In the same way that our politicians are touring the country to garner our votes, Tom McLaughlin, author of The Accidental Prime Minister, is touring the country to inspire children to read and write and draw. For Tom, inspiration starts with a blank piece of paper. “Books can spring from a doodle, or a mood – a moment you’re trying to create, and then you wrap a picture or a narrative around that. When I’m writing I think about drawing, and when I’m drawing I think about writing. I tend to plan out my books like a spider chart – mapping it out pictorially.”
Of course, Tom didn’t start his career writing books – he started, somewhat aptly for someone promoting The Accidental Prime Minister, drawing political cartoons. “It’s similar to what I’m doing now; drawing pictures and writing jokes, but of course with a book you get much more time to think about and play with ideas. Also, the world is quite a miserable place, and with a book it doesn’t have to be based in reality – so you can have the queen wearing roller skates!” This suits Tom well, as he’s never far away from a joke, inspired by anything from TV to podcast, Monty Python to John Oliver, Father Ted to The Daily Show. He even has the word ‘laugh’ in his name, a fact his publisher has highlighted by colouring it a different colour on the front of The Accidental Prime Minister.
He likes satire, and clever comedy, although admits that in writing for children, he does include plenty of fart jokes too. In fact, I was never sure during the interview quite how much Tom was joking: “If I were PM for a day I would make it compulsory for all cars to be fitted with dogs. Because there is nothing nicer than walking down the street, and seeing a car with the window down and the dog poking its head out, tail wagging in the wind. It just cheers me up. It would just make the world a better place…oh and world peace – that one as well.” In all seriousness, Tom does think that children need to have some knowledge of what’s going on around them. “I think it is important for children to know about the world. As a family, we always used to sit down and watch the news together. Knowing about the world can only make you a better and more rounded person.” Although he admits that writing The Accidental Prime Minister wasn’t a ruse to get children into politics: “It was never meant to introduce politics to children – that was a by-product of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the most famous boy in the world, and I was trying to think of how to do that. Should he invent something or be rich? But I wanted him to be powerful and to have a voice – and that’s how the politics thing came about. I liked the idea of him being PM by mistake, although I had to bend the constitutional laws slightly to do that.”
Tom is following this with The Accidental Secret Agent, although with different characters. He’s also busy creating more picture books as well, following in the footsteps of The Diabolical Mr Tiddles and The Story Machine. Tom told me how he enjoys working within both media: “I like the illustrative quality of picture books, there’s something really beautiful about creating that world. With The Story Machine it was all about creating a mood – although it’s hard because you have to agonise over every single word – it’s not like writing a novel in which you can just go for it.” Surprisingly, as he is dyslexic, Tom found he liked the ‘going for it’ with novel writing despite remembering reading and writing being difficult as a child: “It knocked my confidence for six. I hated the idea of reading in front of people, in front of the teacher. It was terrifying and you felt kind of stupid. I was put on the table with the slow learners and told I was lazy. I was tested for dyslexia, so the school knew about it, but didn’t do anything. I think things are better nowadays.”
Even doing readings of his own books makes Tom nervous: “I still mess up reading my own books – so for The Accidental Prime Minister I read the same passage because I’ve sort of learnt it off by heart. Also, I have good days and bad days and that’s really weird.” He’s learnt certain techniques to help though, and admits writing is easier than reading. “I audio book stuff, and listen to the radio, and I’ve learnt to think about something else while I’m reading – almost like not looking at the words too intently – reading slightly above the line I’m reading so that I’m looking at it out of the corner of my eye – that makes things a little easier.” The strategies help him, and encourage him to speak out about it to children. During our school visit, he told his audience about his dyslexia, and how it hasn’t held him back as an author: “You can still do anything. What’s important as an author is not so much the pictures and words as having an idea and having something to say.”
Tom also treats his keyboard like a piano; music inspires him. In fact, music resonates throughout The Accidental Prime Minister because the chapter headings are all song titles – London Calling was originally the title of the first chapter – although this was dropped in the end, and it became ‘I don’t like Mondays’: “Being at home in front of the computer 12 hours a day drawing or writing you need something, so I listen to a lot of music. If I’m writing I tend to listen to quite spiky, anarchic jazz because it’s like playing the piano on the keyboard. You don’t want any words though when you’re writing. I used to have classical music but you ended up feeling quite sleepy.” Perhaps the sleepiness inspired his next picture book, The Cloudspotter, publishing 18th June. The cover has a dreamlike quality – and the book is inspired by using the shapes of clouds to make images. Judging from his talent at changing mere pen strokes into full-blown political caricatures of the children at this latest school visit, Tom’s pictures and jokes look likely to win him many votes.
Quick Fire Round:
Ears or eyes: eyes
Majority or coalition: coalition
Tea or biscuits – Earl grey tea
Jetpack or parachute – jetpack
Cat or dog – cat
Computer or paper – blank piece of paper