Matt Brown will be familiar to most people, whether as a breakfast DJ for Heart Radio or for his work as a TV-presenter on shows such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Now and Nickelodeon – but it turns out he is a man with plenty of hats and has recently published his debut children’s book; Compton Valance – The Most Powerful Boy in the Universe.
The hilarious story, which centres on a boy named Compton Valance and his best-friend Bryan Nylon discovering the world’s first time machine in the form of a mouldy, thirteen-week-old cheese and pickled egg sandwich – has already rightfully earned praise for its humour, references to classic sci-fi and incredibly imaginative plot.
For Matt, being a published writer is actually the fulfilment of a life’s dream and in many ways, the summation of his journey to parenthood and the ups and downs that come with being a new Dad to two young boys.
Sam Skelding caught up with the author to talk about the time-travelling children’s adventure, his inspirations for the novel and being shaped by fatherhood.
Describe Compton Valance for our readers?
Basically it’s a story about a ten year-old boy called Compton Valance and about how he and his friends accidentally create a time machine – that’s probably the jumping off point!
Origins of the story?
Well I just think when you write stuff, you’ve always got ideas bubbling around in the back of your head and I think this has been on the go for a very long time. I’ve always had a great love of time travel fiction and stories, films and TV shows – I’m a fan of Dr Who and I loved movies like Back to the Future. I also remember two books that stick out quite a lot, which are Stig of the Dump and Tom’s Midnight Garden. They’re both almost time travel stories by stealth and I recall really loving that sort of thing. I’ve tried to get books published for a good few years and then just had a light-bulb moment one day where I thought wouldn’t it be great to write about something I used to fantasise about when I was ten; being able to travel through time.
So if you could time-travel for a day, where would you go?
I think possibly because I’m an ego-maniac I would head back to cave-man times, maybe say 20,000 years ago, but with the provision that I could take back something from now – because I think regardless of what you took back, even the most hum-drum piece of technology would mean you were a god to the people. So something like a torch, I’d take that back and be worshiped as a living god [Laughter].
The book seems to mirror your passions, so sci-fi and…food?
I do like food but I also really enjoyed food in books when I was a kid. So in Ted Hughes’ Iron Man there’s an incredible depiction of a picnic which I really loved and things like the Famous Five, going round with pork pies and ginger beer. I think even in Harry Potter, JK Rowling takes great care in describing some of the feasts they have, so fiction and food seem to go hand-in-hand, it’s not just my own affection for it.
Are any of the characters you?
Compton is me – like a much cooler version of me. Funnily enough, when they asked me what Compton looks like I said to Lizzie who’s the illustrator that Compton is a ten year-old me and everyone who sees the front cover, say that Compton looks exactly like my eldest son. Lizzie has never met him or seen pictures of him so I think what she’s done is give him a slight look of me. I think I’m also the Dad, because he changes through the first-half of the book as Compton travels through time. When I started writing the book my children were pretty young and I think that character reflects my paranoia and anxieties about wanting to be a good Dad.
The book is hilarious. Were you the class clown at school?
Not really, because my other job is as a radio presenter and I’ve done TV presenting in the past as well, you’d think I would have been the ‘look at me, look at me’ type of kid but I don’t think I ever was and that’s certainly not the case in my adult life either. It’s that terrible altruistic thing that sometimes when you’re in the spotlight, you find it the most uncomfortable, but I have always enjoyed making people laugh. My Mum and Dad split up when I was around Compton’s age, 9 or 10 and I think since then I’ve always tried to make people laugh as a way of endearing them to me. So making people laugh, but at the back of the class when the teacher’s not looking.
When did you know you wanted to write stories?
I remember being in a lesson at school and we were given homework which was to re-write a story with a modern twist and at the time I was huge fan of things like Blackadder and Ben Elton comedies which had lots of word-play. I basically mixed a load of his jokes for the homework and I got this amazing reaction to reading it out – properly making everyone laugh and the other kids were high-fiving me. That was the moment I realised writing had a power to it and that I could gain a lot of joy by entertaining people through my writing.
Did presenting on kids TV help the writing process?
Having been a kids presenter and having been around children, particularly on Nickelodeon which is obviously so kids-focused, helped me have the mindset that I’m writing something for them and not for adults, if others also like it then great but it’s got to be funny for them first, but I think being a Dad is the thing that has really helped enormously.
So proof-readers at home?
Yeah, my eldest son Joe – who’s 8 – has been a great sounding board; every time I wrote something I’d rush out to the bedroom and read it to him hot off the printer. So getting feedback on whether it got across what I wanted it to? Did it go on too long? He’s really been amazing – he never says ‘well I don’t think that’s very good’ which is quite funny because you can just tell if it’s not got his attention fully, but I definitely used being a Dad to help the writing process.
And you used to blog about being a father?
I think for me it was just a way of writing and desperately having things I wanted to say and blogs provided an outlet for it. I think it’s all to do with what consumes your world and when you’re a Dad, it completely takes over your life and so everything I did in my life seemed connected to being a Dad, so it made sense to try and write about it. At the time as well, I was really sick and tired of people tweeting and blogging about how great they were at being a Dad, you know with that quite sanctimonious attitude and I wanted to write about there being so many times when you’re a Dad when you’re just an utter imbecile thinking the whole world is conspiring against you.
I remember one time I was really angry at my son when he was little, maybe about 3, and the row was about the fact he had put a metal flowerpot on his foot as a boot and wanted to wear it. Once you explain about things like that you understand how silly life can be and I thought that was worth celebrating. The blogging was really just to try and make myself feel better about being so inept and hopefully get a little support network of Dads who were equally inept. Writing, from my experience, gives you perspective on things which can often seem insurmountable at the time but actually when you look at them on a page, seem quite ridiculous.
Talking about society, is the lack of parents reading to their kids a concern?
I think when my Mum and Dad read to me they offered some experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to have ordinarily. I remember that even before I was ten, my Dad had read Oscar Wilde stories to me and they’re still amongst my favourite things ever in the whole world. I would never have picked those up as a nine year old so his willingness to do that supplemented my own reading as a child and I think it’s quite important to encourage children to read all sorts of things, give everything a try and quite often they do need to be nudged a bit. For me, I always read to my boys at bedtime so I get to read stuff a five year-old loves and download things a nine year-old enjoys, I derive a lot of pleasure from doing it and I hope they do as well.
Finally, thoughts on Compton Valance being compared to Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
Wow, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is amazing and my son loves those books so if it’s thought of in those terms then I consider that to be a huge honour – really high praise. I think what I really love about ‘Wimpy Kid’ is the look of it, so if Compton has a really strong ‘look’ as well as the words being funny and interesting then that would just be perfect.