Author and comics writer Tommy Donbavand was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer in March 2016. In this interview, he talks about his novels and comics, writing a blog about his cancer and how our readers can help him…
Matt Badham: How did you become a writer? I notice that you used to work in children’s theatre. Did writing, in some way, emerge from that?
Tommy Donbavand: I’d always enjoyed both Drama and English lessons at school. I had plans to become an actor and, as scripts were an important part of that business, I figured that teaching myself to write would be a helpful skill. I acted professionally for many years – both in children’s theatre and in a West End musical called Buddy. Then, when I got married and had children, I didn’t want to be away on tour all the time so I gave up acting, and took a stab at making the writing work. I’ve been writing full-time for just under ten years now.
Matt: You write your own original material and work with other people’s characters. Which is harder and what are the challenges and pleasures of each?
Tommy: They both have their pros and cons. When writing for established characters, there is often a rich history to refer back to and choose from when it comes to creating new adventures. Having said that, you can’t take the characters too far away from their initial premise, or write stories where anything particularly radical happens (you won’t be able to kill anyone off, for example).
With your own characters, there’s more work involved in the creation and development stage but, once you’re there, you can do virtually anything you want with them. It’s now your world – so go and play with it!
Matt: What’s it like working on a cultural icon like The Beano? Did you read the comic as a child? And which characters do you write?
Tommy: I was always a big fan of The Beano growing up, and even into my adult years. There’s just something about comics that spans the gap between childhood and what I like to call my second childhood!
When the opportunity arose to submit some ideas for scripts I chose three to try out for – “Calamity James”, “Gnasher and Gnipper” and “The Bash Street Kids”. It was Class 2B I really wanted to write for, but I didn’t think I’d get the chance. But I went on to write for all three strips and was eventually asked to take over “The Bash Street Kids” after about six months.
I’ve also had a brief stab at “Billy Whizz” and created a new, if short-lived, character called Holly Wood.
Matt: Which is your favourite Beano character to write and why?
Tommy: I really shouldn’t have a favourite – but it’s Plug from “The Bash Street Kids”! He just has so much belief in himself and his good looks, and he never gets too down when yet another mirror shatters at the sight of his reflection.
When I was younger, he had his own spin-off comic for a while where we got to meet members of his family (including his sisters Plugella and Plugena) and his pet monkey, Chunkee. I’ve been able to sneak those characters into one or two of my strips!
Matt: In terms of your completely original material, which is your favourite book that you’ve written and why?
Tommy: At the time of this interview, I’ve currently written 92 books for children and young adults (my first books were published way back in the year 2000, long before I was doing this full-time). Of those, it has to be my 13-book, Scream Street series that stands out. I was thrilled to be able to write so many adventures for the same characters – and the books have now been adapted as a stop-motion animated show for CBBC!
Matt: You’ve done a lot of school visits and festivals over the years, working with children to promote literacy and storytelling. What do you think schools and children get from author visits? And have you got any tips for schools on how to source authors and how to make sure those visits go smoothly?
Tommy: School visits are very important to me. Writing can be an incredibly solitary endeavour, so the chance to get out and meet the kids who read my books is just fantastic. I make sure I pack every school visit with creative writing workshops and fun author talks, in the hope of promoting the idea of reading and writing for pleasure – something which is becoming harder and harder in this increasingly digital age (I sound so old!)
From the schools’ point of view, my advice would be not to wait to book an author visit until World Book Day, which takes place every March. Every author gets booked solid with events for the entire month, and we have to turn a lot of schools away because of that. However, if you were to choose another time of the year, you are far more likely to be able to invite your author of choice into school.
That doesn’t mean you can’t still celebrate World Book Day – but you won’t have to start out your preparations with a potential disappointment.
Matt: You’re writing a blog about having cancer and all it entails. Why did you decide to document the experience?
Tommy: I was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer in March. As you can imagine, it has turned my entire world upside down. I started the blog – www.tommyVcance – as a way to organise my thoughts and try to find a way to fully understand what was happening to me. Plus, I hoped the information might be useful to anyone else who may find themselves in a similar situation.
The response has been amazing. I’m currently getting around 600 visitors a day, peaking at 3,400 for one particular post where I explained what happened when my diagnosis finally hit home.
Matt: Your diagnosis and treatment for cancer had massively affected your ability to earn money. Could you please explain why that is, for the benefit of our readers?
Tommy: The average income of a professional, full-time writer in the UK is around £11,500 per year. Not much at all, is it? We’re not all at the JK Rowling level of success! For me – and a lot of my colleagues – school, library and book festival visits provide at least 50% of my income. Or, at least, they did. I’ve been forced to cancel all of my events for the foreseeable future, and turn down any new requests. My speech is getting worse day by day, and I will completely lose the ability to talk during my forthcoming radiotherapy treatment (I have a course of speech therapy lined up for after it ends). I doubt I will be back to visiting schools until at least 2017. That’s a big chunk of my income gone overnight.
Matt: How can people help you?
Tommy: The last thing I want to be is a charity and ask people for donations, so I signed up to a service called Patreon (www.patreon.com). It’s an American site, but open to anyone. Through Patreon, you can pledge to pay an amount of money per month and receive exclusive content in return. Some people make videos, or compose music. Others paint pictures or shoot photographs. I’m going to teach creative writing!
I’ve set up several levels on my Patreon account – some for people who want writing help, tips and advice, and three for schools so that I can continue to work with pupils. The pledges begin at just $1 (70p) per month and, the more you pledge, the more content you get. So, if you’ve ever fancied writing your own comic strips, or even an entire novel, please take a peek at www.patreon.com/tommydonbavand or, for more info, visit www.tommyVcancer.com
We all here at downthetubes would like to thank Tommy very much for his time and wish him the very best in both his work and his fight!
Matt Badham is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD and Big Issue in the North.