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.)

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JAKE NOWAKOWSKI Words WENDY TUOHY

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.

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