The last time I saw A F Harrold, he was performing poetry to a classroom full of utterly enraptured children at the Bookchat Roadshow. It was absolutely brilliant to see how much the children enjoyed the poems and the performer! I’m delighted he is joining us today to talk about his new book, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space (review available here, illustrated by Joe Todd Stanton) and all things writing. Thank you for participating Mr Harrold!
Congratulations on the publication of Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space! It’s fun, full of quirky characters and a great mix of sci-fi and sleuthing . Can you tell us about the inspiration behind it? Hi Victoria. Greta comes from a combination of things I typed and things I mistyped. Back in the first Fizzlebert Stump book one of the books Fizz borrows from the library was called The Great Zargo of somewhere or other. It sounded a good sort of science fictiony sort of thing Fizz might enjoy, and when I came, a few years later, to start thinking about a new series the name popped back into my mind. I type quite quickly, but because of the ways in which my fingers move there are a few words I’m forever typing wrong and having to go back and correct… one of these is ‘great’, which, if I’m typing at a gallop, always comes out ‘greta’. And so Greta was born, inside the spelling mistake that appears inside the book!
I’ve always read science fiction, and always loved science fiction, but I’d never really written any (The Song From Somewhere Else probably counts, but that’s about it), and this seemed a bit odd. So I wanted to write some. And I wanted it to be funny. Because funny books are a Good Thing. And so, after a lot of sitting around and staring into the air, several baths, and quite a few biscuits, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space was born.
Throughout the story there are footnotes (or more appropriately sidenotes) adding interesting anecdotes to the narrative which I loved; why did you decide to include these? Who doesn’t love footnotes? They’re a way of having ‘a bit more’ without getting in the way of the story. They’re especially useful for (a) comedy (because you add in extra jokes) or (b) academic articles about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden (because you can cite your sources). Fortunately, as far as I can see, no one has mistaken Greta Zargo for an academic article about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden.
There are some wonderful and quirky characters in the story. I particularly loved Greta’s eccentric Aunt. Where do you draw inspiration from for your characters? And I have to say, how do you decide on the fantastic names you’ve given them?! Characters just walk into scenes as I type and if they’re at all interesting then they stay. There are occasionally very boring ones who turn up, but I’m ruthless in deleting them at the first opportunity, unless they’re boring in a funny way. That might sound a bit odd, but it’s true, the best characters walk in and surprise me. I don’t know what they’re going to say to Greta when she questions them and I listen to their answers as I type them. This is the most exciting bit about writing these books, I think, is finding out about the inhabitants of Upper Lowerbridge at the same time as the reader.
Where do their names come from? I blame the parents.
Being married to huge fan of cake, I can very well imagine the consternation if cake was stolen from my household. Can you tell us- 1) do you eat cake? 2) if so, what is your favourite? 3) if not, why not? (And what do you have with tea if not cake?!) (1) Yes, I eat cake if the opportunity arises. (2) I’m going to say Battenberg, because it has just the right amount of marzipan. (3) I said I do, so I don’t have to answer this one.
The sci-fi elements in the story are great and often times, very amusing – even with the inevitable destruction of planets going on – the Bar-Tarry-Tuffians spring to mind! Did this involve any scientific research – I’m thinking of the impressive references to hyper spatial physics, measuring of light years and so on?! I don’t remember doing any particular research before writing any of the outer space chapters, other than a lifetime of reading and watching sci-fi and sci-fact books and programmes.
That lifetime of experience has been composting inside my head for long enough that some of it made sense when mixed up and spilt onto the page. It’s fascinating to look back and remember when I was a kid we knew of no other planets outside our solar system, and now there are thousands of exo-planets known. And as our techniques and our instruments become better we’re finder smaller and more Earth-like planets out there, even around nearby stars. I don’t doubt that on some of these worlds life has arisen, and maybe even what we would call ‘intelligent’ life.
The gaps between the stars are so immense though, that it would take many lifetimes for people to travel between and so one of the ways it has been suggested we explore the galaxy is by making self-replicating robots, like the ones in the book. Because these robots don’t grow old like we do, they could spend the centuries travelling between planets without dying or going mad. And when they get there, if they have the ability to make more copies of themselves they can then send those out to other star systems.
These self-replicating machines are called Von Neumann probes, and I don’t remember where I first heard about them. But they’re not my idea, just something that made its way into the book because it made sense. The lesson of this is – those useless bits of information you once learnt might turn out to be useful after all, so never turn them away… let them live in your head – one day they might become a book.
When you’re writing fiction, do words come more easily than when you’re writing poetry? Do you have a specific process for each form of writing? I try not to think too much about it, either sort of writing. I just try to get on with it, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t and it feels like your banging an empty head against a brick wall of blank paper, then that just means it’s time to go have another bath.
When we last met at the Bookchat Roadshow, you had some wonderful advice for the audience regards encouraging children’s creativity. You said that whatever their means of expression – writing, art, poetry, drama – we should encourage children to express themselves in the way that’s best for them. Who has given you the greatest encouragement for your work and what motivates you to keep writing? What motivates me to keep writing? That’s an odd question. I don’t know what else to do. I think it’s as simple as that. I don’t write every day and I don’t write an awful lot, but if I go any length of time without making something (and the making is usually with words in one way or another) then I feel antsy and irritable and unfulfilled and awkward and sad. I would make things with words (poems, stories, songs…) even if no one wanted to read them, even if no one was paying me to do it. Maybe not the books I’m writing right now, but who knows? (After all, I spent many years writing things that no one paid me for, before I ever had a book published.)
As for who has encouraged me… there’s such a long list, but a few I would like to mention include my editors at Bloomsbury, Kate and Hannah and Zöe, who have helped make the books we’ve published better than they would have been if I’d been doing it on my own. Part of their job is to send me back to my desk when what I’ve given them hasn’t been good enough, or funny enough, or right enough. And the fact they think I can do better makes me try harder and make the books better. Also my partner, Iszi, who suggested I try writing stories for kids, instead of just poems, in the first place. And more abstractly, out there in the world of children’s writing, many authors whose books I read or who I meet at events – they inspire me, by making Good Things themselves and showing that it can be done.
And finally, two very special sets of people – the kids I meet when I visit schools… the fact that some of them have been reading my books and seem to enjoy them makes the effort that sometimes went into making the books seem worthwhile – and secondly, the illustrators who get given my words and who make the books look so beautiful (Sarah Horne, Emily Gravett, Levi Pinfold, Chris Riddell and, for Greta Joe Todd-Stanton)… seeing what they do, the magic they work… oh it makes me want to do good, for them. I don’t want them wasting their time on any old rubbish!
So lots of people encourage and inspire me and my work.
Thank you so much for taking the time to join us and share the inspiration behind your work.
Read my review of Greta Zargo here.
With thanks to Bloomsbury Books for organising this interview.