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