British comedian, actor, and writer Ricky Gervais's Flanimals and More Flanimals (Putnam), illustrated by Rob Steen, introduced a cast of absurd creatures that are now taking on additional zany dimension. Springing up from the pages of Flanimals Pop-Up, due from Candlewick, are such characters as Splunge, "a jub-wobbling glob bag" and Print, who relies not on traditional wings but on "gravity and stupidity" as he flies in only one direction-vertically downward. Also illustrated by Steen, this book features paper engineering by Richard Ferguson. Speaking by phone from the study of his Hampstead home, Gervais talked with Bookshelf about this and his earlier book projects.
What initially led you to create the Flanimal kingdom?
I suppose there were two parts to it. One inspiration was to make my nephew laugh. When he was six, seven, or eight and I was a teenager, I began making up these ridiculous words that he liked the sound of, and creating these strange, futile creatures. And the other inspiration was my love of natural history. I suppose one of the themes of the Flanimals is the idea of deconstructing nature. Instead of just instincts, I give these characters will and introspection, and make them aware of their lot, which is very existential when you think about it.
Existential in what way?
Well, in the same way that an existential theme creeps up through all of my work, including The Office and Extras and my stand-up. There seem to be the recurring questions: "What's the point? Why are we here?" It's always glorious to come down on the side of, "There is no point," which these books do. But with the Flanimals, I suppose it all goes back to making my nephew laugh.
And did he?
Yes, he did laugh. We used to annoy everyone around us, because we'd have these conversations about inane creatures and no one knew what we were talking about.
How did the Flanimals first find their way into a book?
I suppose, like everything I've done, it really was a labor of love. Over the years, these characters remained a passion of mine. I'd done sketches of the Flanimals and had an outline for a book. And then a friend of mine, Rob Steen, who is an artist, showed me his work-light graphic novel-type illustrations. He took the Flanimal characters and made them come to life and look amazing-almost three-dimensional. And then it happened that my profile was enough to get that first book published. But I didn't create these books on a whim. I'd been working on these characters for 30 years. I really am passionate about them.
What do you make of these characters' new pop-up incarnation?
At first I didn't know what to expect. When a pop-up book was suggested, I said, "OK, but how exactly would that work?" And then I was shown a mock-up of a pop-up page and I was blown away. It was above and beyond the call of duty for a pop-up. The pop-ups in this book have all these moving parts-it's like the most advanced origami I've ever seen. I believe a very gifted prisoner, working all alone in his cell, would take all of a year to create just one page of this book. It's amazing!
Do you expect kids will connect all the more easily with the Flanimals in 3-D?
I expect so. I always wanted the Flanimals to be facing forward, looking directly at kids. That eye contact helps them identify with the characters in a way. That's the reason we can stare at chimpanzees for a long time and wonder what they're thinking. You can't do that with a crab. With the pop-up book, there is so much more to explore-kids can open little booklets and flaps and pull tabs. I am very proud of it.
Do you find being funny on the page a very different challenge than creating humor for the stage or screen?
The Flanimal books were very different for me in the sense that I don't usually do humor for children. I'm always careful when I write these books not to patronize kids, which I know they do not like. On the face of it, it looks like these are quite harsh books-there's squashing and willful injury. They're about the futility of existence and again, they're terribly existential. That's life and that's nature. I've made these characters introspective to the point of tragedy-yet it is funny. We know it's not true, and we can laugh at them because there are no real victims, just fake victims. They're made up, so we're allowed to laugh at them.
Is it true that the Flanimals are making their way to the big screen?
Yes, it is true. The script is in its second or third draft, and Matt Selman, from The Simpsons, is the main writer. We're making it with Universal's Illumination Entertainment, and they have a great team. We're now knocking around ideas for casting.
And will you be providing the voice for a Flanimal character?
Yes. I know already that I'm playing Puddloflaj, a little, fat, sweaty thing. This is more typecasting, as I'll be playing the putz again. Like all my roles.
Are you looking forward to seeing the Flanimals spring to life in the film?
It is exciting, but what really excites me isn't the business, or the success, fame, and awards. What is exciting is that I remember when I first had the idea, the little seed, for each of my projects. I think of that moment so affectionately. I remember when I first drew a Flanimal. It's exciting when something comes this far, but I never push these things, or beg for them to happen. For me, it's all about the creative process. I just make sure I'm having fun and I do it on my terms and when it's done, I walk away and say, "We'll see what happens." Trying to please yourself and no one else makes you bullet-proof. Either that or I'm a useless, arrogant swine just standing there.
It's not likely that anyone would think that!
Hmmm. We should let the public be the judge. I bet if you put it to the vote, it would be close to 50/50!
Finally, what do you make of the fact that the first shipment of Flanimals Pop-Up—12,000 copies—went missing from the truck carrying them from the West Coast, where they arrived by boat from China, to Candlewick's Indiana warehouse?
I don't know what to think, really. But I can tell you this: when the thieves went back to their lock-up and Mr. Big came downstairs smoking his big cigar and said, "Hey, boys. What you got there?" and they opened up the truck, I don't think he was happy when he saw the load of pop-up books. He was probably expecting DVD players or cigarettes. I would have loved to have seen that!
And what do you expect became of the books?
I'm thinking the thieves are probably approaching people on the street with them, saying, "Hey, do you like pop-up stuff?" And when people say they can't afford the book, the guys will say, "Well, you can today. Just give us your pocket money and it's yours!"
Thanks. We've enjoyed havin' a laugh!
It's been my pleasure!
Flanimals Pop-Up by Ricky Gervais, illus. by Rob Steen, paper engineering by Richard Ferguson. Candlewick, $19.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7636-4781-0