Author Interview: Anthony Burt

Anthony Burt 2

After devouring The Animal Lighthouse Sarah Broadley couldn’t wait to ask the author, Anthony Burt, questions about his inspiration and writing habits… enjoy!

The Animal Lighthouse is a fantastic adventure full of mischief and mayhem. With rats, seals, parrots and animals of all shapes and sizes featuring in Jim’s life, how did you choose which ones to be a part of his epic story?

That was a very hard task, actually, because I wanted an eclectic mix of animals on Lighthouse Island so children reading the story felt the island was “full up” with a very diverse bunch of characters. But, I had to pick the right group of animals to tell the story in both a believable, practical and engaging fashion. For instance, I knew I needed a wiser, older character to guide the boy, Jim, so a clever orangutan felt completely right to be front and centre in the story. Oskar is based on my late, real-life granddad so that felt good to write about him. Almost as if I was spending time with him again.

Other animals were chosen for obvious reasons, such as a parrot because there are pirates in the story, a black cat because I love them, and eagles because I needed a menacing presence on the island. There are other animals that caused me problems after I chose them – for instance, Elsa the elephant. She is the lovely, mother figure but after writing the book I realised it’s impossible for an elephant to live inside a lighthouse! How would she fit? So I had to create a lot of gadget inventions (which you will discover in the book) and rewrites so Elsa could stay in the story. In a way, Elsa helped force me make the lighthouse even cooler and special than it had been in early drafts!

Your picture book ‘The Wish Fish’ published in 2021, was inspired by the renovation of the warship SS Freshspring, what has been the inspiration behind ‘The Animal Lighthouse’? Have you ever been to an actual lighthouse?

I basically grew up next to Portland Bill Lighthouse (featured in the old children’s TV series, Portland Bill), and I spent most of my childhood playing, fishing and rock climbing with my brother and cousins under the lighthouse’s constant beams. I feel I have a real connection with them and have always been fascinated by their uniqueness, their engineering, their mirror-prisms and their important job of averting ships from disasters. Portland Bill lighthouse is the main inspiration for The Animal Lighthouse because it sits on the isle of Portland and is the classic red and white lighthouse everyone thinks of when the picture a lighthouse. It opened in 1903, but I’ve also visited some of the oldest lighthouses in America, in Point Cabrillo, California and in Portland, Maine. Each one is different, has its own personality and – because my mum took me up to the top of the Portland Bill lighthouse many times – I used this setting as the main story focus of my book…that a thief steals the lighthouse beam bulb filaments!

Working with illustrator Ciara Flood to bring your words to life for this book, how does that process begin? Have you met in person? Did you have an idea of what the cover or inside illustrations would look like?

I had an idea of what the cover of Animal Lighthouse could look like and I did an incredibly rubbish drawing of all the characters together. Then the amazingly talented Ciara Flood took the idea and turned it into the stunning, adventure-filled illustrations style you see in the book. But this is not usually how the process starts – most publishers guide the illustrator on the front cover and the author gets no say in how it looks. Guppy Books are brilliant, though, and they let me suggest some ideas to kickstart things and then Ciara and I purposefully didn’t chat to one another for months so as not to influence any creative development. It was the perfect process, really, and I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with Ciara to bring my story to life. Everyone who has seen the cover seems to be blown away by how amazing and joyful and colourful it is. Including me!

Due to the pandemic, and most of the work on Animal Lighthouse happening during that time, Ciara and I still haven’t met in real life. But we have messaged one another a lot over the past few years so now know each other very well and are definitely online buddies. I’m really looking forward to doing school and festival events with her in the future.

If you were a pirate, what would be your sea-faring name and which animal would you have accompanying you on the high seas?

My pirate name would be Cap’n Short Beard Burt and my animal companion on my adventures would – of course – have to be a black cat very much like my own one, Watson!

Can you describe a Day in the Life of Anthony Burt? Do you plan anything or just go where the wind takes you? Can you tell us a little about the events and workshops you do?

I’m not a planner when it comes to my day or my writing. And I’m also not much of a morning person! If I’m not doing other work as well as writing, then I get up later and go for a long countryside hike before I do anything else. I absolutely love to walk and usually do 3-hour hikes three times a week if I can. They really help my mind come up with writing ideas, sort out my “to do” list and when I come home I’m able to get on with lots more than if I hadn’t walked.

I’m a night-writer – which is very similar to Knightrider but without the cool car – and I often don’t get started on writing until the afternoon and then carry on late into the night. I find endless tea and Digestive biscuits are great fuel for writing late, and there’s something about the freedom of the night that helps my brain relax and get into a story more.

As I’m a qualified teacher and youth worker – and have been working with children with SEND for almost 20 years – I take A LOT of time doing prep for workshops or events I do. This is completely the opposite to my writing (which I just totally pants-it with), and is because I’m used to doing lesson plans and knowing there has to be a learning outcome to a workshop with children. If you look at my Instagram account (anthonyburt4) you’ll see that all my story time, craft, and festival events are incredibly interactive. I dress up in caterpillar costumes, get children to act out stories with me, do draw-a-longs – despite being pretty rubbish at drawing! – dancing and basically lots of fun stuff.

The events I’ve created for The Animal Lighthouse involve exploring the lighthouse, learning about mirages and orangutans, gadget-based STEM engineering workshops, animal cracker lessons about map-making, creative writing and how to make your animal characters work in a story. I’ll be doing these in schools, at the Edinburgh Book Festival and lots of other festivals this year!

What’s next for Anthony Burt’s stories? More tension on the high-seas? Or a land-based epic tale?

I’m currently working on a shorter illustrated book for much younger readers, kind of one reading stage up from a picture book, and that’s set in a remote, sandy desert town…so very much land-based. And then I will get straight on with writing The Animal Lighthouse book two, which will have even more animal antics and pirate-y adventures in than book one!

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