Transcript from an interview with Sam McBratney

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Sam McBratney. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Sam McBratney

Hello, my name is Sam McBratney. I'm from Northern Ireland. I have been writing children's books for more than 40 years, about 60 or 70 of them at least. And I'm going to read you a couple of stories.

From Zane Grey to Mark Time

Tell us a bit about your background. What did you read as a child? What influence did that have on you becoming a writer?

I have always had an inclination to be a writer and I was a great reader when I was young. But I grew up in the early 50s. I was born in 1943 and times were hard. I mean, I would say I didn't eat a banana until I was about 11, you know. If you went down to the shop for a packet of sweets you had to have a ration coupon, you know, you didn't just hand over your Threepenny bit, you had to have a little coupon, which entitled you to buy the sweets as well.

Things were scarce, including books. So what was my early reading? You'll hardly believe this, but by the time I was 12 I had read about a dozen, must have been, well, maybe six, six or seven, anyway, Zane Gray westerns. This was because my father was a great fan of Zane Gray, loved reading westerns and he would leave them lying about the house and I would pick them up and I would read them.

And I would say I got into books in that way. Gradually more and more things became available specifically for children. Like Enid Blyton's series of books, the Ship of Adventure and all that. But on the whole I would say that my interest in children's literature just derives from the fact that I am basically an introspective character. And I hardly knew what I'm thinking until I see it written down, you know.

So even at Trinity I used to carry kind of a book about with me where I would record, Trinity College in Dublin, a university, where I would record all my thoughts. And the first things I wrote after Trinity was a series of articles about local history, because I trained as a historian. And then my first book was published in 1976. And since then I have been writing, as you say, books for children of all ages and the Mark Time book, Mark Time was the first one, 1976 and it was billed as a fast moving story set in Northern Ireland.

Of course you remember the bombs and the bullets and the deaths and the sectarian warfare, you know. But actually it's a love story. It's a pre puberty love story about a little boy who's 11 and he knows at the end of the year he's going to be going to one school and the little girl that he quite fancies is going to another school. And that aspect of it is obviously not highlighted in the blurb. But that's what it is; it's actually a very tender little story like that.

Origins of a classic

Your writing career took a very different direction when Guess How Much I Love You was published. How did this book come about?

What happened was, my publisher said to me one time when I was over in London, Sam, why don't you try a picture book? And I thought you needed to know an illustrator to write a picture book. And she says no, Sam, we haven't got people who can write a powerful story using hardly any words at all. So I said well, you regard yourself as a old pro now, Sam, so I thought, yeah, I'll write a picture book.

And I went back to a little fragment of an idea that I had used in an earlier book and I thought I really liked that little episode that would make a lovely picture book. And so I worked that up into a picture book. And I expected that picture book to go like all the others, all the other books, you know, might get five years out of it, might get six, then after that you'll not be able to buy it in the shops anymore, you know.

So I was at an award ceremony, another award ceremony. Lots of my books have won awards but you can't get them anymore. I was at an award ceremony and in I think London where the book didn't win, but my wife was talking to my agent at that time and my agent said, Marilyn, is he disappointed? And Marilyn said, who knows me awfully well, Gina note that he's here and he hasn't won, he'll be raging but it won't fizzle him tomorrow morning, you know.

Gina said, the agent, but doesn't he know he's a winner already, it has sold 100,000 copies. And Marilyn said, well, he doesn't know that. Now that was then. And within a year I think it had sold a million copies.

Well, it's now at 28. And just a fortnight ago, Walker Books in London informed me that a Latin American country, again a social, working with the government I've got that philanthropic organization, working with the government and operating within the confines I suppose of a social program type of thing, ordered one million copies of Guess How Much I Love You, just like that, just somebody walks in off the street and ordered a million copies, you know.

So that's how successful the book became. And the book was published in '94 and it's now, what 2011, and I keep saying to Marilyn, you know, this can't go on. But it does go on. It just doesn't stop. They keep selling you know the million odd copies a year.

