Frank Cottrell Boyce interviewed by Noga Applebaum

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a successful British screenwriter whose film credits include 'Welcome to Sarajevo', 'Hilary and Jackie' and '24 Hour Party People'. 'Millions', his debut chidlren's novel, won the 2004 Carnegie Medal and was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award. His second novel, 'Framed', was shortlisted for the 2005 Whitbread Children's Fiction Award and has also been shortlisted for the 2005 Carnegie Medal. His third novel, 'Cosmic', was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. 'The Unforgotten Coat' was the winner of the Guardian Children's Fiction prize 2012

Frank is the author of a series of sequels to  the much-loved 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' novel by Ian Fleming.

You were an established and acclaimed screenwriter, so  what made you write a children’s book?

 The answer is Danny Boyle. We’ve been just green-lit on the film Millions and we had an evening out with a couple of other people and talked about books. Danny is a voracious reader and he kept talking about these high-brow books he’s read about the Middle East or Kazakhstan or whatever, and I kept talking about children’s books. Then he said ‘why don’t you write a children’s book since you read so many?’

Do you read them for fun or because you have children?

Well, I do have seven children, but I actually prefer children’s books. If I listed my top five books, two or three would be children’s books. I said to Danny that I never had an idea for a children’s book, and he said ‘two boys find a bag of money is a good idea for a book’. ‘Would that be alright?’ I asked, and he said it would be great. He told me to go and do it, so I wrote it. I always wanted to be a children’s writer but never got it together, and he gifted it to me, I genuinely hadn’t thought about making the script into a book, and he pushed me to do it. He said it was good for the film, and it was.

How do these writing experiences compare?

I think the big difference is that screenwriting is extremely conventional and constrained right down to page counting. .A film  would cost $350,000,000 to make and as a result is would have to be extremely conventional. Writing for children there seems to be no rules at all, you can do what you like.Writing children's fiction is unbelievably liberating.

The other big thing for me is the different audience. I do still love making films but I do a lot of face-to-face with children in big projects such as the one today at the National Gallery, or with schools that are struggling near where I live, and I  know that it is making a massive difference. You introduce something new because kids don’t really read that much anymore. When you write a book and then get them to read it, you might be changing their lives – it’s much more rewarding to do the books than to do the films.

Does your screenwriting inform the way you write, your style?

I wish it did. The happiest book experience I had was with 'Millions', where I’d already written the screenplay. I wish I had the chutzpah to just sit down, write the screenplay, bin it, and then write the book. But I never do that. That worked so well with Millions that I don’t really know why haven’t done it again. Except to say that if I did, you’d end up with tight three acts books like screenplays, while 'Cosmic' goes all over the place in terms of tone, location and so on – it’s more exploratory. When you write a screenplay you know that on page 25 is the end of act one, so you need a big change of direction and so on.  It’s much more unnerving to write a book.

'Millions' the film, and 'Millions' the novel differ slightly in terms of the plotline, for example the incident with Dorothy towards the end  - in the first Damian sees her in bed with his father, in the second she runs off with the money, but returns – why did you change this scene?

That’s really interesting, I haven’t thought about it for years. We needed something quite big to motivate the plot – I knew I wanted an ending with people burning money. In the film we had to show something that would

make everyone understand instantly why Damian was upset.We tried lots of different ways to motivate it, and there are different takes of the film. The one we went with in the film was the scene in the bedroom.  

In the book it was up to me, if I said he was upset, he was upset. So I wrote it as a weird scene where he sort of projects himself, which we could never have done it in the film. The book plays a bit more fast and loose with reality than the film does. The book was written as we were going into production on the film, so I was editing the book while we were shooting the film, so they do inform each other.

A lot of the nice things in the book came from messing around on the set, for example. playing jenga with cash – the real boys did play jenga with the cash, so I put it into the book and then told Danny about it, and he put it into the film. There was a synergy going on there.

