A F Harrold interviewed by Graham Marks

A.F. Harrold is an English poet (1975-present). He writes and performs for adults and children, in cabaret and in schools, in bars and in basements, in fields and indoors. He was Glastonbury Festival Website's Poet-In-Residence in 2008, and Poet-In-Residence at Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2010. He won the Cheltenham All Stars Slam Championship in 2007 and has had his work on BBC Radio 4, Radio 3 and BBC7. He is active in schools work, running workshops and slams and doing performances at ungodly hours of the morning, and has published several collections of poetry. He is the owner of many books, a handful of hats, a few good ideas and one beard.

Normally I sit down with a very clear idea of where to start an interview, but it was really hard to do that with you, because there’s so much going on. But let’s make a stab at it and go for ‘where were you born’ and move on from there…

I grew up in a town called Horsham, in West Sussex; a very nice, white, middle-class market town, fairly affluent, and nice with a capital ‘N’. I came to Reading to go to university, towards the beginning of the 90s…’93, I think…and have stayed in Reading ever since, because it’s more interesting than Horshham. At the time, back then in ’93, the things that were important were that Reading had an HMV and a Virgin Megastore, both of which were huge, compared to the Our Price in Horsham, which was about the size of your front room, with 12 CDs. Those were the things back in the 90s which made a place a lot different from the home town you came from. Poetry is what I’ve been doing for a long, long time; then, when I left university, I became a bookseller. The only real job I’ve ever had is a bookseller in a Blackwell’s book shop in Reading. I wasn’t very good at that. None of us were. I was there for about six or seven years, and then Blackwell’s sold the shop and shut us down, because none of us sold many books.

We read lots, took books home, but the selling wasn’t so good. We were made redundant in 2003, I think. Instead of getting a real job again, I just became a jobbing poet, freelancing out there, as well as doing gigs and poetry slams and things like that, which don’t earn you money, or don’t earn you very much money.

Everything you do – and, apart from writing books, there’s the poetry and the preforming, as well as music – all seems to me to start with writing, is that true?  I guess. Writing is clearly the central part. Poetry is where it begins and ends, and it’s the thing I’m most wedded to, embedded in, maybe. It’s the thing that I began with, when I was a teenager.

I suspect, at the age of about 15, I wanted to make, wanted to create, wanted to express, like teenagers do, and I think poetry is the cheapest of all options. I could have become a painter, but that would require outlays of canvasses and paints and things, besides the talent issue. I could have tried to learn a musical instrument, but you have to buy something, and you have to put in the hours. Poetry, you need a pen and a paper. I began as a dreadful poet, as a dreadful teenaged poet, trying to impress girls and express myself to the world; I kept going for years and years. At some point, the poems got better, and the desperate teenaged need to be understood retreated or evaporated, and the poems became less desperate, in that sense.

 

One of the few ways, as a poet, to actually get any sort of income is through running workshops, visiting schools and doing poetry workshops in schools, with kids. As I was doing a fair bit of that, it led to writing poems for kids, so I’d have something to perform in the schools. Which led to kids saying things like: “The poems are all very well and good, but have you ever tried writing proper books?”

I wrote, sort of on spec, the first of the Fizzlebert Stump books, and sent it off to a couple of people thinking, “This is something that I’m actually making, that there is possibly a market for.” It got picked up by Bloomsbury, and the rest, as they say, is history. I stumbled into being a children’s author, somehow.

If passports still asked what your profession was, what would yours say?  I tend to put myself as poet/performer, writer/performer, something like that. My business cards are double-sided. One side says AF Harrold, poet, and the other says AF Harrold, children’s author. I can use the same business card, whether I’m talking to some grown-ups trying to get cabaret comedy slots, or get school work.

I wondered why you chose the AF moniker, because that’s normally ladies not wanting boys to know they’re ladies.