Universal stories

When you wrote Guess How Much I Love You, did you realize that it was such a universal story?

I did come to see how universal it was. It travels everywhere. Three years ago they published a Chinese addition with a print run of 10,000 copies. And the print run this year is for a quarter of a million. And at the end of next year they'll have sold over a... It's a book that travels as you say. And it even travels back in time, you know, there's nothing in the book to date it.

I can imagine Miriam playing Guess How Much I Love You with little Moses on the banks of the Nile, for example, you know. The only thing that dates it in Anita's drawings, there were no clothes, there's no furniture, there's no knives and forks, there's no tables, you know it's two hares in a field is a strand of barbed wire, a strand of wire, you know, which dates it, I must admit, post industrial revolution, you know. But apart from that the thing, the illustrations are actually timeless as well.

Guess How Much I Love You

Will you read Guess How Much I Love You for us?

Would you like me to read it? Here we go. Guess How Much I Love You, written by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Anita Jeram.

"Little Nutbrown Hare, he was going to bed, held on tight to Big Nutbrown Hare's very long ears. He wanted to be sure that Big Nutbrown Hare was listening. 'Guess how much I love you,' he said. 'Oh, I don't think I could guess that,' said Big Nutbrown Hare. This much said Little Nutbrown Hare, stretching out his arms as wide as they could go.

"Big Nutbrown Hare had even longer arms, 'but I love you this much' he said. That is a lot thought Little Nutbrown Hare. 'I love you as high as I can reach' said Little Nutbrown Hare. 'I love you as high as I can reach' said Big Nutbrown Hare. That is quite high thought Little Nutbrown Hare. I wish I had arms like that.

"Then Little Nutbrown Hare had a good idea. He tumbled upside down and reached up the tree trunk with his feet. 'I love you all the way up to my toes' he said. 'And I love you all the way up to your toes' said Big Nutbrown Hare swinging him up over his head. 'I love you as high as I can hop' laughed Little Nutbrown Hare, bouncing up and down.

"'Well, I love you as high as I can hop' smiled Big Nutbrown Hare. And he hopped so high that his ears touched the branches above. That's good hopping, thought Little Nutbrown Hare. I wish I could hop like that. 'I love you all the way down the lane, as far as the river,' cried Little Nutbrown Hare. 'I love you across the river and over the hills,' said Big Nutbrown Hare.

"That's very far thought Little Nutbrown Hare. He was almost too sleepy to think anymore. Then he looked beyond the thorn bushes, out into the big dark night, nothing could be further than the sky."

Significant moments

Where do your stories come from? Is there a particular approach that you take?

Well, there's no such thing as a formula. You cannot say writing a picture book — good ones — is a formula. But I do have an approach, which I tend to take. And I would summarize it by saying I tend to look for significant moments of interaction between a big one and a wee one, usually parent and child. I try to render that, I try to describe that interaction truthfully and I try to render it with a light touch.

That would basically sum up my approach to writing. At the heart of all these book there is an emotion content, not like the wonderful one about the caterpillar, what do you call that, you know, famous picture book about the caterpillar, The Hungry Caterpillar, yes. There isn't a lot of emotional content in that, I mean, there's a world of difference between that book and that book, but it's a different approach, you know.

I'm looking for these moments of interactions and trying to describe them.

395 words

How is writing picture books is different than writing novels?

When my editor warned me about the writing me the picture books, or said to me why don't you write a picture book, she did say people think it's easy, Sam, but it's not easy. And it took me six months. The difference in approach is enormous, because it's an entirely different discipline. And for those six months every word you write is fighting for its place on the page, you know.

And there's only 395 words in Guess and you know sometimes the longer novels for children would be, I mean, that thick, you know, 80,000 words. So the discipline is so different. There has to be, one of the big problems you really have to solve is names. It's rather like, it's rather like Dickens, you know, I mean, one of the great things about Dickens is the names, the names, you know, his choice of names, you know, Uriah Heep, just an unctuous, awful creature.

