involves acorns up the nose), enjoying kedgeree with P. G. Wodehouse, and what Stephen Fry’s dream superpower would be.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Chris Smith: Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books, because the best thing about being an author is dreaming up an imaginary world. I love the imaginary world that Tolkien dreamed up. But to dream up a family of hippopotamuses that walk on their hindlegs and live in a clearing in Finland in a house that looks like a lighthouse – who go on a selection of adventures with the Hemulens, Snufkin, and Little My – speaks of an incredible brain that I cannot fully comprehend. I will never stop going back to those stories.

Greg James: For me, P. G. Wodehouse – I’m always amazed at how little the overall story really deviates, it’s always variations on a theme, but there’s always something new and you never get bored. You sort of know it’s all going to be fine at the end, but you don’t care – you just want to work out how you get there. They are weirdly twisted, and he still manages to keep them slightly unpredictable. His use of language is remarkable and has inspired basically everybody that we think is great now – and I still lose myself in it.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

CS: The first book I remember loving as a child was called Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. It’s about a hen going for a walk through a farmyard and being pursued by a fox – but the fox was never in the text of the book, just in the illustrations. I remember being absolutely fascinated by the way the illustrations can tell more than half the story. It’s still my favourite picture book.

GJ: The first book I remember being inspired by, and I still think about it, is Happy Birthday, Moon by Frank Asch. It’s a very simple story where a bear goes up to the top of a mountain to give the moon a present for its birthday and discovers the moon has the same birthday as the bear. Because the Bear goes, ‘Today is my birthday' and it echoes around he thinks the moon is talking to him. It’s a very simple, sweet story.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

CS: Lord of the Rings, definitely! Because I was then, and am now, an enormous nerd. And proud of it!

GJ: Weirdly, as a teenager, I read a lot of Bill Bryson. I was quite an old man when I was 15. I guess my parents were reading it and I just picked it up. I quite liked Notes from a Small Island. So, there you go, an insight into us being quite uncool as children.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'I am an enormous nerd. And proud of it!'

CS: It has to be Kid Normal. It absolutely changed our lives. It was an idea that we dreamt up in a park and then we sat down and wrote it and all of a sudden, we were authors. That’s all it takes, kids.

GJ: This is the answer for both of us, Kid Normal. Without that book, we wouldn’t be doing this today.

CS: It did literally change our lives.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

CS: I was a church bell ringer. A bus prefect. A sergeant in the air cadets. I’ve had lots of weird jobs.

GJ: One summer, I worked at a factory and had to make by hand all the display cases for Boots the chemist. The machines had broken so they got temp workers in to make them all by hand. In those two weeks, I inhaled a lot of plastic!

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

CS: The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever been given came from Greg James and it was in the form of a question which we always ask ourselves when we’re working on a story and it is this: ‘is there a funnier or sillier version of this?’

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

CS: I reread loads of books. I am a very big rereader. The book I’ve probably reread most is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis because there is just so much in it. Bits that are a little bit dated obviously, but also a huge amount of joy and silliness and anger. There’s everything in Lucky Jim, to be honest. It’s bloody great.

GJ: I’m not a big rereader. I feel like I get sad about the amount of books I won’t be able to read. I don’t even rewatch TV series. I feel like there’s an enormous list of books I must read before I die, and I don’t want to spend a moment going back to one. Maybe I should...

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

CS: I don’t think I’ve ever read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve seen the films and even the stage show, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually read the book.

GJ: Maybe it was read to you?

CS: I don’t think so, no. We had Danny, the Champion of the World read to us. But no, I don’t think I’ve read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I wonder if it’s got a different end to the film. Perhaps they all die!

GJ: Similarly, I don’t think I’ve actually read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

CS: I reread Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and was surprised at how brilliant it is. It’s mad and really well written.

GJ: I think it’s one of those books that you pick up through osmosis almost and you can see bits of the films. But I don’t think I’ve actually sat down and read it

CS: I think you think it’s going to be very twee, I remembered it like that, and it actually isn’t at all.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

CS: Newsreader! Which I was for more than one decade. But now I’m an author which is less serious but more fun!

GJ: If I wasn’t doing any of the jobs I was doing, either writing or presenting, I reckon I probably would have been a teacher and I probably would have been a drama or an English teacher.

