Writing Kids' Books
with David Ashby

Writing Kids Books with David Ashby

We're excited to welcome children's author, David Ashby, to WritingNV to talk to us about his debut novel Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins.

David lives in Sweden with his wife and children.

Writing Kids' Books:       Can you tell us how old you were you when you first started writing?

Hmm.  That’s a tricky one.  I’ve always loved writing, right from school days.  My favourite lessons and homework were in English where you had to make up stories and so on.

I first started really thinking about writing when I was 16.  I was a big Elvis Presley fan, and there used to be a little magazine, “Elvis Monthly”, available on the high street, that accepted submissions from readers.  I wrote a review of the new Elvis album, “Guitar Man” and it was published, to my surprise and delight.  I got a real thrill from seeing my name in print, and knowing that other people were reading the words I had written.  I guess that’s when I got the bug.

I wrote on and off, articles, poems, short stories, all sorts.  Some were published in magazines, most weren’t!

In 2002 I moved to Sweden.  I was 38.  It was quite an experience, and I sent emails back home to my group of friends and colleagues giving them the latest news from abroad.  The feedback I got was that people really enjoyed reading them, and thought they were funny and sweet.  

I tried sending some funny articles, about cultural differences and so on, to The Local, an English language Swedish newspaper site, and they very kindly published some of them.

BUT, I guess I didn’t really start “writing” writing until I was 53.  I wrote Gribblebob as a story to read to my children at bedtime, and that is the first long thing I have ever written.

So, that was a long answer to your question.  The short answer is, I suppose, 53.

Writing Kids' Books:      What does your typical writing day look like? 

Writing Kids Books - Man Writing

It really varies.  When I was writing Gribblebob I would be thinking throughout the day about the story, and what might happen next, and then in the evening, after dinner, I’d write a couple of short chapters.  When it was time for the children to go to bed then either my wife or myself would read them the chapters I’d written and we’d get feedback on what they liked, what they didn’t and what might happen next.  I’d use that to carry on the story the next day or the day after.

When I was revising the story though, and also in terms of how I am writing my current story now, it’s more a question of writing in short, very productive bursts.  Just sitting at the keyboard and letting the words flow, 4,000 words in two or three hours or something like that.

I can go a fairly long time without actually “writing” anything at all.  I’ll be thinking about stories or ideas, and I might make a few notes, or do a bit of research, but I won’t actually write anything.

So, there is no real typical writing day.  It ebbs and flows.

Writing Kids' Books: From where do you get your inspiration for your writing?

My children, the things they say, their ideas and funny tales.  From nature, walking through the woods, walking by the shore.  From something strange or odd that someone might say to me or I might see.  Encouragement from my wife (“that’s good, you should write that down” if I say something interesting). 

Writing Kids' Books - Woods in autumn

Sometimes things just bubble up from inside me.

Living in Sweden, all of my family and old friends are back in the UK, and I guess I haven’t made a whole load of new friends here, I love my wife’s friends, and I have made a few of my own, but it isn’t the same as your old college friends and so on.  That means that I probably don’t go out as much as I used to back in Brighton, and I spend more time on my own (when the children are in bed say, or my wife is out) and in those times I have the space to think about writing, think about words.  Sometimes if I’m doing the washing up I might just sing myself a funny little song or make up a little rhyme, and then out of that a story might come.

That’s where the name “Gribblebob” came from.  I was doing some stuff at home, and I think I just came up with a little rhyme, something silly like “The Gribblebob’s coming, run and hide, the Gribblebob’s coming he’ll make you cry” or something like that, and I remember thinking, “Hmm, Gribblebob is a good name, I’ll have to write that down.

So, basically, I just talk to myself and write down what I say before I forget.

Writing Kids' Books: When did you first have the idea for ‘Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins’? Can you tell us what the book’s about? 

Myself, my wife and two children were walking home through the woods on a bright, sunny day.  As we walked we came across a strange little divot in the ground, with a rock that looked a little bit like a tiny book.  I started to say to the children, “Imagine if that actually was a little book,  and it had been dropped by a goblin.” I started to make up a story about such a thing happening, and as it was such a sunny day, the shadows were very clear and sharp, and I started to think about seeing that little goblin and his shadow, and the shadow of his dog, but not actually being able to see the dog itself, so I incorporated that into my story.  My wife said that I should write it down, so I did, and it just developed from there.

The book is a funny fantasy adventure about a very rude goblin and his invisible dog who meet a brother and sister walking home from school and end up having to save some very magical books from the evil Queen of Nightmares, Mara, the Rider.  It’s about family, and believing in yourself, and standing up to bullies and it’s also about how special and wonderful books are.

Writing Kids' Books - Gribblebob's book of unpleasant goblins

Writing Kids' Books: Can you tell us about how ‘Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins’ has come to be published? I understand no agent was involved?

