Gavin Puckett won the Greenhouse Funny Prize in 2013 for MURRAY THE HORSE. He subsequently landed a three-book deal with Faber & Faber Children's Books.
Gavin Puckett works in schools throughout Wales teaching children of all ages about social issues. He lives in South Wales with his wife and young son. MURRAY THE HORSE was the UK winner of the 2013 Greenhouse Funny Prize. It became the first book in the wonderfully funny ‘Fables from the Stables’ series, which so far consists of MURRAY THE HORSE, HENDRIX THE ROCKING HORSE and COLIN THE CARTHORSE. Gavin is currently working on some more books for the series, which is no mean feat given that they have to star a horse, work in rhyme and make the reader laugh. Luckily for everybody Gavin is a dab hand at those crucial things.
When and how did you start writing?
I started writing stories, purely to make my little boy laugh. We’ve always made a point of reading to him before bed time and it’s something we love to do as a family, but part of the fun (as I’m sure lots of parents would agree) is making up stories! We are big fans of rhyming texts in our house and became fans of authors like Julia Donaldson and Jez Alborough, whose tales are both heartwarming and funny. I had written a few things over the years, (nothing serious, just stories for my work, or silly poems for weddings / birthday parties etc) which always seemed to go down well, so I decided to try my hand at writing story texts, tailored to what I knew my little boy would like. After writing my first text I was hooked! Thankfully, my wife and son found them funny too, which inspired me to write more.
Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
The first book that made an impact on me was probably THE ENCHANTED WOOD by Enid Blyton. I must have been about five or six and I remember having the story read to us at school by our teacher. I can still remember the characters from the book thirty years on, which is pretty good for me, considering I can hardly remember what I did last week! Weirdly, my little boy now goes to the same school and had the same story read to his class recently. He talked about it so much we went out and bought it for him so we could read it at home. It was really strange reading it after all these years and it brought back lots of memories. As for childhood storytelling heroes – without a doubt, it has to be Roald Dahl. I remember getting REVOLTING RHYMES for Christmas in the mid-eighties and finding it hysterical. I could read it from cover to cover then happily start all over again. This is clearly the book that developed my fondness for rhyme. I have another fond memory of staying as a child at my grandparents’ house. It was a Saturday, and I’d saved my pocket money to go and buy Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES. I remember going back to their house that afternoon, sitting on the bed upstairs and becoming totally engrossed in it. That was probably the first time I’d ever experienced reading a novel that I didn’t want to put down.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
The whole concept of the MURRAY THE HORSE story happened by chance really. I had written one or two other stories before writing Murray and had been pondering over ideas for my next. Then one morning whilst driving my car, the radio station I was listening to had a feature asking listeners to suggest ‘sports or activities that are undertaken backwards’. At that particular time I was driving past a field with a horse standing in it. I remember bizarrely thinking to myself I wonder if horses can run backwards? That same morning, I started to scribble down some ideas for a story about a racehorse that discovered he could run backwards. Later that evening, MURRAY THE HORSE was born.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
Most sites online tell you how difficult the industry is, so I’d never really pinned my hopes on getting an agent, let alone a publishing deal. My wife had suggested I send some of my stories off and I kept saying I would, but always found an excuse to put it off. I did eventually send something to an agency, but had no response (just as I expected). Then one night whilst browsing online, I came across the Greenhouse Funny Prize. I had about five stories written at that point, so thinking I had nothing to lose . . . I decided to enter MURRAY. After a few weeks, I completely forgot about the whole thing; then a month or so later I was amazed to get an email from Polly Nolan telling me I had been shortlisted to the final six. I was even more amazed the following week to be told I’d actually won! The prize included representation from Polly, plus a trip to the York Festival of writing. The festival really opened my eyes to how the industry works, especially the sheer volume of people seeking representation from agencies. I left York feeling very inspired and even more appreciative of the opportunity I’d been given.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
At present, I work nine to five, so (as much as I’d love there to be) there isn’t much room for writing during the day. Most of my writing is done late evening, or sometimes even in bed on the laptop when everyone’s asleep. I find it very relaxing and it’s something I look forward to, especially if I’ve had a busy day at work. Ideas can pop up pretty much anywhere. I drive a lot and often think of things whilst out on the road. Some ideas stem from something I’ve heard my son say, or from a child at one of the schools I visit. My memory isn’t the best, and I’ve learned over time to jot down a rhyme or an idea for a story straight away so I don’t forget it. I now keep a notepad in my car at all times for that very purpose.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
I don’t feel I’m qualified enough to answer this question! However, one thing I’ve learned in the short space of time I’ve been doing this is not to be afraid of letting someone read your work. I suppose I’d always feared failure and being knocked back, which is why I’d been so reluctant to send stuff off in the first place, but I’m SO glad I did. Having people like Polly Nolan and Leah Thaxton [Children’s Publisher at Faber and co-judge of the Greenhouse Funny Prize] say they liked my story was the biggest compliment I could have hoped for. It’s also been an enormous confidence boost and goes to show, you don’t know until you try!
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you've developed as an author?
Firstly, I read a lot more than I used to (including children’s books). Secondly, I try to write whenever time (and my wife) will allow me to! Thirdly, since most of my writing is done at night, there are times when I get a complete block and maybe only come up with a few sentences in one sitting. There’s nothing worse than staring at the screen with tired eyes, desperately trying to think of a rhyme, or a new direction to take the story. When this happens, I now simply turn the computer off, walk away, go to sleep, have a cup of tea . . . Sometimes I don’t go back to the text for a day or so. I find that when I eventually do go back, things are always a lot clearer.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? Which fictional character do you wish you'd invented?
That’s a tough one . . . Obviously, I wish I could invite Roald Dahl. I would have loved to have met him. Julia Donaldson, I think her stories are probably the ones my son will remember us reading the most, so I’d love to ask her about them. (I’d actually love to get the chance to do that one day). I think I’d also invite Michael Rosen. I think he’s incredibly clever and I really like listening to him talk, especially on the origins of words and letters. Maybe he could even shed some light on the word ‘Puckett!” As for a fictional character, I’d probably choose the BFG. A big, friendly giant who eats snozzcumbers and wanders the streets at night, giving good dreams to children by blowing them in to their homes through a pipe . . . Genius!