Just Imagine

Guy Bass

Guy Bass grew up dreaming of being a superhero – he even had a Spider-Man costume. The costume doesn’t fit anymore, so Guy now contents himself with writing and drawing the occasional picture. Guy is the author of several best selling series including Stitch Head (Stripes),The Legend of Frog (Stripes), Dinkin Dings (Stripes), Gormy Ruckles (Scholastic) and Atomic! (Scholastic).

Your books are largely aimed at seven to ten year olds, what attracts you to this particular audience? What are the pros and cons of writing for this age range?

It was a happy accident to be honest. I used to write dark plays for adults, and also plays for them to perform and for them to watch. But I was looking to make the move into writing full time, I had a manuscript for a children’s book and I thought that was going to be my best shot. This became Gormy Ruckles – a series about a boy monster. It was aimed at a younger audience than the one I write for now – I slowly edged up to a point where I feel most comfortable, at my arrested mental age of nine or ten…

A lot of it has to do with school visits – I feel comfortable talking to this age group. The kids are still very keen, and not jaded, and they give themselves permission to enjoy themselves, something which starts to diminish when they move into the teenage years. I’ve started a novel for an older audience which I’m hoping to finish at some point, but for now I like to keep the momentum going and write for this middle grade group. The material I naturally come up with sits well with them. In terms of cons – there are certain restrictions in terms of content and length.

Do you feel that it is almost a tighter process writing for middle grade because you have to consider such issues as well as vocabulary and so on?

Completely. I’m always jealous when I read these big rambling tomes and I have promised myself that one day soon I will write one of those books where I can go on for hours about what breakfast my character had. Now it is a constant process of refining, getting to the kernel of the moment, the chapter, the character, so you can’t go around the houses. My books are getting slightly longer, and older, but you always have to make sure that the story is streamlined.

So do you write and then look through the manuscript and edit?

No. It’s funny – I am quick, but also inefficient. I edit as I write. I would love to write like Patrick Ness, who says he writes a whole draft, and then another and another. I tried to write the whole story, but I can’t do it. I write to a point, and then the story could go in five different directions, and I examine them and eventually one will come out as the strongest and I’ll keep writing that until the next point, and so on. It’s not efficient, but I have to embrace it.

Books for this age group are usually underrepresented in major awards (unless there is a specific age category) and mainstream reviews. Why do you think that is?

I genuinely don’t know, it’s odd. Children’s books for this age group do really well and outsell a lot of categories by a long way. It seems that books for this age group are just not taken seriously. When I went abroad, I saw that it can be different. I was interviewed for a TV show in Istanbul, and I had to go back to my university days because the questions the interviewer was asking were much more than, “Why is your character wearing stripy pyjamas?” There were big questions. It reminded me that writing middle grade is serious, because sometimes even I feel that what I do isn’t valid. That’s when my family and friends tell me off. In the same breath I do have some friends who keep asking when I’m going to write a ‘proper novel’ – it’s just cultural prejudice.

The central characters of your books are all male, but while they do perform heroic deeds they are not your ‘standard’ super hero types – Dinkin is afraid of everything, Stitch Head is small, shy and caring, and Frog is a bit clueless. What draws you to such characters and is there a bigger message here for your readership?

I don’t know if there is a bigger message. In terms of all of them being male, I guess it is just a default and maybe a bit of laziness on my part. More recently I’ve been deliberately changing the sex of the characters and seeing how it goes. So in the book I’m working on now, the sixth in the Stitch Head series, there is a character who is an explorer who has had links to the castle for decades and is really the one allowing the Professor to carry on with his creations, and I decided to change this character into a female, though this doesn’t mean that there is change in terms of her motivations or her speech patterns. It was very rewarding and added so much to the whole story and especially to the relationship with Arabella, Stitch Head’s friend.

But the types of males you present are interesting, they are not ‘masculine’ males…

I do a good line in very reluctant heroes. Most of them have a strong, slightly self-harming super objective. So Dinkin Dings for example is painfully shy and scared of everything but actually that makes him proactive in the sense that he always tries to avoid or get out of something that he imagines. Stitch Head is probably as far as I can go with a character who actually just wants to return to the status quo. And the problem with this type of character is that he doesn’t push the action along so it is a hard thing to pull off. Frog is the antidote to that, I wanted to write a character who would say “yes” to everything and just go, go, go. But I don’t write deliberately books for boys, I just write stories that I like, and my readership is pretty much split.

So do you think more in terms of character and action rather than trying to present a different way of being male?

To an extent. Stitch Head is barely male really, he’s a creation of a mad professor put together from spare parts. I’ve never been an alpha male particularly, I was always shy in school so I guess I understand the mind-set of these characters. But really I like writing ‘high stakes’, something that is often missing from children’s books for this age group because authors are encouraged to ‘play safe’. One way to up the stakes is using a reluctant hero who is forced into a life and death situation. I grew up reading comics and in those there is no escaping the consequences of violence, and I also loved Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine where a boy is essentially poisoning his grandmother, so I quite like pushing boundaries as far as I feel comfortable with.

Were you ever ‘told off’?

