Real! Bearable! And Believable!

Fay Gardiner, "Scan", May 1991. Fay Gardiner talked with Paul Jennings at his home outside Melbourne at the end of 1990.

During an interview last year Maurice Saxby remarked that Paul Jennings not only has a direct line to children but is also a very nice man. His direct line was exemplified in the overwhelming vote from the children in the 1990 KOALA awards, when Paul Jennings' volumes accounted for 4 of the top 10 secondary books including the winner.

His good nature was evident when this non-Melburnian, having been lost along the Victorian freeway system for an hour, arrived 15 minutes late for our interview, minus the tape recorder, forgotten in the last minute throes of packing for a holiday of which this interview was to be a major highlight. Although not all of the 6 children of Paul and Clare Jennings still live at home; that ubiquitous and ageless toy, the cassette player, is still a feature of the household and Paul without complaint provided the means of recording the interview.

The hallmark of a Paul Jennings story may be bizarre good humour, but its birthplace is a small timber-lined study secreted at the top of a short flight of stairs and perched among trees which are part of an extensive and idyllic garden. Don't tell your Paul Jennings fans, who think he's a tattooed biker, but gardening is one of Paul's interests.

I read all the time and I guess that's probably my main relaxation. I'm interested in cars; I've got a little sports car which is my missed youth coming out. We go skiing every year, that's something I like doing. And the garden; I love the garden, and just doing things with the family.

Actually, Clare thinks I should do more because gardening is very solitary, and writing's a very solitary thing too, although writing for television is much more gregarious; you've got other people all the time. I'd like to get involved with Amnesty International but I just can't stand committee meetings. Anything where you're sitting around making decisions, I hate. When you write a book you do it all your own way: you develop the characters so you make it go your way. If it's a fIop it's your fault and if it's a success you get the reward. So I don't do a lot of things that involve clubs and that sort of thing.

The writer reads ...

A great variety of things. I just finished reading the latest Rumpole book which I really like, it's a bit of light reading for the holiday. I consume an enormous amount of short stories, including those of Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry, Edgar Allen Poe, John Collier. Except for Ray Bradbury who's still writing, they're all authors from another era. But they're ones who know how to tell a tale, and I don't really have much time for the slice of life type of short story that's very fashionable at the moment. I like a plot and a good ending. That probably shows in my writing. I read the classics. I was thinking the other day I might start reading Dickens again; I haven't read Dickens for a long time. I keep my eye out for anything new. This year I read a story called Perfume by Susskind which was an adult fantasy which I really enjoyed, and I've just finished a book called Churchill's Black Dog which is a wonderful book written by Anthony Storr, a psychiatrist, about depression in creative people especially writers, and I found that quite fascinating.

As a child, Paul's reading included Richard Crompton's William books . . .

. . I still like them. They were a big influence on me, and unlike most humour, they've lasted really well. Humour doesn't travel very well over the generations because it becomes adapted into the folklore of the country or the culture and the jokes get known and they're not funny anymore. So you don't expect humour to last more than 20 or 30 years and if you read anything funny from the last century, it's invariably not funny, and you wonder why they thought it was funny. I also read all the Enid Blyton books; I tended to go in series: I read all the Sapper Bulldog Drummonds, all the Scarlet Pimpernels, and then later all the John Wyndham short stories. And now I know a lot of kids are reading mine. It doesn't worry me, that kids get stuck into a series. My daughter's reading The Babysitters at the moment, which I don't like, but it's just a stage; she'll get off it, like other people get off Paul Jenning's books.

Children may move on from Paul Jennings books, but they are the entry point for so many children, essentially because of their humour, which Paul believes is a genre not really appreciated by the literati.

The importance of story

Whilst Paul agrees that another doorway to reading is the much neglected area of non-fiction, he believes it is vital that children have access to story.

I feel very strongly about that. Children should be exposed to stories because stories have a humanising effect on the child. It's through the story that you really become a member of the culture, because all our beliefs and myths and values are laid down in stories and also because that's how people learn what's inside of other people's heads. I've often said that you can't kick an old lady to death on a train if you can be her inside your head, which is what happens in the story: the reader becomes the main character; its all happening to them. This is why I don't spend a lot of time describing what the character is like unless there's something in the story which is relevant to it. The reader knows what that person looks like: he or she looks like them, even if it's a person of the opposite sex. This is why I'm so annoyed about what television is doing: kids who don't read turn to television for the story and they don't get it. Soapies are not really proper stories; they're little incidents. You have 5 or 6 threads running through them and because they're not able to sustain a proper plot, with a beginning, middle, climax and end, they have these mini peaks and they keep cutting off. As well they are often very adult orientated and I feel very strongly that children should get proper stories with heroes and heroines and problems and laughter and they don't. I got a letter which made me smile, from a little girl who had seen The copy on television as part of Round the Twist. In it the children open the cupboard and there's a copying machine. They copy lollipops and money and all sorts of things and in the end Linda copies herself so another girl appears who's exactly the same as her. This little girl who wrote to me said 'After we saw that, we went round the house and opened every cupboard, but there was nothing.' This had hit the spot for her. That's what children are entitled to: a proper story written for them.

