We have been doing a series of throwback posts of our conversations with storytellers, artists, poets, academics. These posts are found in our Behind the Books website and are being shared here now in our new home. This interview with award-winning British author Richard Platt was posted back in 2010.
It is truly our privilege to have British author, Richard Platt in GatheringBooks for our December Meet the Storyteller Feature. Ever since I discovered his diary series (Roman Diary, Castle Diary, Pirate Diary, Egyptian Diary) I became understandably enamored with this highly creative author who managed to churn out a historical fiction (and a series at that) within a picture-book genre.
His website indicates that he has been writing since 1983 and have had some 90 books published by Oxford University Press, Kingfisher, Walker Books, Franklin Watts and other publishers. He has also won a Smarties Silver Prize for Pirate Diary and a Blue Peter award. Three other books have reached the Aventis Science Prize Shortlist. We are very honored that Richard has taken the time to answer a few of our questions for feature on GatheringBooks.
Welcome, Richard. Could you tell our readers what made you decide to become a children’s book writer?
Well, there wasn’t really a decision as such! When I went to college, I thought I would be a civil engineer. But I wasn’t very good at this, so I studied graphic design and photography, and for I while I wanted to be a photographer. Then I discovered I was better at writing about photography than actually taking pictures, so I sort of drifted into writing. I started writing articles for magazines, and then went on to writing books.
At this time, desktop publishing was in its infancy, and I was offered work as an editor at Dorling Kindersley, who were pioneers of DTP. They asked me to write a children’s book in the Eyewitness series, and I have written some 80 children’s books since then.
We have looked at your website and noted that aside from writing children’s books, you also do written restaurant reviews, corporate reports, and TV scripts among others – what makes writing for children different, if at all different?
Writing for children is more demanding in some ways than writing for adults. You have to keep words and sentences short, and write in a way that engages readers who may have very short attention spans. On the other hand, children’s books are shorter than books for adults, so there is a huge amount of variety in what I do.
In contrast to other children’s books which have a fantasy-adventure/fairy story kind of genre, yours is illustrated information books for children with a historical-fiction twist to it, any particular reason why you decided to use the “journal-writing” format as evidenced in your formidable four-book Diary series?
This began when my agent suggested I go and see Walker Books. At the first meeting, they told me that they wanted to do a book about castle, but needed something with an unusual twist, because there are so many books on this subject. I suggested a diary format because it’s very immediate and can be written in the present tense and the first person, which makes it very easy for kids to read. It also allowed me to break the text up into short chunks. Long sections of text can put off younger readers, and those who find reading difficult. The page-boy theme just followed naturally, because in the Middle Ages this is how kids were educated — they were sent away from their families to a relation or friend.
Could you share with our GatheringBooks readers the amount of research that is required to develop your Diary series?
I do a great deal of research, sometimes in very obscure and sources. I think it’s the detail in my books that makes them engaging, and you can’t find interesting detail just by reading a couple of popular books about a subject. For example, I recently wrote a children’s book on pirates that covered the raids of the Philistine Sea Peoples, and the 18th-century pirates in the South China Sea. I ended up corresponding with three very helpful maritime historians, because the information I needed was available only in papers published in learned journals.
How long does it take for you to complete a book?
Typically it takes me about nine months to research and write the text, but I don’t work on one book full-time: I usually have two or three on the go.
In your diary series, you have collaborated with two top illustrators in children’s literature, Chris Riddell and David Parkins – how would you describe your artistic collaboration – Do the text come first or the drawings (the chicken-and-egg conundrum)?
People imagine that author and illustrator sit together arguing late into the night about the details of each image, but in my experience it never works like this. I met Chris and David only once or twice while working on each book. I completed my manuscripts first, and they chose which elements to illustrate. Both of them are brilliant and inventive illustrators: I was stunned by Chris’s pencil roughs, which really needed very little input from me.
Occasionally I gave them significant help. For example Chris struggled to draw a pirate using a back-staff (the fore-runner of the sextant). The technique of using this is fiendishly difficult to understand, so I built a computer model (see below)
which Chris used as artwork reference for the central figure at the top of page 18 (see below).
What are some of the children’s books that you have read as a child?
I had to rack my brains to remember my favourite book from childhood. It was probably The Sword in the Stone by TH White.
I also greatly enjoyed Tolkien’s Hobbit books, and the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake when I was a little older.
How about favorite contemporary children’s books?
I love We’re all going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. I never tire of reading it to children.
What is a typical day like for you?
Well, pretty routine really. I aim to start work at about 8.30 am. I am very lucky: I have a wonderful, custom-built garden library to work in, so I have a one-minute commute to work.
I work through to about six pm, taking half an hour for lunch with my gorgeous wife Mary, and occasional tea-breaks. If it is not raining I also take an hour out to cycle round the country lanes near my home, for my health.
In the hours when I am working, I probably spend less than a third of my time actually writing. I obviously read a lot, but much of my time is taken up with other tasks: finding pictures and artwork reference; checking and correcting proofs; and writing summaries for future books.
Any advice or message for our novice young writers out there?
- Write about a subject for which you have passion and enthusiasm.
- If you want to get a book published, make sure that nobody else has written a similar book.
- Don’t get dispirited by rejection letters. Just bundle up that manuscript and send it to the next publisher on the list. (You need the list, so that you don’t send it to the same publisher twice.)