“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
– A.A. Mile, Winnie the Pooh
‘Anyone from eight to eighty-eight.’ That was the response from Richard Adams when asked who was suited to read Watership Down. It was initially rejected by numerous publishers who felt that adults didn’t want to read about animals, and that the plot was too tricky for children. Thankfully – and rightly so- he was not to be deterred.
Agents jump for joy whenever they clasp another tale about werewolves, witches, or brash dystopian heroines – yet scoff and scowl at the mention of talkative mammals. That has certainly been the case for me anyhow. I’m a stand-up comedian who was trapped in lockdown, and I decided to tackle my bucket list – starting with a debut novel. There was never any doubt which tale I’d tell. When I was eight years old I wrote a story about a crime solving penguin, but despite doing all the illustrations with my selection of half eaten crayons, and sketching a bar code on the back of my stapled pages – it was sadly never published. Alas, nearly thirty years later I scratched that itch and finally completed my manuscript. Finally, I could unveil my semi-aquatic sleuth.
Naively, I assumed the trickiest part was over. I’d written the book, a full book, sixty thousand bleedin’ words; surely now the literary fairies just took it away and brought me back a cheque?!
Being a stand-up comedian, I have developed quite a thick skin, but it’s tough receiving wave after wave of emails, each rejecting your precious ideas. Every agent to walk the land seemed to be of the same opinion: only children want to read about animals. And much like Adams, I refuse to believe that’s the case. Just because the bookshelves aren’t bursting with animal fiction, doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t care to read it – and remember that once upon a time, publishers were rejecting books about the school days of wizards.
For as far back as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed stories that introduced me to talking creatures (or anthropomorphic animals if you prefer). I’m a thirty-six-year-old bearded man now – yet the allure of Aslan the lion, Shere Khan, or Woundwort hasn’t waned for me in the slightest. The idea that apes could rule the world still plays on my mind. Toad of toad hall still makes me smile. I’d still like to walk through the looking glass. In fact, I believe that deep down every adult still harbours that desire to hear the thoughts of their pets. I mean, who isn’t curious what the cat has to say? Who hasn’t dreamed their dog would banter as well as bark? Wouldn’t life be fab if the hamster could sing?
I’m also a huge fan of film noir, so my novel takes place in 1952. Yes, there are similarities with your Raymond Chandler novels or classic movies like Chinatown, LA Confidential etc, but of course in my story – the main detective is a king penguin named Frank, and his partner is a red howler monkey called Chico. The setting for my yarn could quite easily be confused with fifties Los Angeles, yet I’ve swapped it for a metropolis called Noah’s Kingdom. Ok, I just loved the idea of a penguin that wore a fedora!! There are no spells, dragons, or teenage relationship issues, so it’s a bit different than what you’re used to – and it’s not targeted at a particular age group, but don’t be put off by the grumpy agents. Watership Down to date has sold around fifty million copies, so there is certainly someone out there who’s curious what the animals are whispering.