Which one do you prefer?

I can’t be objective about the film at all, because working with Danny was just the most wonderful thing and I felt really happy when we were working on it. It was a glorious summer, it was on my doorstep - I can’t watch the film as anything other than a record of a really happy three months.  If I go to a screening, I’m not looking at the film, I’m thinking ‘that was the day we…’ or ‘do you remember when…’ – it’s not a narrative but a souvenir.

You are also adapting Framed to a film, in general how do you see the relationship between your books and the films?

'Framed' finished shooting last week. I wrote it as a book first. I’m not J.K. Rowling where people fall over each other to make my films. My books get filmed because I’m willing to go and make the movie. If I didn’t make it, nobody else would. I got such a lot out of the fact that there was a film of Millions – it gives glamour to the book and it gives it a life. So even though it is not a franchised book with a glossy cover about spies, the film gives it a kind of visibility that it would not have otherwise.

Moving to Framed, you mention  that your children helped you choose the paintings which feature in the novel – to what extent do your own children influence your writing?

Very big influence on 'Cosmic', because I read it to them when I thought that it was finished and they said it was rubbish.. My daughter Chiara, who was sixteen at the time, said ‘I hate that kid in the book’. She was right. I started again.

I consciously don’t write about my children. However,  afterwards I sometime notice things. In 'Framed' the boy Dylan is the only boy in his town, and I have got a son who was ten when I wrote the book and although he has three brothers, two are much too old to play with and one is a baby, so he was a boy surrounded by girls and he had a need to find another boy, have male company, and that’s Dylan, but I didn’t realise it till afterwards.

 Pierre Bourdieu developed a theory that artistic taste is influenced and perpetuated by class. 'Framed' seems to contradict that. Do you think art, including literature, are truly accessible to anyone beyond education and means?

I really hope so. It’s something I think about a lot. All I can say is that as a children’s writer you get asked to visit schools and I specifically hunt out schools, and I don’t know what the polite word is for it, but schools that have a large working class demographic. Particularly in Liverpool, because there are large areas of deprivation there.

I go into the school and read that book. I make really big demands, and they are always met. I don’t go into schools to talk about the Ninja Turtles or popular culture. I go and talk about Leonardo, Michelangelo, and with 'Cosmic', I’ll talk about physics. They love being stretched, that’s my experience.

I know there is also a whole nexus of advantages to the fact that I come with the glamour of film, which is a big deal to them, and I’m able to go and revisit places as well, but it’s a mission to me. I believe in culture, and I think popular culture is great, and there’s wonderful work going on there, the artistic standards are amazing, but popular culture’s ultimate mission is to make  you buy stuff. It’s addictive and designed to be unsatisfying. I worked on soap operas and big Hollywood animated films. The bottom line is, if you’re working on a big Hollywood animated film, that there will be meetings about the marketability of smaller characters, what the doll will look like and so on. I'm not denigrating it but the bottom line is that it has to sell.

That comes with a lot of philosophical implications. With older art you have the freedom about how you interpret the picture which you don’t have about Hello magazine, or Pirates of the Caribbean or Spiderman. No matter how brilliant those works are, they are not yours. If you look around the National Gallery, a lot of the pictures like Hello magazine, they were painted to flatter rich people. Because they are old, they are displaced, and it gives you the freedom to interact with them. It’s not that Velasquez is necessarily a better artist than Stan Lee - just that time liberated us from having to buy something from him.

I do firmly believe that we can ask a lot of kids and I really hate the whole thing of ‘start from where they are’  I go to schools that proudly display books reports that the boys have written, and the reports are on a Wayne Rooney’s biography or the Manchester United story. I just think that’s just selling them short. It’s not true that whatever you read it’s still reading. Read whatever you like in your free time, but in school you should be given what the market isn’t going to give you. There’s a big fat selling machine very well armed with geniuses and money getting you to read one particular thing, do one particular thing with your life. School should be doing something different, otherwise what’s the point? Why not just stick them in front of the telly?

