Driving Miss Daisy
Kes Gray was an advertising sharpshooter, with nine years at Saatchi & Saatchi. But he's swapping it for a precocious little girl called Daisy and a host of other fictional characters.
Kes Gray was an advertising sharpshooter, with nine years at Saatchi & Saatchi. But he's swapping it for a precocious little girl called Daisy and a host of other fictional characters. He told STEVEN RUSSELL why
A new week and a new era for Kes Gray. The previous Friday afternoon he'd waved goodbye to the advertising industry - assuming he doesn't weaken and returns as a freelance - to become a full-time writer of children's books.
You can understand why he's done it. You can also see what he's giving up.
During his 20 years in advertising he's been associated with some iconic work: The Carling Black Label “Dambusters” ad, for instance, where a German sentry turns goalkeeper to catch the bouncing bombs and thus averts an explosion.
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The NSPCC's Full Stop campaign was another (“'Cruelty to children must stop. Full stop' - that's my line.”) And there was Prudential's “We want to be together . . .” (“Whatever you want to be in life, you want to be with Prudential.”)
But, latterly, the magic of story-telling has been pulling him in a different direction.
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Kes's first picture-book, written in a hot-house sabbatical during which he churned out 14 potential books in just one month, won the overall prize at the 2001 Federation of Children's Book Awards. Eat Your Peas, in which spirited little madam Daisy made her bow, scooped other plaudits that year, and was later shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award.
The Daisy stories are illustrated by Nick Sharratt, famous for his drawings in Jacqueline Wilson books and on the Tracy Beaker TV series.
It was a giddy debut for the Essex-born father of three.
A stream of children's books has followed: Billy's Bucket, Our Twitchy, Cluck O'Clock, Baby on Board . . . Vesuvius Poovius was written during a train journey from St Pancras to Sheffield.
There is now a handful of Daisy stories, such as You Do!, Yuk! and Really Really.
Another female, Nelly the Monster Sitter, has also proved an enduring character. It was for her that Kes left advertising for the first time. He wanted to write longer adventures, and that format didn't fit his established method of writing on the train and in spare moments at home.
He's just finished 14 months as a creative director at the agency McCann Erikson, quitting to work on a longer tale about Daisy and countless other ideas bubbling around in his head.
Kes was born and brought up in Chelmsford. He read English and American literature at the University of Kent and then gained a diploma in advertising writing.
His first job in advertising, as a copywriter, came in 1984 and since then he's worked for six agencies, gravitating towards ads for TV and cinema.
“Advertising is a fantastic apprenticeship if you want to write picture-books especially, because if you become a TV writer in advertising you know how to tell stories and messages very succinctly. If you have a 30-second ad, you have 60 words, roughly.”
He reckons he'd been in the industry about a decade before he had his first stab at children's books. Oldest son Elliott had only just been born, and dad wrote in the evenings and at weekends.
Then, in 1997, came that pivotal sabbatical at Saatchi & Saatchi.
“I'd had enough of advertising. That was quite funny. I went to see my boss, who was Adam Crozier, and I said 'I've had enough; I want to go and write children's books.'
“He said 'Well, don't tell anyone, but I've had enough too and I've been offered a job, but don't say anything.'” Crozier would soon become chief executive of the Football Association and then chief exec of Royal Mail Group.
“He said 'Don't leave. Go and do a sabbatical.' I wrote 14 books in a month, varying in length from picture-book to short paperback size. I just had a tick-list of ideas in my head and crossed them off.”
All 14 went into an envelope to a single publisher - and Kes waited 10 months for a reply. When it came, he learned that none of the ideas was what the publisher was looking for.
“I went upstairs, took two books off the shelf - some of my favourite books - looked inside and sent them (his manuscripts) off to two different publishers. I got an immediate rejection, almost overnight, from one. I consoled myself with the fact that they probably hadn't read them.
“Then it was a year to the day, without a lie, December the first the following year, I got a phone call from Bodley Head and they said 'Loved getting 14 books at once. It showed your passion and variety, and we want to do two.' So they did Eat Your Peas and Who's Poorly Too? And then it kind of went from there.”
He left Saatchi & Saatchi three years ago to write the Nelly the Monster Sitter series.
“That was long fiction, something I'd never tried before. It was a five-days-a-week, nine-to-five discipline. And I couldn't do that without leaving.
“Secretly I was hoping she might be optioned for telly - which she has been. Whether that will happen is another deal, but a company is developing her for television now. I really enjoyed that time. What I also found was that I recharged all my advertising batteries.”