That’s right; that’s why WH Auden did it, and T S Eliot, and WB Yeats…

You’re getting all historical on me now…

I did it a long, long time ago, long before I was ever published. I’ve kind of been stuck with it, as simple as that, I think. Years in the misty past, I decided at some point to do that. It was all lower case for a while, in my early, very pretentious days, in a sort of e.e. cummings style, but now I’m happier with the capital letters.

I’ve never much liked Ashley as a name. Ashley Harrold…I find that a bit of a mouthful. I quite like AF. You remember The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin*, C.J. saying “I didn’t get where I am today by using my proper name”. Of course, you get C.J. in The West Wing as well, don’t you? A very different C.J.   

Yes, initials are something I decided long before I had to properly think about it. You make these decisions in your foolish youth, and you’re stuck with them. It’s like getting a tattoo.

* 1970s UK sitcom – visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fall_and_Rise_of_Reginald_Perrin

I don’t know if this is a fair question about influences, but I’m going to ask it anyway: as I was reading I could see Spike Milligan, possibly Viv Stanshall. Would I be in the right ballpark?

Those sound good to me. I did do a…not really a Top 10, but 10 That I Quite Like and I did have Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids there, which was I think one of the few poetry books that we had in the house when I was growing up. I’ve still got that copy. It’s falling apart and tatty. Viv is a tricky role model. You don’t want to emulate his life, but you’d quite like to emulate his work…trying to separate the creative spark from the self-destructive. Fortunately, I have no self-destruction in me. Yeah, Viv is great.

I think the two weird personal lodestones that I hold up are very different: I’d have Frank Zappa on one side, and Noel Coward on the other. Two men whom I adore, and whose work I adore, who would never have got on had they met to write a musical together. It wouldn’t have worked. Both of them have this astonishing self-determination, self-made thing.

Noel Coward comes up with no education, a child actor from Teddington, working in Christmas plays with a very driven mother, but literally no schooling, and goes on and creates the Noel Coward that we know, writing plays and songs. I think it was Lord Mountbatten  who said, and I paraphrase here, that there may be better playwrights than Noel Coward, and there might be better songwriters than Noel Coward, and there might be better singers than Noel Coward, and better actors and better directors and better painters and better novelists and better choreographers and better so on and so forth, but those are all different people. Whereas Noel wasn’t so much a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, but a jack-of-all-trades and pretty good at all of them.

And Frank Zappa has the same ability to not care about genre very much, to think, “Today, I feel like doing a country and western song. Today, I feel like doing a play. Today, I feel like playing the guitar”, and just making everything, putting it together. I quite like that. Why should I just be in the one box? Why not have a go at everything? If that makes sense. That’s a lot of words to say that. I apologize.

That’s fine. I like Frank and Noel. In one of your videos I saw online - which I love - you mentioned having a band…

Oh, did I? I haven’t done anything with live musicians for a long time. To say I had a band…well, I had a variety of musicians who would sometimes do things with me. We went under various names: The AF Harrold Mystery Band was the most straightforward name. We were once AF Harrold’s Anglo-Saxon Ensemble, and we did the Edinburgh festival as AF Harrold and the Schadenfreude Orchestra; a rather grandiose name for a 4-piece band…I used to call them a rock or roll band. Take it or leave it.

 I enjoyed working with live musicians, because you don’t know what’s going to happen on the night, but they’re just such a pain to try to organize, to try to get to rehearsals. When you’re dealing with people who’ve got proper jobs getting timetables to work is a nuisance. I’ve not worked with them for a decade, I guess. I think it was 2005, maybe 2006, we last did things.

You obviously have an extremely active imagination, and I wondered whether it got you into trouble when you were a kid?

Not that I’m aware of. The thing that people often ask me…well, right now they’re asking me, “Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid?” With the book, The Imaginary, it’s an obvious question. I was asked this at the very first launch that and Emily Gravett and I did, and I answered honestly, “No, I don’t remember having one.”

My brother was there, an older brother. He came up afterwards and said, “Actually, Ashley, you did have an imaginary friend”. I’ve not had a chance to ask him about it, and to find out any details, but apparently, I did. The only thing I remember is that I didn’t much enjoy being a kid, I didn’t really get on with it very well. It was a bit of a…it’s partly that people never explained the rules to things properly, and kids weren’t very nice back then.

