Picture the scene…
A man, in his late twenties, staring at the large grey cloud looming on the horizon with 30 written on its side. It’s drifting closer and closer…
It had all seemed so promising. Throughout his school years and those awkward teenage stages, he had always been told that he would CERTAINLY be destined to end up being something creative. His history, science and maths teachers would constantly tell him off, yelling “YOU CAN’T KEEP MAKING THINGS UP!!” Yet his English teacher would lavish A’s on his ever imaginative, ever-increasing story writing and his Art teacher would pat him on the back and buy him a pint after school (teachers, especially Art teachers, were like that in the Eighties…)
So where did it all go wrong? He left school so full of hope and dreams. Full of ideas. Full of himself. He would be a writer! An illustrator! A scribbler of words and pictures! Now, where do I go to get a job doing these things, please?
It turns out that living near Derby in the East Midlands of the UK isn’t exactly a hotbed of creative opportunities. Job Centres were scoured, and newspaper ads were poured over, but nothing remotely connected to being a best-selling, worldwide adored author was anywhere to be seen. Next best thing? Chocolate factory. (I suppose it at least had some literary connection…)
So, our intrepid hero, in a desperate uninspiring attempt to pay rent and eat, went to work in a factory making chocolates and fudge. Sweet it wasn’t.
His dreams of writing were put up on the shelf like the still-warm Vanilla and Walnut Truffles fresh off the conveyor belt.
After that came stints in supermarkets, a cinema, a greyhound stadium and, where we find him now, in a department store selling greetings cards, envelopes, paper, pens and notebooks. Stationery in the job, stationary in career…
Except that today is different! It’s a boring Tuesday in 1999. No customers for hours. Our disgruntled and frustrated friend picks up a pen (RRP £7-99) and begins to doodle pictures on paper bags. He then scribbles little funny poems to go with these pictures. They make him smile as he remembers how he used to enjoy writing and drawing, so much, a few years ago. Before the Dark Times. Before proper jobs and real life.
Feeling a glimpse of inspiration, he uses his welcome lunch hour to go to the nearest book shop and find a book that is similar in style to his paper bag poems. He writes down the address of the publishers, he buys a large envelope (thinking back, he probably should have bought it from his place of work to get a staff discount) and in a rare burst of happiness and self-fulfilment, throws the paper bags in and posts them off. He strolls back to an afternoon of selling ‘Get Well Soon’ cards to the shoppers of Derby but now with the faintest of flutters in his hopeful heart, for today he has done something positive.
Fast forward a few weeks and our card-selling wannabe author has forgotten all about his rush of blood. There are pens to be sold! Wrapping paper to be re-arranged! There’s…wait…WHAT?!? There’s a letter to read??
Sure enough, a letter from a small publisher in Yorkshire. They would like to publish those scruffy-looking paper bag poems and pictures. He can’t believe it! ME?! These things don’t happen to ME?!?
But they did.
My scribbles on bags had attracted the interest of a real-life book publisher. I wept. I punched the air. I went over to the ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ section to select myself a card.
Except that I didn’t leave for a year or two. It turns out that having a book published doesn’t guarantee wealth, fame and gold-plated peacocks strutting around your massive front lawn. It was tremendous thrill seeing my name on a published book, but it didn’t immediately change my life. It was called ‘Bitey the Veggie Vampire and Other Weird Poems for Wacky Children’. It WOULD change my life…I just didn’t know it yet.
A few months later, the publishers asked for another book. I wrote ‘Wang Foo the Kung Fu Shrew and Other Freaky Poems Too’. This time on proper paper and not paper bags. I had 2 books out! But, again, despite feeling extremely happy and thinking all my Christmas’ had come at once, I was still selling Christmas cards.
But then, things started happening. The phone started ringing. Emails started pinging. It wasn’t me doing the work though. It was my 2 books. They were out in the big bad world, being read, being discovered and weaving their bookish magic in a way that you just can’t plan or concoct. It just happens. I was still opening tills, but my books were busy opening doors.
Schools started asking “Can you come in and read your poems to our children?” Book Festivals wanted me to come and present poetry writing workshops, a lady from the BBC enquired “May we use your poems for radio and TV?” Of course, whenever, whoever, asked, the answer would be “YES!”
I’d never done any performing or teaching or presenting whatsoever, but here was my escape route from my current life. If a school asked, “Can you come and show our Year 5’s how to write and illustrate a poem?” I said “Of course!” and worked out how to do it the day before going. I learnt by doing and, as with most things, the more you do it, the better you get. I was off and running.
It soon got busier and busier and harder to fit all the poetry-reading and performing into my days off and holidays from the day job. I decision had to be made. The job I disliked, or attempt a career in writing? A monthly wage or the scary rollercoaster of self-employment? Job security or “Hello credit cards!”
In the words of the mighty David Lee Roth… “Might as well jump”.
Did I make the right decision on that scary day I hung up the name badge that said: “My name is Christopher, How may I help you?”
Well, since that day I’ve had lots more books published and illustrated many for other authors. ‘Roar of the Dinnersaur’ for Olympia will be my 13th book. I’ve visited schools and book festivals all over the UK including the Edinburgh Book Festival. This has led to working abroad. I’ve visited festivals and schools in Dubai, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Jordan, Paris, Munich, Uzbekistan and even The Congo (where I taught a Congolese-speaking class how to write a poem. Don’t ask me how I did it as I’m not sure!)
So now, the performing part of my work sits hand in hand with the writing and drawing side. I never imagined that this would be what I ended up doing, but it’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it?
So, for me, writing has always been an escape. An escape from dull school lessons and boring jobs. It provided an escape from my last boring job! It allowed me to turn the page and escape from a life that was going nowhere fast.
That heady mixture of hard work, self-belief, luck, desire and that certain something that you can’t quite explain, came good in the end. I remember saying to myself as I held my first book, fresh out of the box, in my quivering hand, “Enjoy this whole ‘Being an author experience’, as it will all probably last for 6 weeks if I’m lucky.”
That was 18 years ago. You couldn’t make it up…