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Children's Author Philip Ardagh Talks Bushy Beards And Writing Tips

14/08/2014 16:48 | Updated 22 May 2015
Children's author Philip Ardagh talks bushy beards and the best bits about writing

Philip Ardagh is the award-winning author of Grubtown Tales, and the Eddie Dickens series, published in over 30 languages. He won the much-coveted Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2009 for his first Grubtown Tale, Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky, and was selected as one of the authors for World Book Day 2010.

Two metres tall, and with an enormous bushy beard, Philip Ardagh is an unmissable character.

When did you start writing?

I started before I could actually write. My father had piles of old diaries and I would lie behind the sofa and fill them with scribbles. Gradually those scribbles turned into proper words and then into stories.

It helped that I was rubbish at anything other than writing, so I could be utterly single-minded about getting better at it.

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Writing is all I'm interested in. I can't drive or do DIY, and I have no interest in any sport whatsoever – I find exercise the most extraordinary idea.

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Is the beard essential to your writing?

Obviously my beard wasn't with me when I was scribbling in my father's diaries, but now it is most definitely a part of me. In Awful End, which is my most well-known book, illustrator David Roberts drew a picture of me and my beard, and the Grubtown Tales feature a chap called Beardy Ardagh, although his beard isn't nearly as grey as mine.

My beard is much larger in winter, of course, but even in summer I don't like to trim it. I favour the free-style approach to beards.

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Because I'm so tall, if I stand behind short bald people it makes them look as though they have hair again, which could be a profitable side-line if the writing ever dried up.

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What's the best thing about being a writer?

The great thing is that there's no one telling you what to do – it's down to you. Of course, that can also be a disadvantage – no one else can do it for you.

What's amazing is making the ideas in your head become a reality. Imagine those things which exist purely in your mind: you write them down and suddenly they're in other people's minds too.

Sometimes they even become puppet shows, or illustrations, which means something solid has been created out of what you just made up one day. Incredible. Secretly (write this bit in very small letters) I'd do it even if I wasn't paid for it.

What's the favourite character you've created?

That's really, really difficult. I'm going to give you a couple of my favourite characters... In Unlikely Exploits there is a character called Mr Maggs. He's bald, with a head shaped like a pumpkin and very sharp pointy teeth, and he goes everywhere clutching a teddy bear. I don't like villains in books – I don't understand why people want to rule the world – but some things in life do need changing.

Mr Maggs has a book called the Manifesto of Change, which contains sensible objectives such as banning the word 'cruet', or moving the letter Q to the end of the alphabet (because it's really an x, y, z sort of letter, isn't it?) Mr Maggs is secretly me...

I'm also very fond of Malcolm the stuffed stoat. In the Eddie Dickens series there's a character called Even Madder Aunt Maud, who is incredibly fond of a stuffed stoat. Mad Uncle Jack (who is married to Even Madder Aunt Maud) thinks that Malcolm is called Sally.

Malcolm never says anything, but he is such a big part of the books that people love him. A couple in America made a Malcolm for me once, and I still have him. He looks a bit like a weasel, because they don't have stoats in America.

Do you have any advice for aspiring children's writers?

I have some superb rejection letters, acquired in my early years as a writer.

With the hindsight acquired from being so tall and good-looking, and with such an outstanding beard, I can see that I was submitting far too early.

So that would be my main piece of advice: don't be in a hurry. And don't throw anything away.

I find scraps of paper I wrote years ago, and think to myself 'I really like that phrase – I couldn't write that now.'

Finally, it's important to set aside some time to write every day, even if it's just 15 minutes. Try to stop just before you run out of story, so you can always start your next writing session knowing what happens next.

You've been instrumental in lobbying against library closures – why is that campaign so important to you?

Libraries are a social service and about much more than books.

Nowadays there are so many forms which can only be filled in on-line, and librarians are happy to help you fill them out.

For some people the library is their only source of Internet access; for children who live in a noisy, unsupportive household it might be the only place they can get their homework done.

As for the books themselves, reading for pleasure opens just as many doors as education does.

A good librarian is inspirational. They really know their onions. Which is useful, if you need some onions.

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