 In your latest novel, 'Cosmic', you depict four dads and their children who win a unique opportunity to explore a secret and exciting project – the connection to 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is obvious – is Roald Dahl one of your inspirations? At what stage did the idea to ‘pay homage’ to his work come into play?

Quite late! The book was about space before it was about dads. I do love Roald Dahl and I think that that first movement in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is actually one of the finest pieces of writing. It’s like a football match – watching those tickets go, it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s only a little gesture in my book. I consciously nicked it. 

Apart from Dahl, you seem to be influenced by E. Nesbit, especially her 'Treasure Seekers', as the double layered narration style of 'Millions' suggests. Do you think authors today should look more towards the classics of children’s literature as a source of inspiration?

I’m hugely influenced by Edith Nesbit, but I don’t want to tell other people what to do. For me, writing children’s books is pure pleasure and a joy, and part of the pleasure is getting to play with Edith Nesbit because I think she’s fantastic and really underestimated. 

Are these the books that you read as a child?

I have a terrible memory. I don’t remember her being massive to me as a child. I do remember being in love with her when reading to my kids, because her books read out so well. They are quite a stretch because they are set in the past  but when you read them aloud, she’s so funny. I don’t think there is a book in English as funny as the 'New Treasure Seekers' where they try making a Christmas pudding following a recipe. “It said wash the raisins, I’m not sure we got all the soap off those raisins” – it’s brilliant.

Nobody is doing what she did – people write fantasy or they write real life and it’s always gritty and dreary and miserable, nobody does the enchantment of the real. I know Nesbit has fantasy elements in her books but they are always subject to the rule of daily life. Actually, she’s at her best when she’s writing about getting through a day – 'The Railway Children', 'The Treasure Seekers' and the 'New Treasure Seekers' – they are her best novels. 

Speaking of narration, Liam in 'Cosmic' has the vantage point of being both a ‘father’ and a child simultaneously, and he makes observations from both perspectives. Is he in some way a reflection of yourself as an adult writing for children?

I guess so. Because we had such a spread of children I am aware what a different dad I was then, to my 24 year old, to the kind of dad I am now to my four year old. I’ve had all these stages in between. Occasionally people ask, do you not want that phase in your life to end, to be able to go off and do stuff? Anything I’ve ever done without my children feels somehow diminished. I like being out with the kids, because you do things you wouldn’t do otherwise, like wondering round a castle or going to Centerparcs. If I didn’t have kids I wouldn’t do all these kiddie things, and I do genuinely like thrill rides. If you’ve the confidence to enjoy it, then they licence childishness in you and at the same they make you feel how cool and important it is to be a grown-up.  It’s good to be an adult, but the writing is a way of not growing up – it’s wish-fulfilment for me.

 In 'Cosmic', Liam’s success, and even survival, depends heavily on the skills he acquired while playing online games and using mobile phones. Many adults are worried, or even frightened, by children’s preoccupation with technology. What is your stand on this issue?

We have quite a low-tech household actually. I don’t have an internet connection in the house. It makes things a lot fresher and interesting. My kids have not been addicted to World of Warcraft or games like that. I interviewed people about World of Warcraft and it’s interesting what they learned. I think that people being in their own room playing games is quite depressing and sad, but I’m not sure that the content of what they are doing is bad. The stuff about the skills that you learn is true. I love the internet, which is why I don’t have it in the house, if I had a wireless broadband connection I wouldn’t write a word. I think my stand comes from being ambivalent about technology. 

The dads in Cosmic have different approaches to parenting, and it seems that the most successful is Liam who is not a dad at all but an exceptionally tall and hairy child. Are you suggesting that children can teach us about being adult, or that the boundaries between adulthood and childhood are blurring somewhat?

