Pat Triggs talks to Forrest Wilson.
The Super Gran phenomenon is currently amazing the Puffin people. Over 80,000 copies have been sold since the book was first published in July last year. ‘You’d normally only expect to get figures like that from a TV tie-in,’ says Barry Cunningham of Children’s Marketing. ‘
Teachers, too, from all over the country tell of it sweeping through junior schools with no assistance from them. Super Gran it seems is a junior cult and news of it is spreading along the kids’ grapevine faster than Puffin can reprint.
Several hundred miles away in Ayr, Forrest Wilson, creator of Super Gran, seems mildly surprised to hear all this. ‘They send me the sales figures; but the trouble is I’ve no idea whether they’re good or bad. I saw this magazine The Bookseller the other day. Never heard of it before. Perhaps if I got that it would give me some idea.’
He seems genuinely mystified by the ways of London publishers which is odd because he’s been in the business since 1966. He started writing scripts for kids’ comics, first for Odhams and then for D.C. Thompson, the comics king. He wrote storylines for Beezer, Bunty, Mandy and Sparky – starting by taking over characters like Pansy Potter and then creating his own (always Funnies). He did that for six years finding out on the way that he was quite good at making up crosswords and managing to sell puzzles to the local newspaper in Paisley and to pop music weeklies like Romeo.
About 1972 he decided to see if he could write ‘proper stories’ and gave up comics for women’s magazines. It wasn’t until he moved to Ayr and joined the Writers Club that he decided to have a go at a full length book.
SuperGran in her first incarnation appeared about then. ‘She was based on my mother-in-law who was an amazingly energetic woman. She died at 77 but right up until the last she did everything, all the do-it-yourself, wiring, decorating, sitting outside on window sills to clean the windows. Like Super Gran she thought she could do ANYthing.’ He put a boy and a girl in it ‘to get both markets’ and made the humour as visual as I could’ and sent it out. One publisher kept it eleven months and there was talk of ‘something to do with TV’; but in the end it came back. Re-telling that story Forrest Wilson doesn’t sound annoyed or disappointed. It’s as if he didn’t really expect anything different.
Super Gran lay dormant for a year and re-surfaced with a whole new personality – she became Scottish. Molly Weir came to speak at the Writers Club and it suddenly occurred to Forrest Wilson that Super Gran didn’t have to be English. She could be like Molly Weir. For a competition he re-wrote the first chapter with his new heroine. Helen Murdoch from Hamilton College was the adjudicator and she encouraged him to try the publishers again. He re-wrote the whole thing, cutting it drastically on the way, and sent it off once more. The eleventh publisher, Andersen, took it and it appeared complete with David McKee illustrations in 1978. Then came the Puffin, Jackanory in April this year; the next book, a paperback original (he doesn’t realise how unusual that is either) comes out this month, and another is due next year.
It’s only after you’ve been talking for a while to this deliberately spoken Scotsman that you realise how marvellously appropriate to Forrest Wilson the Super Gran story is. Granule Smith accidentally shot by the Super-ray acquires incredible powers of strength, speed, sight and hearing. As Super Gran she takes on a bookful of baddies including the wicked Inventor and the Toughies in pursuit of Right. But she still looks like a frail old lady. Forrest Wilson too has led a double life. For eleven years he worked in an office – and didn’t like it. Every morning he travelled from Ayr to the office of the Scottish Milk Marketing Board in Paisley by train, starting at 7.30. ‘That’s when I wrote the first version of Super Gran. I used to sleep on the way back.’
There he was, a quiet, restrained office worker-‘ I’m a bit shy with people in general.’ And in his head another existence full of comic strip jokes, puzzles for teeny hopper mags and wild fast-moving slapstick fantasies about old ladies with X-ray eyes. Didn’t he ever make a funny remark? ‘I think you have to know people well to be funny. It takes a long time.’ A pause. ‘After people have heard all my jokes I usually move offices,’ he says with deadpan tone.
Four years ago he was able to give up the detested office; he was earning enough doing crosswords. But now he can do what he’s always wanted. ‘I knew a few months after I took up writing that I wanted to do it full time.’
Super Gran Rules OK out this month has Super Gran in a desperate struggle to save the Skimmer, Mr Black’s new invention (his reluctance to re-make the Super-ray machine, in spite of Super Gran’s nagging, because he’s more interested in doing something new is one of Forrest Wilson’s running jokes). This time there are some new baddies. Rely Foley and the Pink Punk, a fantastic James Bond type chase climax and Mr Fry from Department Y. Y? Just because that’s what it’s called. That’s the sort of knock-about panto-style humour Forrest Wilson likes. ‘All my life I’ve made puns – but no-one wants to know about them. Now I can make puns and get away with it.’ He can indeed for he’s plumb in the Dandy/Beano tradition and has kids falling off their chairs laughing or groaning.
In Super Gran Super Star to be published next year (originally the sequel, now No. 3) we are back with Super Grail and the Super Oldies at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. And new opposition. ‘There has to be some way in each book that Super Gran can be defeated.’ In Rules OK her super powers start to wane. You II never guess how she gets them back.
Three books on, Forrest Wilson is getting interested in what’s happening to Edison, Mr Black’s daughter. ‘She was jokier in Rules OK, more positive. I’m developing her relationship with Super Gran.’ What about Willard? ‘Oh he just tags along.’
And the future? ‘I’ve got a puzzle book being published by Hippo in the new year. I’ve got some vague thoughts about another Super Gran. And some other ideas in mind. Do you think I should tell Tony Lacey or wait for him to ask?’