A REAL PAGE TURNER
POPULAR AUSSIE CHILDREN’S AUTHOR ANDY GRIFFITHS TAKES STELLAR INSIDE HIS WACKY, WONDERFUL HOME STUDIO TO REVEAL WHAT KEEPS HIM YOUNG AT HEART. (HINT: AN UNDERSTANDING WIFE. AND TOYS.)
Inside the home studio of acclaimed children’s author Andy Griffiths.
From the outside, Andy Griffiths’s studio located in a bayside suburb of Melbourne looks pretty average – a functional box at the end of a nicely manicured lawn. When you step across the threshold, however, it’s Wonka time. The writerly equivalent of the famed chocolate factory where the mischievous author works is a panorama of colourful, organised chaos – one part comic horror to three parts overgrown kids’ funhouse.
Vintage toys have been given the Griffiths treatment: a baby doll and a dinosaur wear each other’s heads. There is a jar of slime labelled “Griff’s Vomit”, the kind of stuff a resourceful student might spread around their room to convince mum they’re too sick to go to school. Above Griffiths’s desk, where his beautiful antique typewriter holds pride of place, a grotesque rubber clown mask straight out of a Stephen King fever dream hangs from a wire.
Griffiths, father to Jasmine, 23, and Sarah, 16, admits the rest of the family isn’t too keen on that one. As for him? “It doesn’t bother me,” he tells Stellar. “I find it so over-the-top that humans could make it and put it on to disturb each other. I love scary stuff. It’s so ridiculous.”
Works by Nick Cave, David Bowie and the Beastie Boys can be spotted on the shelves. But it’s one of Griffiths’s own titles, The New York Times bestseller The Day My Bum Went Psycho, which catches the Stellar photographer’s eye. “My son laughed so hard he got the hiccups and vomited,” he says. Griffiths’s eyes light up. “A kid laughing so much he vomited, that’s amazing! I love a nice compliment. [It’s the same] when an adult says, ‘Oh, you made me remember what it was like to be a kid again.’ That’s another important function of art.”
It’s the rare artist who can straddle the whimsy of childhood with the clear-eyed embrace of mortality that adulthood brings. To make it as appealingly bonkers as Australia’s most popular kids’ author does is a feat of its own. And nobody does bonkers quite like Griffiths. The former post-punk rocker and high-school English teacher first noticed kids being pulled away from books towards new media in the early ’90s; since then, he’s sought ways to open up the world of words he adored as a child to new generations that might need a bit more prodding to come aboard. “I could see modern kids walking away from reading in droves, [thinking] it doesn’t compete with film and TV or computer games,” says the 55-year-old. “I really wanted to say, ‘No, you can have all of those things, it’s not either other media or books – you should have both!’ I wanted to powerfully convey to them that feeling I would get from my own reading as a child.”
He’s clearly doing something right. Since 1997, Griffiths has published 31 books that have sold around seven million copies. A shelf in his studio houses many awards. And it’s likely he’ll need to keep making space for more.
GRIFFITHS SPENT MUCH of his childhood burrowing his nose between the covers of books by titans such as Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton, the Brothers Grimm and Dr Seuss. Mad magazine, too. His parents, industrial chemist dad Noel and midwife mum Melva, kept the bookshelves at their house in Pascoe Vale, Melbourne, well-stocked. It helped that his mum also worked at a secondhand bookstore; as a result, she periodically opened up an Aladdin’s cave in the spare room. “They’d call for books to be donated, then our spare bedroom would fill up with them from the neighbourhood, which I would just be sitting there reading: books of adult psychology and Reader’s Digest collections of amazing stories,” he recalls.
“I was really lucky in that sense to have a great reading diet; a very varied one. And no one tried to control it! I loved my horror comics.” He goes to the shelf to illustrate his point, picking out a bound set of Marvel classics with stories about mad scientists conjuring electricity monsters or adventurers facing off the curse of Tutankhamun.
At his start, some critics dismissed Griffiths’s books – stuff such as the anarchic Bum series ( The Day My Bum Went Psycho, Zombie Bums From Uranus and Bumageddon: The Final Pongflict), the Just series ( Just Shocking! and Just Stupid!) and The Bad Book – as too crass.
In 2011, Griffiths launched the first book in his Treehouse series, now seven-instalments strong. It is wildly popular – not only has it branched out to become a live stage show, but a Perth bookshop owner and his wife have also painstakingly created a full-sized, finely detailed model of The 52-Storey Treehouse that is now in his possession. They gave it to Griffiths free of charge, asking only for freight.