The genesis of a Jennings story

Paul's stories are often bizarre and usually humorous. Are they the product of a fertile imagination or does real life play its part?

Quite clearly most of the fantastic things couldn't have happened to me: I never had a copying machine, or lost my false teeth down the toilet or saw a ghost, or had a flock of birds attack me, dropping dung on me. I didn't have a machine that could make people older or younger, so those things am purely imaginative, but they only work if I put them in a real setting. Right from the start I decided against the fantasy of knights and pumpkin coaches and so on. I like that sort of fantasy, there's a place for it, but I decided my type of fantasy would be today's world, so I keep a very close eye on what today's world is like, and then I make the fantastic happen inside it and that gives the fantasy a lot more power: the kids do really want it to happen to them. It would be wonderful if there was more to the world than what you saw. If I'm going to have a dragon, it's going to be down the drain outside their school. In fact this picture-book that I've done, called Teacher Eater is exactly that: the dragons live just like dogs in an everyday world and that gives it a lot more power because the kids would like it to happen to them. My ideas come from a mixture of real life incidents that happened to me, imposed upon and interwoven with the fantasy, which gives it a certain reality. My publishers have told me that there are lots of people trying to copy my books, but it never worries me because it's my world in there, how I felt and laughed and cried, and saw things. Nobody else can ever see it that way. I work very, very hard to get to the ideas. In fact I said at the talk I gave at the International Reading Association 3 years ago, that I had an idea about a boy walking to school with his head in a bird cage, and I didn't know what to do with it. All I know was that he was walking to school with his head in the bird cage. I worked and sweated on that for ages and that book has just been published with that picture on the cover of the book.

That was no good. Then I had a dog in it, and a girl with her own special chooks. None of this worked. For some reason I've got a green grandfather on the next page and I left that, I couldn't think of anything about it. In the meantime I wrote another story. I came back to Ten yukky fried chickens again. There is this poor old maggotty cat which can round up mice and it has to be put down. There is a mouse plague. In the end I made it about a cat that couldn't catch mice, and it's still going, page after page, and still called Ten yukky fried chickens and then finally down here, finished at last! I've got a little note to myself: 'Julie, my editor, rang and said she likes it, but put in the girl as the shop would have more staff.'

Childhood

As one would expect from an author who appeals so strongly to children, Paul is very interested in the topic of childhood. Gillian Rubinstein once wrote that she thinks most children's writers had an unhappy childhood. I've had quite a few talks to her about it. First I didn't agree. When I reflected on my own childhood, it seemed to be a very happy one, my parents were very caring parents; they didn't have a lot of arguments; there were no divorces. But one of the the overriding emotions I felt continually was guilt. My father had very high expectations; he was a very ambitious man. Although he was a very generous father in terms of his time and his money, he had enormous expectations and I never ever felt I lived up to them. I remember feelings of guilt that I didn't do this well enough or that well enough. When my best friend failed his HSC, or matriculation as it was in those days, my father said to me, 'If he failed, you wouldn't pass.' So he took me out of school and I went to teacher's college. In those days you didn't need matriculation because there was a shortage of teachers. Many years later I had the pleasure of inviting my father to come to my graduation when I took my university degree and even then I felt that he felt I should have got the honours that were the reward for the top student. But I also had enormous latitude because the world was different then. So I was always off on my bike. I'd just go in the morning with my friends and come back in the evening. Our parents would never know where we'd been: down drains, making rafts, catching frogs, exploring the forest. I grew up in Moorabbin but I used to come up here [Dandenogs] a lot on my bike. There was a lot of adventure, everything was an adventure. I have fond memories of getting out with my mates and just having lots of fun. verywhere, take them to tennis, take them to cubs, take them to this and pick them up, always worrying that they'll be abducted so the entertainment's all in the home or on television. It's strictly supervised. s.

