Alan Cliff with friend!
Having read all the Jack the Station Cat book series for children I wanted to know more about Alan Cliff and his influences and why he wrote his books.
VW: How did you go from being a Methodist Minister to writing about Jack the Station Cat?
AC: When I had to take reirement from full rime ministry in 1987 one of the doctors treating me suggested that in order to keep my mind active I should write. I told him I hated writing. Even my minister's letter in the church magazine was written by my wife Rosemary!!
"Tough" he said, "you will have to learn." So Rosemary enrolled in an Open College of the Arts writing course and I became a ghost student.
I still carry out small duties in church but I am no longer allowed to preach as I have had three small strokes.
VW: When did you first become interested in Steam engines?
AC: As a little boy my mother used tom take me to a bridge near Hest Bank on the London to Catlisle main line to see the trains go by. Then in 1945 I started train spotting.
VW: What inspired you to write about cats?
AC: My parents always had cats and so I grew up with them. Then my wife and I have had cats for the last 28 years after rescuing a kitten. One of the things I learned from the writing course was write about what you know . I know about cats, railways and wildlife so for my children's books they came together.
VW: Are there any cats that you have based your stories on?
AC: Yes Jack, Aunty Buzz, Cousin Tom, Marmalade and Myfanwy plus Blackson Purrkins are all cats who have owned my wife and me. Marmalade now getting on for 18 and Blackie about three years old are still with us.
VW: It's one thing writing sermons for your congregation but was the children easy or difficult? It was a challenge. Remember I am a public speaker. I asked for advice from my younger daughter, Ailsa, a primary teacher and a neighbour also a primary teacher.
VW: How do you go about writing a Jack theStation Cat story?
AC: Ideas come to me and I make notes. Then I sit down and write the story longhand though since the stokes I have to print in capitals. Rosemary then types the story out on our word processor. It may then take seven drafts before I am ready to send the story to Nigel for illustration. It can take half a year to land a book on my publisher's desk.
VW: Do you visit places such as the Bluebell Railway
for inspiration and others?
AC: I have not been to the Bluebell fo about 47 years. However I have visited many others over the years. I am actively involved in the Rhyl Miniature Railway.
VW: Your son Nigel does most of the illustrations - do you tell him which bits to illustrate or do you leave it up to him?
AC: I leave it to Nigel to decide what should be illustrated.
VW: At first the illustrations were in black and white and then colour, but I have noticed that the style has slightly changed/evolved - will it change some more as each story get published?
I feel you ought to ask Nigel that question. I think his artwork has matured as each book has come out.
VW to NC : How did you become involved with doing the illustrations?
Nigel: After the original illustrator gave up due to other commitments, I took over as a stop gap until my Dad could find another real illustrator. However, both Dad and Mum liked the pictures as they came out and so I stayed on. I had already done the illustrations for Dad's other small series - Grabitt and Skoot.
VW: Do you choose which part of the story to illustrate or does your father gives hints as to what would look good?
NC: Generally my choice, but Dad occasionally makes requests which if I can comply with, I will try to. Its a bit of a team thing really but mainly my responsibility. I try to stage them so they fall as regularly as I can within the structure of the story, but that occasionally goes wrong when there are bits that are crying out for illustrations but are pretty close - at that stage I can only hope my Mum who has an eye for these things can find a way of working these into the most appropriate slot (some more team stuff, you see).
VW: Why did you start out in black and white rather than colour?
NC: It's as simple as the books were originally black and white with colour front only. As it developed, the series moved into full colour thoughout, which is helped by the excellent work done by Gwasg Helygain in producing them.
VW: Since you have been illustrating in colour I can see you've evolved the pictures with more indepth colour over the series.
NC: As I am not a professional, it's a case of developing a style as I go along - some pictures work better than others and I try to be consistent with colour schemes but other than that it depends on what I am illustrating as to how indepth the colour is.
VW: How do you find working with guest illustrators - do they give you more ideas for your own illustrations?
NC: We have really only had one guest illustrator who is a good family friend and a talented artist in his own right. I was pushed for time on a couple of occasions and he happily stepped into the breach - I requested the things I wanted doing and he drew in his own style (but again maintained an agreed colour scheme eg Jack is always black with white paws, a white flash and white splash on the chest). Other than that, its a case of doing our own thing.
VW to AC: Why do you have guest illustrators?
AC: On certain occasions a guest illustration fitted in perfectly. There is no rule that Nigel has about guests.
VW: You also have 3 books about Jack's cousins Grabbit and Scoot can you tell me about them?
AC: These are basically stories about two cats who are brothers and their adventures with wild animals in the woods where they live. Two of the G&S books preceded the Jack books. They are now only available from Jack the Staion Cat Ltd as I bought the publisher's renmaining stocks.
VW: Will you write any more books with these two cats?
AC: Not at present though they may yet appear in a Jack book.
VW: You have an interesting email locks.siding - to me that speaks of trains and canal locks - is it?
AC: No it has nothing to do with canal locks. For 13 years (1993-2006) I wrote a monthly column for the model railway magazine "British Railway Modelling." This column was called Lock's Siding. Lock's is named after James Lock and Co the hatters of St James's Street, London our family business on my mother's side. The firm has been going since 1689 though my mother's great grandfather James Benning did not become involved until apprenticed at Lock's in 1830. He eventually became the co-proprietor .Nigel is a current director of the firm.
VW: As a spiritual leader even in retirement would you ever consider writing for teenagers, by giving them stories that encompassed good moral codes and a thrilling adventure?
AC: I have written a booklet for teens, twenties and adults entitled "The Grand Rescue." It is not a thrilling adventure in the John Buchan style more a Christian primer but written in a different way.
VW: Do you have any writing influences?
AC: Not really.
VW: Who are your favourite authors that you read and inspire you?
AC: Children's authors include Lewis Carroll and his Alice Adventures, W E Johns and his "Biggles" books, plus books by Alison Uttley and Beatrix Potter. Adult writers range from St Paul to John Buchan.
VW: How do you relax or are you always thinking of the next story to write.
AC: I am not always thinking of the next Jack story. I relax by messing about with my model railway, reading and attempting puzzles.
VW: When will your next book be published - are you working on it now?
AC: All being well next summer. Yes I am working on the book now.