I started I'm Going To Eat This Ant about a couple of years after I'd made an earlier book called Big Ug which was my first ever picture book, made for myself and my kids because, having bought and read lots of them for my kids, I realised I loved picturebooks and started to think about making one myself. I liked how Big Ug turned out (and my kids, family and friends said they liked it too) but publishers 'ummmed' and 'ahhhed' and finally all said, in glorious, deafening unison "NO THANKS!". Actually they said that over a period of a few months in polite little emails via my agent (the excellent Jo Williamson), which was ever so slightly more soul-destroying than a chorus-line of high-kicking editors rejecting you in harmony. They should arrange to do it that way.
When, after dusting myself down a year or two later, and deciding to make another book (that would eventually become Ant) I was a little bit more scheming and analytical - much like the book's self-preserving hero. After figuring out why I liked the books that I liked I gave myself a brief. A very brief brief:
1. The story must be short.
2. The structure must be repetitive.
3. The repetition must be bookended (quite literally) by a quick, simple set-up and then a surprise/laugh at the end.
4. Only two characters: both animals in a clearly antagonistic/conflictual relationship.
5. Hey-Presto Bingles Bongles! Time for lunch.
What could be simpler? Answer: tons of things. I noodled around thinking for ages. I wanted the characters' relationship to be really obvious so the story more or less set itself up without explanation, like a cat/mouse, fox/rabbit, bird/worm situation but not over-used obvious ones such as those.
Who? What? C'mon brain! Finally I thought of anteater/ant because, well an anteater's aim in life is pretty self-explanatory, as is the fate of any nearby ants. Then I laid in bed (it was night-time, I don't generally retreat to bed at the drop of a hat to cogitate) and thought of the story in about an hour. That was the easier part.
Then came the hard part. Actually a couple of years of hard part. A long time before, Big Ug had been a very different beast to Ant. I'd been working full-time in a horrendously dull graphic design job where there were often long periods with not a lot to do and an unpredictable and unpleasant boss. So, deciding I must do something creative or go actually nuts, I started making Big Ug at home in the evenings and at work during the day, possible because, after initial sketching and composition, Big Ug was entirely digital. I carried the whole thing on a USB key back and forth from home to work nearly every day for a year. It was quite an undertaking. Though the look was fairly natural and painterly, some images had maybe fifty, sixty or more layers, and effects and filters galore. There were double-page full-colour sunset landscapes, a huge monster, a little girl, detailed fur and skin, suburban panoramas, roads, cars, trees, gardens and houses, a bedroom, mountain ranges, cavernous er... caves, full-page full moons, forests and rocky, snow-capped peaks. Some of it looked lovely but it was all getting a bit Pixar-tastic and possibly ever-so-slightly over-egged and looking back I'm not sure that was what publishers were generally wanting at that moment (in fact I'm definitely sure, as many of them said so). Also, the entire story hinged on a misunderstanding, a mis-heard word - basically a pun between 'ug' and 'hug' that was practically untranslatable for foreign editions. That potential problem never even occurred to me. Advice: don't do this.
So that's where The Brief came in for a potential next book - avoiding previous mistakes. But the brief only covered the story. Illustrating it was another problem altogether. No brief here. No idea actually. I knew what I liked and I knew I had to keep it simple but beyond that I was a bit lost. I'd worked for years in graphic design, newspaper and magazine layout, all sorts of illustration, a few editorial cartoons, basically a jack-of-a-few-trades who'd worried less about his own style and more about just getting a job done and a customer/boss being happy. But now it was all about 'style'. Oh dear... Oh very dear...
For a while I went off on visual tangents that ended up looking like vague facsimiles of the things I was currently liking, but not quite as good. Or I saw a beautiful and deceptively simple book and thought "THAT'S IT! WHAT A FOOL I'VE BEEN. THE ANSWER WAS SITTING THERE ALL THE TIME!". Then producing a naff version of the illustrations that provided the inspiration. Hugely disheartening. Then life butted its nose in, my wife got offered a new job, we moved house to a different part of the country. I left my job (YESSSSS...) and became a house-husband doing some freelance work. The huge pile of Ant sketches sat on a desk staring at me for ages, whispering "How could you? You just left us, as if we meant nothing to you..." But it did mean something to me. Enough for me to eventually decide to commit a few weeks to it, to try to finish it. I knew there was something of value in it, or just that I'd spent so much time on it that it seemed crazy to abandon it unfinished.
So, much like the bit in Star Wars where Luke switches off his computer and uses The Force, I didn't switch off the computer. I needed it for scanning and stuff. But I did stop over-thinking and pre-empting myself. In fact I tried to stop thinking at all, except when pouring boiling water into a teapot or using scissors. I re-illustrated the whole book (twice), picking up the ink-nib pens I'd started to enjoy using and then throwing a bit of watercolour around. Using a lightbox I could keep the ink and paint apart on separate sheets so that messing up one wouldn't mess up the other, then scanned and composed and colour-corrected using the Power Of Computery. I did one or two pages and thought "This doesn't look so awful. I Shall Continue!" And continue I did, and in under a month it was finished. I thought it had turned out looking ok, so I contacted my agent of yore out of the blue and Jo really liked it and offered to present it to publishers. I said errr... YES. This time the response was much more positive. A good handful of publishers ummed and ahhed again, but this time it was a much more hopeful sounding (and prompt) umming and ahhing. This was actually quite a fraught few weeks, the thought of my hobby-book being discussed, analysed, criticised or commended and then rejected or accepted in departmental meetings in the grand offices of esteemed publishing companies, where there were a great many potted plants and coffee you didn't need to pay for. And of course the thought of it slipping through the net and nobody taking it on. But after a few weeks Bloomsbury offered a contract for two books. Plonk, just like that (says muddled-headed author who is blissfully ignorant of the parrying, feinting, bluffing and badgering work of the literary agent).
I remember Jo getting in touch late one Friday evening having just got the confirmation of the deal and I also remember I'd had a few glasses of pop and I rang my mum and dad to tell them (tell them that I'd got a book deal, not that I was drinking. It being a Friday evening, that'd be a foregone conclusion) This was A Moment, not that I really realised as it happened so much, but A Moment when I think of it now.
I've always had a really good relationship with my parents but when I was seventeen I totally messed-up school and ditched my A-levels. I say ditched - I was invited to leave by the Head of Sixth Form. I was playing drums in bands and I think I wanted to be Steven Adler out of Guns n' Roses or something, or Larry Wotsit from U2, I don't know. So I left and instead of joining Guns & Roses I promptly started work at a lift company, my first in a series of boring/unsuitable jobs. I did get to do technical drawings though, with those lovely Rotring pen sets and a MASSIVE parallel motion drawing board.
I've always worked since then and also spent a lot of my twenties driving up and down the M1 in a van with my band (neither Guns n' Roses nor U2, as it happened), trying - and nearly getting - a record deal. Then in 2000 I moved to France, and for many years did more of the same but not so much of the autoroute dans une camionnette. So eventually getting this book and this contract, was really the first time an extraordinary and palpable sign of some kind of creative 'success', or just simple validation, had come of something that I'd done, that I was proud of and also that no one had asked me to do.
That phone call was a few years back now and sadly my dad died this April, the same week Ant was published. He'd seen that book and really liked it and he managed to see the first test print of my next book (I Love You, Stick Insect) just before he died and he said he liked it more than Ant. So even if my next book gets nothing but zero-star ratings and sells three copies in the entire universe, my dad liked it even more than my first book. And I'm having that. Cheers Dad x