I do remember the only imagination thing that happened – and I quite upset my mother with this – was I sincerely believed that I was adopted, that my parents weren’t my real parents. They were just  looking after me, while I was waiting for the spaceship to arrive and take me away and home again.

I insisted on this, adamantly and vehemently, and the spaceship never arrived. 30-odd years on, I’ve had to conclude that they probably were my real parents, unless tomorrow those lights in the sky come down and it’s all unfolded and revealed. I guess I saw ET and created this idea. I really don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do to your parents.

We don’t have children, we have cats, and I try to imagine what it would be like if one of them came in and made the same sort of revelation to me; it wouldn’t be so bad, because we are adoptive parents. Neither of us gave birth to the cats. We went and got them, and ripped them from the hearts of their loving families.

When you were writing The Imaginary, I imagine that you must also have had a Fizzlebert Stump book on the go at the same time. I wondered, did you have these two fictional worlds operating at the same time? If so, was that an easy thing to work with?

The way things worked, I sent the first Fizzlebert Stump to Bloomsbury and [they] said, “We’d like to buy this. We’ll give you two-book contract”. I said, “That’s nice.” And they said, “Can you write another Fizzlebert Stump?” I said, “OK, then,” so I wrote that. Before the first one was published, I was up in London and I delivered the second book, nice and quickly. They liked it; it was good.

 Before the first book came out, they sat me down and said, “We’d like to give you another two-book deal. One of them we’d like to be a Fizzlebert Stump, because we know that…” and publishers like what they know, because they know you can do that “…and the other one doesn’t have to be Fizzlebert, but it would be quite nice if it was, because we enjoy those. They’re funny.”

I wrote the third Fizzlebert, The Boy who Cried Fish and I handed that in; there were some rewrites on it, which I did and got that out of the way, and I sat down to write whatever this other book was going to be. [I had a story], which wasn’t very good, where Fizz got lost in the woods, in the middle of the night. He meets or is discovered there by a girl who was sort of camping with a Girl Guides outfit. I’m pretty sure it was Isabel, my partner - the comedian Iszi Lawrence - idea that this girl mistake Fizz for her imaginary friend, and hilarious adventures ensued. The girl in the story had been called Amanda Shuffleup, and she’d mistaken Fizz for an imaginary friend called Rudger, because that was how she spoke. She was a bit like Lyra Belacqua, a bit tomboyish.

The question of imaginary friends had lingered in the air, and when it came to sitting down to write a new book, I had two pictures that were stuck in my mind: one was an imaginary friend standing by the side of the road after an accident, having to start afresh without somebody to imagine him, having to work out how to get on…a boy just standing by the side of the road thinking, “Oh, I’m fading…”, that sort of thing.

The other image was a greasy spoon café, full of these big blokes in string vests drinking big cups of tea with so much sugar the spoon’s standing up, eating proper fried breakfasts, and with their fags on, puffing away. A little weedy bloke with a clipboard comes in and goes, “Excuse me, gentlemen. I’ve got a job here. Little Timmy…he’s four, his friends have gone on holiday and he’s a bit lonely. He needs somebody…he likes fire engines and princesses. Anyone want to do this one?” A big, burly bloke goes, “All right, Frank, I’ll do that one.” It’s a sort of Imaginary Friend Agency. I liked the juxtaposition of the most unlikely characters.

That was all I had, to begin with. I wrote the first scene, where Amanda takes her shoes off, I think on one Saturday afternoon, and I thought, “I’ve got to give them names. I thought up two good names already, didn’t I? Amanda Shuffleup, that’s a good name, and Rudger. I’ll just use those again.” It was quite separate from Fizzle, although oddly, its origins are in Fizz.

I did think that the style of the Fizzlebert books, you’ll pardon me butting in there for a moment, seemed to have a stronger connection to your poetry than The Imaginary, which, although it has funny moments, is more serious and indeed a lot scarier. Did you mean to make it quite so different?

