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An Interview with Ian James

Read this fascinating article about the career of our new author, Ian James, who releases his children’s book today – The Elephant in the Room.

Tell us about your story.

I was born in Liverpool, and at school, although I hated doing homework, I fondly remember my English teacher setting the class a task to write a short scene for a play. It was a couple of years later, and after doing a whole range of jobs (including apprentice draughtsman, electrician and butcher), my passion for writing really took hold. During a brief (and I mean brief) spell as an actor, I wrote my first play about the Beatles during their pre-fame, Skiffle period. As the only left-hander in the cast, I got to play Paul McCartney, so I had to learn the guitar quickly.

I met the amazing Liverpool writer Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers), who came to see the show and became a great friend and huge influence. I went on to write several theatre shows but also started producing theatre and was thrilled when Willy agreed to let me produce Educating Rita at the Neptune Theatre in Liverpool (now the Epstein Theatre).

Willy introduced me to West End producer David Pugh, who invited me to co-produce the touring production of A Tribute to the Blues Brothers, which was a fantastic experience.

After studying for a film and media degree at Manchester University, I then moved into film, during which I wrote several short films, including Koppin’ Off at the OK Coral. I wrote this in verse about a Liverpool lad trying to meet a girl in a nightclub but failing miserably. (Some would say it’s autobiographical, but I’m saying nothing!) It won the Royal Television Society short film award. Also, during university, Willy asked if I’d like to help produce a show with him and the Mersey Poets (Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten) that would see them all reading their own material set to music.

The tour went so well that we repeated the theme the following year with Willy and fellow writer Tim Firth (Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots) on stage together, as they had written an album of songs each.

After university, I wrote and produced a film called Re-Inventing Eddie (starring John Lynch) about a guy who reacts badly to a visit from social services when his daughter makes an innocent remark to a student teacher in school about a bath time drying game that quickly gets passed up the chain.

The film won the Tribecca Best Film Award in New York, where I was lucky enough to make some great contacts. I then produced a Liverpool set film, Going Off Big Time, starring Peter Kay and Bernard Hill.

I wrote and produced another Liverpool set film, The Crew, starring Stephen Graham and a Manchester set 90s rave film, Weekender, starring Jack O’Connell.

Throughout all of this, I’d always admired the incredible imagination of films, TV and books created for children. So much so that I tested a few of my own children’s stories on the harshest critics I could find, the little people in my life, and thankfully, the feedback was positive.

Why did you pick this story to publish?

It was during lockdown and learning of the issues children were having due to the lack of social interaction and communication during crucial formative years, leading to a range of mental health issues, that I decided to choose The Elephant in the Room as my first children’s book.

Why is this book important?

The whole point of The Elephant in the Room is to encourage children to share their problems so that families can help solve them – a problem shared, etc. The effect of lockdown on children is only just beginning to be recognised, so it’s important now more than ever that we support and encourage children to talk.

How long did it take to write?

I’d been tinkering with several children’s picture book stories for a number of years, but only during lockdown did I decide to try to get the stories into shape. It probably took around three months to get The Elephant in the Room close to being ready to submit to TAUK Publishing for feedback.

You usually work in film production; how did this differ?

One of the main differences between film and children’s book production is it’s infinitely quicker to realise a picture book. From writing the story, submitting it to TAUK Publishing and finishing the book (including illustrations and book design), I think the overall process was around nine months. I’m currently working on a children’s film that has taken twelve months just to get to a second draft of the script, after which we have to secure finance and shoot it, so it could easily be another three years before cameras turn over. It’s also a hell of a lot cheaper to produce a children’s picture book!

The other main difference is that it takes a small army of people to make a film, which starts by attaching a director, producing partners and financiers who will all want their say on the script. It can become very political and convoluted as you try to keep the original vision for the film on track. That is most certainly not the case when it comes to self-publishing a children’s picture book, and from what I’ve experienced so far, I can honestly say the process has been a joy from beginning to end with none of the egos that can plague the film industry.

If you could pick anyone to read your story on Jackanory, who would it be?

If I’m allowed to have a few options, I’d have to pick Stephen Fry, Dawn French or Ashley Jensen. They all have amazing voices that are full of fun and warmth. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have Ashley Jensen (Extras, Nativity, Agatha Raisin, Ugly Betty) to record the voice-over for my book trailers and has offered to do my audiobook (if my first book gets that far)!

Do you plan a story and then create the character, or does the character come first?

For films, even if you have an idea for a story, you still need to know whose point of view you will use to navigate it, so it’s always character first. If you don’t know who your protagonist is, then it’s hard to place them in the story, as you won’t know how they will react to a situation or what they will say. I was given some great advice once that said all stories are about putting your main character up a tree and then spending the story watching them trying to get down, but if the audience (or reader) doesn’t know who they are or care about them, they won’t root for them to get down safely.

You’re watching a film or TV show and wish you’d written it. What are you watching?

That’s tricky as there is quite an extensive list. For TV drama, I’d say Succession and Ozark. For comedy, it would include Schitt’s Creek, Modern Family, 30 Rock and The Righteous Gemstones. For films, though, my list is huge. I think some of the smartest, funniest and most magical films are in the animation genre, including Toy Story, Despicable Me, Up, Frozen, Madagascar, and Shrek. They are all amazing examples of how to write for children that don’t patronise or oversimplify while dealing with some pretty big themes. Live-action films could learn a lot from animation.

Why did you choose TAUK Publishing?

When I started to think about writing children’s picture books, I got a lot of advice telling me to get an agent and then go after a big publisher who, although they’ll take full control, will have the finances to launch the book. I took the advice, but the response was always, ‘Our client list is full’ or ‘We like it, but it’s not right for us at this time’. I’m sure everyone has been there! I did a lot of research and was lucky to meet Jude Lennon and Natalie Reeves Billing, who told me to look no further than TAUK Publishing, and I have to say it’s the best advice I’ve ever been given! I’d never be in the situation I am now with such a stunning looking debut book if it wasn’t for Estelle Maher, Lisa Williams for her incredible illustrations, and Sarah Fountain for the book layout and design. Any success this book enjoys will be because of this amazing team.

What’s next for Ian James?

Hopefully, if The Elephant in the Room is well received, I’d love to publish more children’s books. But the immediate future is bringing the script for a children’s film I’m working on called Special Agent: Bumpsy Anna to the point where we can secure production finance. I took the opportunity to sneak a few references to the film in The Elephant in the Room as early promotion, which I’m sure keen-eyed readers will spot.

Click here for a copy of this incredible book.

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