Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang by Nick East
Nick East has been an author-illustrator since 2012. In this relatively short period of time, he has been shortlisted for the English Picture Book awards, Long-listed for The Evening Standard’s Oscar’s First Book Prize and illustrated the successful Goodnight series – collaborating with author Michelle Robinson and astronaut Tim Peake on ‘Goodnight Spaceman’. Which culminated in the first broadcast reading of a children’s book from space.
He is currently illustrating a series of Knock Knock picture books with author Caryl Hart and Toto the Ninja Cat with British TV presenter Dermot O’Leary – both published by Hachette.
Olivia Hope, from Flourish and Blogs, speaks to him about his new series Agent Weasel. He talks about inspiration, creating stories and Inspector Clouseau.
Hi Nick, as an illustrator you’ve had an impressive career with the Goodnight picture book series with Michelle Robinson (which included the first picture book to be read in space!) and also with Dermot O’ Leary’s successful Toto the Ninja Cat series, there is a natural storytelling about your art – what was the tipping point that lead to you writing the Agent Weasel books?
That’s very kind of you to say, Olivia. Goodnight Digger was the very first book I illustrated and that was back in 2012 – so not that long ago. But I have to say, working with Michelle was such a great start – she is wonderful person and a goddess of storytelling. I think we were initially quite surprised by the success of these simple little rhyming books. And to have Goodnight Spaceman read from the International Space Station by the incredible Tim Peake. Well that was mind blowing – I don’t think I have ever properly gotten over it.
In the interim, between the end of the Goodnight series and the start of Toto the Ninja cat – I worked on many picture books with a number of different authors and publishers. It was a steep learning curve for me – as I had no formal training in illustration at all. And I really had to search for that storytelling ability within my artwork.
But in this period – stories of my own were always brewing away in the background. I was starting to find the subject matter leaning towards an older age range – so young fiction/chapter books. Then out of the blue, those wonderful people at Hodder – gave me the opportunity to get involved with Dermot and his new Toto series. It was a real insight into the realms of young fiction. And Dermot being such a warm and humorous chap – I took to him straight away. The whole thing was such a tonic.
But the real tipping point for Weasel, was 5oo Words on BBC radio. For anyone who doesn’t know – this is a writing competition exclusively for children, between the ages 5-13. Listening to those fantastically creative stories motivated more than anything. This wasn’t because I felt I could do any better. It was more a matter of being totally inspired by these kids. I wrote three little tales and Agent Weasel was one of them. Strangely enough – it was the one I was least confident about. But here we are, book one published and number two on the way. Who’d have thought!
What was your creative process like for creating your own book and how did it compare with working on other writers’ work?
Creating your own story is certainly much harder I find. I tap into a ‘resource of nonsense’ that’s generally floating around in my head. This comes from years of books, comics, films, TV and other gobbledegook. A spark of inspiration will usually set the ball rolling. For example, with Agent Weasel, I had a chance encounter with a real weasel while walking in a local wood. I got home and began to chaotically scribble in my notepad. This involved written notes and little doodles of the characters – subconsciously drawing on my ‘resource of nonsense’ for the narrative. I find getting the idea down, and not worrying about whether it makes that much sense or not more important. There’s a tendency for me to lose the train of thought if I’m not spontaneous. Of course – I then have to go back and make it all work – which is the tricky bit.
Even though creating your own book can be much harder – illustrating for other writers is a great responsibility. You really want to achieve their vision, which can certainly make for a more drawn out process – if you’ll pardon the pun. But there is nothing more exciting than that first read of a new text. Characters and scenes immediately start popping into in my head. I’ll usually begin sketching away on the A4 printout – before I’ve even read to the end. From the first sketch to final artwork can be an immensely rewarding business.
There’s a great tradition of slapstick humour in classic British books and film that leaps off the pages – do you draw upon memories or inspirations from these types of stories from when you were growing up? How much did they influence the characters and scenes in your story?
Yes, I’ve been busted. I draw a lot on those kind of sources. In my childhood I loved a bit of slapstick comedy. Anything from Laurel and Hardy to reading the Beano. But films certainly had a major influence on writing these books. Aardman’s Wallace and Grommet, Wes Anderson’s remake of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox – the list goes on.
But more notably for me, it was the Pink Panther films of the 1970’s. They starred Peter Sellers as a loveable buffoon of a detective – called Inspector Clouseau. No matter what mess he managed to get himself into – he always came out on top. Which is Agent Weasel down to a tee. Even though some of the cultural references are a little outdated now – I would still recommend these films. Peter Sellers was a true comedy genius – his brilliance would have me laughing uncontrollably, until it actually hurt.
Which came first for you with Agent Weasel – the art, the story, a character or a scene?