But the name of the hero if you like in the picture book is going to be repeated so often, said Little Nutbrown Hare, said Big Nutbrown Hare, you got to get that right. And that took a long time. I knew I didn't want it to be bears because there were a lot of bear stories about at that time, and I was just sitting in the kitchen one day when from somewhere in that remote land between the ears out popped Little Nutbrown Hare. And where that came from I have no idea, but it's just so perfect, you know.

And I love hares anyway. And Anita Jeram has so beautifully captured the ugly, awkward gangly-ness of hares, I mean, they're not bunnies. I mean, people call them rabbits and I get reaction about that, you know, they're hares. And it's one of the triumphs of the book I think to get the name Little Nutbrown Hare and to have them so wonderfully rendered by Anita.

All My Favorites

You and illustrator, Anita Jeram, have collaborated on another warm and reassuring picture book but not with hares but bears. Tell us about You're All My Favorites.

Yes. Later on, yes, after about five or six years then I did do bears, yes, I did You're All My Favorites. And she was able to create a different style for the book, You're All My Favorites. And it is one of my favorites, I just love it. I have three children of course, you know, so that's where that comes from, you know. Would you like me to read you that one as well?

You're All My Favorites, written by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Anita Jeram. "Once upon a time there was a mother bear, a father bear and three baby bears. A first baby bear, a second baby bear and a third baby bear. Whoever took them in at night always said the same thing to them. You are the most wonderful baby bears in the whole wide world.

"One night after their mommy bear had tucked them in, and after she had said you are the most wonderful baby bears in the whole wide world, the baby bears began to wonder, 'but how do you know' they asked their mommy bear? 'How do you know we are the most wonderful baby bears in the whole wide world?'

"'Because your daddy told me said mommy bear. When your daddy saw you on the night that you were born he said, and I remember it very well, he said those are the nicest baby bears I have ever seen. They are the nicest baby bears anyone has ever seen.' That was a good answer. The three baby bears snuggled down as content as could be.

"But one day the first baby bear began to think. He wondered if the other two bears were better than he was. They had patches after all and he did not, maybe his mommy really, really liked patches. And the second baby bear began to wonder maybe the daddy loves the other two more than me, she thought, they were boy bears after all and she was not.

"And the third baby bear began to wonder, I'm only the littlest, he thought, everybody's bigger than me. So that night the three baby bears asked their daddy bear 'but which one of us do you like most? Who is your favorite? We can't all be the best!'"

Messing about with words

Real feelings are presented while you pattern and play with language. Talk about your use of words.

You're right, I just love messing about with words, you know. It's like you know as did, what do you call them, Alice in Wonderland, who was that, the time has come the walrus said to speak of many things, of shoes and ships and ceiling wax and cabbages and kings. Sealing wax, you know, I've never used sealing wax, but I just love saying that.

Now here's one of mine, okay? If you got one moose, that's a moose, right? If you have two mooses, the word mooses is ridiculous. So I have this suggestion, okay, if mouses are mice and gooses are geese, what excuses have mooses for not being meese? Officially there's no such word as meese, right, but you know don't you agree meese sounds better than moose? So there's our little example of absurdity, you know.

A little problem called fractions. I've always thought that the giraffe is the most absurd animal on the planet, fractions, and this is from the little book of poems that you can't get over here. But the illustrator has drawn a giraffe and beside the giraffe a ladder and again a ladder with a measuring tape. It's called fractions, one-third, two-thirds. How much of a giraffe is neck? It might be hard to check. Playing about with words like that I just love it, you know. You're quite right. So whereas with many of the books you're aiming just to describe something as truthfully as possible, you know, it's also possible to be off the wall and zany (ph.), I like that side of it too.

I do try to get humor into everything and humor does occur. I mean, some of the most bizarre — I mean I've just observed — even at funerals. I mean, you can't keep humor out of life, but you can't go overboard either. And I do tend to make the humor as naturally as possible and to make it clear as in the moose thing, you know where I'm being just ridiculous. But, yes, humor does play a big part in the things that I write, including the longer novels, yes. Some of them it's hard to get humor into.

