The Big Interview: Terry Deary

Sunderland born author Terry Deary, and the touring stage show, Horrible Histories, below.
Sunderland born author Terry Deary, and the touring stage show, Horrible Histories, below.
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He might be loved by teachers, but Horrible Histories author Terry Deary tells Nick Ahad why he hasn’t much time for the classroom.

Brace yourselves.

Terry Deary, who has fired the imagination of generations of schoolchildren through his Horrible Histories series, doesn’t like schools. No, that is far too soft. Terry Deary hates schools.

“School was invented to keep kids off the streets,” he says. “After the industrial revolution, when kids were being sent down the mines, we started getting humane and realised we shouldn’t really have kids under the age of 10 working in factories, so we set them free.

“Unfortunately their parents had to keep working in the factories, so kids were free to roam the streets, crime went up – the government panicked and came up with a way of keeping kids off the streets: locking them up for 10 hours a day and calling it education.”

With that statement Deary has probably just become even more of a hero to schoolchildren and perhaps less of one to teachers. “The subjects taught were those that had been taught in public school, so children were learning things that were in no way relevant to their lives – and they still do,” he continues. “Children study my books in schools, but they write and tell me that they agree with me that schools are a waste of time. I certainly never learnt anything useful at school. Nothing that was useful to me in later life.”

Deary’s sense of the need to stand up to authority has been honed over a long time. Growing up in the North East, his working class credentials are more than sound. The son of a butcher who worked six days a week ‘with Wednesday afternoons off’, he considers himself a lucky man. “What do I do? I stroll out of bed, go into the next room, sit at a desk and switch on a computer. That’s not work, is it?”

Maybe not to Deary, but there are people all over the world, children and adults alike, who are delighted that he does his ‘not work’ on a daily basis. While the Horrible Histories series is what he has become best known for, Deary has a lot of books to his name. A lot.

“I’ve just finished book number 250 which makes me a bit of a hack, doesn’t it?” he says. “In the last few weeks I’ve been under a bit of pressure, so I’ve been working 10 hours a day, six days a week. I don’t always work like that. In the 1990s I was sometimes writing 14 books a year. Some of them were children’s books, some of them not that long, so it probably isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds.

“My wife says I should take a break, but what would I do? Workaholic, I think it’s fair to say, is the word invented to describe me.”

The truth is, Deary might be a workaholic, but he loves what he does and one of the reasons he appreciates it quite so much is because he had a taste of life on the other side, doing something that he definitely did not love.

At school, as much as he clearly hated the experience – and he is blunt and unequivocal about that – it was where he discovered he had a talent for writing. Not that he feels it was encouraged.

“It dawned on me very slowly that I could write,” he says. “I experienced a lot of bullying from teachers, but when I was 13 I was told to write an essay. It was the first time I had been told to do any creative writing – before that it was always a case of ‘you will learn facts and you will learn to write for exams’. A good mark was 13 out of 20 and for this essay I got 17 out of 20. It was an enormous score, but the teacher never said to me that I had a talent for writing. Nobody ever told me I could make a living out of writing. I was a northern lad and northern lads didn’t become creative writers. I never realised I was a writer, it just came naturally to me.”

So he had the talent for writing, but to pursue it as a living? Never on the cards. Instead, the world very nearly lost the creator of Horrible Histories – and a double century of books – to the world of what sounds like very dull work.

“You pass exams you get a good job, you get a good job, you make money, you make money you’re happy,” says Deary. “That’s what we were taught and of course none of that is true.”

Deary landed a job with the North Eastern Electricity Board after school, taken on as a management trainee and during this training he was sent around the organisation’s departments. He was supposed to spend a fortnight visiting each and learning what they did. What he actually did was learn what they did in a day and spend the rest of the allocated fortnight filing because there was nothing else to do.

“After a year of that I remember laying in bed, staring at the ceiling thinking ‘is this it? Is this what my life is all about?’”

His moment of existential crisis came just as a friend announced he was going back to college for further education. He asked his friend if he fancied trying something with him – Deary jumped at the chance. At junior school, there was one thing he enjoyed.

“At the end of junior school there was a concert and I got to play a prince,” he says. “The idea of getting dressed up and all those people applauding you, I loved it.”

So when his friend went back to college, so did Deary – to study drama. When he left he no longer had the salary of a trainee manager with the electricity board, but he was a heck of a lot happier. He joined a theatre in education company, touring schools in Wales with shows. It was hard work. It was where he paid his dues.

“We would load up the van at 10 in the morning, drive to some obscure community hall or school, set up the show, have a bite to eat, do a couple of shows, take the set down by about 10pm, drive home, go to sleep, get up and do it all again. Six days a week,” says Deary.

“That was also real work.”

Although Deary didn’t realise it at the time, what he was actually doing with those six days a week shows was learning his craft; what held the attention of a young audience – and what didn’t.

“You are so close to the audience, there’s no big stage, no proscenium arch, no lights. I still remember performing in a little school in the middle of Wales and a puddle suddenly appeared where this young girl was sitting on the floor. She laughed so hard that she’d wet herself,” he says.

“That’s when you know you’ve made it.”

One summer break, the theatre company decided that when they came back for the autumn season, Deary should write a show. He duly did so and came up with the story of a cowardly cowboy called The Custard Kid. “When we finished the tour, everything went back in the boxes and the Custard Kid effectively died. I thought ‘what a shame, how can I get him to live on?’ The answer was to turn him into a children’s book.”

So he did. And sent it off to several publishers. Although he is not too ashamed to admit his naivety led to some silly mistakes. “One publisher sent a letter saying ‘thank you very much for sending us your book, we like it very much, but we only publish Bibles’. That’s how naive I was.”

Eventually the book was picked up by A&C Black, the company which continues to publish his books 36 years later. It was after around 50 books for children that Deary was asked to write a history book.

“The publishers knew I was a reliable author so I was asked to knock out a history joke book. I knew nothing about history, so I started researching and soon realised that the historical facts were much more interesting than the jokes.”

Horrible Histories was born. The rest is, well, history. A wildly popular TV series, which went on to win a British Comedy Award, a stage show that continues to tour today and Deary never looked back.

“It was a matter of finding the right audience at the right time. I couldn’t have done it 20 years before. What made it possible was Roald Dahl. He revolutionised children’s writing. A lot of publishers wouldn’t touch him at first, with his grotesque stories – in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a kid falls into a vat of chocolate and gets drowned, for goodness sake. Before that it was Enid Blyton and CS Lewis, cosy, safe writing for children and we were supposed to protect children from that sort of thing. Thanks to Roald Dahl we discovered that simply wasn’t true.”

The biggest surprise and the greatest irony, given his thoughts on on school, is that the books are studied in schools.

“For me its a bit bizarre, it’s a bit like inviting an assassin into your home,” he says. “Teachers write to me and say ‘I love using your books in school’ and I think ‘why don’t you do your own research instead of letting me do the work for you?’

“I am anti-establishment, anti-authority and yet they seem to love me.”

Having seen his own children – and millions of others – grow up with his books, Deary is now set on conquering another market. His latest book, Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire is aimed at adults.

“So many people have told me they grew up with Horrible Histories. I wanted to move forward with them and give them something that was going to entertain them and offer them a very human, funny, and subversive take on a certain period of history. Again I have delved into the 
darker, the more dangerous and horrible aspects – you can learn a lot from the horrible.”

Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, is out now.