The character of Agent Weasel without a doubt. I spotted a wild Weasel on a local walk one day. It bounded out in front of me with a bird’s egg in its jaws. Obviously, I felt for the poor mother and father bird but was so impressed by this little creature’s speed and agility, I immediately thought – animal action hero.
When I got home, I sat down with a cup of tea and custard cream – in true Weasel style. And started scribbling. The character came quite quickly, although I had him in a tux and wrote down ‘Double Oh Weasel’ next to the drawing. This name remained right up until my first draft of book one – when we decided to change it due to the potential Bond copyright issues.
The book is an action-packed spy story but is Agent Weasel more James Bond or Johnny English?
Well, I would have to say Johnny more than 007. Bond is quite slick and ruthless – which certainly wouldn’t have been right for Weasel’s character. But I did want him to be a bit of a maverick rule breaker – which is definitely Bondesque. Originally Weasel was very Johnny English – completely incompetent and a little bit conceited. But I wanted him to have more empathy with the other animals. So, I eventually took out the negative traits and wound down total incompetence, to just plain incompetent.
Which is easier for you – writing or drawing a funny scene? Have you a particular favourite from this book?
What a very good question. I think writing allows more freedom to play around with the time line – particularly if there is action involved. And there is certainly a lot of that in Agent Weasel. My main aim was to keep the momentum going and the descriptive elements to a minimum in these stories. So, a well-placed illustration really helped with that.
For instance, when the animals first see the Fox Gangs fiendish control room – a large detailed illustration allowed me to minimise the description. And this was definitely one instance where the sketch came before the writing. A large, complexed space, like the fox den, can be difficult to get your head around. Particularly when the action moves through it and the geography needs to be right. Creating that scene, was particularly enjoyable. There had to be a working balance between the writing and the sketches. I needed to be sure of it before Weasel could crash dramatically through the space. Eventually landing at the feet of the Fiendish Fox Gangs infamous leader.
There’s a full spectrum of baddies in Agent Weasel – from the hapless foxes; Vic and Viv, to the diva-like criminal mastermind Vixen Von Fluff. What makes a good baddie and how did you incorporate that into your writing and illustration?
I like my arch criminals, formidable, intelligent and downright nasty. With a devilishly cool outfit to boot. Vixen Von Fluff’s look was based on Bonnie, from Bonnie and Clyde – the 1920s gangsters. The fox leader is stylish and fierce, if not a little bit twee in her decor choice. But for me, there should always be a chink in the armour. Von Fluff has an aching ambition to win the Autumn Big Bash – Best in show competition but is repeatedly denied entry, which could be the reason behind her cruel behaviour. But I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out where that thread goes.
Viv and Vic were a lot of fun to write. I didn’t want the foxes to be all bad – they get a harsh enough rap as it is. So, I gave the bickering twins conflicted personalities. Viv, if she’s honest, just wants to play nice and stop all the mischievous, horrible Fox Gang stuff. And Vic is completely ruled by who’s giving him the biggest portion of pudding. I really like that wrong-uns turn good scenario.
There are more dramatic missions ahead for Agent Weasel and Doorkins, can you give us a clue about where they’ll take place?
Interesting you should ask. I don’t know if it will be quite that obvious until book two comes out. But each story is themed around a season of the year. Book one is autumn, book two will be winter, spring and so on. The second book is out towards the end of January next year. And will be chilly paw freezer of a mystery – set on the snow-capped peak of Windtop Hill. Book three is a wet and wild tale of flooded woodlands and an expedition into the treetops. But I daren’t say anymore as it’s exceedingly top-secret.
This interview will now self-destruct in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!!!!
Well, thanks so much for your time, Nick. It’s been great to chat and we really look forward to the further adventures of Agent Weasel.
Can some pass me a fire extinguisher?
(c) Olivia Hope
About Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang:
Meet Agent Weasel: woodland super-spy. Can he foil the dastardly Fiendish Fox Gang once and for all? And will he still be home in time for tea and biscuits? Perfect for reading alone or sharing together, for fans of The Bolds and Mr Gum.
‘I always call Agent Weasel in a crisis! I love this brilliant, funny new series.’ Dermot O’Leary
Strange things are happening in the United Woodlands. Rabbit warrens have been peppered with itching powder. Squirrels’ nuts are missing. Even Badger’s bottom has been shaved! All the clues point to the Fiendish Fox Gang.
It’s time to call Agent Weasel, woodland super-spy. But before they can even finish their stakeout picnic, Weasel and his trusty dormouse friend Doorkins are captured by the villainous Vixen von Fluff.
Can our heroes escape? Can peace be made in the United Woodlands? Will they get afternoon tea and biscuits? Does Agent Weasel have a clue what’s going on?
All these very important questions will be answered in this rib-ticklingly funny adventure, with glorious illustrations throughout.
Order your copy online here.
And read Olivia Hope’s review of Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang here.