Children’s author Robin Kingsland looks up from a script of ‘Soldier’ a show he’s currently helping with at the Edinburgh Festival as I arrive to interview him in the quiet back room of the Pret A Manger in Long Acre, Covent Garden.
I order us both cafe lattes as he casually hands me some of his stories. Considerate and well prepared, I think, as befits a writer/performer/creative whose diverse skills require him to keep busy all the time.
Dramatist, actor, puppeteer, illustrator are among those skills. His credits include writer and lead puppeteer on BBC children’s series Space Vets and Cartoon Critters, the latter once rated as children’s top tv show; writer on The Koala Brothers; author of at least a dozen children’s books (such as ‘Mo and the Mummy Case’; ‘Cutlass Rules the Waves’; ‘Hook, Line and Stinker’); animation script credits including Thomas the Tank Engine; as an actor taking the key role of Charley (the ‘gent’) Malloy in On the Waterfront (Rod Steiger’s famous role) – Steven Berkoff’s celebrated production which debuted at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival before transferring for a successful run in London’s West End.
We get down to business and I ask him how his multi-faceted career began …
“At school my best two subjects were English and art,” says Robin, a native of Bristol. “I suppose my interest in writing children’s fiction sprang from great novels I’d read such as Roger McGough’s ‘The Great Smile Robbery’.” Teacher training college reinforced that interest. “Having the ability to illustrate as well as write was a lucky gift which enabled me to get boys who wouldn’t normally read to read – the ‘reluctant readers’.”
After college he joined a theatre company, where his writing career began. “It started when me and another guy sat in a room and tossed around some ideas for a play. It got performed and when it came to the performance, I noticed most of the content was my stuff, not his.” That, he said, was when he knew he could write.
However, to prove to himself that he could really be a full time writer, Robin decided he needed to lock himself away alone in a cottage deep in the countryside to see if he could cope with it and produce something good. From the solitude something good came, and the decision was made.
“I knew then that I could be a writer,” said Robin, “not so much a baptism of fire but a baptism of solitude”.
There are pros and cons to being a writer, says Robin. “The pros are that you are your own boss and that it’s rewarding. The cons are the lack of stability and the fact that you don’t have a steady job. “ “Money is not a motivator for me,” he says. He loves what he does and there’s enough in it to provide for his family (he’s got two children and credits his wife as a great editor of his work), boasting that he’ll pay off the mortgage on his house in the next few weeks.
What’s distinctive about your writing, I inquire. He says that it’s “characterised by humour” and, because he is able to both illustrate and write, he is able to bring things to the table that other writers can’t. Nearly all his books he illustrates himself.
His roles as a puppeteer and an actor also add to the mix. Acting, he thinks helps his dialogue so that he knows when dialogue should flow naturally or when it should be broken up. We then talk about dialogue, effective components in his books that he uses and if he has a formula that he applies to every story. He says “No formula”, then thinks again. “I think my illustrations are essential. Speech bubbles are also effective as you can link them to facial expressions”.
I probe to find if there is some kind of recurring pattern that he uses in his books. Does he always try to end his books with a last laugh? Robin finds the question interesting. “Let’s have a look” as he picks up a book he’s just given me. I take another. The book does indeed end with illustrated laughter and he turns it to show me. I turn my book around. It’s almost exactly the same ending. He laughs. Just accidental, he says. He concludes that “a funny ending isn’t essential but a strong ending is”.
I ask the obvious question ‘what makes for a great children’s story – Harry Potter, Treasure Island etc?’
“You need a strong narrative spine,” he says. He explains that with Harry Potter you’re grabbed in the first few pages even before any of the magic begins. The reader is drawn in because they see themselves as Harry does himself – as ordinary! But all around Harry, everyone meeting him is saying things like “You’re Harry Potter!” “You’re important!” The reader becomes curious, and the books deliver what ‘ordinary’ readers want, to go on an extra-ordinary journey like Harry.
With Treasure Island he says for him it’s the character of Long John Silver, “You never know if you can trust him or not, which is a brave thing for a writer to try to do”.
And what about the discipline of writing?
“J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter in a coffee shop in Edinburgh but with me no, I have no journalistic discipline,” says Robin. Sometimes I forget about the world and just keep going once I’ve started, I’ll go get a cup of tea and it’ll be midnight and I started writing at 10am, I can write anywhere. Graham Greene was a disciplined writer, he wrote five thousand words a day and finished halfway through a sentence so that he had something to carry on the next day.”
I ask him about the curse that most authors fear – writer’s block. Not a terror, however, for Robin. Robin argues that comedy block is worse, “humour has to be natural, you can’t force jokes”, he says. He admits he has had writer’s block and that he gets over it now because of a piece of advice he was once given. “Someone once said, ‘writer’s write, write anything Robin, just keep going’, so for me ‘a word is a word, a sentence is a sentence’”.
Where does he think children’s literature is going, I ask? “I think it’s in a pretty good place, it is better respected now and stuff like Harry Potter has really helped as well as novels like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which can be read by both adults and children”, although he admits he doesn’t keep up with children’s literature as much as he should.
We turn to what he’s doing right now. He’s proud about his modern hip hop version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream called ‘Breakin Out’ which went to the Edinburgh Festival last year and received 4 and 5 star reviews. He’s working on TV show The Koala Brothers and a Hip Hop panto.
However, sadly, he’s writing less children’s literature now because, he says, the children’s book industry is changing and publishers aren’t stocking reserves for smaller authors, waiting instead for the next Harry Potter, which he finds sad.
Robin is clearly an autonomous person, and critical of writing for TV shows. “I don’t want to write for someone else, I write for myself,” he admits. He gives an example where he wrote a children’s TV script that contained humour that worked on several levels something he clearly enjoyed and believes in. However, commissioning executives said they wanted every child watching the TV show to ‘get’ every joke. Robin points out that the Simpsons doesn’t work like that, lots of jokes are only ‘got’ by certain sections of its audience. However, it still has massive appeal to a very wide audience range, as does lots of really great kids’ writing.
Any guidance to aspiring writers, I ask? “Writer’s write, it’s never wasted”, “start with story” and “if you seriously want to be a writer then go for it. Also see what’s hot and if you like to write about it then do (just like me, I thought), but also see what’s not there too to see if you can start something new.”
And here’s his list of must reads and authors: Grahams Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’; Shakespeare (the lot!); Steinbeck; ‘Catch-22’; Dickens’ ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and William Golding’s ‘The Spire’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ (a dark choice for a children’s author!).
Will he ever stop writing? Where will he end up? He laughs and quotes John Lennon “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.