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Nicholas Allan

How many books have you had published?
I have published over thirty, although this includes a number of tie-in books for Hilltop Hospital, a TV series adapted from one of my books.

Did you write for fun when you were at school?
Yes, I wrote and drew for fun at school and have only ever written and drawn for fun ever since.

Have you always earned your living as a writer? If not, what else have you done/do you still do?

Before I became a full-time writer I was a waiter. I enjoyed it because the other waiters were doing other things – writing, painting, acting etc - like me. It’s also a job whereby you can give the best hours of your day to your writing. I also found it a great incentive to writing as I knew I didn’t want to be a waiter all my life.

When was your first book published and what was it called?
The Hefty Fairy (1989) This was about a tooth fairy who was overweight, which I once was – overweight, I mean.

Was it difficult to get your first book published?
My agent sent my first children’s book to publishers without the pictures. He said they’d want someone good to do them. I took the pictures to a publisher to ask what was wrong with them. ‘Nothing,’ she said, and asked to see the story. She bought it and I’ve been with her ever since. Come to that I’ve been with the same agent ever since. He’s good on prose and very good on deals.

Which is your favourite of your own books and why?
My favourite is always the next one. But I’m fond of Jesus’ Christmas Party (the Nativity seen through the eyes of an innkeeper trying to get some sleep) because schools often do it as a play - which I like to see. It’s now a musical that schools can buy (see website). I also like The Queen’s Knickers because it begins as one story and then completely changes into another - and because it’s very silly.

Which is your favourite children's book written by someone else?

One of my favourite children’s books is The Waterbabies, about a chimney-sweep boy, Tom, who dives into a river and becomes a waterbaby, eventually making his way to the sea. It was the first book I remember reading myself. Apart from the sexual undertones, I enjoyed the moral certitude. There were characters Tom meets like Miss Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. I felt comforted by the fact that you were told what was right and wrong because now I find it almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Usually about a year - eleven months to think of the idea, one month to complete it. The last few years I’ve been writing scripts and books for Hilltop Hospital as well.

Do you use a computer or write first drafts long hand?

I write and draw simultaneously. A computer is too slow and when I cross out I can see my deletions which are nearly always put back again.

Do you have a writing routine or just write when you feel like it?
I never feel like writing so I write to set hours. I write, generally, by default. I stop if I’m interrupted, such as doing a school visit, a book festival, or going to the dentist. Some people play by default which is probably a healthier attitude. But of course, even though I never feel like it, I see writing and drawing as playing. It’s like going for a 5.00 am swim in a cold lake; it’s alright when you’re in and even better when you’ve finished.

Rewriting - do you love it or hate it?

Since I never feel like writing, you can imagine how I feel about rewriting. My editor says I’m unusual in that either my stories work or don’t work, so there’s no point trying to correct them. She bins a lot. I suppose, in a sense, that is a form of rewriting.

Have you ever belonged to a writers' group? If so, did it help?

I did an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. It was the only time I haven’t been productive.

Have you got an agent?
Yes. At university I published a short story about two people joined in rude places by an umbilical cord. The magazine passed on a letter from a reader. I assumed it was a complaint letter. I’d already had a few. It was, however, from an agent, inviting me for a drink. I was naturally suspicious. But it turned out the agent had Nobel and Booker prize winners on their list, so I thought – and still think – I’m in good hands.

Why do you like writing for children?

I like writing full stop. If children happen to like my books I’m especially pleased as I’ve learnt they’re far more discriminating than adults and tend to give an unbiased opinion. You notice this particularly when they don’t like something.

How do you get your ideas?
I just sit daily at a table with a sheet of paper and a Mont Blanc pen. Boredom can be very inspiring.

Which comes first - the words or the pictures?
Either. One day I’d just been to the loo and when I sat back at the desk I drew a lavatory. I put some teeth on it and an eye, and thought of a story for it. The book became The Magic Lavatory. The Queen’s Knickers and a book I’m completing now, Picasso’s Trousers, both began with the title.

What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
When I started writing for children my mother said I couldn’t because I didn’t know any children. She is a child psychologist.

My advice is to write for the child in you rather than the children out there. If you can do that successfully the children out there will like it. If you can’t find the child in you, jump up and down for a bit.

Are you willing to do author visits to schools?
I visit schools quite regularly. I enjoy meeting children and learning what they’re thinking. I see it as a reciprocal arrangement. I’ll travel to any part of the country or the world for the same reason – and because I like travelling. I cover age groups from Nursery to Adult. For more information, see my website: Alternatively, contact Random House Children’s Books publicity department or contact Speaking of Books (Tel:020 8858 6616)

Have you won any awards or Prizes?

  • 1994 The Sheffield Children’s Book Award (The Queen’s Knickers)
  • 2000 The Children’s Book Award (Demon Teddy)
  • Pulcinelle Award for best European animation, Cartoon-on-the-Bay Festival,
    Italy (Hilltop Hospital)
  • 2000 Second Prize for best daytime television animation, World of Animation Festival, U.S.A. (Hilltop Hospital)
  • 2000 BAFTA nomination for best pre-school animation. (Hilltop Hospital)
  • 2001 BAFTA nomination for best pre-school animation (Hilltop Hospital)
  • 2003 BAFTA winner for best pre-school animation (Hilltop Hospital)

For more information on Nicholas Allan and his books, please visit his website.

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