The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse… and the bedbug. On his journey as artist and writer, Charlie Mackesy first had to deal with bedbugs and art teachers. But thank goodness he persevered! We asked the author of this bestseller some questions.
Ever thought of loneliness as an occupational hazard? Charlie Mackesy, author of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse on what counts, and why.
Did you go to art school or take art lessons?
I really wanted to be a sculptor, so I went to study anatomy, strangely, in America in the early 90’s. I mainly learnt about how to deal with bed bugs – I stayed in a barn that was riddled with bed bugs. It was in the middle of nowhere. Then I tried to go to Art College, but I left after a week. I just didn’t really feel that connected to what they were doing. I had a strange feeling that if I stayed there, I’d give up making art. I didn’t want whatever passion I had to be crushed.
Do animals have a special place in your heart and why?
Hugely so, you can trust them, you can really deeply love an animal and yet they’ve never said a word to you, which says a lot for silence. There’s a purity to animals that human beings seem to have lost, they haven’t wrecked the planet for instance. We have so much to learn from them. I think being brought up on a farm I spent a lot of time with dogs and sheep and horses and cats and rabbits and you name it, wildlife. I spent huge amounts of time in the evenings not watching television but sitting on the hillside just staring. Every night I’d walk for miles, I remember, across the Northumbrian hillside, then just sit and watch badgers walk across the field or foxes chase rabbits. All of it fascinated me, and it fascinated me a bit more than people did if I’m honest. That whole world; it was a world you could enter and be part of.
Which was your very first illustration in this body of work and what was the inspiration behind it?
The first drawing was ‘Kind’. I was with lovely Bear Grylls, one of my oldest friends. We were mucking around in a tree and his son was on a precariously thin branch, chatting to us. I thought it would make a great drawing, of someone sitting on a branch, asking questions, so I drew him. That’s where the subject came from. Then with the words, we were asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and I was thinking about the idea of kindness, so I just wrote ‘Kind’. That was probably the first conversation the boy and the mole had.
Who is your favourite artist?
My favourite artist is probably one who influenced me most when I was little, an author and illustrator called Edward Ardizzone, who wrote books like Tim All Alone, and Tim at Sea, they are very emotive, hand-drawn, beautifully written stories about a boy called Tim. When a book gets under your skin when you’re little, it stays there, it just goes under your ribs, into your heart, and it stays. There was also a film called The Black Stallion which I watched repeatedly when I was younger, over and over again about a boy and a horse who are shipwrecked on an island and how they survive the island, and a lot of the drawings have come from the inspiration of the boy and the horse on the island when they are alone, and the affection they had for each other when they were just playing. There was a scene in the film where they just charge up and down the beach, just for the sheer joy of it. It stayed with me. One of the pages of the book is doing nothing with friends is never doing nothing, is it? So that’s where all that comes from.
What is the biggest challenge in your career?
Loneliness. The life of an artist and making art, you do mainly alone. Most people I know who are artists, a lot of them gave up. Not because they couldn’t make money just solely because it was too isolating and so for me isolation has been the hardest thing. Which is why doing this book has been such a revelation, because I’ve done it not only on social media with lots of people’s engagement but also working with Penguin, which has been a lovely thing. So definitely loneliness, also you have to really believe what you are doing is good enough to persevere with and there are times when it’s really tough to keep going. Because ultimately what making art is quite a childlike thing, some people have proper jobs. People used to say to me when are you going to get a proper job? When are you going to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a teacher? When are you actually going to do something rather than do what children do? So that’s definitely been hard, but the toughest thing is the loneliness.
What has been your biggest success?
My friends. Everything to do with learning how to love people and be there for them and have them be there for you. In the book there’s a question, “What do you think success is?” And the answer is to love, and I really believe that. I suppose more directly with the book, the greatest success has been reading the responses from people about how some of the drawings have made them feel. Not least a few who have chosen against taking their own lives because of a drawing or two and that fills me with a sense of relief and purpose and profound privilege that you can make a few marks on a piece of paper that help people stay alive I suppose. That is pretty moving to me.
Any words of wisdom for other artists?
Always persevere. I did a drawing where the boy says to the mole, ‘How do you make a good mole hill?’ and the mole says ‘By making a lot of bad ones first’. I think we are very hard on ourselves. I know I tend to give up quite quickly on things. But if you just accept your mess, and accept your mistakes you’ll come to realise that every mistake you make is a journey to not making that same mistake the next time. Also, look at other artists, and study those who really move.
Will we be hearing more from The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse?
I think the four will stay as a four but they’ll meet other characters, like a Penguin or a Polar Bear. Hopefully I’ll do another book. I think that they might meet a lady who denies them cake and they’ll make friends with her, I think that’s what’s going to happen.
A reminder of what truly matters, as told through the adventures of four beloved friends.