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Opinion: Want to write a book? Maybe all it takes is a chat with your 10-year-old self...

Freddie Alexander has written a madcap adventure involving a man called Mr Spicebag. Here, he writes about how inspiration comes from the most unusual of places

Freddie Alexander

I WROTE A book… and somehow, in it appeared a man called Mr Spicebag. 

I can’t tell you where I came up with the exact plot and characters (I have been sworn to secrecy). But I know that it helped to talk to my 10-year-old self. 

I didn’t write Mr Spicebag with a view to getting it published or with anyone in mind. All I wanted was to preserve a creative urge inside me, for fear it would disappear with age.

I think the most exciting part of the writing process was the unpredictability. Sitting down to write and not knowing precisely where the story would go was quite thrilling. I always had a rough story arc in mind, but I felt it important to allow myself to go off on tangents.

All the while, however, I had a nagging voice in my head. Will this story be any good? Will it be fun? Will it flow well enough to be enjoyed by children and families, alike?

I thought back to my 10-year-old self. I had enjoyed reading, yes. But I would not describe myself as a bookish child. I had a fertile imagination, and a tendency to become distracted and (literally) throw stones in glass houses.

I knew that if I could reach out to 10-year old Freddie (that’s me, by the way), and keep him entertained, then I would have a chance in writing something acceptable.

So, after every chapter that I wrote… nay, after every couple of pages, I would ask 10-year old Fred, “What do you think, young man?” And sometimes, the cheeky pup would say, “Time for a re-write, old timer. You’ve gone off on one,” but other times, the delightful young whippersnapper would simply smile and say nothing, glued to the page in front of him…

Space for magic

When Mr Spicebag was published earlier this year, I was as surprised as anyone to see my name on the cover of a book that was actually for sale, in an actual shop.

It had never crossed my mind to write a children’s book until 2019. Fascinating, I know. Before you ask (and please do save your questions for the end), it was not a “banana-bread-esque” COVID-19 pastime either.

The idea of creating (or trying to create) humour has always appealed to me, particularly surreal comedy with dark twists. At 33 years young, I had been more interested in writing sketch comedy for the previous 10 to 15 years. Anything I have ever written has been heavily influenced by the genius of Monty Python, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Big Train, and Your Bad Self.

I had a bittersweet relationship with creating sketch comedy. I loved the sweet challenge of coming up with a normal, everyday scenario to be hijacked by a bizarre and hopefully funny punchline, but I hated the bitter logistics of getting sketches made (it takes a lot of time and even more patience). So it was with a heavy heart that I decided to hang up my proverbial sketch comedy boots and seek a new creative outlet.

It was my wife who first suggested that I write a children’s book. I immediately loved the idea of writing for children. Children’s fiction allows so much space for magic, and humour juxtaposed with darkness – similar to my favourite sketch comedies, but more family-friendly. So, with a spring in my step (and a stone in my shoe), I set off in search of an idea along the streets that had inspired so many writers before me.

As I walked through Dublin City Centre seeking inspiration, I felt a bit like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it?) wrangling with his inner monologue as I rallied ideas back and forth in my head.

“Hmmm, how about a magical school for teenage witches and wizards?”

“Ridiculous idea.”

“Well, I don’t hear you coming up with any ideas.”

“Here’s an idea. You’re nearly 34 years old – grow up.”

“You grow up.”

“I am grown up – it’s you that needs to grow up!”

This internal struggle continued for some time. As I turned the corner onto a well-known city centre street, attracting a few stares as I argued back and forth with myself, I saw it…

A chipper.

A chipper with a long, impatient queue all the way down the road.

Yes, a queue.

Cue light bulb above my head, a PING! of realisation, and a slightly vacant, drooling gaze across my face (there was a queue outside that chipper for good reason).

“My story will be about an addictive chipper!” I exclaimed loudly to nobody in particular. An elderly lady waiting at the nearby Luas stop slid her bottom a few feet further away from me.

The second voice in my head stayed quiet, so I knew I was onto something.

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“An addictive chipper…” I continued aloud (and with that, the elderly lady decided to walk to her destination), “but addicted to what precisely. Chips?”

“[Sarcastic slow clap] Oh, how very original.” The second voice was back.

“A battered sausage?”

“Warmer.”

“What about… a spice bag?”

The most delicious of all takeaways, and a true Irish delicacy! With a spice bag comes spices, and with spices comes room for magic and strange and surreal plotlines.

The second voice gave its silent approval.

I jumped for joy, high-fived myself and hurried home with my idea, running through a minefield of dog poo along the way. Nothing would stop me.

I sharpened my quill and defrosted my ink.

Neither my quill nor my ink worked, so I charged my laptop and spilled some coffee.

I was excited!

I had never written a book before, let alone a children’s book. Yet here I was, typing away like a mad scientist with a laughing disorder.

Mr Spicebag, by Freddie Alexander and published by Harper Collins Ireland, is suitable for readers aged 7+ and is out now. The book has been nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards 2021 in the Senior Childrens category.

About the author:

Freddie Alexander

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