Tuesday 23 June 2015

Humour and Heart: Q&A with Phil Earle, Author of Demolition Dad

By Miriam Craig

A new contestant has entered the arena of funny books for 8-12 year olds, and it is Demolition Dad by Phil Earle. Jake Biggs and his Dad George love watching the wrestling together on TV. Then one day Jake persuades his Dad to try wrestling in real life. He agrees, but only if they keep it a secret – he wouldn’t want his friends at work, where he demolishes buildings, to find out. Then George Biggs has the opportunity to make it big in wrestling – become a superstar and bring fame and fortune to the whole town. But all does not go to plan... 

I loved this book and was SUPER-excited to find out more about the background to it from Phil.

What are you up to today?
I’m chipping away at a mountain of emails. As well as writing, I work three days a week for David Fickling as the Sales and Marketing Director. Then I spend one day a week visiting schools, and in theory I write the other day. I say ‘in theory’ because it doesn’t always work out that way! Today is one of my David Fickling days.

What made you want to write Demolition Dad?
I’d written four young adult books, but always promised myself that if I didn’t have another idea that was really burning inside me to write, I wouldn’t write it. At that time I’d run out of things I was desperate to write about for young adults. I have three children and my oldest now is 9. We were reading Danny the Champion of the World and it had this quite profound effect on both of us. I don’t know whether it was because it’s about a father and son – it’s a much straighter book than some other Dahl. It’s just this beautifully-realised relationship between a father and a son. We fell in love with it, and a week or two after finishing it we were both a bit bereft. It sparked my head into thinking I would really love to write a father and a son – a son that thinks his dad is the greatest thing in the world.

Why wrestling?
It was one of my guilty pleasures when I was growing up. I used to fill rows of VHS cassettes with it. My Dad used to say, ‘Son, nothing good will ever come of you watching this stuff.’ But I loved the drama of it – all these big personalities. I realised it gave me a really effective vehicle to hang the story on. The Dad’s secret in the book is that he’s a wrestler. The wrestling in the book is a fictional version of the real thing, and it’s inspired by the British wrestling I used to watch on World of Sport every Saturday afternoon as a kid, where the wrestlers were all flabby and there were grannies in the audience.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. How did she get involved?
I was lucky enough to work with Sara when we commissioned Dogs Don’t Do Ballet at Simon and Schuster. I fell in love with her work. I think she’s undoubtedly one of our most gifted illustrators. She can convey humour and more complex emotions in the same spread. We approached her when Orion took the book on. We said we didn’t want to be prescriptive about what she illustrated – we just sent her the text and asked her to choose which bits to illustrate.

You just mentioned one of the things I loved about the book – that it’s funny and moving at the same time. How do you balance those two things?
I really believe the two can run side by side – humour and heart. Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson have been doing it for years. For me what makes for a well-rounded character is seeing all facets of their life. But I try not to analyse it. I know when I set out what I want to say, and then I just let myself have fun with it.

Another thing I loved about the story was how quickly it moves. Any tips for writers on how to keep their stories pacy?
I write like that because that’s how I like to read. I’m not interested in the author’s views on the world – I just want someone to tell me a rollicking story. Short chapters help. Each chapter is like a television episode. If you look at Peppa Pig, there’s a whole story in a very short amount of time. Think about how you use cliffhangers – the end sentence has to be strong enough to make that reader want to read on immediately. And make your chapters an optimum length for a dad or mum reading for 10-15 minutes before bed. I also try to visualise my stories as a line graph. It’s not one continual line upwards or downwards – it’s peaks and troughs. Sometimes the character succeeds and sometimes they fail. Nothing makes a reader fall in love with a character as much as that!

What’s your writing process?
I have a vague story arc in my head but it really is a vague one. I have nothing but admiration for writers who map out their books – for me that’s not the process. I tried it and it stifled all the creativity for me. The joy comes out through me discovering that as I write. But then there’s the editing. I detest editing!

What inspires you?
TV and movies definitely inspire me. I still class myself as a reluctant reader. I don’t read many adults books – mainly crime thrillers. Growing up in Hull I was influenced by theatre a lot too. I saw plays about ordinary people, and realised there was great drama in the everyday. I never read fantasy books when I was younger – a lot of those big fantasy books are really long. I didn’t have the staying power to read those. I love something like Holes, which I think is one of the most perfect books ever written, and is set in the real world.

Which children’s writers do you love today?
I think Keith Gray is the most underrated writer for YA. I also love Kevin Brooks, Marcus Sedgwick, David Almond. They craft their books like sculptors. And Sarah Crossan – her new book One is just extraordinary.

How old are you inside your head?
When I was writing YA I felt I was stuck at the mental age of being a teenager. But now writing these books, I’m wondering if I’m just 10. I’ve always struggled to feel like an adult. I’ve got three kids and a mortgage – there isn’t much more adult responsibility than that – but I do absolutely feel like a child still. People ask if I think about a reader while I’m writing and I don’t – I think about me.

What challenges do you face in your writing life?
Deadlines. The editorial process! Also the biggest challenge for a writer is the constant fear of when it’s going to end. What if a publisher decides I’ve had enough chances? That’s the biggest fear, because I love it.

Do you think it helps if writers pay attention to what’s selling?
All good writers are aware of that and need to be aware of that, but I still stick by the mantra that if it’s not burning a hole inside of you, then don’t write it. It’s not a formula. It’s an artistic process. You have to create the book that you’re desperate write.

What’s next?
I want to tell a story for every child that lives on Storey Street (where this book is set). Mouse was an almost peripheral character in Demolition Dad, but now I’ve written his story. He’s superhero obsessed, and one day his Mum, who is a lollipop lady, inadvertently foils a bank robbery. As a result, everyone lauds her as a new breed of superhero and Mouse becomes her sidekick, by default. But then things start to go a little bit wrong. I grew up reading a lot of graphic novels and I liked playing with that idea of what makes someone a hero. That comes out in February, called Superhero Street. And now I’m writing book three, which is about Masher Milner (who is cast as a baddie in Demolition Dad). I love the idea that no kid is born bad. I’m trying to give Masher a heart, albeit one that’s hidden far, far, far away...

There you go again Phil, even giving your baddies a heart. Thank you so much for talking to me about Demolition Dad – I look forward to reading about all the other characters of Storey Street.

For more info about Phil visit his lovely website, including this video where he shares his Tips for Writing Great Dialogue.

By Miriam Craig
Twitter: @miriamhcraig
Instagram: @miriamhcraig


  1. Great interview. Totally agree with Phil about Danny the Champion of the World & Holes.

  2. what a wonderful interview :)

  3. I'll be ordering this one - humour with heart is The Biggie.