A short q & a between Andy Mulligan and Louise Ellis-Barrett talking about Ribblestrop, how it cam about, Andy's inspiration, favourite characters and more besides. Read on to see inside the mind of an author ...
Thanks to Andy for taking the time to answer these questions for us.
I remember when the first Ribblestrop title, Ribblestrop, came out and I was both bemused and intrigued by the title which made me even more certain that I wanted to read it. Was this the intention when you devised the name of the school?
My publisher chose the title, thinking the word was strong and intriguing. I loved the word because I used to spend time in the Ribble valley. I don’t know where the “strop” came from.
Did you go to a school with a strange name, is that where the inspiration for the story came from?
No. My schools all had very sensible, nice names. The inspiration for ‘Ribb’ comes from many places…I will come back to that, I’m sure.
Did you go to a school with such a retrograde group of characters?
I think we’re surrounded by saints, demons and the inbetween all our lives. Yes, of course my childhood associates were strange – school shoves us through a very crude strainer, mincing us up with the best and worst of people. I loved passionately at school, and I hated with equal vim.
Could you explain a little more about how you created the characters, particularly the pupils?
The pupils are all based on children I’ve taught. Writing is theft: there are children in the schools I’ve taught in who have almost waved flags: “I belong in a book!” It’s a great way of getting revenge, sometimes, and paying homage too.
The books are both funny and a brilliant adventure, readers truly don't know what is going to happen from one line to the next let alone from one page to the next. Is it difficult to write with such pace?
No. The writing comes easily, and sitting down to write Ribblestrop is always a joy – it’s like playing a very wild game, and the characters often surprise me. I am very, very fond of them, too, so animating them and giving them things to feel and say is a joyous process. What’s difficult is controlling the narrative, and hauling back into a manageable form.
Do you plan the story in advance and have it mapped in front of you? In fact did you plan further ahead than just book 1 or has it grown itself?
The Ribblestrop books were always conceived as a trilogy, and I did have an ending in mind. In the event, the ending of ‘Ribblestrop, Forever!’ is radically different from the one I planned. The characters do not respond to strict planning. I do draw a map, but the characters tear it up very quickly.
Without revealing to readers how the story unfolds can you see more stories emerging from Ribblestrop or will you move on to new schools and new projects?
New projects, for sure. The ending of ‘Ribblestrop, Forever!’ is triumphant and I don’t want to try and better it.
Did you have crazy teachers, exciting field trips and mad police officers during your time at school?
No. Some of the stranger things that go on at Ribblestrop happened to friends of mine…I do steal ideas. For example, a close friend was lost with his classmates up a tunnel at his school in India – a young teacher mis-read the map and led the whole lot of them into the darkness. A train came, and they survived by pressing themselves to the rocky walls. If someone tells you that story you have a duty to steal it, and put it in a book, I think.
What is it that keeps you writing?
It’s very enjoyable. It’s fulfilling. It’s one of the only things I can do. I have friends who can play rugby and learn languages and surf…I get enormous pleasure from the rather solitary activity of writing. And I’m now in the very lucky position of people asking me to write.
Do you love to play with language? I ask this question because the language in Ribblestrop, in fact in all your books is both powerful and engaging. It is on a perfect level for children and yet as an adult I found it entirely engaging and at times challenging too.
I’m not sure I play with language, but I do enjoy it and I love trying to communicate. I don’t speak any other language: English is my mother-tongue, and I enjoy the attempt at precision. I admire Dennis Potter – a TV playwright who dominated the drama landscape all through the seventies up to his death in the nineties. His seemingly effortless command of words – the right words to express such fine nuances of meaning and such remarkable experiences – used to take my breath away. He didn’t show off. He found the right words, and enjoyed himself. That is definitely what I try to do. I can’t stand sloppy English, and I can’t stand attention seeking English either.
Reading these books I imagine an author who loves adventure, is slightly mad, a little bit outrageous and loves to laugh. How would you describe yourself?
Solitary, nervous, ill-tempered and inconsistent.
If you were to go on a quest which of your characters would you take with you and why?
Anjoli. He is my favourite orphan. He’s based on a house-boy in India who used to serve me breakfast every morning when I taught in a school in the Himalayas. He’d be great company and would have every practical skill known to questing. When I got tired and angry he’d take the blame for everything, too.
Do you have a favourite character and were they based on anyone you have known, know now or are they purely a figment of your (possibly slightly crazy) imagination?
If Anjoli is my favourite orphan, then Miles is my favourite non-orphan. He’s based on a psychotic boy I taught a few years ago, and I have to say that I found him an absolute monster for a while. Then something cracked, and I saw what a fine, loyal, anxious soul he was, and he brought such life to the classroom. He was all fire!
Who were the authors that inspired you as a boy and who are the authors that inspire you now? Do you still read children's books?
I don’t read children’s books, because I am always worried I’m going to like them more than my own attempts, and feel undermined. That may sound paranoid, but it’s the truth. I re-read stuff, hungrily, particularly when I’m in the middle of writing something. I constantly go back to Dickens, and I constantly re-read the travel books of Paul Theroux. Those writers have an intelligence and skill that inspire me. I feel dwarfed by them, but they make me want to try harder.
What advice could you give to our young readers inspired by your books?
Do you mean for writing, or for living? I have no advice at all for living, but for writing I’d pass on the one comment someone once made to me, at just the right time. He urged me to just sit down and write. That sounds a bit simple-minded, but what he meant was cut through the excuses for not getting down to it. ‘Oh, I’m tired… oh, I haven’t had an idea yet. Oh, I just need to check my email…Oh, there’s no hurry – I can do that chapter later.’
Close the door. Sit at your desk. Turn off your phone. Write.