Yes, I had some discussions with my editor on occasion. In The Legend of Frog, Frog fights a battle and sets fire to the newnicorns, and this Disney type castle gets blown to bits by UFOs as well. This is what I mean by ‘high stakes’ and I do like to include such elements that feed off my love for comics.

You have one feisty girl character in Arabella, who is a tough cookie and not afraid of anything, however, she is a ‘side-kick’ – are you considering writing something with a central girl character?

I’m working on a new idea which has a female character who is not the titular character but definitely a central driving character. As I was working on it I did the same thing I mentioned earlier – I switched the male characters into female and vice versa, so I am quite conscious of trying to up the number of female character.

Do you feel that if you did have a girl character on the cover it would affect your readership, that boys won’t read it?

Yes, I think to an extent. There are many exceptions to that though. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline had a massive cross appeal, but that was a horror novel and I think you can get away with a central girl in this genre, there is a tradition of girls in adult horror which is based on a stereotypical assumption of weakness. I am also aware that there may be resistance to the whole idea from the publishers. I think that the minute you hand in something that has a name of a girl in the title it goes through the ‘pink filter’ and they want to make it into a girls’ book, but maybe I need to be brave enough and try to find out. It needs to start with me. Arabella was never intended to be a main character, and she develops into a more distinctive presence and her friendship with Stitch Head is more at the focus, so it’s a start.

You often mix humour and horror – what makes this a winning combination for you?

It was a winning combination before I was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. I like the idea of stuff that should be scary but is funny, and stuff that should be funny but is scary. It’s an ‘easy in’ in terms of storytelling and creating humour, pulling the rug out a little as well. This is the kernel of Dinkin Dings – he is scared of everything except for the things he should be scared of. Almost everybody likes being scared. As a child you want your boundaries to be pushed – you want to be behind the sofa going, “Can I watch this?” There is also an expectation to be funny for this age group, and children generally say that what they want to read is a book that makes them laugh. I totally understand that. You can get away with so much more if you make your audience laugh. Straightforward horror for 7-10 years old is unlikely to be published.

Your books are clearly aimed at children, but there are ‘winks’ to adults – from some of the ‘quotes’ in the Stitch Head series, to references like naming Frog’s sword ‘Basil Rathbone’ – why do you include these?

It’s partially for the same reason that you see such references in picture books – sometimes kids get read to by adults and so it’s fun to put something in it for them as well, but mainly it’s simply to make me laugh. Every writer tries to entertain themselves as well. I just like to put in a few obscure things and I’m delighted when adults come up to me and say they spotted these.

Why Basil Rathbone actually?

I was stuck with a name, so I went to watch some TV and The Mark of Zorro was on with Basil Rathbone and Tyrone Power, and I thought these are both fantastic sword names, but I went with Basil in the end.

So, from your experience, your books are still being read aloud by adults? 

I was surprised by that, but it did encourage me to plant more references. The parents are usually around my age, and it’s therefore easy to mention pop culture references that I’m pretty sure they’ll guess. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story.

Speaking of cultural references, Stitch Head is a sort of a reworking of Frankenstein, but while you replicate the ‘creation’s’ attachment to its creator, your Professor Erasmus is not feeling the same sense of guilt and responsibility that Victor Frankenstein does for his creature – why the change, and is there a comment here about parenthood at all?

No, I don’t think I set out to send a message about parenthood, if I did my mum would be disappointed. Professor Erasmus does not reflect my up-bringing! I started with a different idea, I wanted to write a Victorian style gothic horror about a castle full of monsters, and originally it was supposed to be about these two leftover body parts – an arm and a leg, it was much more a knock about, gross-out comic novel. But my publisher said, very rightly, that it was too grim to have an arm and a leg just running around and it makes you start wondering where they come from and all that stuff. So I thought to write a Frankenstein story, but making Frankenstein’s monster a child. Now if you tried to create a monster and you came up with Stitch Head you’d be pretty disappointed, and in this sense I wanted him to be quite forgettable. The important thing, once I started working on that idea, was that Stitch Head had been forgotten, so there was no place here really for Professor Erasmus to feel guilty. Stitch Head was created by the Professor when he was still a boy and they were the best of friends, they had a short period of bliss, and then the Professor’s dad said he would teach him to make real monsters, so the Professor closes his playroom’s door, his childhood, and locks Stitch Head inside. Stitch Head is certain he won’t be forgotten, but forty years go by and he is still waiting by the door gathering dust. I wanted it to be about the shift of expectations, how you perceive a situation to be and the reality of that situation. The Professor was never heartbroken as Stitch Head thought he would be, but Stitch Head promised to stay with the professor forever, so he is stuck with this loyalty.

So the equivalent is more of a toy that gets left behind as someone grows up rather than an adult-child relationship in which the parent is neglectful…

Stitch Head does see the Professor as his father essentially, but the Professor never sees him as his responsibility, he was just one of many creations. You can say it is the impact of this disposable culture we live in, the second the Professor creates something, he loses interest and moves on. In the first book it is leading up to this moment of recognition, but I was convinced it should be just a fleeting moment. Just enough to keep Stitch Head going, but not really rewarding. It was a wonderful gift that I’ve been able to write more books in this series because I get to keep this character interesting, and realising what makes him interesting was brilliant. Really he does best when he is brought low. I feel bad that he always ends up disappointed, and however much he thinks that perhaps he could leave the castle and lead a different life, he basically ends up back there.

