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Interview with Laurence Anholt

Laurence Anholt has written hundreds of books for children, many in collaboration with his wife Catherine. They are regarded as one of the most successful author and illustrator teams for children's books. From writing Seriously Silly Stories to depicting the lives of famous artists such as Van Gogh in picture book form, we spoke with Laurence to find out more about his long, successful career.

1) First off, can you tell us a little bit about your journey to publication? What was the appeal of picture books? 

Catherine and I met when we were 18 or 19 years old. We come from rather different backgrounds – she is one of eight siblings in an Irish family, and my father was a Dutchman with family roots stretching back to Persia. 

We trained as Fine Artists at Falmouth School of Art, followed by Master’s Degrees at the Royal College of Art and the Royal Academy respectively. When our three children were born in the 1980’s, we tried to find a way of supporting a family from our creativity. My father had been what you might politely call ‘semi-detached’, so I wanted to find a way of being with my children every day. We naturally began to look at these wonderful things called picture books and to play around with ideas of our own. Our first books were literally assembled at the kitchen table. It seemed to be a perfect way of integrating family life with our creativity; and our business evolved as the children grew. I think we were terribly lucky to start in the ‘Golden Years’ of children’s publishing, when the UK led the world in innovative picture books. 

Since then we've written and illustrated more than 200 children’s books in about 30 languages, although of course, not all remain in print. I think Cathy and I are rather unusual because we've never had an agent, preferring to take contractual advice from the excellent Society of Authors. We like having a direct relationship with our publishers, many of whom are good friends. Perhaps I inherited a little of the entrepreneurial spirit of my immigrant ancestors because I've always enjoyed ‘a project’. An example was our children’s bookshop ‘Chimp and Zee, Bookshop by the Sea’ which we established in Lyme Regis. This was the UK’s first author-owned bookshop, stocked with nothing but signed copies of our books. It was a real wonderland for kids and did very well until we sold the premises a few years ago.

Art has remained a central part of our lives – Catherine and I each have busy, messy studios and our son, Tom Anholt is making a wonderful career as a painter in Berlin.

2) What comes first, the words or the illustrations?

The two are inseparable. I often think of words and pictures flowing side-by-side like a path beside a stream. Because of my art background, I tend to think in a visual way, so even when I'm working on a novel, I see pictures in my head.

3) How would you describe your work?

In a word – varied! I think many people would be baffled if they saw the full range of books we have produced, which include everything from baby-board-books to full-length novels and everything in between. Many of our books are educational and others, like my Seriously Silly Stories, are simply intended to make kids laugh and hook them into reading at that formative age. 

Cathy and I often brainstorm ideas together, but over the years, she has illustrated more than me and I have spent more time playing with words. The one exception are the modestly entitled Anholt’s Artists series, which I write and illustrate myself. These books are an introduction to great art for little people. The formula is simple: the events of the story are seen through the eyes of an actual child who knew the artist. In this way, young readers can ‘piggyback’ their way through the story, and the often slightly alarming geniuses are a little removed. These books have sold several million copies around the world and I’ve just completed the tenth in the series, based on the inspirational Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, which will be published by Frances Lincoln in August 2016.

If that’s not confusing enough for you, I have also written many books for other artists, including Arthur Robins and Tony Ross. In recent years I’ve moved in yet another direction and I’m working on my first full-length novels for a Young Adult or ‘crossover’ market, which feels like a new world of possibilities. 

4) What issues do you address?

The issues we tackle are wide-ranging, but we always think carefully about the inherent message of each book. For example, a story like Camille and the Sunflowers, which is ostensibly an introduction to van Gogh, contains an underlying message about bullying and compassion, and how we treat people who are different. We always attempt to say something positive, even if it’s only, ‘Be kind’… or ‘Be happy and enjoy life!’

5) What inspires you?

In the early years, our themes and ideas were inspired by the ups and downs of family life and in fact one of our very first books was called, ‘Good Days, Bad Days’. Now our children are grown up and have kids of their own, so inspiration comes from all directions, but we've never been short of ideas. 

6) Do you have a daily routine?

