STOREY TELL­ERS

Since em­bark­ing on their wacky an­nual Tree­house ren­o­va­tions, writer Andy Grif­fiths and il­lus­tra­tor Terry Den­ton have found a cer­tain syn­ergy, writes Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

They are the men be­hind books about in­tel­li­gent but psy­cho­pathic bums, killer koalas from deep space, zom­bie kit­tens, an ex­plod­ing cow, a gaseous Ban­quo, Ninja snails, ob­tuse owls, Franken­pota­toes and a never-end­ing tree­house that in­cludes a man-eat­ing shark tank and a chain­saw jug­gling arena. Yet if you didn’t know any of this, sit­ting down with Andy Grif­fiths and Terry Den­ton might feel a bit like meet­ing two se­ri­ous pro­fes­sion­als from a con­ser­va­tive pro­fes­sion. Ac­coun­tants, say. Or pub­lish­ers.

Well, that is a bit of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, one that would be right at home in The 91-Storey Tree­house, the new book in the duo’s man­i­cally minded and man­i­cally sell­ing chil­dren’s se­ries.

Il­lus­tra­tor Den­ton, 66, does look a bit like a bean-counter in week­end mufti. He’s tall (he loved play­ing Aussie rules as a kid), grey-haired, be­spec­ta­cled and wear­ing dark trousers and a blue flan­nelette shirt. It’s the decade younger writer, Grif­fiths, who lets the cat out of the bag, es­pe­cially when he takes off his black jacket.

His left fore­arm is dom­i­nated by a tat­too of two cats shoot­ing red laser beams from their eyes. His other arm is pop­u­lated by char­ac­ters cre­ated by some of his he­roes, in­clud­ing Dr Seuss and Lewis Car­roll. That’s all the eye can see, so who knows what lurks be­neath the Tshirt? Its slo­gan is provoca­tive enough on its own: You’ve Got Foe­tus on Your Breath.

OK, so for­mer dis­sat­is­fied school­teacher Grif­fiths and ar­chi­tec­ture de­gree dropout Den­ton are not work­ing for KPMG. The point, though, is that like a lot of peo­ple who make a liv­ing through com­edy, this pair is not ob­vi­ously com­i­cal. They are not bounc­ing around on their heads and deal­ing with in­flat­able un­der­pants like their 10-year-old al­ter egos, writer Andy and il­lus­tra­tor Terry, in the Tree­house books. Their chaotic com­edy is in­ter­nal. It’s a mind­hand-page dy­namic.

They talk about their 20-year part­ner­ship, which started with Just Trick­ing! in 1997, with se­ri­ous­ness. It’s jovial, am­i­ca­ble, re­spect­ful se­ri­ous­ness, but se­ri­ous­ness nev­er­the­less.

“The 20-year mar­riage?” Den­ton says. “Well, I am al­ways sur­prised we have got this far. We have learned to work with each other. Some­times it takes di­plo­macy and pa­tience.” “Yes,” Grif­fiths agrees. “We had to fig­ure out a way not to step on each other’s toes. There has been fire­works in ev­ery book, but it’s fun.”

There’s some­thing of a para­dox here. Be­fore he be­came a full-time author Grif­fiths was the vo­cal­ist in a cou­ple of 1980s al­ter­na­tive rock bands. (You’ve Got Foe­tus on Your Breath, by the way, is one of the names of Aus­tralian singer JG Thirl­well’s un­usual mu­si­cal out­fit.) He looks up to authors such as Roald Dahl but he wants to be Alice Cooper. He quit teach­ing be­cause he dis­liked the fact kids were bored by the books they were forced to read. He agreed with them. Books should make chil­dren — and their par­ents — laugh.

To­day when he’s not writ­ing he vis­its schools and pulls mad­cap faces as part of his com­mit­ment to chil­dren’s lit­er­acy. He’s a nar­row but deep reader of adult fic­tion, as in when he likes a book, he reads it of­ten. JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the one he’d take to a desert is­land, he’s read 25 or so times. Ditto with films. He’s seen Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 30 times. His book­shelves have copies of graphic nov­els such as Watch­men, comic col­lec­tions like The Far Side, Dr Seuss books, Win­nie the Pooh, Pinoc­chio and sev­eral vol­umes of his big­gest in­flu­ence, EW Cole’s Funny Pic­ture Book, along­side works by JD Salinger, Kurt Von­negut, Ray Brad­bury and Franz Kafka.

He is fond of Kafka’s The Me­ta­mor­pho­sis, about the young man trans­formed into a gi­ant bug. Grif­fiths is an in­tro­vert, some­one un­com­fort­able with crowds. He needs a lot of alone time, which is fine by his wife and edi­tor, Jill, be­cause she is in­tro­verted too.

When I ask them over din­ner how two in­tro­verts get along, Jill says, “Won­der­fully! We know about let­ting each other have quiet time.’’ Her desert is­land book is Ge­orge Eliot’s Mid­dle­march. They have a 16-year-old-daugh­ter, Sarah, and Grif­fiths has a 23-year-old daugh­ter, Jas­mine, from his first mar­riage.

Den­ton is a rogue branch in his fam­ily tree. His fa­ther was a chemist, his mother a nurse. He has four brothers, three of whom are doc­tors, the other a lawyer. “And then there is me,’’ Den­ton says. He and his wife, Kirsten, have been to­gether for 36 years. Their two adult daugh­ters are doc­tors and their son is a his­tory ma­jor at univer­sity.

The six Tree­house books have sold 2.8 mil­lion copies. The new one will take them past three mil­lion. Yet their cre­ators ad­mit, per­haps with more hu­mour now than at the time, that their own chil­dren have not been rusted-on fans. Grif­fiths re­mem­bers the word­ing of a let­ter Jas­mine wrote, when she was a kid, to Harry Pot­ter author JK Rowl­ing. “I like your books. They are much bet­ter than my dad’s.”

“But she has come to ap­pre­ci­ate it [his work] as an adult, es­pe­cially how it helps kids dis­cover read­ing,” Grif­fiths says. The teen Sarah isn’t quite there yet. She prefers books about re­la­tion­ship dra­mas to ones about “anar­chy and body parts”.

Den­ton makes his own Rowl­ing joke, which makes me think they’ve worked on this gag. Yet his con­clu­sion is lovely. He talks about re­ceiv­ing let­ters from grate­ful par­ents.

“They say [their child has] read his first chap­ter book be­cause of us ... and then gone on to the good stuff like Harry Pot­ter,” he says. “I think it has kind of snuck up on us a bit, this feel­ing that we are help­ing kids to read, and it brings you to the point of tears at times.”

Terry Den­ton, left, and Andy Grif­fiths: ‘We have learned to work with each other’; an il­lus­tra­tion from the lat­est in­stal­ment, be­low; Den­ton’s two draw­ings ex­clu­sive to Re­view, right

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