For me this was the real horror in this book…

Personally, I never blamed the professor, he wasn’t creating a son or a friend, he was emulating his own dad. It does get darker, because at the end of the fourth book Stitch Head ends up with a bunch of human orphans, and he thinks things may change, and since I didn’t know if I’ll get to write the fifth book I left it on this buoyant, hopeful note. When I did start writing the fifth book I felt it just can’t happen. Stitch Head will be content and happy and he can’t be because that makes him uninteresting, so I’m afraid the orphans had to go.

You are an illustrator, but you don’t illustrate your own books – why? And can you tell us something about the process of working with another illustrator?

The honest truth is that there are a lot of people out there who are better than me. I’ve never pitched my own illustrations, but my brother illustrates and when I pitched my first series he did the illustrations for that. Since then it never got beyond the point of me sketching the character. My Stitch Head was nothing as good as the one Pete Williamson created. He was much more grotesque.

Illustrating also takes time, so it will double the time it takes me to write a book and being fast always worked in my favour. When I was a kid I saw this photo of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake standing by the drawing board, collaborating, and I thought this would be brilliant, and a tonic too because writing is such a solitary life. But when I started working in children’s books I realised it was nothing like that, there is always a middle man and not much contact and I was really disappointed. Now I generally have more interaction because I make clear that I am quite interested in the look of the book and because I knew Pete from illustrating Dinkin Dings I spoke to him about illustrating Stitch Head before I went to the publisher.

For The Legend of Frog, Jonnie Duddle was supposed to do all the illustrations, but after he delivered the cover, he couldn’t carry on because he became too busy when his own series was commissioned for TV, but Oda [Sonju] did such a great job of the interiors and the later covers.

I try not to have a fixed idea, I learned from experience to let illustrators do what they do best and they will come up with something better. I have a two book series called Atomic which is essentially a love letter to my childhood, and Jamie Littler has done comic panels which are interspersed through the books and he got it in a way which was just brilliant and blew me away.

Your new series, The Legend of Frog is a mash up of several genres, mainly fairy tale and sci-fi. Can you walk us through the creation of this series?

Initially it was a funny science fiction story about the end of the world, and early on it only included one character, the last survivor who goes around to see what the end of the world looks like. Very quickly I realised I wasn’t going anywhere with that one, but when I started thinking about what this character will look like, and I wanted him to be some kind of mutated animal, I went through different ideas, and one was a frog and I randomly started reading about frogs in folklore and fairy-tale, and there are so many stories – they are everywhere! The most well-known one is obviously the Princess and the Frog. So then I thought I’d just collide this sort of fairy tale world with a sci-fi one, making no attempt to weld them together, and then it started coming together. I used the fairy tale elements, and I thought it would be interesting if the moment Frog swims down to the bottom of the pond, is also when he inadvertently brings about the end of the world.

The quote of the back of The Legend of Frog calls it “An awesome adventure just waiting to be made into a film” – do you write with a ‘film’ in mind and what are you ‘cinematic’ inspirations?

I don’t set out to write movies. Maybe if a few of my books were made into films I would start thinking like that. I’m a massive fan of movies and I’m quite visual, but I’m not trying to create one.

It feels like you watch a lot of B-Movies…

Yes, I love b-movies. In fact I wrote a series called Cosmic Calamity about what aliens do when they are not invading, it is an anti-war thing. It is about a character whose family is cursed, so when he starts alien-invasion school he just has bad luck. It was inspired by b-movies postcards on my wall. I’m a massive science fiction fan because (especially for children) you can write about big ideas like war and oppression or political upheaval without these themes feeling heavy. The whole thing with Frog is that his dad wants to create a grand legacy conquering a thousand worlds that will be ruled over by his sons, so it’s in broad strokes, but the ideas are there.

You do a lot of school visits – do these ever feed into your writing?

Not directly, but yes, you get an idea of what appeals and what is of interest to your audience. Once you read a passage a few times, you really get a sense of what works. My sense of comic timing and pacing is definitely informed by public readings. In terms of the ideas themselves, less so.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a sixth Stitch Head book at the moment. The fifth one is out in June, and I’m just getting some tantalising images from the illustrator. It is called The Beast of Grubbers Nubbin.

The sixth one is about this explorer called Dotty Dauntless who has been supplying the Professor with the ingredients for his creations and he sponsors her travels. Stitch Head is immediately enamoured with her, because she’s everything he wishes he could be, whereas Arabella sees her as ‘showy’. I also have another series with Stripes which will be for the same age group and it will be a sort of a spy thing. I have various different ideas, a twilight-zone-y story and I’ve been promising myself and my agent to finish this novel for older readers.

Is there a question you would have liked me to ask you?

You didn’t ask what my favourite animal is…

Isn’t it a frog?

No, an otter.