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Catherine and Laurence Anholt

How long have you been writing and how many books have you had published?
We started making books in 1984 when our children were babies. Since then we have made more than 70, (books that is, not babies!) Our titles are published in about 20 languages around the world including Cantonese, Hebrew and Welsh! Laurence does the writing and Catherine has illustrated about half our books, but Laurence writes for lots of other artists too, including Arthur Robins (Seriously Silly Stories) and Tony Ross (One and Only Series) It's complicated isn't it? But to make things even more confusing, Laurence also illustrates his own books, mainly his series about famous artists.

Did you write for fun when you were at school?
Laurence says, "Unfortunately, my school days were not a huge success; my Maths was sort of 2+1=6ish and my spelling woz evun wurs, BUT I always loved reading and was keen on drawing too; I also had lots of weird and wonderful ideas. (My teachers didn't know what to do with me except beat me quite a lot.)

Later, I was lucky enough to go on to Art School - Catherine and I met on the Fine Art Degree Course at Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall. We moved to London together and I took my Master's Degree in painting from the Royal Academy of Art while Catherine studied Printmaking at the Royal College of Art. It was at Art School that I started to experiment with visual ideas and to write a few poems."

Have you always earned your living as a writer? If not, what else have you done?
Before we started making books, Catherine trained as a nurse and Laurence did many peculiar jobs, including hotel-night-receptionist, tropical-fish salesman, factory worker, carpenter and yes… school teaching too!

What was your first book called?
Our very first books were about a little pig called 'Truffles', (now sadly porked!). The funny thing is that, after Truffles, we didn't think about using animal characters until quite recently - currently we are hard at work on our biggest project to date, a series of books for very young children featuring twin monkeys, 'Chimp and Zee'. The characters are based very closely on our own twins, Tom and Maddy and almost all our ideas come from our own family life. We're very excited about Chimp and Zee because it is certainly the biggest, brightest thing we have done. The first book will be published in September 2001.

Was it difficult to get your first book published?
I think we were a little bit naïve about how difficult it was to get something accepted; as soon as we had made a few drawings and written a couple of stories, we got on the 'phone and asked to meet a very senior editor at Methuen; I think she was so surprised that she agreed to see us. We marched in and showed her ideas and, to our amazement, agreed to publish on the spot. Having said that, we didn't start to earn a proper living from our work for many years after that, and we also had numerous projects rejected; so we wouldn't want to pretend that it is an easy business.

Which is your favourite of your own books and why?
That's a very difficult question to answer. The truth is that by the time a book is published, most authors are busy on the next project. What tends to happen - certainly for us- is that you only see the faults in your old books. You often think, "I wish I could write that bit again", or "How did I manage to draw that face so badly?". The answer to the question then, is that our favourite book is always the one we are currently working on. Having said that, there are one or two books which we do have affection for - 'Camille And The Sunflowers', Laurence's story about Vincent van Gogh is one, and 'Aren't You Lucky!' is another because it's about our daughter, Claire waiting for her new brother or sister to be born. The Seriously Silly Stories (illustrated by Arthur Robins) were also great fun to work on.

Which is your favourite children's book written by someone else?
We both have many favourites - anything by the Ahlbergs or John Burningham. Edward Ardizzone's illustrations are still wonderful. There are also many fantastic books for older children - 'The Owl Service' by Alan Garner was superb. Laurence is a judge on this year's Smarties prize so he has had to read over 300 new children's books and there were certainly some superb books in there, for example, 'The Other Side Of Truth' by Beverly Naidoo or 'Heaven Eyes' by David Almond.

How long does it take you to write a book?
At any time, we are working on as many as five new books simultaneously - some will be illustrated by other artists so they won't take more than five or six months. Laurence's Art books take about two years each because of the amount of research involved. We started talking about our latest book, 'Chimp and Zee' nearly five years ago, so that's something of a record.

Do you use a computer or write first drafts long hand?
Laurence does almost all the writing on a computer and we use e-mail every day to edit books with our publishers. We also have our own website at www.anholt.co.uk and we get a lot of messages from all over the world. However we NEVER do our illustrations on the computer because we love the directness of paint on paper and have never found software which can improve on that. We want our pictures to look like they have been made by a human being rather than by a machine - we like our books to have a slightly 'home made' quality, because they ARE made at home and are based on our real day to day experiences.