That’s right,  I don’t have an agent.  I saw on Twitter that Sarah Odedina of Pushkin Children’s was holding open submissions for an MG novel.  I think it was a re-tweet from the Scottish Book Trust or something like that.  As I had Gribblebob, which I’d been writing for my children I thought I would send it in.  

Sarah was asking for the first 10,000 words, so I sent those in.  I was very surprised when about a month later she said that she’d like to read the rest of it. We were away, so I wasn’t able to send it in straight away, but that gave me a few days to polish it a little bit, and then I sent in the rest of the novel.

I was even more surprised and delighted when Sarah came back to me and said that she liked it.  She gave me some great ideas and suggestions for revisions etc. and asked me if I could work on them and then send it in again. I did, and she liked them, so she took it to the team at Pushkin and, luckily, they liked it too and wanted to publish it.  Hooray!

Then it was just a question of working a bit more with Sarah, and the copy editor, the fantastic Tilda Johnson who gave me lots of great advice and help, to polish the story so that it was as good as it could be.

And here we are!

Writing Kids' Books: Have you written anything else?

No other book, no.  Some short stories and poems in the past, but I’ve just finished another MG novel.

Writing Kids' Books: Who has been your favourite character to write so far? 

Gribblebob himself.  The unpleasant goblin is rude and nasty and just says what he thinks, no censoring.  As a well-brought up Brit, I’m never rude to anyone, not even people I don’t like, so it was very liberating to write someone who just says what he thinks and doesn’t care who he upsets.

It was also fun playing with words with Gribblebob’s dialogue.  He gets his words mumbled and jumbled up, so that ham sandwiches, for example, become jam hand witches, and it was lovely just letting all those mixed up words tumble out of me.

Writing Kids' Books: I understand a fortune teller told you that you would never have a book published. How did that affect you and your writing? Did it make you more determined? Or did you feel like giving up?

Writing Kids' Books - Crystal Ball

 Yes, I had a girlfriend years ago who was into fortune telling, dreams, the spirit world and so on.  I went with her to a lot of different things (One day I was regressed to a previous life and it turned out I was a circus ringmaster in the 1800s.  Which was a shame, as I wanted to be Napoleon) including a fortune teller who held my hand and told me that one day I would live abroad, that I would have two children, live a long life and never have a book published – although one of my children would be a successful author (I had told her that I had always wanted to be a writer).

Well, it’s 25 years later, I live in Sweden, I have two children (who are too young to be authors) and I’m not dead yet, so she wasn’t totally wrong - but I am about to have a book published. 

Interestingly, I don’t think it affected me, but my wife thinks it might have done.  She feels that at the back of my mind I may have taken those words to heart and not tried as hard as I might with my writing.  I don’t know, maybe she’s right (my wife often is!) or maybe in some way what the fortune teller told me took the pressure off.  All that is happening now is a bonus!

Writing Kids' Books: What’s the best bit about becoming a published author? What are you most looking forward to? 

What I’m looking forward to the most is actually holding the real, proper, published book in my hands.  To know that it wasn’t a dream and that it’s all real!  Holding the physical book in my hands, and seeing Jen Khatun’s fantastic cover with the characters that I made up will help me realise that people actually thought that what I wrote was good enough to share with other people.  And that’s what I’m looking forward to too, other people reading the book.  Children, parents, grandparents and so on.  I just hope that people will enjoy it, that it will make them laugh and they will get something out of it.

Writing Kids' Books: Do you have plans to celebrate on publication day?

I may have a small sherry.  Or perhaps a Shirley Temple.  The children like those.

Writing Kids' Books: What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished an MG novel that’s based on the old Sussex stories about knucker holes.

Writing Kids' Books: Our website is called WritingNV.com In the spirit of that can you tell us if there’s any writers which make you green with envy? 

There are so many!  But I’ll just talk about current authors (although Graham Joyce sadly died in 2014, much too young):

Graham Joyce.  He had such a magical voice, and could switch with ease from children’s books to adult novels, and had that special ability to, on the one hand be serious and deep, but have a light touch that would make you smile too.

I also have a trio of Neils/Neals/Neills that I am envious of:

Neil Gaiman of course, to be able to switch from one genre, from one medium to another, and for his brilliant imagination.

Neal Stephenson for being able to construct such amazing worlds, and for being able to write such beautiful sprawling books that really take you away.

Neill Cameron, for being so funny.  Stupid Philosophy Penguin is fantastic.

And Pamela Butchart, for making my children laugh more than me! (she’s great, and I love that she has brought back the Secret Seven.  My children are enjoying the new series as much as I enjoyed the original).

And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Over here in Sweden the lottery scratch cards have a tag line: Plötsligt händer det, which translates as something like “All of sudden, it happens” – and I can tell you, it does!  So my advice would be: Never give up.  Write what you believe, don’t follow trends.  Trust yourself.

Oh, and my wife says, “listen to your wife.”

David, thank you so much for joining us and huge congratulations on the publication of Gribblebob.

Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins is published by Pushkin Press.

You can follow David on Twitter and find out more about his writing on his website

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