I won’t hold back. Lots of people who know about my love for children’s lit will have heard me talk in glowing terms about the work of Frank Cottrell Boyce, the respected film scriptwriter who turned to fiction with such success.
Ask me about my favourite contemporary children’s books and I’ll no doubt mention his first three novels.
In 2004 there was Millions, adapted from his own screenplay on the advice of the film’s director (and Frank’s good friend) Danny Boyle, a touching and funny story of two brothers who find a bag of money and work out how best to dispose of it.
Then there was Framed the following year, the author’s tale of a dying North Welsh community brought to life through an appreciation of art.
Next up was Cosmic in 2008, following a gifted and talented teen’s journey into space, one that might just have seemed a little far-fetched on paper, but was worked to seemingly-effortless perfection in the hands of this talented Liverpool-based writer.
There are others works deserving of praise too, not least The Unforgotten Coat, a 2012 Guardian Children’s fiction prize-winner.
And we also had a trio of books that should inspire a great love of reading for younger readers – his modern re-imagining of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang story.
It’s not just about a great way with words either. All three books provide great examples of darn good storytelling, engaging and believable characters, with plenty of warmth and pace.
I’ve been hoping to get an interview since I first fell for Framed (which I discovered before I read and saw Millions), but he’s become increasingly busy, a victim of his own success maybe.
The fact that the 55-year-old is a true family man with seven children and two grandchildren probably means his available time for interviews is limited in the first place.
Then there are all those films he’s helped pen since his formative days writing TV soap scripts for Brookside then Coronation Street.
I’ll mention here Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie, 24 Hour Party People, Grow Your Own, and last year’s The Railway Man. And there are plenty more. That’s some pedigree.
There was even a Dr Who last year, and you could argue that there’s a green-themed correlation between that episode – In the Forest of the Night – and his latest novel, The Astounding Broccoli Boy.
But let’s just cut to the chase now and point out how – after much negotiation – I finally managed to track Frank down to his publisher’s office in London on the lead-up to this year’s World Book Day, albeit while he was pre-signing books.
What’s more, a proper in-person meet followed six days later at that memorable event at Preston North End FC, with Frank just one of several high-profile children’s authors speaking to 5,000 North West schoolkids.
More will follow on that Deepdale extravaganza on this very blog within a couple of days. But for now, here’s the result of that first chat (bearing in mind that the WBD event mentioned has now happened!) – and plenty of Frank speaking.
Are you looking forward to World Book Day in Preston?
“Yes, it’s going to be brilliant, although I can’t imagine doing something like this in front of 5,000 kids! It’s going to be very different from reading to a class, but it’s such a great line-up. ”
I’m guessing you know most of the authors involved.
“Yes, and I’ve just been with Danny Wallace this morning. He‘s kind of a stand-up comedian anyway, and has his radio show, so he’ll be fine.
“Cressida Cowell’s seen a lot of success through the How to Train Your Dragon so she’ll be okay, and Cathy Cassidy’s just a superstar.”
And that just covers two-thirds of the day’s writing stars. Putting yourself into the shoes of the children seeing you on the day, was there ever anything like this in your day – seeing a hero or a writer?
“I love the idea of going to a football stadium to hear stories. That’s fantastic! A brilliant notion.”
Would you have had a writing hero by the time you were crossing into your teen years (the event age range spanned from eight to 13-year-olds)?
“By year eight I was in love with Richmal Crompton, who wrote the Just William books and was from this region. I thought she was amazing. And although I knew she was dead, she was still making me laugh!”
Did you enjoy writing as a lad and your English lessons at school? And did you have inspirational teachers?
“Yes, I think it was around year six when I picked up the bug, doing that thing where you can make people laugh without being there.
“I had an amazing teacher, Sister Paul at my primary school in Rainhill (near St Helens), who if I wrote something funny, would read it out to the class.
“I would sit at the back, and even to this day if I’ve got a film out or a play or whatever, I’ll just sit at the back and think it’s just like being back in Sister Paul’s class.”
I know you’ve mentioned the humour of E Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers books as another major influence before now.
“I think Edith Nesbit is the funniest writer we’ve ever had, bar none. In fact, on the train down I was reading one of her books – and do that a lot. I was reading The Amulet, an amazing story.”
Any tips for budding authors or young readers about to discover The Astounding Broccoli Boy who might fancy a crack at this writing malarkey?
“Just read a lot – read, read, read! In fact, I’ve just been involved with the BBC’s 500 Words competition, offering writing tips, with the closing date yesterday.”
I know all about that, not least as my youngest daughter left it right until the last couple of hours before submitting her finished story.
In fact, I add, she made the schoolgirl error of going back and reading her offering after clicking the send button, spotting a slight mistake which made her think she wouldn’t win.