Do you have a writing routine or do you just write when you feel like it?
We are pretty disciplined and we do put in long hours. However, every day is different. We live right in the wilds of the countryside, above the sea at Lyme Regis, so once the kids have gone off to school, we generally take a walk in the woods or along the beach and talk a little about what we are working on. Then, at about 9.00, we both go off to our separate studios. We often call in to ask each other about this or that, and there are many occasions when we sit together all day and 'brainstorm' ideas. Laurence also spends a lot of time 'on the road', at book events or at schools in the UK or abroad. We also spend a lot of time with our kids in the evening, but we often work again for an hour or two later in the day - quite often tackling the mountain of paperwork which seems to accumulate. It's not too hard because we both love our work

Rewriting - do you love it or hate it?
Rewriting is quite simply the most important part of the process. I think of writing as similar to working with clay - you add pieces and remove huge chunks. It's a flexible process and you have to be quite ruthless about removing excess text. In almost every aspect of children's books LESS IS MORE! Most children's writers spend more time whittling away words, than adding to text - a bit like writing a Japanese Haiku. Perhaps that why we all ramble away in these questionnaires, because it's so easy to write more…who was it who said, "I'm sorry I didn't have time to write a shorter letter"?

Have you ever belonged to a writers' group? If so, did it help?
No, never. For me, writing is a very internal process and phrases can float up from somewhere deep inside - I'm not sure that a writer's group could help that. We are extremely fortunate though, because we can bounce ideas off each other on a daily basis and give each other encouragement - I think it would be very hard to be completely isolated as a writer or artist. For me, language is everything - I try to write in an easy-going, natural style. I let the ideas come from a deep level and try to respond to the poetry in words; I enjoy their sounds. I play with rhythms, alliterations, rhyme and sometimes invent words too. I am intrigued by extraordinary, funny or unexpected words. Quentin Blake says that he needed to draw 100 miles of line before he became confident as an artist; similarly, an author needs to write very regularly in order to build up momentum. It can also be helpful to have several different ideas 'on the go' in order to avoid becoming too precious.

Do you have an agent?
For 15 years, we worked without an agent and have become reasonably competent at negotiating with publishers and understanding legal terms in contracts. We are also members of the Society of Authors (a sort of Trade Union for writers) and sometimes ask them for advice. More recently, however, we have called on an agent to help us with some very complex issues, like film and animation contracts and we have found her extremely useful.

Why do you like writing for children?
We could spend all day answering this one - there are so many lovely things about the business. Some people think that working for children must be restrictive, but that simply isn't true - there are almost no limitations. Children have the same breadth of emotion as adults and certainly a greater imaginative range. It is true that their vocabulary might be slightly limited but they are perfectly capable of understanding very subtle allegories and, because they are less cerebral, they are far more capable of 'diving' into a book or a picture - if you watch a child painting a picture, that piece of paper is not a barrier to them, it is a 'trapdoor' into their imagination. The same is true with children's books - a book is a door to a magical world. Another factor is that we are dealing with people at the most formative stage of their lives, so stories can plant seeds in the fertile soil of their developing mind, which will continue to grow throughout their life - in this way, children's literature can dramatically shape our society. Besides that, children are GOOD FUN, they have a sparky sense of humour and are natural Surrealists - when we make books for children, it allows us to play - and we get paid for it!

How do you get your ideas?
Ideas come from all around, at any time - it's a way of looking at things; for example, if you had just crash-landed on this planet from outer space, you would think that 'ordinary' things such as dogs or cars were absolutely EXTRAORDINARY…and as for PEOPLE!! So, it is possible to look at things from a slightly sideways direction…a crumpled tissue can be as beautiful as the Swiss Alps covered in snow if you get rid of preconceptions. I can honestly say that we have never been short of ideas for books - the hard part is to pick out one or two really good, simple ideas and squash them into a story shape.

