Ferelith Hordon interviews A F Harrold – poet and creator of Fizzlebert Stump (the boy who joined the library!) and now Greta Zargo, a girl capable of saving the world.
What do you ask a writer whose work has a strong whiff of anarchy? A writer who creates very funny books for young readers, as well as novels that lean to magic realism – oh and poetry both for children and adults?
I decided on the safe approach – what was his background? A F Harrold was born and brought up in Horsham – ‘a very nice Sussex town’. From there he went to Reading University and has stayed in Reading ever since. He started writing poetry when he was about 15, ‘mostly as a means to impressing girls’. This may seem an odd decision, but as he explained ‘I was choosing an art form, and poetry is the cheapest art form – all you need is a bit of paper and a pen or pencil.’ He admits that his strategy didn’t work, despite the example of Leonard Cohen, who described poems ‘as nets to catch girls in’; as Harrold wryly points out, he was not Leonard Cohen. Nonetheless he persisted with his poetry writing, creating little photocopied pamphlets to distribute to his friends. People were very polite, he says, though he describes his poetry of the time as ‘awful’. It was the funny poems that attracted attention and he became resigned to this. He was introduced to poetry events while at university by a young performance poet, through this he started to perform his own work and became involved in a Poetry Cafe in Reading, going to Poetry Slams in the area. After a job in a bookshop ended, poetry became his full-time occupation.
Had he been surrounded by books as a child? Certainly there were books in the house including some poetry. He remembers William Cowper and Elizabeth Barrett Browning but much more important was an edition of The Mersey Sound which introduced him to Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. Brian Patten, in particular became a real influence. He began delivering workshops to schools and it was at one of these occasions that a pupil asked when he was going to write ‘proper books’. The idea took hold, and Fizzlebert Stump was created, garnering much praise (his tip for aspiring writers is ‘to put a big dollop of library in the first book’.) He originally imagined Fizzlebert as a clown who joins the library and wrote up his adventures in a poem which gradually morphed into a children’s book. He researched the appropriate length for children’s novels, and then sent it off under the aegis of James Carter. And so his career as a children’s writer began.
The Fizzlebert books became a series and now there is the new series starring Greta Zargo, a young girl who unwittingly saves the world from an alien attack. Both of these are very funny, whereas The Imaginary and The Song from Somewhere Else seem to spring from a more poetic side. A.F. feels that there’s always been a distinct pattern between the comic and the serious in his adult poetry, so it is not surprising it appears in his writing for children. In 2010 his mother died, and The Imaginary was born out of that experience. It will form part of a triumvirate of which The Song from Somewhere else is the second. He emphasises that they will not be a trilogy; they are stand-alone (though there will be a link in the form of a cat character), and he describes them as a trio.
A particular feature in his books is the illustration, particularly the two serious novels. Did he expect this to happen?The Imaginary was originally only going to have chapter headings. However, as the project developed the illustrative content expanded. Though Emily Gravett illustrated The Imaginary and will illustrate the third book of the trio, Levi Pinfold took on The Song from Somewhere Else – a novel which has a completely different character and Harrold felt very strongly that this was needed.
The Greta Zargo titles will be highly illustrated also since they are aimed at a younger audience, but they have a noticeably different style. In Fizzlebert the authorial voice is very present, making it great fun to read aloud. In Greta this voice is less strong, rather we have a profusion of footnotes (or perhaps they should be ‘sidenotes’ since they appear in the margins of the pages). Did he ever worry that his young readers would find these daunting? ‘Why will children be confused?’ he asks. ‘They have to deal with annotated texts in school. Children are cleverer than they are given credit for’. And, he reminds me, there are four strategies when coming across a strange word or idea: work it out, look it up, ask your dad, skip it. And you can always read the ‘footnotes’ later. A common feature, however, are the glorious names Harrold gives his characters, in Greta Zargo readers meet Mr Inglebath, Mrs Hummock and the great alien scientist Harknow-Bumfurly-Histlock . Where do they come from? He admits to keeping a notebook in which he records strange, intriguing, funny words and names which can then the linked or juxtaposed to christen the members of his cast. As for the settings, the circus was part of his original inspiration, while the background to Greta owes more than little to Douglas Adams, an author he grew up with.
For the future, well Greta will reappear to save the world, there will be another more serious novel and a poetry anthology – then…? We will have to wait and see, knowing that whatever it is, it will be engaging, entertaining and wildly imaginative.
Ferelith Hordon is active member of CILIP YLG and has served as Chair of both YLG London and of the National Committee. She is editor of Books for Keeps and of IBBYLink, the online journal of IBBY UK.
Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space is published by Bloomsbury, 978-1-4088-69475, £6.99 pbk.