AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Tom McLaughlin

    Tom McLaughlin

    THE ACCIDENTAL FATHER CHRISTMAS

    OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    NOVEMBER 2017


    As the festive season approaches, TOM MCLAUGHLIN's THE ACCIDENTAL FATHER CHRISTMAS is a perfect read-aloud with its message of hope over adversity, a fabulous Father Christmas, and lots of laughs.

    This is the latest book in Tom McLaughlin 'Accidental' series, including The Accidental Prime Minister and The Accidental Billionaire.

    In The Accidental Father Christmas, instead of going to bed like all good children, Ben spends his Christmas Eve laying out 147m of string to as a trap to find out if Father Christmas is real. Unfortunately, Ben's trap works so well that he ends up having to take on Father Christmas's deliveries, and placate the elves, all the while being chased by trigger-happy UFO hunters.

    We asked TOM MCLAUGHLIN to tell us more about THE ACCIDENTAL FATHER CHRISTMAS:


    Q: Did your childhood self ever dream of being Father Christmas?


    A: No I didn't, frankly I'm afraid of heights and feel the cold terribly. I imagine all that zooming around would make me awfully travel sick. I did like the idea of working only one day a year though; that's smart.


    Q: Or were you, like Ben, more likely to lay traps for him?

    A: That's much more like me, staying up late, sneaking around, I was big sneaker when I was a kid. The great thing about being an author is that I get to do all the sneaking and laying traps, even flying through the sky without actually having to stay up late or needing a sick bag!


    Q: What was the hardest problem to solve for Father Christmas?

    A: The hardest problem is definitley the chimneys, I don't want to sound mean but Santa is a large fellow and chimneys are pretty narrow, that's why he needs a bit of help from the magic suit. It's very slimming, in fact I might see if I can get my hands one myself, it could come in useful *grabs another biscuit*


    Q: Father Christmas's elves have a bit of a gangsta air about them. Why did you decide to give them cigars and guns - even if they are chocolate cigars and spud guns!

    A: I like the idea of these little cute things being fearsome, no-nonsense guys - they're basically Santa's enforcers. The idea that they have cute pointy ears and bells on their toes just makes me chuckle.


    Q: What is wrong with pixies, really?

    A: Nothing at all, just don't call an Elf a pixie or you'll end up swimming with the fishes if you know what I mean.


    Q: What was your favourite writing moment in The Accidental Father Christmas?

    A: My favourite bit was when Ben tries to convince Father Christmas that he's really Father Christmas after Ben knocks him out and Santa loses his memory. It was good fun to write because the whole scene is just so silly.


    Q: Your book has some secret government UFO spotters. If you spotted a UFO, would you wave hello or run?

    A: I'd wave. Knowing my luck, the aliens I would meet would be the bad sort, the ones who try and take over the world. I'd probably be one of the first to get zapped.


    Q: If you could, like the characters in your book, become either the prime minister, a secret agent, a billionaire - or Father Christmas, which one would you choose and why?

    A: Secret Agent...maybe I am - and being an author is just a cover....hmm *taps nose knowingly*.


    Q: Which Accidental should we look out for next?

    A: I can't give too much away, but think Presidential and the return of an old character from the first book.


    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: Well, apart from the next Accidental book, I'm also in the middle of a picture book and a brand new series for OUP which I can't say too much about, but if you like strange little towns, some modern Scooby-Doo style adventure and a team of paranormal busting nerds, you're in for a treat.


    Q: You also create picture books, so what took you from that to writing fiction?

    A: I guess I just had more stories to tell with lots more words. With picture books the writing process is very slow, you have to agonise over each word; with fiction books you can just cut-lose and have loads of fun. It always helps to write about someone who you know, whether that's a real person or a character you've drawn. The drawing always comes first, then the words.


    Q: What are you looking forward to the most this Christmas?

    A: I love watching movies in front of the fire, the endless mince pies, seeing family and friends and sipping something mulled too. The old familiar songs on the radio, giving and getting presents and not forgetting the chocolate orange either. In fact I don't think there's a bit of Christmas I don't like.


    Q: Will you be trying to stay awake to spot Father Christmas on December 24th....?!

    A: I'll be there, trip wires and camera at the ready. Have a Merry Christmas everyone!


    Thank you! And Happy Christmas from ReadingZone and our members!



    THE STORY MACHINE

    BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING

    JANUARY 2014


    The Story Machine is a thoughtful and warm story about a young boy finding his creative 'voice'. The book was created by author and illustrator Tom McClaughlin who describes it as a 'labour of love' and a reflection of his own difficulties telling stories as a dyslexic child.

