A Creator of the Zany ‘Treehouse’ World
Posted March 11, 2018 11:34 p.m. EDT
MELBOURNE, Australia — Before Andy Griffiths, the best-selling children’s book author, turned 30 and started writing full time, he was a teacher who often found even the simplest of tasks a struggle in self-control.
In the supermarket, “I’d walk past the corn relish — and it looked like someone had thrown up in a jar,” he recalled. “I thought: Wouldn’t it be fun to soak the label off and write ‘Vomit’ on instead? I did battle with myself and said, ‘No, just do the shopping, go home and settle down.'”
But Griffiths succumbed to temptation, taking “Griff’s Own Vomit” into the classroom. He told his 12-year-old students they could use it to fake a sick day: Tipping relish on themselves would look like they’d puked. As you can imagine, they loved the idea.
Now 57, Australian-born Griffiths has never lost that wacky, offbeat edge — and ability to push the boundaries of good taste — that defines his work. In Australia alone he has sold over 8.5 million books, holding the title of No. 1 best-selling author for the past four years.
But if Griffiths made his name with titles such as “The Day My Butt Went Psycho!”and “Just Joking!”(a compendium of pranks), it is his later “Treehouse” series that catapulted him to global fame. Begun in 2011 with his long-term collaborator, illustrator Terry Denton, the books are best sellers in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway and South Korea. Fans in America are eagerly awaiting the Tuesday release of “The 78-Story Treehouse,” and a stage adaptation of the first book, “The 13-Story Treehouse,” is touring in the United States. (The treehouse will climb to 91 stories this summer in the United States, and 104 in Australia.)
Leading the action are thecharming, if rather hapless, protagonists, Andy and Terry, who live in a gargantuan treehouse replete with a marshmallow machine, bowling alley and tank of man-eating sharks. A skate ramp sits precariously over a crocodile pit. There, they try to write a book but keep being distracted by near disaster and dastardly villains. Jill, their sensible neighbor, often comes to the rescue.
Griffiths’ work is witty and fantastical, with a dark edge not dissimilar to Roald Dahl. In person, however, he is humble and thoughtful, if tightly coiled, with zany green eyes and the taut, sinewy body of a long-distance runner.
We meet at Griffiths’ airy beachside home in Williamstown, a suburb of Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, Jill, 56, who is a co-writer and edits his books, and their daughter, Sarah, 17.(He also has a daughter, 24-year-old Jasmine, from a previous marriage.)
With its sweeping views over the ocean, the house is built in a familiar Australian style — floor-to-ceiling windows leading to a terrace and lap pool — but there are hints that this isn’t just any suburban abode. On the mantel sits an eclectic assortment of oversize toys: a Bambi; a retro red clown, mouth agape; and a giant Kewpie doll.
These knickknacks are important imagination kickers; much of Griffiths’ time is spent trawling junk stores. “There’s got to be something slightly creepy. Like that frog,” he points to a manically grinning frog sitting between the Bambi and the clown. His garden studio is a child’s paradise, albeit with a warped sense of humor. There are compact plastic dinosaurs whose heads have been ripped off and replaced with those of baby dolls; a full-size skeleton dressed in a mortarboard cap and gown; and several, as Griffiths puts it, “killer” koalas — soft toys adorned with fangs, bloodshot googly eyes and crimson claws, created from hair clips. Towering over it all is a 6-foot-high model of a treehouse.
“A lot of kids’ entertainment is pitched down. It’s pretty tedious,” Griffiths scoffed, shaking his head. By contrast, he begins with an idea that amuses him as an adult. “We credit the children with intelligence,” he said, speaking of himself and Denton, “writing to them as equals and saying, in effect, ‘Hey, we think this is really funny and want to share it with you.'”
Griffiths chafes at the idea that children’s books need to have purpose or be instructive. “What’s the point of our stories?” he said. “There is no point. That’s the point. To read a book and enjoy it.”
In the past he has courted controversy and a fair amount of poo-pooing (pun intended) of his work, which at times has been seen by some at best as noneducational and at worst as dangerous.
His books have been removed from libraries, schools and shops over fears that children might copy behavior in them. In “The Day My Butt Went Psycho!,” an army of backsides aims for world domination via a toxic giant fart. That one was, he remarked, “rude enough to get people hot under the collar,” and a deliberate reaction to the conservatism Griffiths felt was devouring children’s literature at the time. “I was delighted,” he said of the fuss. “Kids do not read fiction as if they’re a manual for living. They go to books because they’re the opposite.” Griffiths is culturally astute: He counts Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as a major influence, alongside “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Salvador Dalí, Punch and Judy (“so transgressive, so violent”) and “The Magic Pudding,” a tale of “chaos and anarchy.” His love of literature is (literally) imprinted on his body. Both arms are tattooed heavily with characters from the books he has read and loved, including his own.
As such, he can sound a bit defensive about his reputation. “You know,” he said of the butt books, it’s “a hero’s journey. There are a lot of literary references. It’s quite sophisticated absurdist fiction.” But, he added, all critics see are “bums and farts.”
The “Treehouse” series was an attempt to “get away” from the bum genre, he admitted. “We had done every possible violation,” he said. “So we said we’ll just write a book about not being able to write a book — and we’ll live in a treehouse.”
The result can only be described as the dream home for 9- and 10-year-olds. There are no parents (or rules). Terry and Andy spend their days eating ice cream served by a robot called Edward Scooperhands, getting tattoos in the ATM (Automatic Tattoo Machine) or performing “open shark surgery” on their pet fish. Less crude than earlier books, there are still plenty of adult allusions to keep parents amused. Born in 1961, Griffiths was raised in Melbourne by his midwife mother and industrial chemist father. Growing up a “wild, dissolute youth,” he devoured horror comics, listened to David Bowie and took long bush walks.
“I remember my dad asking, ‘Why do you always have to be different?’ He wanted me to be interested in football and cricket,” Griffiths recalled.
Hissense of agency changed when he was 10 and was given a rusty typewriter, which he still prizes today. The ability to make stories out of nothing — to “take any silly idea you’ve got and make a book” — fascinated him. Soon, he was selling a “joke magazine” to other kids for 3 Australian cents a pop. As an adult, he had stints as a punk singer and a taxi driver. When he gave up teaching, he said,“my parents went: ‘Ugh, we almost had a respectable son!'”
For two decades, Griffiths has worked closely with Denton (“we’re like long lost brothers”) and his wife, whom he met in 1996. The fictional “Treehouse” series reflects their roles in real life. “Terry is always off with the fairies or painting a cat yellow, and Jill solves problems. There is,” he said with admiration, “no hiding from Jill,” who is down to earth, warm and nurturing.
The series still touches on bodily functions, such as bubbles made of burps, but Griffiths also explores bigger ideas that appeal to him. Many are existential: In one book, Professor Stupido, the world’s greatest uninventor, uninvents the universe. (Terry, thankfully, draws it back.) In another, Terry and Andy travel back in time to different eons.
As the “Treehouse” books make their way into the lives of a generation of children around the world, Griffiths himself may seem to have grown up. But he remains at once wickedly puerile and endlessly curious. “The child inside never went away,” he said, gazing lovingly around his studio.