Certainly embarrassment is a theme that constantly appears in Paul's stories.. ... there is an element in laughing, that something's happening to this poor person and you as the reader are sort of superior. Embarrassment is such a big part of the child's world. It's part of everybody's world but especially [that of] children because they're trying to work out all the rules. They don't know them. I can remember thinking once that secretly everyone could read my mind, and they all knew what a fool I was and all the silly things I was thinking. That was a really awful thing to be thinking at that particular time, and children are always trying to make sense of the adult world that's around them: it's got all these rules and they don't know the rules of the game so they're constantly getting it wrong. I do like to show that. When my kids went to high school you couldn't wear white socks under jeans for some reason, that was absolutely taboo, and if you didn't know that rule everybody pointed. About 4 years later you had to wear white socks under jeans; if had completely changed about. Of course it makes no sense, fashion is completely illogical, but you've got to be perceptive to know, and the kids who are not perceptive enough end up being called 'dags'. I've watched little kids watching the episode of Round the Twist called Without my pants, when the boy can't stop saying 'without my pants' on the end of every sentence, and the little kids just find it so funny. They just laugh and laugh, the poor kid is so embarrassed. He asks this girl, 'Will you come out with me, without my pants.' They think its so funny because it's so embarrassing for the poor kid. Embarrassment is a feature of nearly all the funny stories but not the serious ones, I always put in a number of serious stories which do have a little message of some sort in there, not didactic, not hit-over-the-head, but with just a little something to

Father-son relationships

Many of Paul Jennings stories are about father-son relationships. Paul agrees that they stem from his own relationships, both as son and father. I was just looking at one of those Far side cartoons, an autobiographical thing actually, and he was saying his father used to send him off for a spanner and his father always knew the sizes of them. My father was like that. He'd say, "Go and get me a 5/16th Whitworth," and I wouldn't have the foggiest. I'd bring spanner after spanner. He'd never go and get it, he'd always keep sending me back. He was an engineer so he'd know them all. But when I write I never make it that the children don't like their father or their mother, because we know from research that most children love their parents no matter what, even those who abuse them. And most parents love their children, So I don't set parents up to be cruel or nerds. Some people have said my work's like Roald Dahl's. Well, I don't ever have cruel parents because I'm not writing social realism, I'm writing fantasy and I don't need to. In some genres you would have a cruel parent and it'd be OK, but not the sort of thing that I'm writing. I always have parents that children like, and I suppose it is based on my relationship with my own kids; I hope they like me. In my stories children do send their parents up a lot: they play tricks on their parents and the parents aren't in the know. And that is true, you just don't know what's going on. You think you do, but you don't know half of it or even close to that.

The Jennings audience

This is Paul's second year of writing full time. He was previously a teacher and lecturer in the field of special education. It was during his period of special education teaching that he became interested in the teaching of reading. Paul's 'direct line' to children makes him an ideal choice for engaging the previously unenthusiastic reader. Do teachers in secondary schools use his books for this purpose? Yes, a lot of schools set them in class sets which I don't really agree with, because not everybody likes Paul Jennings the same as everybody doesn't like someone else. I don't mind them having half a dozen in the grade and half a dozen of something else so students can choose which one they're going to read or work with. I do get lots and lots of letters from teachers saying, 'He never read anything until I gave him Unreal' and I'm really delighted with that. My books, particularly Quirky Tales which I wrote deliberately for older kids, are read by secondary kids. Quirky Tales is conceptually much harder, although the little kids read it too which I was really surprised about. I've even had year 1ls and parents write to me and say they like them. But I usually consider my target years 5, 6, 7 and 8 for my collections. After year 8 they're starting to want books which explore other issues in more depth. They like to read books which explore violence or death or loneliness, and are starting to open up the adult world for them. I usually feel that mine are starting to run out then. I never accept invitations to speak above year 8 because though there are kids who like my books above year 8, they're starting to move on to something else.

Jennings in translation

Paul's books now appear in many other languages. Are there major changes made to suit the particular culture? No, I'm happy to say, I don't think I've ever changed anything. We have had to make some changes in my next book that I'm doing with Ted Greenwood and Terry Denton but that's because it's a games book based on words and it would be unfair to use colloquialisms in England and America as the answer to the puzzles. We had a wonderful title which was The Battery Chook, [in spoonerism The Chattery Book]. It just had a nice image but we had to change that because they don't know what a chook is in England and America. But I've never done that in any of my short stories and as far as I know the ones that have gone to England have remained with all their colloquialisms. The Cabbage Patch Kid, is called The Baby from the Red Cabbage, in Dutch because when you ask 'Where does a baby come from?' they say, 'The red cabbage', so that makes sense.


    This article featured in Scan volume 10, number 2 in May 1991