Q&A: Guess How Much I Love You
Q&A with Sam McBratney, author of Guess How Much I Love You
Somewhere in the world, at this very moment, a grown-up is reading Guess How Much I Love You to ‘the most precious thing they have’. Even though the book has been translated into 53 languages and sold in its millions, author Sam McBratney has never stopped being surprised and delighted by this fact.
Now this much-loved story has been adapted for the stage and, following a festive run in London’s West End, will tour the UK in early 2018.
Sam talked to Jude Riley about writing, children and a tortoise called Mabel…
Q: What books do you remember reading as a child?
A: My mother used to say that my nose was never out of a book. But I don’t actually recall reading all that much. I do remember certain stories that made a tremendous impression on me and one of them was Rip Van Winkle. I must have been about ten or eleven and one of the things that it opened up for me was that by using your imagination you could do little tricks with time. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for 20 years and when he goes back to his village nobody knows who he is.
Indeed I think my interest in reading science fiction and writing science fiction later on goes back to Rip Van Winkle. I don’t remember books so much as I remember moments from books. For example Robin Hood shooting an arrow and saying ‘bury me where it lands.’ I have a feeling there was a moment when Captain Hook sat on a mushroom and you realise that Peter Pan and everybody else was down below the ground. I was born in 1943 so by the time I was seven in 1950 I was reading The Beano and Dandy; Biffo the Bear and Corky the Cat.
Q: Did you always want to write?
A: I believe that people are writers by temperament. There are people who want to organise their experiences by writing them down and I have always done that. There are people who are writers and people who are readers.
When I was a teacher there were parents who would say ‘oh, I wish I could get them to read’ and I used to think to myself, ‘you’re wasting your time. If they’re not readers by now they won’t be and if they are readers, you won’t stop them.’
At Trinity College in Dublin I studied History and do you know what? I’m really glad I didn’t study English Literature. I don’t think I would have written a word. I believe that I would have been so intimidated by the great traditions, the most I could have expected was to become some sort of critic. I still love history and if I hadn’t been so busy making things up I would have gladly spent the last 40 years finding out what actually happened.
Q: If you could have a word with that young man who went to Trinity now, what would you say to him?
A: One of the things I might say to him would be ‘if you haven’t got any plans, don’t worry because the plans will fall into place.’
I didn’t have any plans when I was 18 but things turned out ok but I did worry about it. If you feel yourself to be drifting a little bit, don’t let it over concern you. Another piece of important advice would be try not to measure yourself too much against the people that you’re with because that can be very intimidating as well and you can feel that you’re bottom of the class and actually you’re not.
That’s two bits of advice that I’d give him.
Q: Why a Hare?
A: When I had the idea for the story I didn’t know what animals they were to be. I didn’t want bears because at that time there were lots of wonderful stories about bears and I just thought one more was too much.
One day I was sitting at the table and I just thought ‘Little Nut Brown Hare’ and I knew immediately that was going to be the main character. And of course when you’ve got that, you’ve got Big Nut Brown Hare. And the names are repeated so often they’ve got to have a nice sound to them – and they do.
Q: Did you have any suggestions of your own for the illustrator, Anita Jerem?
A: In the case of all the picture books I’ve written, in the beginning is the word. The publishers, Walker Books, sent me the pictures from time to time and you watch the process becoming clearer and clearer.
At some stage in the original drawings Anita’s hares had clothes and a little bed and somewhere along the line someone had the idea to make these things as naturalistic as possible so there’s nothing in the book to date it. It could be taking place in Ancient Egypt. One of the secrets of the story’s perpetual success is the fact that it’s all so natural and in the end I just watched with amazement as Anita gave life to these little characters.
Q: Could that be one of the reasons why it’s been translated into 53 languages and sold so many millions of copies?
A: I think that’s right. The text and the drawings would travel to the ends of the earth.
Q: How does that feel to know that’s it’s spread all over the world?
A: It’s lovely. I just do be delighted that tonight, somewhere in the world, a mum or dad or a carer is going to be lifting down something that I wrote and reading it to the most precious thing they have.
I love that idea.
That’s why you write really. You write so that you can communicate with the minds of people you’re never going to physically meet. To know that you’re doing that on a daily basis is wonderful.
Q: Is this the first book of yours to be staged?
A: Is it? I dunno. I’ve written over a hundred books long and short… I’ve done a lot of radio drama books and one or two television adaptations but this is the first one to go into the West End and she’ll do a wonderful job, that’s for sure.
Q: What would you like a child to take away from the show?
A: Just happiness. I think writers sometimes get above themselves. We’re entertainers and we’re in the entertaining business and to make people think, laugh and cry along the way that’s fine.
I would just love them to go home thinking ‘Oh, that was great, I enjoyed myself there.’ That’s the big thing.
Q: If your soul were an animal walking beside you, what would it be?
A: It would have to be a tortoise.
In 1976 I bought a tortoise and it was the size of a dinner plate. Now that tortoise is at the moment out in the garage fast asleep.
I’ve had it over 40 years and it has been part of the family as my children were growing up and as my grandchildren were growing up.
In that 40 years it has not changed one iota. It hasn’t grown, it hasn’t shrunk. It is the same tortoise. It sleeps from November to the end of February and then on my birthday round about the 1st of March, I get her up.
The message goes round the family ‘Mabel’s alive!’ I don’t know what we’re going to do when Mabel finally snuffs it.
So mine would have to be a tortoise.
Q: When do you write and how do you write?
A: For over 30 years I did two jobs. I was a teacher during the day and then when I came home I wrote at night.
I still write at night. My preferred time is from eight o’clock until about eleven.
I tend to concentrate on the shorter books and my latest work is a longish picture book which is finished but with a picture book every word has to earn its place. So you go over it night after night. Sometimes I leave it for a week. Sometimes I’ll not look at it for a month. It’s taken me two years to write this particular story and it’s now very nearly finished.
Q: Are children all over the world the same?
A: I know there are all shades of grey in that question but if you asked me to choose a black and white answer I’d say yes.
I remember reading a book to my little grandchild and she’d read it so often and we came to a page in the middle of the book and I was about to turn the page and she looked up with a shine in her eyes and said – because she knew what was coming next – “Get ready to laugh Granddad!” and I could imagine every little child in the world with that shine in their eyes so, in answer to your question, I think the answer is yes; babies and children the world over are the same.
Q: What is the strangest or nicest thing a reader has ever said to you?
A: I was at a book signing in London in 1995 and a male nurse brought a copy of Guess How Much I Love You over for signing and he said, “I work with sick children and this book is the best book I’ve ever come across for reading to terminally ill children.”
And I remember thinking to myself ‘but this book is just a bit of fun’. It’s just a little hare trying to get the better of his pop using a bit of body language and some elementary geography and here’s this man telling me he uses it with sick children.
And that has been a persistent theme of ‘Guess’ down the years actually. People use the book in ways I could never imagine – to do with all kinds of cheerful and sometimes not so cheerful things.
That has been the most amazing thing to me; the uses that the readers of ‘Guess’ have made of ‘Guess’. It’s been quite an eye-opener at times.