Giles Andreae: ‘Every creative thing I’ve done was rejected before it was accepted’

The writer and illustrator, 54, talks about cruel teasing of redheads, defeating cancer, being remembered as a radiator and his slightly superior identical twin

I had a very happy childhood. I’m one of four brothers and have an identical twin, so I was born with a readymade best friend. But he was ever so slightly better at everything than me. If we played football, he’d win 10-9. He was always one grade higher than me at school. I suppose it made me want to try a bit harder.

I was never a manly, macho lad. I was a skinny ginger who liked poetry. I never wanted to conform to laddishness, rugby playing, that whole side of masculinity. You need to find your own thing, and do it with as much heart and joy as you can.

I was teased for being ginger my entire life, so I’m not bothered about going grey. Teasing someone for having red hair is possibly the only prejudice that’s still permissible. With men, what people are really saying is: you’re not attractive. That’s not very nice.

The first creative thing I ever did was Purple Ronnie. It began as a stage act at university. It’s quite bold to go on stage with some very weird poems when you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen, but because I had a doting mother, I think I grew up with a certain level of self-confidence.

Every creative thing I’ve ever done has been rejected before it’s been accepted. Purple Ronnie was rejected by about 20 publishers. Every book I’ve written has been rejected, too. If you’re trying to do new things, particularly creatively, rejection is a standard part of the process.

Creativity, freedom, love, experimentation: these are all the things that I value, and tend to write about.

I’m an optimist. I think if you don’t fully believe in the potential of what you’re doing, why on earth would you do it? If I was a pessimist I’d never do anything. It would be terribly draining. I read once that people can be considered either radiators or drains. I’d like to be remembered as a radiator.

The worst thing anyone has ever said to me is: you’ve got cancer. It’s happened three times. The first two times it was actually the same cancer: Hodgkin’s disease, when I was 22. And the words were accompanied by, ‘and you’ll probably never be able to have children.’ I had to have very intensive chemotherapy, but I did store sperm – and that was used to make our four children. It’s a rather miraculous story.

Vulnerability is a huge asset, both personally and creatively. And I’ve certainly been a lot more vulnerable than some people have. I’m also an inveterate crier. But I cry more out of happiness and pride than sadness.

I get depressed by social situations where you have boring, lifeless, meaningless conversations. I revel in human spontaneity and contact and joy. Life’s too short to talk shit!

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than I am right now. I’ve nearly died loads of times, I’ve had clinical depression twice. But I’ve managed to have a family. I’ve managed to make a success of my career. I live somewhere I love. My family is close, safe and well. We’ve been so lucky. You couldn’t really ask for more.

Elephant Me by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees, is published by Hachette Children’s Books on 3 September at £12.99


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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