As well as writing, he became a bit of a house dad. “I took my daughter to nursery for the first time. I was cooking tea for kids and their friends, and knew who liked beefburgers, who liked baked beans, who didn't like lumps in their mash.
“And then I had to, really, make a decision. Advertising pays the bills; children's books don't pay the bills. They can, but for that to happen you need a lot of luck and a lot of sales. I'd had a lot of luck, but not enough sales yet.”
Kes thus returned to advertising about 14 months ago.
“I was fine; I felt really up for it. But over the course of the year I didn't write any books. I'd spent 20 years in advertising. I've been half in, half out, writing picture-books and children's books for about seven years, and I think that's really where my heart is now. I like sitting in a room, having an idea, seeing it through, and then seeing if I can find a publisher that will run with it.”
So next up on the Daisy picture-book front this summer is 006 And A Bit, while in the longer book - the 10,000-word The Trouble with Life - the youngster finds herself grounded for eating a half-sucked lolly she finds in the street.
It's interesting that the author's two main creations are female.
“I've always thought that girls get a bit of a rough deal in literature,” he says. “If you take something like the Secret Seven, it's always the girl who's tripping up or making the sandwiches, and basically following the boys. I think it's really nice to buck the trend and have strong girl characters.
“It shouldn't really be important what sex they are. It's who they are, and how you flesh them out, and whether you buy in to them. Daisy comes from a single-parent family, I've decided, and it's a nice little tussle she has with her mum.”
Just out is My Mum Goes to Work.
“That's going to be an interesting one,” he smiles. “Some years ago I said to my wife 'What do you want me to write a book about?' She said 'Write me a book that makes me feel better about going to work.'
“My wife loves it - that might be because I wrote it! - but it polarises mums. This book is about a mum who goes to work but overcompensates when she gets back. Basically she exhausts this poor little boy when she gets back with all the activities; and the punchline is that he can't wait for her to go back to work!
“I think it basically might make mums feel guilty - and that isn't what it's meant to do. You have to get to the end of the book to get the message, which is that it's fine. The danger is a lot of mums will say 'Actually, I don't overcompensate when I come back', and children will go 'My mum doesn't do all those things with me.' We'll see. I don't know how it's going to pan out!”
So, how does he tap into the mind of a child?
“I've got a very good memory. I remember the most ridiculously insignificant things - from sitting with my granddad, eating a nasturtium leaf, and looking at the caterpillars and wondering if there was any of that on the leaf I was eating. Or looking at Corona bottles and wishing I could have one.
“It becomes a memory bank you can draw on. And, fundamentally, kids aren't very different today. Most kids want to have fun. Most kids want to eat sweets. Most kids get up to no good but don't really mean it.”
THERE'S a Willy Wonkerish element to Kes Gray. We're in his workroom - over the garage, I think - and he's taking great delight in showing his toys.
Essentially, he's re-collected his childhood toys. There is an original Magic Robot question-answerer, Tufty Club paraphernalia, Captain Scarlet badges that were given away with Sugar Smacks cereal in the 1960s, bubblegum cards and Timpo cowboys.
He's just bought a model of Captain Scarlet's Spectrum patrol car on ebay. “I had all three vehicles as a kid, but the red one I bit the aerial off and it ended up trashed and lost,” he grins.
“I've got a Batmobile that's still got the rockets in the packet unopened.” A friend bought it for him at a trade fair.
Here's the psychiatrist's couch question: why are all these toys important to you as an adult?
“I'm still connected with them emotionally because I can still remember the fascination they had for me and the hold they had. I don't just remember events; I can remember the way I felt at the time.
“And, also, I've never really grown up, I think it's fair to say! I had loads of fun when I was that age, and life does get a bit serious afterwards.”
Kes and best friend Tim ran around as cowboys, then Batman and Robin. They turned Tim's coal-bunker into a den and started a Spectrum Club - membership: two.
He gazes wistfully into the middle distance. “I used to read Scorcher, Dandy and Sparky. I used to lose myself in all those things as a kid, and I suppose that's all contributed to the person I am today.
“I was never really me as a youngster; I was always someone else.”
Chapter and verse
Name: Kes Gray
Lives: Restored mill south of Colchester for the past 15 years
Is now: Writer of children's books
Before that was: Creative force in advertising
Wife: Claire, runs own accountancy practice. They met at school and have been together more than 25 years.
Children: Elliott, 15; Jack, 13; Elsie, four
His name: Was christened Kerry, but Kes was a childhood nickname that stuck. “The worst thing about it (Kerry) was the register on the first day of school, because I would always be in the girls' half. There was Kerry Dixon (a footballer), and Kerry Packer (media mogul) - although, unfortunately, there was also Kerrygold butter.”