Do you draw the pictures for your books? If so, which comes first - the words or the pictures.
In general Laurence writes all the stories (with a huge amount of input from Catherine) and Catherine spends most of her time illustrating - but Laurence illustrates one book a year too and writes for various other artists - it's quite a complicated arrangement, but it works very well. With almost all our books we think about words and pictures simultaneously. That's another reason that we enjoy working for children so much, because it's one of the few areas in which words and pictures have equal importance. In a successful picture book, the words and pictures run side by side (like a road beside a river), they never overlap but they meander about in the most unexpected ways.

What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
A children's author should be totally passionate and dedicated - "My children/grandchildren love it when I make up stories" is not really enough, (it is YOU they love and they would be thrilled to hear you read the label on a bottle of Domestos!). The challenge is to write something which will remain exciting when another person reads it aloud, or a child reads it alone. Can you entice a child to step inside your magical world?

Another thing to think about is that Publishing is a Business and the financial rewards are arbitrary (very great or very small), so you have to be prepared to push and hustle without getting too emotional. BUT you also need to keep that essential softness which is your creative self. A famous children's author once gave this little pearl of wisdom - learn to wear two hats for the two sides of the business and never get them confused...in other words, accept that there are two distinct sides to being an author, the Intuitive and the Commercial. It is necessary to foster the creative side of your personality but you also need to be prepared to 'box' a bit and be aware of the market for your ideas.

Think about your characters very carefully - look at traditional fairy tales, or pantomime characters, or at Roald Dahl or Charles Dickens - the characters are always three dimensional; never flat - often REALLY bad, or REALLY creepy, or REALLY silly. Don't be afraid to 'Ham It Up' a bit when writing for children. If your characters are going to be children, make them 'come alive' by observing real children - young kids are like little whirlwinds - they race about and charge through a whole cascade of emotions within a day. They cry, laugh, get scared. They are funny, slightly crazy, unpredictable. They have huge ambitions and aspirations. They lead lives which are charged with emotion as friendships twist and turn . Modern families are bubbling stews of emotion, as parents try to resolve all their complicated issues of gender roles, divorce, step families and so on; children soak all that up.

You should aim to come up with something which is original, contemporary, international/universal, politically-correct, passionate, personal, poetic, inventive, theatrical, exciting, emotional, optimistic, inspiring...it's as easy as that!

Are you willing to do author visits to schools?
Catherine and Laurence have spoken at numerous book events in the UK and abroad, but unfortunately it would be impossible to accept every invitation. Contact the Anholts via their website www.anholt.co.uk or preferably by writing to the Publicity Department at any of their UK publishers - Frances Lincoln, Walker Books, Egmont Children's Books, Penguin Children's Books or Orchard Book

Have you won any awards or prizes?
Recent book awards:
Nestle Smarties Gold Award
Kids' Club Network Award
Right Start Toy and Book Award (Three titles)
Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award Winners (twice)

Recent shortlisted titles:
Federation of Children's Book Awards (Three titles)
Sainsbury's Baby Book Award
Experian Big 3 Book Prize
Nottinghamshire Children's Book Award
Smithsonian Institute (Highly Recommended)

Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
Laurence is currently working on an animated version of his 'Seriously Silly Stories'. If all goes well, this will result in a 23 part television series. He is also involved in the adaptation of 'Camille And The Sunflowers' and the other art books in this series, as three half hour animations for international TV and video release - the work is being carried out by the team who made 'The Snowman', but it is a very slow process and will be several years before completion. An option is also being discussed for a Broadway Musical version of 'Degas And The Little Dancer'.

Catherine and Laurence have been very involved in the UK 'BookStart' initiative, which aims to bring books, free of charge, to every new baby and parent in the country. The Anholt's have produced much of the text and illustrations for the enterprise, including the 'Babies Love books' leaflet.

books with our publishers. We also have our own website at and we get a lot of messages from all over the world. However we NEVER do our illustrations on the computer because we love the directness of paint on paper and we have never found any software which can improve on that. We want our pictures to look like they have been made by a human being rather than by a machine - we like our books to have a slightly 'home made' quality, because they ARE made at home and are based on our real day to day experiences.

For a list of Catherine and Laurence Anholt's books in print visit their website at www.anholt.co.uk

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