How Jeremy Strong finds inspiration for his stories
Published on: 14 April 2020 Author: Jeremy Strong
"A lot of stories have begun in the depths of the night" - Jeremy Strong talks about school visits, Vikings, and his newest book Armadillo and Hare.
Like many writers of books for children I have made my fair share of school visits. All in all I have been to well over a thousand schools, pranced about on stage, waved my arms a lot and made funny noises. It's not what I expected to do when I first began writing back in the late 70's but as time went on school visits became more or less obligatory and by the time we reached the millenium it felt as if new writers were almost being interviewed for their stage skills, as well as for what they wrote. Unless of course they were off the telly and had a free pass to almost everything, especially high table. But I digress.
School visits are a staple for many writers as a way to boost their writing income as well as to promote their work. They can be great fun. Some schools are brilliant and a few are dire and most are somewhere between those two poles. But the audience, the children are, on the whole, much the same and respond with the same old, same old questions.
'How old are you?'
The answer varies but it is usually along the lines of 'I am 286, less 216 years old.' Or I just tell them; age has never bothered me since becoming an adult. But it's quite the opposite when you're a child. Age is the first and marker in the pecking order and most children are fascinated by their age and that of those they are engaging with. I wonder why that changes as we become adult. 'Never ask a grown up how old they are' is drummed into us. What does that mean - that adults like to pretend about their age?
'What car do you drive?'
Always a question from a boy. The answer: 'A Ferrari cunningly disguised as a Honda Jazz.'
'Where do the ideas come from?'
Answer: 'Bank statements.'
Okay, I'm being a smarty-pants, but most teachers laugh. And I always go on to answer the question more seriously. Where do the ideas come from? This is an interesting one. I guess one could say anywhere, anytime and quite often they come from nowhere at all. They just arrive, quite often at night. I remember once waking up at about 2 am and my mind was thinking; what if two children land on a planet and they pick themselves up and and go: 'Oh no! There's an army of vikings charging towards us!' and they turn to run and stop dead because: 'Oh no, there's an army of ancient egyptians charging towards us.' And I sat up straight away thinking, well that's a good beginning for a story but how does it happen? Vikings and Ancient Egyptians on the planet at the same time? I couldn't get back to sleep until I had a vague idea of how I might be able to make that idea work and by the time I did get back to sleep I had added in dinosaurs and World War 1 biplanes and, crucially, a way of explaining it all. That story became one of my favourites - DOCTOR BONKERS. When you are writing off the wall comedy you can be as crazy as you like, but it still has make some kind of inner sense.
A lot of stories have begun in the depths of the night. I sometimes wake in the morning with my hand covered in little things I have written down, or if the ideas are more complicated I switch on the torch and open my notebook. Of course many of them are rejected on re-reading: Why on earth did I think that was a good idea?
However, I think that Armadillo and Hare had been sitting in my head for a long time, years, before they finally climbed up and surfaced in my consciousness, as a group of unidentifiable animals. The most difficult jump for me was finding out HOW to write the stories. Then one day I was reading a book of short stories and I noticed how slowly paced they seemed to be and I realised that that was how I wanted to write this new book - short sentences in short story form. As soon as I had that in mind the amorphous animals took on the shape of Armadillo and Hare. I could hear their voices in my head - always a good sign for a writer. I also knew that I needed to make the stories slow. I have written so many fast paced tales that this new venture was going to be quite different, a literal change of pace for me. This was not going to be another one hundred mile an hour dog!
What a wonderful change it was too, for me. It was immediately clear that after writing the same way more or less for 30 years or more I was writing something different and it was so refreshing. Not only that but in the longer term it also released a fresh wave of creativity. New ideas began to present themselves, sometimes two in the same night. Of course not all of them were much use, or at least they don't yet appear to have much use but who knows what the future holds?
I guess you might say that I feel rejuvenated as a writer, and it's all down to Armadillo and Hare. There's very little that is truly new in writing and Armadillo and Hare clearly have their roots in the Winnie the Pooh stories and Wind In The Willows but also that ancient 1960's TV series with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, The Odd Couple. I like to think that there is something in these stories are for adults as well as children. They are made for reading out loud and I hope too that they will leave the reader and/or listener feeling just a bit warmer and more comfortable and relaxed.
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