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Paul Jennings

Interviewed December 2005

Unreal … Unbelievable … Uncanny & definitely into the Reading Bug

When you look for a story that will touch children it won’t be written by someone who wants to teach or preach or save the world. It will merely be a story that is told by a writer or artist who knows what it is like to be a child.

Paul Jennings knows what he’s talking about. If you're reading this the probability is that he’s touched your life at some time … along with the hundreds of thousands of other children since his first book, Unreal, was published nearly twenty years ago. There’s been a whole heap of titles written by him since then, with a brand new series all set to go, so maybe it’s time to rediscover a few of those magical stories that can have you snorting with laughter (very embarrassing when you're reading on the bus) or grinning like a moron (also very embarrassing when you're reading on the bus). Let’s face it, if you're babysitting or watching out for pesky younger sisters or brothers and the bed is still being used as a trampoline - one thing’s for sure, you simply can't go wrong with a Paul Jennings in your hand.

You obviously feel a responsibility to your young readers but say it’s not the same for adolescents - that the rules for writing for teenagers are much closer to those for adults. What do you mean by this?
Childhood is not a preparation for life. We need to give children a good time and keep them children for as long as possible. Children are little people in a land of giants who delight in what shocks adults. We have an obligation not to scare our kids because they don't know yet about all the things that are bleak or hopeless. It’s different for teenagers. They're so much more aware of what’s happening in the world and what’s going on, what’s topical and we don't need to shelter them - as such, I believe an author can write just about anything for this age group so long as there’s hope involved.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I don't think of it so much as 'blocked' as not being able to get an idea and there’s not much point in sitting at your desk or computer waiting for something to happen - you may as well be John Bunyan in a cell. A lot of my stories are based on my own experiences or those of people around me. Life is full of ideas but it’s like walking on a beach, you have to turn over a few hundred pebbles before you find the diamond.
Regarding literary awards. You've been quoted as saying that the most popular titles often miss out. Why do you think this is?
I believe that you can't divide children’s writing into literary and popular fiction. If children are learning to read and a book entices them to read it’s a good thing but when it comes to awards, child appeal doesn't appear to be a main criteria. One story I wrote, The Mouth Organ, was totally self indulgent and full of metaphors and was reviewed well. Another, Little Squirt, was about boys and peeing and the same reviewer was extremely upset by it. I guess it’s sufficient to say that I didn't have much reader response to the Mouth Organ whereas Little Squirt went on to be one of my most popular stories ever.
Your belief is that the first aim of reading is to have fun. Do you think this is still a priority with parents?
The National Testing Standard has put unnecessary pressure on children, teachers and parents. If you have a room full of seven year olds and some of them have a reading age of nine that’s okay but what about the ones who have a reading age of a five year old? It just doesn't work. The Government likes it simply because it makes things easy to measure and Governments love being able to measure things. I don't agree with it.
A sense of humour is obviously enormously important to you. Who’s SOH particularly appeals to you?
That’s a hard question. The trouble with humour is that it dates and what used to be funny just isn't any longer. Humour is based on surprise and you have to keep reinventing things. When you're writing children’s fiction, you're walking close to the edge and the thing is not to fall over - like I said before, we have an obligation not to scare them. I really enjoyed Monthy Python and the Meaning of Life when it first came out - for its time it was sensational - but I don't find much that’s on television these days very funny.
Paul JenningsOne of your favourite books is Lord Of The Rings. Have you seen the movies and what did you think of them?
I don't know how Peter Jackson could have done it better! There are scenes that are just like I imagined them to be.
You've been quoted as saying A book can inspire, can change lives, can give direction, can address bigotry and unkindness, can take a reader into the mind of another, can ease suffering and spread happiness. What books have affected you?
It was only recently I realised that many of my favourite stories have a common theme - they all involve children. There’s The Old Man & The Sea by Hemingway, a beautiful story, full of struggle. Mark Twain did such a revolutionary thing with Huckleberry Finn by writing it in the voice of a child. It had a huge influence on me. Then there’s Ray Bradbury with Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s full of wonderful metaphors that don't detract from the writing at all and what a way to describe a kiss! There’s also the Chrysalids by John Wyndham which has been written very simply and very clearly and I think it’s the first post-holocaustic novel. Thousands have been written since but imagine being the first to think of it. Oh, and Oliver Twist - I was about 13 when I read that. Before those it was Biggles by W. E. Johns which I read … and re-read. There were also the William books by Richmal Crompton and later on, short stories … O’Henry, Chekov, Kafka … I love short stories.
What’s the best advice you've ever been given?
Hmmm … well, there was a time when I was writing 13 half-hour scripts for TV and I just couldn't get the last episode right. People were offering me all sorts of advice but I remember the producer saying to me Don't listen to anyone, Paul. Go away and listen to what’s in your heart. I guess what I'm saying is that I believe you shouldn't go for anything less than what you feel is really, REALLY, good. When I was young, my career was more or less set out in front of me, a blue print until the age of 60! I believe we need to encourage our kids with their dreams and ideas. That it’s okay to be an actor or an artist or a musician … or go breed ducks if that’s what they want!
What’s the best thing, or the most cherished memory that you have from your writing career?
It’s hard to get past that first acceptance letter from a publisher telling you they want to publish your book. It’s even better than holding the finished copy in your hand. Then again, there’s the time when I was very new to all of this and a young girl, clutching what for all the world look like a scrap of toilet paper, came up to me and asked me for my autograph and I blushed. Profusely.

Readers comments:

Parsa, 11 writes:

your books are really funny and exiting and fun to read.

February 2010