Yeah, I think the style of the Fizzleberts, that conversational style, is very much in that tradition of Philip Ardagh, Lemony Snicket and all those books that talk to you and walk you through the story. I knew I wanted to do something else and it was clear The Imaginary wasn’t in that voice, and shouldn’t be in that voice.  Taking that first person out so there’s no longer a narrator was required. The Imaginary is much more of a poetic voice, it’s not a series of jokes, you’re right. 

There is poetry in the prose. If you listen to the audio book, read by a woman called Nicola Barber, who’s a Brit but in New York, she reads it beautifully. Whether the poetry is in my writing or simply in her voice, I don’t know. I listened to that and I thought, “She makes me sound good. I like that.”

What you’ve created is an unusual novel, because there are a lot of pictures. Much of the tension and scene-changing is created by the imagery, which is not the norm. I wondered whether you had gone to Bloomsbury saying, “This is what I want to do,” or did the idea come as you were writing?

Talking about the writing of the book, the words, before talking about the physical object, the design process, I just wrote the first draft. It didn’t have Mr. Bunting in it, and my editor said, “It’s beautifully written. It’s wonderfully observant, it’s very funny, but could we have a plot? You do need to put a villain in”. I said that I’d had villains in the last two books and she said “No, you need a villain. You need an engine for the story.” Of course, she was right. I had a second go, and re-opened the front door to Amanda's House and found Mr. Bunting on the doorstep.

 When I got to writing the last chapter of the book, I suddenly had this penny drop moment. There’s a bit at the end of Woody Allen’s film Sleepers, where Woody Allen’s character, and Diane Keaton’s character, are in this bubble car. She looks over at Allen’s character and she says, with those beautiful Diane Keaton eyes, “You really love me, don’t you?”. Allen’s character turns to her and says, “Yes, that’s what this has all been about”. It’s like scales falling away.

 When I got to  the last chapter, I looked back and realized that the book was about me facing up to being orphaned…about my Mum’s cancer and her dying. It’s a book about loss. It’s a book about forgetting, about remembering. I wrote the words, “The End,” at the end, then I went straight back to the beginning and added the Christina Rossetti poem, a poem which Mum had me read at Dad’s funeral, and that she wanted at her funeral. There’s that personal connection there.

As clichéd as that poem is, there’s almost sort of a Victorian sentimentalia that is undeniably true about forgetting someone who’s gone, and then remembering that feeling of guilt, that survivor guilt, or the guilt of having forgotten this thing that’s important. It’s a very true poem, and for me, that’s a beautiful part of the piece. For me, The Imaginary is about this. It’s about loss and remembering and forgetting. It doesn’t matter if a reader doesn’t take that away. It doesn’t matter if to the 8-year-old reading it it’s just a rip-roaring scary adventure. That’s fine, but for me, there’s something else there as well.

What happened after that was, we were going to have one illustration  at the beginning of each chapter. Time went by and I e-mailed my editor and said, “Should we actually have a cover image  by now?” She e-mailed back and said, “I was having a secret meeting this afternoon, that I can’t tell you anything about. To do with illustrators.”

 I figured that they don’t have secret meetings that they can’t tell you about in order to get a poor illustrator. I think Mervyn Peake would have been great, if you know his Treasure Island illustrations. He would have been perfect, if he wasn’t dead. Eventually, they came back and said that Emily Gravett was doing it. I’m not an expert on picture books, so I didn’t know a lot about Emily or her work. I looked her up and though, “She’s pretty good.” A twice Greenaway Medal-winner, that can’t be a bad person to work with.

 What happened was, Emily showed them some samples and they liked them so much that they said, “Let’s not waste her. Let’s get her to illustrate the book, instead of just chapter titles.” Emily coming on board made the book more noticeable, and it also made the book more of an event, and more of a beautiful object than it would have been, perhaps, otherwise.