Stories old and new

You've got an interest in folktales and other traditional literature. What influence has this had on your writing for children?

I've been collecting these stories in One Voice, Please for 30 years, old stories that everybody's familiar with like the Pied Piper right through to ones they're not familiar with. And unfortunately, and I'm ashamed of this being a historian you know I haven't got records of where I found them, but you know I would just, I would write them out and so I don't know when, but then I would say from Hungary.

There's one from Hungary called Not Speaking. This pair have an argument; they refuse to speak to one another and they sort of come to an agreement that whoever speaks first... neither of them will shut the door — and they agree who speaks first will be the one who shuts the door. Well, the door stays open, you know, because there's a battle to be won.

So in come a hoard of mice and the hoard of mice eat through a sack of their corn. Did he speak? Did she speak? Did either of them shut the door? No. Next day a lone wolf comes slinking by, attracted by the open door eats all the smoked fish that are hanging in the chimney. Does he speak? Does she speak? Did either of them shut their door? No, no. A big bear comes lumbering out of the forest, stooping to enter through the un-shut door. And he picks you know a plank there and a beam there, and the house falls down. There wasn't even a door left.

Him and her are sitting up in bed looking up at the sky in amazement. And we don't know who spoke first, but let's hope that they were thinking maybe I should have spoken, I should have said something, you know, I should have shut the door. Now is there anybody in the world who hasn't been not speaking, brother not speaking to sister, best friend not speaking to best friend, school friend not speaking to, husband not speaking to wife, you know.

And the story just had such an echo of, it caught so well that the absurdity of that situation. And I wrote a little picture book then called I'm Sorry. And although you wouldn't see the link necessarily between the two stories that's what inspired it, because the two children fall out and it ends up if my friend was as sad as I am sad this is what she would do, she would come and say I'm sorry. And I would say sorry too.

So the link between that ancient story and that modern picture book is right there.

Family reading

Was there a tradition of sharing books and stories when you were growing up? Did you have a tradition with your own children?

Well, I made up stories every night for the children on the way up to bed, you know, said bed time for all monkeys, up you go. And I made up this character called Wise Eyes. And he had Coby, the Wolf, and there was Gormus, the Gorilla, and there was Rigamortis, he was a rat. And every night I would tell them a story about those characters, you know. Yes, is the answer to that one.

But back home, no. I remember saying ... this is true. I can hardly believe this is true, but this is true. I remember my mother saying to me like, what are you going to do, you know, later on in life or whatever, you know? And I said to her I might be a poet. There was a long pause and she said, you know you can be put in jail for stealing other people's words.

You know looking back on that, I ask myself, it is true, but that was the attitude in our family. How can you be a poet? How could you write words, you know? So the answer to that is no. Having said that, my father was a very I would say avid reader himself. I've mentioned the Zane Gray books and he didn't read anything highbrow, but he used to work as a compositor at the Belfast Telegraph, that's setting the print, you know, that's all gone now obviously, they do it a different way, but he would set the print.

And my brother and I used go through the paper looking for mistakes, you know, and then we blamed them on him, we said, look, daddy, you made a mistake there, you know. But there wasn't the tradition of books or book reading in the family, you know. My mother read Women's Weekly. So did I, there was nothing else, I read those as well, People's Friend and ... but there wasn't a tradition in our house of telling stories. But in my family stories are paramount.

Although when my children grew up and went to university what did they study? Computer science, physics, Empirical College, business studies, Belfast University, you know. There's not a historian among them.

But they are readers, yes, they are.

Further adventures of the Nutbrown Hares

What are you working on currently?

I'm working on another collection of four little stories about the Nutbrown Hares called Here, There and Everywhere. The latest stories about the Hares is called, Guess How Much I Love You All Year Round. Short little pieces in which the Hares explore, they're little adventures based on the seasons. Here, There and Everywhere explores their space.

