One of my usual ‘tricks’ to generate stories is to mix up ideas from my own life with imagery and themes from fairytales and legends.
I loved the Ladybird books when I was small and The Three Billy Goats Gruff was a favourite – I recognized the little goats’ pride in their big brother: I have lots of brothers – I’m the one in the middle in the photo. (My youngest brother John was born few years later.) Having five brothers, I’d like to think I’m an expert on sibling rivalry – and I’ve often thought it would be a good theme for a book.
My new book, This Is My Rock, is about four brother goats playing King of the Castle. (Six goats would have been a bit much, visually.)
Eldest children often get cast in a parental role, having to take on too much responsibility for their younger siblings. That was certainly the case in my family. My two older brothers always looked out for the rest of us, but that meant they had less space themselves to be childlike – too often they had to be responsible – rather than gloriously irresponsible as kids should be. Like most little brothers, I really looked up to them. My eldest brother Martin seemed to know everything, while the next oldest, Peter, could do everything – he was braver and stronger than the rest of us (even when we all caught up physically) and he was good at making things, and fixing things. I was the cheeky, attention-seeking one – and I’m sure I was annoyingly competitive – even when my other brothers didn’t want to compete.
The central character in This Is My Rock is rather like that – trying to turn everything into a competition – even when his brothers aren’t that interested.
My brother Martin, was a very gentle, pure soul, who wrote nature poetry and travelled the world birdwatching, and it was completely unexpected when he died – just as I was in the middle of the book last year.
I knew that the eldest goat in my story was Martin – that seemed strange enough – I’ve had over a dozen books published, but had never written about my brothers before. But it was only the other day that I noticed I’d drawn the eldest goat wearing Martin’s scarf. The very same colours as the one he wore throughout most of his twenties, like a personal trademark, but which I’d completely forgotten about.
Of course it’s natural for any creative person to draw on memories, whether consciously or not, when making something – where else do ideas come from?
But I suppose it is the timing of it in this case that seems a bit mysterious. It was as if I knew!
Of course, I had to dedicate the book to him.
I like this last verse of his poem Poppy Red:
And this is what we are, each one of us,
somewhere that we hardly know
and can barely believe:
strange creatures, struggling into life,
sudden, intense, brilliant.