I don’t know. For me, in the case of Liam, the big thing is that as a dad you model your own fathering skills on your father’s. It implies that Liam’s dad was a good dad, even though he didn’t have a big role in the plot. The dad that Liam becomes is his own dad. That’s something that I’m quite aware of – that your kids become you.  I spent my eldest's childhood thinking,  'he’s not listening to me'. Now that he is in his twenties, I see that he listened to every word I said, and I think I should have chosen what I said more carefully’. He’s a better, improved version of me, of course.

Your child characters are very resourceful and seem to operate best beyond adult influence. In Cosmic, for example, they venture quite far, yet manage to return home safely by themselves – do you feel that children’s freedom is curtailed by adult’s overprotection?

Yes, absolutely and completely. It is part of the tradition of children’s literature to get rid of the parent. All great books start with being sent away, or a parent dying. Today we are over timetabling children, especially in schools. I do think children have fewer opportunities to explore than they used to have. I think boredom is really important. It is important to be at a lose end and bored, because that’s how creativity starts.

 

'Cosmic' is a celebration of fatherhood – in fact all your books feature strong and caring father figures. Do you feel dads generally get a raw deal in current children’s books?

It’s not a political thing. It’s not about dads even, but more to do with maleness. I go to a lot of schools in Merseyside where there are very few male role models around, and the ones there are, are not very positive or footballers who are hopelessly remote.

Loads of writers say that they write for themselves, but I really don’t. There are a couple of schools I go to where I know there’s a handful of boys that I had a big impact on, and they are always in my head when I write. I ask myself ‘that’s clever, but would they get that? That’s funny, but is it funny enough to make them laugh out loud?’ I have their image in my head. That’s who I write fo.

There is a kind of writing that documents how things are, but there is also a kind of writing that says ‘this is how things could be’. For children, that’s really powerful – to say that you deserve better – it’s the opposite of what culture says to you. I had a key experience where I interviewed someone who has been in institutions since babyhood but has come through and she’s very charming and articulate now. And I asked her, how did you know, being brought up in here that it shouldn’t be like this? She said books. And she didn’t mean the latest gritty teen thing, she meant 'Heidi'. There should be someone who asks if you are comfortable, who brings you a cup of milk.  

Your books highlight charitable causes as part of the plot, which comes first – the plot or the cause?

The plot. I look for charities to marry up with something. A lovely thing happened while making 'Millions' – half way through the shoot, usually everybody gets a t-shirt of a hat or something, and two guys from the lighting department came and said it’s a stupid thing to do on a film that has so much heart – we should do something positive instead. So we built a well. 

When I won the Carnegie, you are supposed to give the money to your local library.Waterloo in Liverpool is twinned with Waterloo in Sierra Leone, so  I asked to give it to a library in Sierra Leone which wasn’t built – it’s being built now.

Why does Waterloo, in all its geographical incarnations, feature in all your books?

That’s where I live. I don’t know why I keep mentioning it – I guess it helps me to start with something I know. It must be on my mind, but you made me self-conscious about it now, so perhaps it won’t appear in my next book.

Faith plays a large role in your books. Why?

Faith is important to me - that’s who I am.  I’m religious.

I don’t mean religious faith necessarily – but strong belief, for example Dylan in 'Framed' believes his village is the best place in the world despite the obvious evidence that it is not.

With 'Framed' it’s that Edith Nesbit thing.  Instead of saying ‘here’s a magic wardrobe that will take you to a magic land’ she goes ‘this is Camden, it’s a magic land’ I love that. You live in a magic land, just open your eyes.

 Will 'Cosmic' be turned into a film?

I hope so, but with Cosmic it’s a challenge because of the weightlessness. I visited Danny on the set when he was making 'Sunshine' and filming weightlessness is really long-winded and hard, and more expensive. There’s also a casting issue, because you need a boy who looks likes a man or a man who looks like a boy. 

Thank you Frank Cottrell Boyce for talking to Just Imagine

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