Part of the series’ success is due to the fact it relies less on the toilet humour of his early work, and more on the virtues of a wild and wonderful imagination. It’s a formula that Griffiths and his long-time collaborators have perfected. He says he and illustrator Terry Denton bring out “the playfulness of two slightly naughty nine-year-olds” in each other, while his long-time editor and now-wife Jill is “good at telling us when we’re going too far… because me and Terry can’t tell!”
As an example, he mentions The Bad Book and its sequel The Very Bad Book, each a bestseller “full of over-the-top outrage”. To their creators, it all seemed just silly. “To others,” Griffiths says, “[it] can be very disturbing. So Jill will go, ‘You’re starting to lose me, you’re kind of going into a conceptual abstract realm and I’m not feeling the emotion anymore.’”
The trio also appears as the main characters in the Treehouse series; it can take them up to a year to develop each book. Griffiths credits Jill with helping his writing reach a wider audience. He also says he and Denton are so creatively in sync “it’s almost like our minds have completely melded”. At their start, the pair would work in a shack by a vast mud flat at Yanakie, an isolated part of southeast Victoria central to the author’s childhood.
“My parents had a block of land there with 17 other conservationist families, and made kind of a private camping ground. We spent a month there every January… there was a big tribe of kids. That experience was a really important part of my [becoming a writer].”
Something about the remoteness of the area seemed to provoke Griffiths’s imagination. “Kids were always drawn to me – as they were to my father – because, I dunno, [I’ve] got something mischievous. I would often be telling preposterous stories and impossible things that had happened to me. I just loved stringing them along and getting them to the point where they refused to believe anymore nonsense. But you say it with a straight face and you invent lots of supporting detail...”
Griffiths keeps a picture of the ruggedly beautiful locale as his phone wallpaper. He describes it as a place where “there’s nothing around. It’s often lashed by storms, you’re just in amongst it.”
As a kid, he would play atop an old boat that had moored there. Over the years, he has watched as it slowly dusted with sand to the point that now, only the prow remains visible. During the frantic months of overseas book tours, he uses it as a kind of mental beacon. It brings him comfort; a reminder that in at least one familiar corner of his world, “nothing’s happening, and it is there”. ASIDE FROM YANAKIE, Griffiths credits his 15 years as a visiting author to schools around the country, stops he made alongside Denton, with helping him learn how to spin a fine yarn. “That was an enormous part of what we do,” he explains. “We got very familiar with kids and what makes them laugh. We got to test things out in front of them for years. I would run ideas past them for each of the Just! stories. I’d go, ‘Has anyone ever stood in the shower and instead of cleaning themselves you’ve decided to block the plug and see how high you can get the water?’ Then we’d just chat.
“And I would go home to Jill and say, ‘They’re really responding to this shower idea! So now I’ve gotta create a worst-case scenario where a kid blocks it up and can’t get out and has to climb out the roof and falls through the roof and lands on the dining room table…’”
Dani Solomon, a book buyer at Readings Kids who’s seen Griffiths in action at in-store signings, says he is “a rock star” to his young fans and notes that when he steps onstage, the roar is “deafeningly loud. Lots of authors are engaged, but Andy takes it above and beyond. He’ll be doing it for hours, get to the last kid and it’s like it was with the first: he remembers names, asks questions and makes them feel special.” He stays relaxed throughout; and as for his fans? “They are awestruck.”
With his latest book, Griffiths says, “I’m hoping [readers] will have a full, comic-fantasy roller-coaster ride. I’m really happy with it,” he enthuses. But surely he has to say that about every new book? “To me it feels like a classical children’s book,” he explains, “more than anything else we’ve done.” As for Denton’s contribution this time around, Griffiths cites one specific drawing from the book as “probably my favourite thing he’s ever drawn”.
Much like the studio in which he sits surrounded by that zany paraphernalia, “there’s a lot of silliness” to his latest book. All his books, really. And to hear him tell it, Griffiths just can’t help himself. “I guess I’m trying to evoke the feeling of being a child,” he says. “What kids respond to at a deep level within a book [is] authentic feeling, of what it’s like to be a child. You’re kind of powerless in some ways. You want to be safe. But you also want thrill – and the excitement of danger.”
“[AS A CHILD] KIDS WERE ALWAYS DRAWN TO ME BECAUSE I’VE GOT SOMETHING MISCHIEVOUS. I’D OFTEN BE TELLING PREPOSTEROUS STORIES”
WILD IMAGININGS (clockwise from and his wife Jill; the author (middle) in his post-punk days with band Gothic Farmyard in 1983; meeting his fans in 2004; the 2015 stage adaptation of The 52-Storey Treehouse.