    The Story Machine begins with a boy discovering a special machine (the reader will recognise it as a typewriter; the child probably won't) that lets him write stories. However, the boy finds making words difficult so when he sees pictures within his typed letters, he starts to build stories using images instead of words. Having found his talent for stories, the boy manages to keep telling them, even when the machine stops working.

    Author and illustrator Tom McLaughlin tell us more about creating The Story Machine.


    Q: Why do you describe this picture book as a 'labour of love'?

    A: The Story Machine is a very important story for me to write; if I was going to create just one picture book, I wanted this one to be it. It's a story about a boy finding his voice but it's also my story, about being dyslexic but still finding ways to find and write stories.

    When I was younger, being dyslexic was always a source of embarrassment and I didn't like to talk about it so I really wanted to use this story to explore dyslexia from a different perspective.

    As a dyslexic pupil, you are constantly being corrected and told 'this is wrong'. I remember asking teachers how to spell certain words and being told to look it up in the dictionary but if you have no idea how a word begins, how can you do that? I had very little confidence and in those days, there wasn't much support for dyslexic children, so if you wanted to go on and write, like I did, then there was a 'fear factor' to overcome. Today there is much more recognition of dyslexia and acknowledgement that those who are dyslexic can also be very creative in areas like design.


    Q: What gave you the idea of using a typewriter as your 'story machine'?

    A: The idea behind The Story Machine was sparked by some of the experiences I had during my school visits when I would ask children if they liked writing stories and many especially boys would say 'no', which echoed my own experiences.

    But then I would start drawing and getting the children enthused and by the end of the lesson, boys would be coming up and showing me cartoons and comic strips they had made. So I would point out that they were writing stories then but using drawing to tell their stories.

    I wasn't sure how to approach this in a picture book but then I had a dream of a little boy sitting in front of a typewriter and instead of words, he was writing pictures. It was a lovely image and the story started shaping itself around that.

    I borrowed my friends typewriter; between us we have four sons and the boys couldn't keep away from the typewriter, they loved it. I think it was things like the sound it makes when the key strikes and it makes a mark. I think if you could take typewriters into schools these days the children would love them.

    I made a lot of the images in The Storywriting Machine using a typewriter although I had to work quite creatively with the images so I'd combine half of one picture with another to get the final thing.


    Q: Can you suggest ways to get more reluctant writers engaged in projects like our competition, to create a picture book?

    A: I remember as a child being told to write a page of story and making my writing as big as I could to fill up the page! When children are doing something like making a picture book, it's a much more creative project and it gives them the opportunity, if they want to, to focus on pictures rather than words to tell their story - just as the boy does in The Story Machine. I think that is a much easier way for some of them to approach storytelling. And it helps them to find something that they might be good at.

    It's nice to have the opportunity to do something where there isn't a 'right' or 'wrong but is simply an opportunity to explore their creativity. Also the act of just making something is exciting and fulfilling. It's good that they come away from a project like this with a book that they can take home; it's worth remembering that not all children have books at home.

    If children find it hard to start with a blank page, then maybe they can start with a funny title or a little character and the picture book story can develop as they go along? I have done this in class with children where one person starts the story and the next person says what happens next, and so on, so a picture book can easily be made into a collaborative project by a whole class.


    Q: What is the process for you of creating and illustrating a story?

    A: Sometimes I find it easy to write a story; at other times I will need to make 'spider diagrams' where I write a sentence or doodle and then write a few lines around it, so I will end up with a series of choices and the story will develop from that.

    I always have an image in mind when I'm writing. Sometimes I need to get the image down first; with this book, I needed to get the image of a boy with a typewriter first. When I'm writing the words, I have the illustrations in my head, or as I'm doing the illustration I'll get the words in my head. It's all a joined-up process for me.


    Q: Do you now see yourself as a writer first or as an illustrator?

    I trained in illustration. I went to art college because Arts was the only thing I was good at, I was an average student at best but when I was 14 or 15 Art became my think, it was the one subject I was getting A's for. When you find something youre good at at that age, you throw yourself into it.

    At first I focused on caricatures because I wanted to create puppets for shows like Spitting Images, and I got a job at our local paper, the Western Morning News, doing political cartoons and jokes before going freelance and doing mass-market illustrating for characters like Thomas the Tank Engine and into animation.

    I started to move into writing my own stories as an adult when I would draw a little character for fun and write a short poem around it. I think because poetry has a set structure, it gave me something to work with; it was a useful way to get through a story, working to that structure and building the story line by line.

    I wanted my characters to do things so for a long time I felt like an illustrator who was trying to be a writer. Now I have stopped calling myself an illustrator and I call myself a writer.

    For the last four or five years, I have been illustrating picture books but also writing a couple of my own (The Diabolical Mr Tiddles as well as The Story Machine), and I am now writing a children's book for OUP.