“That really doesn’t matter at all. It’s not about that at all. It’s so great that competition. And you can reassure her that it’s around 60 per cent of entries that come on the last day, leaving it until the last minute.”
So is that how you work too?
“Yeah, definitely … on the bus.”
You must be good at this pitching business by now, so …. The Astounding Broccoli Boy – explain in a nutshell. Is it an everyday tale of a boy who turns green?
“It’s about a boy called Rory who’s always being picked on at school. He gets pushed into a river, and when he comes out he’s turned bright green.
“Everyone’s worried it’s some kind of infectious virus, so he’s locked away in a hospital, but Rory has a very positive outlook on life and looks at history to see who else has turned green.
“He comes up with The Incredible Hulk, Swamp Thing, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, and decides he’s got to be a superhero.
“He decides there’s nothing wrong with him and he’s just got super-powers, and this book is about him trying to find out what his super-power is.”
How long did The Astounding Broccoli Boy take to come together? Was it an idea nagging in the back of your head for a while?
“It took forever, and yeah, very much so. In fact, I have a blood disease and actually turn yellow if I get stressed, so I have had that experience of people looking at me.
“I’m not aware of the condition, but if I’m in a motorway café I‘ll suddenly be aware of people staring at me and know I’ve done that Incredible Hulk transformation and look like a daffodil.
What do you see yourself as first and foremost these days – children’s novelist or scriptwriter?
“Children’s novelist – first and last!”
Is scriptwriting just something you did in the past then?
“Yes, in quite a few cases it’s scripts I wrote a long time ago that have come to light, and sometimes someone offers you something that you feel you know exactly how to do, so you’ll do it.
“That’s fun too, and a nice thing to do … like Dr Who or whatever.”
Ah yes, Dr Who. I loved In The Forest of the Night on the last series. Any more Dr Who commissions in the pipeline?
“Not in this series, but I might in the series after.”
I see you recently succumbed to joining Twitter. Are you quite well structured with your writing days, or as easily distracted as most of us writers by social media?
“Well, there’s no internet in the house until the kids come home from school at around four o’clock.”
Are you an early morning or late-night writer?
“Definitely early morning.”
And do you write in long-hand or straight on to the computer?
“I’ve always written straight on to the computer, but the book I’m writing now I’m writing in a big notebook and I’m having such a great time.
“Maybe it takes you back to being at school, making you feel like a kid again. I’d recommend that.”
“Well, the kids have been great, to be honest. It doesn’t really make any odds them being in the house, particularly with the last couple of books.”
How old are your children now (yes, you did read that right before – Frank has seven altogether!).
“My youngest is 10 now, and I have a girl who’s 14, and they’re really interested in what I’m doing and I read it out to them.
“They’re really good at remembering continuity things that you’ve changed, or telling you straight what works and what doesn’t work.”
How old is your eldest child now?
“The oldest is going to be 30 this year, which is shocking!”
Have you moved on to grandad status yet?
“I’ve two grandchildren, with one four and one …. new, around six months old.”
Any of your children following in your writing footsteps?
“I’m co-writing something with my eldest son at the moment, a TV series set in the 19th century, based on a story he’s always loved.”
I was watching the adaptation of The Railway Man recently, and those scenes where Eric meets his wife-to-be on the train (played by Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) are so clearly Frank Cottrell Boyce-scripted.
“Ha! Yes, they’re very North-West, aren’t they! I think my favourite line in the whole film is when he says, ”If you think Warrington is fascinating, wait ‘til you get to Preston!”
I loved the films and books of Millions and Framed. Are we finally going to see Cosmic on our screens soon?
“I’ve had great luck and have an American producer called Janet Zucker, who just happens to know loads of astronauts, and is also involved in the SpaceX program, so it certainly looks like it will happen, which is amazing. And it’s certainly been fun working on it.”
There were author cameos in the Millions and Framed films, so are we likely to see you pop up in space too? And if so, will you have to undertake zero-gravity training for the job?
“Gotta do it! Got to have a spacesuit, yeah! Otherwise, it would be like doing Dr Who and not getting in the Tardis.”
How about a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remake?
“I was talking about this recently, because the Broccolis own the film rights for that … and that’s a weird thing after just writing The Astounding Broccoli Boy!
“I actually sent Barbara Broccoli a copy of the new book, and she was like, ‘Oh! Maybe we’ll make that!”
There was quite a bit of media excitement recently about the EastEnders’ anniversary shows. Ever been tempted to get back on the writing team at Coronation Street?
“I had such a great time doing that! It was wonderful … but it was like a full-time job.”
And seeing as soap stars often come back from the dead, there could be a Brookside revival maybe?
What was Proper Clever about, the play what you wrote (as Ernie Wise would say) for a Liverpool Playhouse show during the European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008?