CS: Would you have been a cool English teacher and started off by saying, ‘Call me Greg’?

GJ: I dread to think what I would have been like. I might have been a frustrated performer/writer so I would have treated every lesson like a stand-up show, and I think it’s great that children were spared that.

What makes you happiest?

'If I was a teacher, I would treat every lesson like a stand-up show, and I think it’s great that children were spared that'

CS: The smell of a newly printed book.

GJ: Our book.

CS: Yeah, a book that we have written. Other books don’t smell so nice.

GJ: Finishing reading a book makes me really happy. It feels like such a great achievement – particularly if you’ve learnt a new word. I really love a physical book.

CS: Books AND smoked cheese – that also makes me very happy.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

CS: I always feel very boring when people ask this question as I don’t really have hobbies.

GJ: We’ve made them all into work really.

CS: We’ve got jobs that are hobbies or jobbies if you like. Hobs?

GJ: I really like gardening. I’m quite passionate about that. I’m very passionate about lawns.

CS: I like having a bath… is that a hobby?

What is your ideal writing scenario?

GJ: I’d say the pub

CS: Yeah, it used to be very nice before the pandemic to sit in a pub and write. We had a favourite pub which has now very sadly closed down.

GJ: Long live The Masons.

CS: It used to have a very quiet upstairs room that we used to sit in to write which was very nice. We wrote lots of The Great Dream Robbery in the park under an oak tree which was also very pleasant. Greg put acorns up his nose to amuse me

GJ: And it worked.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

GJ: When I was 13, we went on a family holiday to New York, and because I’ve always been an old man I was very into Michael Palin. He was doing a book signing at Barnes & Noble in New York, and I made my parents take me to meet him. He signed a book and I have got the receipts to show it – and a photograph with him. He was my teen hero.

CS: I was very starstruck to meet Stephen Fry. I’ve always been a big admirer of his work on the telly and in print. I probably bored him terribly by telling him all about Kid Normal, but he then delighted me by coming up with his own superpower which was to make tomatoes explode. Which was very Fry… and perfect.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

GJ: I’d have P. G. Wodehouse over for breakfast and we could eat eggs or kedgeree. They always seem to eat kedgeree in those books.

CS: You know what, that’s such a good answer I’m going to abandon my dinner party and join you and P. G. Wodehouse for breakfast if that’s ok? But it must be served by Jeeves.

GJ: Oh yeah, definitely served by Jeeves. So, is that played by the aforementioned Stephen Fry?

CS: Yes!

What’s your biggest fear?

GJ: Stephen Fry serving me breakfast. Hmm... biggest fear? Probably falling off a viewing platform. It would be a really tragic end.

CS: Probably the moon crashing into earth and wiping out the human race.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

CS: I’d like to be strong enough to prevent the moon from striking the earth! Imagine the plaudits you would get if you were the guy who stopped that happening. You would dine out on that for the rest of your life

GJ: I’ll just be his assistant. His sidekick. Moonman and asteroid boy.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

'I was very starstruck to meet Stephen Fry. I probably bored him terribly by telling him all about Kid Normal...'

CS: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is absolutely brilliant – heart-breaking and unexpected. And How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie which Greg is too modest to say but I’ve just finished, and I really enjoyed it.

GJ: I’m going to pick Bella’s book, How to Kill Your Family because I lived in a house with the person writing it and I was incredibly worried she had written something bad because she was so stressed at times but when I read it… it’s just remarkable. I’m very proud of her.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

GJ: Always. Very seldom am I not reading in the bath.

CS: If you’re not reading, you’re not really having a bath

GJ: What are you doing? You’re just sitting there? Weird.

CS: Weird.

Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

Both: Chocolate.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

GJ: Thank You, Jeeves probably.

CS: Lord of the Rings and if you tell me it’s three books, I’ll argue with you. But you can’t because this is a website.

What inspired you to write your new book?

GJ: Feeling trapped and sad, I think. We wanted to feel free and happy.

CS: The imaginations of the kids we’d met doing our live events and the knowledge that imagination is limitless. We wanted to use it to help our characters go on an adventure.


The Great Dream Robbery by Greg James and Chris Smith is out now.

Photo: Jenny Smith | Creative: Victoria Ibbetson/Penguin

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