An Interview with Andrew McDonald.
You might know him from such blog posts as A Pictorial Guide to Avoiding Camera Loss. Or, his funny if somewhat black book about SOD (Son of Death) and his family of grim reapers. Or, you might know him from the amazing series Real Pigeons. If you don’t know him from any of these, then where the heck have you people been?!
Seriously, this guy is funny. And, I’m not just saying this because he’s from the Melbourne Suburb of Watsonia, where all awesome people live. Just sayin’. I’m saying he’s funny because he’s here with me now and he’s bigger than me. Ladies and Gentlemen, give it up for Mr Andrew McDonald.
Andrew, thanks for joining us today on Tacos. Do you have any thoughts on humour in children’s books and its role in literature?
Kids are natural laughers. They understand the importance of humour and they know how to laugh (whether it’s at poo jokes or a topic slightly more sophisticated). These are important things that can be forgotten in adulthood. But kids get it. Jokes and humour are staples of day-to-day life for them, so of course they’re going to crave books that make them laugh.
Wow, I love how you say kids know how to laugh. I know adults who have forgotten how to laugh, I mean really laugh. And, that’s sad!
For some kids, funny books provide a gateway to the world of literature. Ben Wood – who masterfully illustrates the Real Pigeons series – and I have received a number of messages from parents and teachers saying that the books have been embraced by kids who aren’t normally big readers – and in some cases they’ve been the first chapter book a child has read alone.
That’s incredibly humbling feedback to receive. Ben and I have a lot of silly fun making the Real Pigeons books but when you learn that your creation has had an impact and helped a kid on their reading journey, that’s an amazing and profound thing to hear.
If you could go back in time and do anything differently as a child to be a better writer as an adult, what would it be?
I sometimes wish I’d written more in my diary when I was younger. I’m a terrible diarist, but the writing I do have from back then is a fascinating window into the world of my young mind and childhood more broadly. I constantly take notes and write down things now. I always recommend budding writers find a way to record things, be it in a journal or just in the Notes app on a phone. Because your previous ideas can trigger inspiration later on and the ‘vibe’ of an earlier idea or time can be a valuable thing to have on hand.
Now Andrew, I notice the theme for some of your books are about kids trying to succeed in life, but failing. Which can be a good thing of course, because learning to fail is important. But did this theme come about because you’re a keen North Melbourne Football Club supporter (that’s an AFL team here in Australia)?
Haha. It’s true North Melbourne haven’t been having the best of luck lately but they’ll bounce back. And not just because they’re kangaroos!
But on a more serious note, I think the reason some of my characters fail is because it’s realistic. Not everyone can be a winner all of the time. But if you expect to always win, then it’s going to be harder to be kind to yourself when you don’t. And we should all be kind to ourselves.
I am really conscious when writing Real Pigeons stories to make sure Rock Pigeon and the squad get lots of moments to ‘fail’. Because although they’re good at crime-fighting, they aren’t infallible superheroes. They make mistakes, they lose concentration, they get side-tracked, they forget what’s important, they act before they think, they take unnecessary risks and they frequently misjudge other characters. These are all run-of-the-mill setbacks that the pigeons have to navigate. I hope it makes the stories relatable because no one just wins forever. Everyone has loses. They make the wins meaningful.
That’s a heck of an answer, Andrew. I’ve spoken about characterisation with others and you’ve really nailed it there. The characters in your series, especially the pigeons, really shine. They are so relatable.
Can failure be a stepping stone for writing good humour? Should everyone put their fears away and just have a go at writing something?
If it’s done correctly, writing about failure can make for funny and moving stories. Just look at the Wimpy Kid books! So long as you treat your characters with respect and understand that writing about failure is not the same as making fun of a character. The Real Pigeons fail at a lot of things and I always try to eke out the humour in those moments, but I also want to show why a character has failed and how they’re going to respond to it. Plus, Ben Wood draws the pigeons in such an expressive way that we emphasise with them and understand exactly how failures (and successes) make them feel and think.
Now Andrew, we ask the big questions here. And, we need big answers. Should pineapple ever be on a pizza?
It’s OK to eat a pizza with pineapple on top so long as you also eat a pineapple with a pizza on top. What could be more delicious than a fresh ring of pineapple…covered in tomato sauce, cheese, anchovies and olives? YUM!
What are some funny books that have made you laugh?
Oh wow, there are so many funny books. Judith Rossell’s Withering-By-Sea is a very amusing story containing some wonderful gothic moments too. Lemony Snicket, Captain Underpants and Dog Man, of course. R.A. Spratt (Nanny Piggins, The Pesky Kids) is a very funny Australian writer. As a kid I loved the escalating calamity of George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O’Hara is a hilarious series that is as funny as it sounds. And finally I thought The Terrible Two (Mac Barnett, Jory John, Kevin Cornell) was outrageous fun.
That’s some collection. You must love to laugh!
Who is your funniest fictional character?
I think Captain Haddock in Tintin is a wonderful character who is endlessly funny. He’s so grumpy, but he’s also really kind and we want him to improve as a person. I love a sympathetic buffoon like Haddock.
Do you have a favourite joke you could share with us?
One of my favourites is the joke about the number 8 because it’s surprising and simple and actually kind of sweet. So here goes.
What did the 0 say to the 8?
As a writer of humour, do you think funny can be learnt or is it instinctive?
I think humans get humour straight up. We don’t have to learn to laugh, our bodies just do it. Having said that, there are definitely things that you can do when writing to help draw out humour. The rule of threes is a handy principle to remember, as is exaggerating something mundane or less significant for comedic effect. There is nothing necessarily funny about a park that doesn’t have any breadcrumbs in it. But in Real Pigeons Fight Crime we put such a concerted dramatic emphasis on that scenario and Rock’s reaction to it in that it makes that scene funnier than it otherwise would be.
When writing a funny story is it important to make yourself laugh?
Absolutely. Whenever you’re writing a story you should try to enjoy yourself – at least to some extent. Because stories go through numerous drafts. You’ll probably rewrite what you first write. And then rewrite it again. So try to enjoy the process of writing. If you’re writing something funny then be playful and write something that amuses YOU.
What tip would you give someone looking to load up on peanut butter. Smooth or crunchy?
Smooth or crunchy isn’t the point. The REAL question is – are you having Vegemite with your peanut butter sandwich? Because if you’re not, you’re missing out. Which is to say I am very much on #TeamVegemiteAndPeanutButter.
Yes, I want to join the team! Two of my favs on one slice of bread. You’re a Genius!
What tip would you give someone who wants to write a funny story?
It can be hard to start writing and be instantly funny. In essence, we find things funny when they surprise us so I would aim to surprise your reader first and foremost when writing a story. Because good humour can be drawn out of surprises. A surprise can come in the form of an unexpected plot twist or an unexpected character or any unexpected development really. For example, maybe you are writing a story about a kid who is eating a meat pie. A surprising thing that could happen might involve the meat pie coming to life and trying to eat the kid. Surprise! Then there are many comedic possibilities. Do the kid and the pie chase each other around and have a mad kind of chase scene as they try to eat each other? Do they bicker and take little nibbles at each other? Who else is watching this happen? Is there a grandparent there who goes pale and starts sweating with shock? Do the kid and the pie form an unlikely friendship and decide to both go vegetarian? So you see, one little surprise, one small disruption to the story, can trigger lots of funny scenarios.
Thanks so much for joining us Today, Andrew, and for taking the time to give us so much amazing insight into writing humour. It’s much appreciated. And, keep those Pigeon books coming. Absolutely love ‘em!
The next Real Pigeon Book is Coming!