Now about you heroine, Amanda… as I was reading I thought, “She’s a pest, really.” Often, I found her quite hard to like, which is an unusual trait in a heroine. Was that your intention from the start, or as can often happen with characters, is that just what she turned out to be?

My original intention was that she would be dead on the first page. The book began at the side of the road with the imaginary friend, and it’s his story. Just before I started writing, I re-read, Danny, Champion of the World, which is something you ought to do before you write any book. There are few books as perfect as that.

 It made me think, “We need a bit of back story, to make the loss worthwhile. We need to see a bit of their life together.” Amanda is just who she is, there’s nothing I could do about that; I don’t think she’s bad, I like her. She’s precocious…I never sat down with a checklist, “She needs to be this, this and this”, I simply watched what she did and wrote it down.. I’m just the chronicler keeping the records, and letting the characters get on with it.

True. And talking of characters, I have to say I found Mr. Bunting nightmarish, and what happens to him was perfect. Did you know, when you started out on this journey, what was going to happen to him, or was it as much a surprise to you as it was to me?

It was a surprise to me. Like I say, in the first draft, he didn’t exist. In the second draft, I knew I had to put a villain in there, of some sort. The doorbell rings, and Amanda’s mum answers it, and I find this person there. What took a little bit of working out was who he was after and why. I’m not a very good writer. . I’m dreadful with plans. I’m dreadful with plots.

Looking at another one of your videos, the one when you’re writing, and all the words are random…you say you’re not a planner, but you surely don’t write quite so randomly, do you?

No, that was a joke.

It was very funny.

We did it because Bloomsbury had sent somebody down to Brighton to film Emily doing one of her drawings, and of course, she draws a bit over here, and a bit over there, and then she goes over it in ink. We thought, if there’s a video showing Emily’s process, we should do one showing mine, and so we decided to make it as close to how Emily did it. Just for a laugh really, because we’re crazy like that.

I think you must be a word collector, which I think of as a very writerly thing to do, and there was one word in the book that I’d never heard of before…

Xylotomous?

No, not that one...

There are loads of people who like xylotomous.

It’s a very nice word. But the word I came across was…I don’t even know how to pronounce it… is it ginnel [hard ‘g’] or ginnel [soft ‘g’]?

Oh, ginnell [hard ‘g’]! That’s just a little sort of alleyway.

I didn’t know what it was. I had to look it up.

I think it’s Northern.

Yeah, that’s what it said. Oddly enough, a friend of mine on Facebook used the that very word again today, so I came across it twice in a week. It’s on my word list now.

There you go. I think I must used in the car park scene.

You did, it’s how you referred to the gap between two cars.

Yeah, that was a kind of tricky thing to write, because there aren’t any words for the sort of alleyway between cars. There is no vocabulary for this…you’re running down past some cars, and then you turn around and there’s some more cars. I guess it was probably me stretching to not repeat what I’d said before, which is an awful reason to use a word.

I have one final question for you. Having now made the leap and written The Imaginary, are you going to do more books like it?

Y-e-s…[pauses]…there is a thing on my editor’s desk at the moment.

 At this very precise moment, I’m heading towards the last few chapters of Fizzlebert 6, which is the last Fizzlebert Stump book. When I’ve put the full stop at the end of this book, I’ll give it to my editor, and she’ll give me back a book that at the moment is called Trollsong, which is the next Imaginary-ish novel, and is on its third re-write.

The next thing that I’ve contracted for, once these books are actually happily put to bed, as it were, is a new, younger thing, so sort of a Fizzlebert-age thing, possibly sci-fi, more illustrated than the Fizzes are. You know the books of Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre?

Yes.

The new one is something that looks more like Cakes in Space and Pugs of the Frozen North. I’m going younger again, or going back to the young, funny things, which is something I’m happy to sign a contract for.

This new serious…I’m doing inverted commas here with my fingers…this new serious novel has been a nightmare. It’s been like pulling teeth, [but] there should be something Imaginary-ish out towards the end of next year. With any luck.

Thank you A F Harrold for talking to Just Imagine

Author's website: http://www.afharrold.co.uk/

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