Sam Copeland’s debut Charlie Changes into a Chicken is about a boy who spontaneously – and without much in the way of warning – changes into animals (a pigeon, a flea, a rhinoceros…). It’s very silly and very funny, Charlie’s animal habits landing him in some ridiculous situations, though Copeland also uses the adventures to sensitively explore issues of Charlie’s anxiety. Charlie proved so popular that one book became three.
So how do you follow that? Well, with a novel about a young girl, Uma Gnudersonn, who discovers an amazing gadget, a headphone complete with AI called Athena, who has the answer to everything, and the personality to match. Other characters in Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything include Uma’s best friend, the wonderfully named Alan Alan Carrington, and a herd of llamas with a taste for cider. While the action is driven by Uma and Alan’s efforts to stop Athena’s wicked inventor from taking over their town – in which Athena and the llamas play their part – it also touches on deeper issues: Uma’s dad’s depression, growing since Uma’s mum died, and her own loss too. It’s totally different to Charlie Changes into a Chicken, though just as funny. Sam Copeland talked to us about his books and the joy of writing funny.
‘When writing, I am constantly surprised about what falls out of my brain’ remarks Sam Copeland as we chat over Zoom, and it strikes me as a perfect summary of his books, which are full of the unexpected. Mind you, becoming a writer came as a surprise to Sam, despite him being a book-addict since an early age and working as a bookseller before becoming a very successful literary agent. ‘I never planned to write. Not because I never wanted to, I just didn’t think I was capable. It was a bit like “Well, I’ll never play at Wembley!” That was my mindset. It was only when I grew older that I realised what I was capable of. And what I was capable of, was writing funny. I realised I had no interest writing adult books though. I couldn’t think of anything more tedious!’
‘Writing funny’ is of course a very serious business and Sam is rightly proud of his ability, and the hard work that goes into his books. ‘I never write a joke that only 8-year olds would find funny. That’s just patronising. The jokes have to land with 8- and 43-year olds, they have to make me laugh first. If a joke doesn’t do that, it’s pointless. It’s a constant rant of mine that funny books are simply not treated the same as other children’s books. Frankly, it’s a nonsense. Creating a funny book which is genuinely funny is more difficult than writing a really wordy book with no jokes.’ He confesses that this makes him a ‘nightmare’ to edit. ‘My editor will ask me to cut a section and I’m like – “Do you know how long it took me to come up with that joke?”’
The books aren’t just funny though. Sam takes on some very deep issues too. Was that something he’d always planned? ‘I had no intention to do that when I started out, but the mind is an interesting thing. Slowly it started inserting my own childhood into the book. My own childhood was peppered with quite a lot of challenging events. It wasn’t exactly the same, but much of what Charlie and Uma face, I went through as a kid. It was only when I went to therapy and the therapist asked, “If that 8-year-old Sam came in now, what would you say to him?” that I realised the whole point of the book is writing to that 8-year-old boy. And, basically, taking him and giving him a hug, telling him everything will be alright in the end. It was a ground-breaking moment for me.’
There’s one particularly moving moment in his new book when Uma ‘meets’ her dead mother again, or an AI version anyway. How did Sam handle that? ‘That scene is really important to me, though my editor wanted me to cut that. But then we talked, and we got it to work together. What was challenging about that was we needed to make sure that at no point did Uma really think this was her mother. I do think in future this is something we will face, and actually Kanye West for Kim’s birthday arranged a hologram of her dead father. But, back to Uma’s story – the heart is really important to me. What else is there in life apart from humour and the heart?’
That seems a good place to finish, though we talk briefly about Sam’s next book – having become an author he admits he now can’t stop writing – which is about ghosts: ‘I’ve realised that I have absolutely no control over what I write’, he admits cheerfully. ‘Yes, when I start writing I have no idea about character/story. I just have a general theme. For this new book, I just sat down and thought I really want to write about a kid and a ghost. I watched a lot of horror movies in preparation and for research – basically it’s a mixture of Rent a-Ghost and The Exorcist …’
Whatever the subject, it is certain to be strong on humour and heart.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything is published by Puffin, 978-0241439210, £6.99 pbk.