One's called On Clarity Mountain, one is The Far Field, one's The Hiding Tree and one's Coming Home. And there's a little adventure related in each. For example, they go up Clarity Mountain and Big Nutbrown Hare sees you know Little Nutbrown Hare is busy blowing dandelions. Did they do that over here? Blow dandelions for time? And then Big Nutbrown Hare says we better go now we could be in trouble.

And Little Nutbrown Hare says but I'm still blowing. He's raging about the fact that he has to go, but Big Nutbrown Hare makes him go. So down they come. And four little stories like that in which they explore the space around them. I love those. I really think those are very nice. And I'm also tidying up a historical novel I have about Dorothy Osborne who lived in the 17th Century. She was the wife of Sir William Temple, and a diplomat at that time.

And the story is based on her diaries. She wrote a diary of her relationship with Temple. And it's just the most wonderful... When I came across the diaries I was absolutely astonished. I did a radio play about that. I wrote, it was called Coward of the Heart. And I'm working on transposing that into a, I'm trying to get somebody interested in that to publish it as a novel. So that's what I'm on at the moment.

Ghost story

You've also written a book about ghosts. Can you tell us about that spooky story?

The ghost story was one of the few early stories of mine that was published over here in the states. It was The Ghost of Hungry House Lane. Hungry House Lane is a lane near us. It sounds like Hungry House Lane. There might be a connection with the famine there. But I've always been intrigued by the name. So I wrote a story called The Ghost of Hungry House Lane. But I don't like the horror genre. I don't like fantasy genre.

I love science fiction, but I hate, I just cannot see myself sitting from eight o'clock at night, which is when I work until 11 o'clock at night having been a teacher, you know, I've always worked after tea. I couldn't see myself sitting there trying to squeeze out of my imagination something horrible, you know, or something that's going to shock and amaze... That doesn't appeal to me at all.

So when I wrote a ghost story, I wrote it with what you're saying a light touch. And what happens is the ghost themselves, the children are pretty awful, and then they hear that the houses that they're staying in is haunted, they say great, you know, let's find them, you know, let's find the ghosts, not the other way around or let's get out of here.

A writer's Holy Grail

What do you love most about writing children's books?

I just love the idea that you know somewhere in the world tonight some mom or dad is going to be reaching down a copy of a book that I wrote and reading it to the most precious thing they have in the world, you know. For writers that's the Holy Grail. And that gives me enormous pleasure.

I just love that idea of being connected with all these anonymous people too, you know. Forget about the royalties, you know, they're nice too, but it's the connection that you make with this enormous readership, which is thrilling, you know. So anybody listening you know get out, get back home, dig out that manuscript you might have there on the top drawer or that idea you might have rattling about the back of your mind, get it down on paper. Start now. Do it.

Aspiring writers

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I mean, it is hard to make a living. You need to get lucky like I got lucky or like J.K. Rowling got lucky, you know, with the Harry Potter books, you know, you need luck. So you're not going to make a fortune, probably. But it is a tremendously satisfying thing to do if you're a certain type of person.

For example, like I was saying when I went to that theme park I just thought to myself I could write a book here. I was standing in the classroom one time, it must have been a November day, half past three, beginning to get dark in Northern Ireland, and I noticed a star in the sky and I thought, they're all doing a big of work for a change behind me, you know, quiet, and I thought wouldn't it be great to take this lot on a school trip up there, you know.

And I went home and I started the book that night. And it became The School Trip to the Stars. And that's another little book that I'm very fond of, which nobody can get a hold of anymore. So I would say that I would stress the sheer satisfaction of creating this product. And when you try to get it published, there will be frustration. You're going to run up what I call the sorrow of the rejection slip.

Publishers are going to send it back, if they even bother to send it back, and they're going to say I'm sorry, but this is not for us at the present time. And the best piece of advice there is just keep writing, keep going, you know.

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges