Helen and Thomas Docherty, the creative duo behind The Snatchabook, talk about ambiguity and suspense in picture books, the joy of bedtime stories, and future projects…
Helen, I know you wanted to be writer when you were younger, but you went on to have a career as a language teacher. Did you always know you would go back to writing?
No, I didn’t. Despite being sure I would become a writer until about 14, I lost conviction in my own attempts as I became more aware of the competition. As much as I loved teaching – especially the more creative side of it – I always felt that in some way I had strayed from my original path. I met Thomas and was reintroduced to the world of children’s literature through his books. I think I knew from the day we met we would end up working together at some point, and a few years later we co-wrote Ruby Nettleship and the Ice-Lolly Adventure in 2010. However, it wasn’t until my job was at risk that, with Thomas’s encouragement, I made a real effort to start writing myself again. That was the summer of 2011 – I wrote The Snatchabook, and I haven’t looked back!
Thomas, I loved Big Scary Monster, which you wrote and illustrated yourself. How is the process of collaboration with Helen different?
When I write and illustrate a story I often develop the words and the pictures at the same time, letting them influence each other. Big Scary Monster started off with me thinking about how everything looks small when you are high up. It was a lot of fun working on The Snatchabook with Helen. Illustrating, like writing, can be quite a solitary profession and it’s always nice to have someone else’s ideas and input. I often ask Helen for her opinion on my pictures and it was exciting for us to be able to watch the world she had created come to life.
The Snatchabook starts off stealing from other animals. I like it when the character is morally ambiguous and introduces uncertainty in some way. Is this something that interests you both?
Helen: I’ve always been drawn to characters that transgress in some way – flawed, but not beyond redemption. Dr Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has always been one of my favourites, and was definitely an influence in the creation of the Snatchabook. I wanted to set up a whodunit with a slightly film noir-like atmosphere and to create a dastardly thief…A certain amount of suspense can work really well in a picture book, as long as there’s a happy ending. Of course, once Eliza has caught the Snatchabook, we realize he is just a pitiful little creature who only steals books because he has no-one to read to him; and this gives Eliza the chance to demonstrate compassion and to find a solution, and gives the Snatchabook what he really wanted all along. In my experience, children are fascinated by wrong-doing and have a keen sense of justice.
Thomas: Deep down, like most people, (the Snatchabook) just wants to do the right thing and be loved. It was fun to create the contrast between the creepy autumn landscapes and the cosy burrows. It is that contrast and how the animals react to it that helps create the suspense in the illustrations. One of my favourite books is Moominpappa at Sea. It’s full of ambiguous characters in an elemental world.
How important was the ritual of the bedtime story when you were growing up, and how important is it with your own children?
Helen: I was very lucky to have parents who were keen readers and always read to me. I have clear memories of my Dad reading me the Winnie the Pooh stories at bedtime, and both of us being convulsed with laughter. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the more you read to your kids, the more enjoyment they will get out of books for the rest of their lives. I love reading to our own daughters now – it’s the best part of the day.
Thomas: I’m dyslexic and it took me years to get reading properly so bedtime stories were very important to me. If I hadn’t been read to, I might never have developed the love of stories that I have today.
Any future projects you’re working on, together or separately?
Helen: Tom is working on the final illustrations of our next book together, Abracazebra (Alison Green Books, early 2015), about a zebra who arrives in a sleepy backwater with her travelling magic show, and a jealous goat who feels that she’s stolen his pitch. I also have another picture book with Faber (due in 2015), called Do You Remember?
Thomas: I also have some black and white pictures to do for a junior fiction title about a riding school. And I have a new picture book with Templar called The Driftwood Ball (pictured above), written and illustrated by myself, coming out in January. It’s a take on West Side Story with badgers and otters. And of course, a less tragic ending.