One of the most enjoyable author/illustrator talks I heard this year was that given by Alex Milway, at the FCBG Conference in February. His talk was so full of energy and joy thatthe whole audience got swept up with his positive, enthusiastic and amusing presentation.
Alex is a writer and artist with a passion for small furry things. His first books were about mice. He then moved on to yetis. Now he’s got a new series featuring an anxious hamster and perhaps the world’s most adventurous, optimistic (non-furry) pig.
Pigsticks and Harold are Tuptown’s accidental comedy duo. Pigsticks is the last in a long and noble line of pigs and he his determined to uphold his family’s name for adventure, bravery and erudition. Harold (the hamster) has a passion for cake that drives pretty much everything he does. They’re the perfect foil for each other, and whilst they undertake their quests with utmost seriousness, we as readers get to giggle and delight in the absurd and awkward situations in which they keep finding themselves.
Last month I caught up with Alex and got to quiz him a little about his books, his approach to life, and his own personal love of cakes.
Zoe: Pigsticks or Harold? Who do you identify more with and why?
Alex: I identify with both of them, they’re the Yin and Yang of Milway! Some days I wake up feeling that anything is possible (these are Pigsticks days!), and others I wake up feeling that the world is a little too full-on and I’d rather stay inside, bake a cake, mow the lawn or even read a book (these are Harold days, of course!).
I suppose, the thing about both characters is that they’re achievers different ways. Harold is excellent at the details and the small things in life that are taken for granted, and Pigsticks is excellent at the big gestures, the things that make the news headlines. Life needs both types of people, and both should be celebrated equally.
Zoe: You trained as a fine artist – can you tell me a bit more about this, about what medium/media you specialised in, and whether fine art still has any time in your life?
Alex: I went to art school and specialised in fine art painting. This was just a front for me to get in a band, I think, but I did love painting. I used to paint in oils – large, 8 foot long canvases of landscapes – and though I dabble in acrylics, I’ve never really had the studio or ventilation system to work with oils at home. I still have the desire to paint in much the same way as I have the desire to draw. It’s just that drawing is far easier to achieve with two young children. I have so many hobbies, all of which battle for space and time, but I do hope that one day I’ll get back to the canvases. You can see remnants of my art history education littered throughout the Pigsticks’ books in the shape of pig painting. It’s still very important to me. I actually think I’m most happy and create my best work when there’s a brush in my hand. (The moment I drew P&H with a brush pen was the moment they really came alive.)
Zoe: You strike me as full of life, enthusiasm and energy; when I saw you talk back in February I think everyone left that session feeling joyous. You’ve also written about how you like big ideas and exciting adventures, just giving things a go and getting stuff out there. Where does this positive and generous attitude to life come from? How do you nurture this?
Alex: Yikes! There’s a question. I do have a boundless energy for life, that’s for sure. I also believe that life is something to be shared with others, so if I can help people I will. It’s much better to have others to go along on the ride with, isn’t it? And maybe some infectious enthusiasm helps in reaching that goal.
I think, ultimately, I find wonder in everything, and I fear for the day that I don’t. I like to be inquisitive and ask questions of things and people: how does that work? How did they do that? What would it take to get something like that off the ground? And ultimately, I then look into how I can do it or make it for myself. Time is usually the one thing that defeats me in my grand schemes.
This attitude can be tiring (for me and my family) and costly, but it usually results in something to eat or something to use or look at (my family loved me once I’d learned to make Viennese Whirls – and I’m forced on pain of death to make cheesecake ice cream regularly.)
I fully believe that skill is something learned – sure, it takes time and patience to get good at things, but if you try then there’s every chance you’ll succeed. Just try it. I see myself as a jack-of-all-trades, and maybe one day I’ll get really good at something.
I do all I can to instil this attitude in children when I visit schools – that’s more important to me than selling books really – and I guess maybe that came through in the talk I gave earlier in the year. It’s a proper Wayne’s World – “If you book them they will come!” – sort of approach to life. If ever I start to doubt something is possible I just have to remind myself that someone else has done it before, so why can’t I? A lot of things are achieved by simply starting them. If I’d never tried writing a book ten years ago, for example, (and that’s a total Pigsticks attitude) I’d never be where I am now. Good grief it took time and effort, but it paid off.
Zoe: When I heard you at the FCBG conference you had just come back from pitching Pigsticks and Harold to a TV company – what’s the latest on this? It seems to me that animation has to feature in your life sometime soon as it has been a thread in your creative life for a long time – from being inspired by Miyasaki’s Laputa, to dreaming of animation at art school, to your interest in making models and dioramas.
Alex: We’re still on the road to funding. I’m ever hopeful it will happen, one day. But to be honest, how many people get the chance to stand on a stage and see their characters come to life on a huge cinema screen behind them? That glowing, wonderful three-minute trailer we showed at the Cartoon Forum can never be taken away from me, can it? [Zoe adds: You can watch the Pigsticks and Harold trailer here]
And as for animation, I love it so much. I love the science of it, the production of it, the modelmaking… I can’t shout about it enough.
