Before Andy Griffiths became one of Australia’s most popular children’s writers with stories about bums and dangerous brown blobs, he found his creative footing in Melbourne’s underground music scene.
Since his first book Just Tricking! in 1997, Andy Griffiths has written almost 30 more. The now 53-year-old Melburnian was still finding his creative rhythm in the late nineties, but was already allowing his musical as well as literary influences to shine through.
As a kid, he read Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton and Heinrich Hoffmann, as well as MAD Magazine and “ridiculously over the top horror comics”. His teenage years featured the works of J.D. Salinger and Franz Kafka, before music became a key creative outlet.
Worshipping what he calls “the theatrical surrealism” of acts like Devo, Alice Cooper and David Bowie, he became more and more interested in the counter-cultural tendencies of rock and roll. He saw his passions colliding, and took advantage.
“The books and the music all fused together into one giant cauldron of creativity, rebellion and anarchy for me, and I guess my writing really started when I began writing humorous songs and designing concept albums for an imaginary band,” he recalls.
That imaginary band eventually materialised as the Gothic Farmyard to become a very real stepping stone for him, but not before he and his mates at Melbourne’s Yarra Valley Grammar had a bit of fun at their school’s expense.
“For a joke, we put the band together for a concert on our final day of Year 12. I ended up as vocalist because I was the one who’d written the lyrics. Despite the fact that we could barely play our instruments and my complete lack of musical aptitude, the concert was very well received,” he says.
Gothic Farmyard then spent the early 1980s making its way around Melbourne’s underground post-punk scene. “There was a ready and appreciative audience for all kinds of musical way-outness and experimentation,” Andy Griffiths says.
His longtime illustrator Terry Denton completely missed out on that part of Andy’s life.
“I never heard the music Andy was making, and I count myself fortunate. There are people out there who did hear it, and they emulated Vincent van Gogh,” Terry says cheekily. “My music was of the 1970s, and just the kind of music Andy was rebelling against.”
Gothic Farmyard went on to write songs called Mowing Tentacles And Weeding Giant Clams, Scorpions In My Mind and Suckled By A Shark. Andy Griffiths later performed in the band Skippy The Butcher, which had equally imaginative song titles, including A Doggy Stole A Sausage, South Eastern Caterpillar, and Brain Bucket.
“In retrospect, it was a perfect apprenticeship for what I’m doing now,” he says. “There was constant honing of lyrics, developing performance skills and an ease in front of an audience, and organising and self-promoting both gigs and self-published cassettes of our music.”
He has spent much of this year reading and performing from his newest line of oddball books, the Treehouse series, in front of audiences in Australia and the US.
Terry Denton rambles sarcastically on the subject, saying he gets “wild erotic visions of Andy gone a-talkin’ down the USA, where the celebrity writers go”, as he works on illustrations back home in his “dingy little office”.
It’s clear that Andy Griffiths’ absurdist post-punk lyrics have fed his fiction-writing process, bolstering a passion for imagery and securing the signature voice and flow which keeps kids coming back to his work. “I’m firmly convinced that writing is as much about rhythm as it is content, and I work hard to make my stories sound good to read out aloud,” he says.
It’s not just about reading to the kids, though. He says his fans can and do feed him ideas for stories — take the ninja snail training academy in The 52-Storey Treehouse, for example. “The books are really an ongoing conversation between us and our readers, and like any good conversation, there needs to be a genuine opportunity for both sides to talk as well as listen.”
Just as punk drew the world’s attention to how easy it can be to subvert expectations, Andy Griffiths’ Treehouse series blends different comedy and writing styles in unexpected ways. The series sees him detail the treehouse-based lives of characterised versions of himself and Denton, creating blends of slapstick, gross-out and absurdist humour within unlikely combinations of prose, rhyme and illustrations.
“I look for the parts of life where things don’t go the way you expected or wanted them to. This is fertile ground for storytelling,” Andy says. “Kids love illustrations, incongruity, nonsense, taboo breaking, inventiveness, surprise, playfulness and a mischievous narrative tone.”
Terry Denton adds that despite this love for odd combinations, his partner is actually a very organised and logical person. “Humour is a science to Andy,” he declares. “I’m just intuitively doing all I can to put obstacles in his way.”
So what’s next after The 65 Storey Treehouse and its 400-plus drawings arrive this August? Andy Griffiths feels the Just series “has come to a natural stopping point”, and while he’s not denying the possibility of a feature film, building the Treehouse appears to be a priority. No matter what Andy Griffiths does next, though, he has already solidified his place in history as Aussie kid lit’s anarchistic literary rockstar.
Andy Griffiths appears at five Primary School Days events during the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. He will also host a live show and a signing session.