The Man and his Nonsense

Puffin Post (English), Spring 1996

An interview with Paul Jennings taken from the Puffin Post

He has written some of the most popular books in the world. He tops bestseller lists. He has won more awards than a man with an awful lot of awards. He writes cracking television series. His books are translated and sold in countries with very long, strange names. His autograph is a prized possession. He is a living legend. His name is Paul Jennings, he writes for Puffin and he gave this interview to Puffin Post Magazine.

Puffin Post: Could you describe your place of work, where you do all your writing?

Paul Jennings: My office is a small, oak panelled attic room with lead-light windows. It peers out into the tops of elm trees and the mountain valleys of the Dandenong Ranges. On the walls I have photographs sent to me by my readers. Sometimes when I'm working I look at them and I say to myself, 'That's who I'm writing for.' A wall shelf contains an assortment of odds and ends, mostly sent to me by readers. There is a stuffed cane toad wearing boxing gloves, a skeleton sitting on an outside toilet, a small clay elephant made by one of my own children, a globe of the world pencil sharpener and two wooden hens who peck a board when you wiggle it.

I live in the mountains near Melbourne and it is very pretty. I can take a drive and be in the bush in no time. Or I can just nick down into the town and have the best of that world too.

PP: What do you have on your desk?

PJ: A telephone, a computer, a laser printer, a phone book, loads of papers and letters that I should answer but haven't.

PP: Have you ever had an experience that you would truly describe as 'Unreal'!

PJ: When I was a little boy living in Middlesex just after the war I spent the change on my way home from the barber's. I knew my parents would be furious. Especially when they learned that I had spent the money at a coconut shy. When I threw the ball it didn't even reach the coconuts. I started to cry and a man came up and made the owner give me another go. The kind man took me right up close to the coconuts and I knocked one down. The prize was a pair of stockings (which you couldn't get just after the war). I gave them to my Mum and she was so pleased that she didn't say anything about spending the change. This sort of luck almost never happens in real life.

PP: What do you do for pleasure?

PJ: I read all sorts of things and I love stories. At the moment I am reading a collection of short stories from the American West. I love stories by John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury,O'Henry, Somerset Maugham, Chekhov and Philip K Dick. Stories with a clever twist appeal to me especially because I know how hard they are to write. I think The Gift of The Magi by O'Henry is the best twist I have read in a short story. I also like biographies and I have just finished one about the life of Charles Dickens. I also have a hobby I'm crazy about English cars. I have a Riley Kestrel (1936), an M.G. 12 (1934), a Triumph TR6 (1976) and a TVR Griffith (1995). On the weekends I race them at hill climbs and sprints with my friend Keith and my wife Claire.

PP: What and who were your favourite books and authors when you were young and just discovering the joys of reading?

PJ: My all time favourites were the William books by Richmal Crompton. I also loved Enid Blyton and the Biggles stories by W.E. Johns. Adults who think these books are no good are sourpusses. I LOVED them.

PP: Which other current writers for children do you admire?

PJ: There are heaps. But in Australia I will name Robin Klein and in Great Britain, Michael Morpurgo.

PP: Do you have a favourite bookshop?

PJ: There is one in Freemantle (Western Australia) that has leather arm chairs and you are allowed to sit down and read the books even if you don't buy. It is cluttered and busy and has rare books as well as new ones. I don't like spick and span bookshops with the spines out and no posters and seats.

PP: What might you be doing now if you hadn't become a writer?

PJ: I would have liked to have been a musician. I play the melodeon (button accordion) with my mate Terry. Everyone leaves the room when we start up but we have great fun.

PP: How 'green' are you?

PJ: I am bright green. In Australia we still have some virgin forest left which contains wonderful plants and animals untouched for thousands of years. There are people who would like to turn it all into woodchips and to make money.

I think we should leave it for our children and our children's children. I was very proud last year to receive the Australian Environment Award for a book I wrote with Jane Tanner (The Fishermen and the Theefyspray). It was about the last one of a particular type of fish. A fisherman caught it but... I won't spoil it by telling you what happens.

PP: Which place would you like to go where you haven't been?

PJ: Another planet. I used to wonder what I would answer if someone offered me a trip on a space ship and said that the final destination was so far away that I would never be able to return to earth. Would I go and see the wonderful sights or would I stay here with my friends and family? My mother did something like this when she brought me to Australia. She never returned 'home'.

PP: Which is your favourite country?

PJ: Oh, this is so tough. Do I choose England where I was born and lived for the first six years of my life? Or do I choose Australia where I grew up and where my children were born? I grew up in an English family, in Australia so love both countries.

But look, if I have to choose it's Australia. It's my home.

PP: What happened when you returned to England for the first time since emigrating to Australia?

PJ: My first trip back to England was when I was forty five years old. The plane stopped in Rome and a class of English school children in uniforms and caps got on the plane. I felt tears in my eyes because they reminded me of myself when I was little. When we flew over the white cliffs of Dover I looked down and saw English farm houses and patch work fields and I started to cry because it was so moving to be in the land of my birth. I went to Great Yarmouth and a lady on the pier spoke just like my mother used to she said, "it's five and twenty past six." Again this made me teary because my mother died long ago and for a second I thought it was her.

PP: How are Poms different from the Aussies?

PJ: I don't think they are different at all. Both countries share the same, self mocking sense of humour. I think there are less class differences in Australia but the English are more accepting of people who are eccentric.

PP: What's the most fun you've ever had with an 'Un' story?

PJ: It was Wunderpants. I couldn't think what to do with a shrunken pair of magic underpants. When it finally came to me I laughed out loud. It gave me a great finish to the story.

PP: What is your next book Uncovered about?

PJ: Well, I think it might be my weirdest book yet. It has nine short stories. One is about a boy who starts breeding rabbits under the house and ends up with thousands, all hidden from his parents. Another tale is about a girl who catches a burglar by wetting the bed. Then there's a yarn about birds that eat cats. This is not to mention the story about the face that grows on the bedroom wall. The last story in the book is called Pubic Hare (yes, correct spelling). One story in the collection came from my interest in time travel. You know the old thing about if you went back in time and killed your grandmother you would never have been born. But then if you had never been born you couldn't have gone back and committed the murder. Well I've written a story about a fourteen year old boy who goes back and meets himself when he was five. He brings the little version of himself back into the future. But this means that the fourteen year old would never have lived the years in between so he vanishes. Then the poor little kid is stuck nine years in the future all on his own. I had a lot of fun writing this story. I wish that time travel could happen. But I don't think it's going to because no one from the future has come back to visit us.

PP: What has given you the most satisfaction lately?

PJ: I think it is probably The Gizmo series of books. I have had a lot of letters from readers telling me they like them. I'm rapt that they are available in England.

PP: Any remaining ambitions?

PJ: At the moment I am writing the script for a feature movie called The Gizmo. I was very happy with the way the Round The Twist series was received and I hope I can do it again with a film.