With A F Harrold’s new book, The Afterwards, being published this month, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with the man behind the books, and ask him all about what it’s like to be a children’s author and his life in our town of Reading.
Whether you know Harrold for his poetry or his children’s books, he’s certainly made a name for himself in the literary world, but it’s strange to think that all of this happened around the Reading we know and love. In fact, he walked the very halls that we walk now when he did his degree in Philosophy here at the University, back in 1992.
Harrold very much attributes his success to moving to Reading. Having grown up in Horsham, a small West Sussex town (which Harrold describes as “Nice with a capital N”), he believes he might have led a very different life had he not come to Reading. A glimpse of this possibility comes from the Summer between his undergraduate degree and the start of his masters, where he worked as a postman there for 3 months.
Just as the postman life didn’t necessarily stick for Harrold, neither did his postgraduate degree, when he dropped out after just 4 weeks. But having paid for halls for the whole semester, he was allowed to stay long enough to find a job (at Blackwell’s) and somewhere else to stay in Reading, which finally allowed him to take more of an interest in Reading’s art scene.
Harrold’s involvement in Reading’s art scene was (and still is) hugely widespread. He became involved in the Poets Café (to which he returned this week as a guest speaker) and a mic night called ‘Bohemian Night’. He also became involved in the music scene and found that Reading’s connections to London and other big cities made it a great place to grow as an author and poet.
He said: “All that, the musicians and poets and artists that I met, brought me to where I am now.”
Certainly, Harrold has worked with quite a few talented illustrators over the years, such as Emily Gravett, Chris Riddell, Levi Pinfold and countless others, many of whom are Kate Greenaway Medal winners, but even he isn’t immune to getting a little star-struck every now and then.
He recounts the story of when he met Shaun Tan, a multi-award-winning Australian illustrator that, amongst other incredible projects, worked on Pixar’s WALL-E. He said:
“I met him, I was in Australia earlier this year and he’d just done a panel with Levi and with Chris Riddell and I got to sit next to him in a mini bus for about 45 minutes driving from Parramatta into Sydney, just going back to the hotel. I talked to him and he was so kind and so nice. He was just a sort of quiet Australian guy who listened to me going ‘I THINK YOU’RE BRILLIANT!’ for 45 minutes and ‘I DID A BOOK WITH LEVI THAT’S WHY I’M HERE’ and it was slightly embarrassing.”
In all his modesty however, Harrold’s work does seem to have a life of its own across the globe. Currently in New York, one of his books, The Imaginary, is being adapted into a musical as well as having been translated into more than 10 different languages.
He said: “It’s crazy to think that the book has been written more by other people than I have written it.”
Despite living on worldwide, some of Harrold’s poems do remain a little closer to home, as they are set in Reading. Some of his poems that feature animals see them finding their way around the streets of Reading, so if you’re local, it’s definitely something to try and spot! And with Christmas coming up, an A F Harrold book could be the perfect gift for some of your younger loved ones.
Your questions answered!
What’s it like when you see an illustrator’s interpretation of your words and characters for the first time?
“Generally, I have been fortunate enough to be paired with some amazing illustrators. I’ve been in a really fortunate position where every time art has come in from the books, I have been able to go ‘wow, that’s good!’. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been shown some art and thought ‘oh’. I don’t have a very visual imagination as I’m writing, I don’t have definite pictures of ways that characters look and things so I’m always really interested and really excited to see what they become in other peoples’ hands and I’ve been really pleased with what they’ve done. There’s been times where, of course, there’s all sorts of fiddling that goes on between illustrators and editors for continuity, but generally from me there is very little input on the illustrations. In a book I wrote called The Imaginary that was illustrated by Emily Gravett, there is a scene where the villain slides his glasses up onto his forehead, and actually when she drew it, Emily felt that actually he should keep his glasses on. It’s such a simple thing, but it means that throughout the book you never see his eyes and cool things like that, that I had never thought of, and I thought ‘yeah, let’s do that’ and I changed the text to match the pictures there. So, it’s a little bit of a two-way street with an illustrator which I really enjoy.”
What made you decide to become a poet?
“That’s very easy, I was 15, I thought if I wanted to be an artist of some sort then: to be a musician you had to practice and by an instrument, to be a painter you have to have paint and a brush and an easel and all these things are difficult and expensive and complicated and you needed some obvious talent. Poetry, on the other hand, you needed a pen and a bit of paper and it didn’t seem as daunting. Obviously, the things I wrote for the first 10 or 20 years were awful, and I’m not suggesting that I was any better at poetry than I would have been at playing a trumpet, but people were kinder. They tend to get a lot more annoyed when you’re playing an instrument wrong than when you’re going ‘will you read my poem!’ I thought if I wrote poems and expressed my inner most feelings that girls would like me more and when you are 15 these sorts of things are important, and of course, as anyone could have told me then, poetry wouldn’t help!”
What is your favourite place to go in Reading?
“Oh I like to have a bath in my bathroom, rather than in other people’s bathrooms! That’s probably my favourite place in Reading. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in places like The Rising Sun and the old bar underneath the town hall, where for a long time I hosted a mic night called ‘Bohemian Night’ which is still going on at The Global Café fortnightly. I enjoyed doing things in those spaces over the years. When I was a bookseller, I used to go have my lunch in the Forbury Gardens, but I like to be at home now, now I’ve grown old and grey and boring, my lively going out times are long behind me. So, yes, my bath, I have an office at the end of my garden that I like to sit in, the garden is nice in the Summer, I’m a bit of a homebody, I’m afraid.”
Reading Writers submitted a particularly controversial and hard-hitting question for Mr Harrold to answer: Where is the best place to buy sandals in Reading?
A F Harrold responded: “Oh well, I would recommend a shoe shop or if you want your sandals to last longer you might want to go to an outdoor gear shop. That will be the best place for sandals because they’ll last longest and they’ll be like special walking sandals, but I’m not going to endorse any particular brand or retail establishment, just find the sandals that suit your feet. Go around lots of sandal shops trying on lots and lots of sandals and have a lovely morning shopping is my advice.”