“I wanted to get a play for younger people into The Playhouse, and it was a comedy set in school, with some of it set in cyberspace, with characters talking to each other but not always seeing each other. That was fun.”
Then there was the 2013 City of Culture work in ‘Stroke City’ (Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland). I recently spoke to someone involved alongside you, my Undertones guitar hero Damian O’Neill, and he told me what a smashing fella you were.
“He’s a great guy! And the O’Neill brothers were just great for that. They did everything for their city at the drop of a hat. If you asked them to do something, they did.
“I rang them to ask about composing a special piece of music, and they were really apologetic, saying, ‘We won’t be able to do this until Monday’!”
So were you a big Undertones fan (he asks, already knowing the answer)?
“Yes! Huge! I chose the Undertones for one of my Desert Island Discs (My Perfect Cousin, incidentally, with Frank’s great 2010 selection still available on the BBC iPlayer here) and absolutely idolise them!
“For the Capital of Culture event they did a gig in the Bogside in Derry, and I had my two youngest with me. And they will never know how lucky they were for their first gig! Unbelievable.”
From the City of Culture work to the recent UK papal visit – co-presenting with Carol Vorderman – and the London 2012 opening ceremony, we seem to see you pop up in unlikely places. What’s the next big unexpected thing you’re likely to be involved with?
“Oh no, no, no! I’m just going to sit and write books from now on!”
On that fantastic London 2012 opening ceremony, it was a wonderful celebration of some of the best aspects of this multi-cultural nation, from nods to the NHS and Welfare State to a light shone on our industrial heritage, Shakespeare, children’s lit, and so on. It should have been a proud moment for you. Did you get chance to enjoy it at the time?
“I think I did, because as the person who’s been doing the writing I had very little to do on the night. I was the only member of that five-man team that had any relaxation.
“That said, just before the event, I was queuing for chips with Thomas Heatherwick, the designer who worked on the new London bus and the Olympic cauldron, and we both said we felt really relaxed.
“But then I added, ‘As long as the cauldron doesn’t jam, because then that’s all people will remember’.
With that, the colour just drained from his face. So when the cauldron did close up, I lost my voice instantly. I must have been so worried.”
You’ve often spoken out on social justice issues and clearly have a campaigning streak, like fellow World Book Day star-turn Cathy Cassidy. In fact, both of you have strong views regarding saving the nation’s libraries.
“Absolutely. We’re living in a time of almost zero mobile mobility. And the one thing we know about libraries is that they’re key for that mobility.
“I know people who have extraordinary lives and have taken extraordinary routes, and anyone who hasn’t taken the normal route, when you talk to them, there’s always a library in the story.”
There are lots of other roles and accolades that have kept Frank busy in recent years – like his Professor of Reading position at Liverpool Hope University, his honorary Doctor of Literature title from Edge Hill University, and his patron’s role with the Insight Film Festival in Manchester.
So how do you fit it all in? Do Mrs CB and your children recognise you when you show up at home?
“I make sure that’s never compromised. I spend a lot of time at home.”
(I was starting to run out of time by now, but cracked on with my next deliveries, while Frank batted everything straight back at me with typical honesty and humour).
I believe it was Danny Boyle who first inspired you to write a children’s book. Are you still in regular touch?
“We speak a lot. He’s shooting at the moment, making a film about Steve Jobs. But he’s back soon.”
Everyone knows about Danny, of course, but you also worked alongside Michael Winterbottom a fair amount, another Lancashire lad – from Blackburn. I’m guessing you hit it off from the start.
“We did, and we made a lot of stuff together.”
At what point did you realise it was time to throw yourself in at the deep end and write full-time?
“I’ve never had a job, and I’ve never done a day’s work in my life!”
“No … why would anyone?”
Did a new life in, for example, Hollywood never appeal to you?
“Not at all, and it’s give you an edge anyway, being here. “
At that point, Frank’s finally about to be whisked off and back to his huge pile of books to sign ahead of World Book Day, but I manage to ask him two more questions before he’s carried out by the ankles.
First, I have a big dilemma to address here. Should I file your books under C or B … or just go with F?
“Definitely C. Yeah!”
Finally, of all your big moments so far – from the first script commission to the Carnegie Medal (for Millions) and first public appearance, London 2012, and so on, is there a career moment that outstrips the rest?
“For me it’s always when you get the first copy of a book. There’s just something really amazing about that – bigger than any premiere or anything else, thinking, ‘There it is’.
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce is available from Pan Macmillan in paperback and hardback from March 26.
Keep checking this blog for a similarly in-depth Cathy Cassidy interview and a feature from this year’s mammoth World Book Day 2015 event at Preston North End FC.
* With thanks to Catherine Alport and Leanne Bennett at Macmillan Children’s Books, plus World Book Day 2015 North West regional organisers Jake Hope and Elaine Silverwood.