And what I love is that it can be a very contained, one/two-person pursuit, in much the same way writing and illustrating a book is. One day I will build sets and make a film. (Funnily enough, I’ve started drawing set designs and writing a script for a Pigsticks play. You’ve got to try these things, eh? I’ve got songs, and characters, how does PIGSTICKS: THE MUSICAL sound?)
Zoe: I for one say YES PLEASE to a Pigsticks and Harold musical!
Now, I know you’re a keen maker of bits and bobs to go with your books – what do you enjoy about this, how does it help your writing/illustrating work? Are there plans for official Pigsticks and Harold merchandise (perhaps to go with the west end musical)? Is there a tension between creating official merchandise and DIY book paraphernalia?
Alex: I’m the king of bits and bobs. I don’t know much about the merchandising side of things, to be honest, but with many of the crafty ‘fan’ things available on places like Etsy, as long as you aren’t selling them for profit, I think you’re safe. I mean, if someone makes a knitted Harold, that’s a wonderful thing isn’t it?
As for the models, I actually really like seeing things fully realised. I like seeing the full potential of a creation – where can I take this idea? You certainly see a character in a different light when you look at them strolling through a model landscape.
It’s actually a definite concern when designing characters that they can be made in three dimensions – and also issues like “does it have a mouth?” It’s funny, but since working on character studies for the animation company, Pigsticks is far more often drawn with a mouth. You can see this change occur gradually throughout the two books.
The realities of children’s book publishing mean that though the book is the key product, selling rights for films and branding/merchandising opportunities have to be considered. This is no easy game, so you have to make the most of what you have to sell, don’t you?
Zoe: Maybe next Christmas, lots of kids will be getting mini hamsters and pigs in their stockings…
You’ve said elsewhere that you think “all books should have pictures” – I agree! What are some of your favourite illustrated books which aren’t picture books?
Alex: I always get excited by pictures – and I think it’s definitely the case that today’s culture is far more visual than it ever was. I also think children more immediately respond to pictures over words. They’re a great initial selling point for a book.
I really like illustrations when they interact and play in and around the text, which may be in part due to my background in magazines. It’s probably easier for author/illustrators to make books like this because of the ramifications of working it all out, but maybe that’s why they interest me so much. These books can feel like a middle ground between comics and novels, and though they’re not so easy to read aloud in front of a class, children cope really well with stories told like this. They just take it on board that sometimes the pictures tell the story, sometimes the words do, and sometimes you need a bit of both with a speech bubble. These sort of books certainly help the medium of children’s books hold its own against the visual fizz of cartoons and computer games.
It’s pretty safe to say that picture books have done it for years, but novels are catching up. The granddaddy of this is clearly the fabulous Captain Underpants, though there are many contemporary author/illustrators doing it. I like to think that there’s a bit of a movement happening amongst children’s books, that’s driving better and more visually exciting work.
It takes a designer that’s up for the challenge, but having words and pictures exploding around the page can really take books into the stratosphere. Just look at the design and success of the Tom Gates books.
And what I also like about books like this is that they’re often exciting, playful and fun stories – ideal material for getting kids into books in the first place. They’re great stepping stones into reading.
Some friends of mine are doing brilliant work that’s incredibly inspiring to me. I’m really lucky with my peer group. For example, Sarah McIntyre is making lovely work with Philip Reeve. There you find pictures enveloping words and jostling for command of the page in a really exciting way. David O’Connell’s Monster and Chips books were excellent, full of humour and packed with art and comic lettering. I’m also very excited to see what Gary Northfield is doing with his new Julius Zebra books about animal gladiators. I’ve seen the nearly finished manuscript and it’s amazing.
It’s a great time to be making books like this. They might get pushed aside for more worthy – maybe even wordy – books when it comes to awards, but they’ll do more for sparking a love affair with reading amongst children than any of them.
Zoe: What are you reading for sheer enjoyment at the moment and what book would you most like to receive for Christmas?
Alex: I dip into lots of books all at the same time, which makes a question like this very hard. I read a lot of biography and history books, often for research, but I did recently read Gideon Defoe’s Pirates in an Adventure with the Romantics. ‘The Pirates in an adventure with…’ books make me laugh and giggle like an idiot, and that’s very intoxicating …
I have asked for The Art of Smallfilms for Christmas, and I better had get it… There are no people more inspirational to me than Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate. I think Oliver Postgate is the archetypal Pigsticks character. Maybe even Peter Firmin is his Harold?
Zoe: Oh yes, I can definitely see the Pigsticsk – Oliver Postgate connection. I do hope the film turns up under your Christmas tree! Many thanks Alex, for such a lovely interview, and for instilling in me a fresh dose of enthusiasm and can-do feeling towards life!
Do return tomorrow when I’ve got a Pigsticks and Harold giveaway!