I think it’s important to have a structure to the day when you are self-employed. We are fortunate to live in the Devon countryside, so we start each day with an hour or more walking in the woods or along the beach. We've always done this, in rain or shine. Not only is it a glorious way to start the day, but it’s also an opportunity to discuss work, family or whatever is on our minds. By about 9 o’clock, we are in our studios and, as a practicing Buddhist, half an hour of meditation is very important to me. Then it’s time for coffee, and except for a short lunch break, we work through to about 5.30 each weekday. No matter how challenging writing and illustrating can be, it’s still a pleasure after 30 or more years.

The only exception to this routine are ‘away-days’ such as school or book events, or times when we are with our family, when everything just goes on hold. Family is, and always will be the most important aspect of our lives,

7) If you could offer advice to a writer or illustrator hoping to get published it would be… 

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way – There has been a small earthquake in children’s publishing and these are challenging times for many authors, illustrators, booksellers and publishers too. I think there are several reasons: online booksellers who sell books at very high discounts, e-books, the decline of indie bookshops and libraries, the focus on ‘celeb’ authors and, behind everything an invisible army of bean-counters who seem to put profit above all other considerations! I remain optimistic because I think a re-invention has begun, and there will always be a demand for great storytelling. However, an aspiring author or illustrator needs to be heroically tenacious and talented to scale the walls of publishing.

Of course the first thing to do is to get hold of the current copy of the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is an essential tool! Familiarise yourself with the market in general and lots of other titles in your genre.

Learn to wear two hats for two sides of the business and never get them confused: Your creative flowery hat is what you wear in the studio – this means that you trust your intuition and work from the heart. However, it is unhelpful to be emotional in the commercial world, so you need you need to swap it for your ‘business bowler’. Now you imagine yourself as the Super-Agent you would want to act on your behalf. Think and talk in a positive way and avoid the artists’ tendency to be self-deprecating. Never forget that you are the goose that lays the golden egg (not a battery hen!)

Be professional and well-organised; always meet deadlines and turn up on time. Remember that a well-written personalised letter works wonders. Write lots and lots of them. 

As a self-employed person, you are the captain of your own ship. Be honest and confident and as brilliant as you can be!

8) Laurence, you have recently ventured into writing YA fiction, with your debut The Hypnotist published by Penguin Random House. How has the transition from writing picture books to fiction been for you? Were there particular challenges you had to overcome when working on the manuscript?

Although I have loved writing and illustrating picture books, I always thought I was capable of something more daring and panoramic. I’m an avid reader of fiction, so I decided to risk everything and take a couple of years out to write two full-length novels. I can’t tell you how magical it feels to create an imaginary world, populated with your own characters. In order to make it work, you have to smell, taste and touch every detail; almost like lucid dreaming.

I sent two manuscripts to the legendary publisher, Annie Eaton at Random House. This was at the time when they were merging with Penguin, so there was some delay. By the time Annie got back to me, I had convinced myself that this wasn’t going to work, but to my amazement and delight, she loved both books and we went to contract immediately.

It took a further 18 months to hammer the first book into shape, but I’m really happy with the result. My debut novel, The Hypnotist is set in the Deep South of America in 1963. It’s the tale of a young Black orphan making his way against the background of segregation and the dreaded Ku Klux Klan. The book has a strong historical element but there’s also plenty of love and humour and a twist of magic realism too. My publishers are very much behind the book, so I’m excited to see how it will do in October 2016.

9) It seems that there are no ends to your creative talents! What’s next?

I’m now working on two more novels for Penguin Random House. Book two is also about tolerance and prejudice, but this time I’m in Berlin and Amsterdam in WWII. This will be a star-crossed love story, with a few brutal and beautiful twists along the way.

The third book is a kind of contemporary Swiss Family Robinson story, about a city girl and her family who end up on an island, devoid of creature comforts including… horror of horrors, internet access! My protagonist is forced to confront her inner fears and little by little she discovers her true self and the reality of the natural world. 

In the meantime, Catherine is doing a lot of painting purely for pleasure and you can see some of her work here

If you would like to find out more about their books, visit the Anholt website and say hello to Laurence on Twitter.