Interview with Alan Snow, the author behind this autumn's biggest family film The Boxtrolls

Stop-motion adventure The Boxtrolls arrives in Cineworld on 12th September. The latest from animation masters Laika who made Coraline and ParaNorman, the film takes place above and below the streets of the magical town of Cheesebridge, and introduces us to the adorable subterranean creatures of the title.

The film is adapted from the book Here Be Monsters! by esteemed children's author Alan Snow and features an all-star cast including Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost and Jared Harris. 

I recently caught up with Alan to discuss his inspiration for the book and its journey to the big screen.

I looked in the back of your book Here Be Monsters! and it said you’ve written and illustrated over 160 books, which is an amazing number. 

You’ve got to remember that some of those are probably board books. In actual fact I’ve been doing it since the late 80s, but in the past I used to do a lot of illustrations for other people. These days though I pretty much just illustrate and write my own stuff.

So how did you get into the industry? 

Well, the one thing I could always do was draw. I went to art college and then had about 15 different jobs, including mixing flavours into yoghurts and making tea for the band Tears for Fears! Then I decided to basically give it a go and haven’t been out of work since about 1986. I took a break during the 90s to do some animation work down at Aardman (among other places) though. 

The books that have always been the most successful for me are the ones where I’ve gone slightly out on a limb on, and Here Be Monsters! is one of those books; it’s the sort of book I would’ve wanted to read as a kid. The idea was to do something that was really of interest to young male reluctant readers. You know, bright kids that enjoy humour. Believe it or not, but the whole thing’s based around a spoof of the town of Trowbridge.

Yes, I noticed on your site ( that you said you’d based the novel's fictional town of Ratbridge on Trowbridge. Why Trowbridge necessarily? 

The thing is, at the age of 12 I moved down from London to 1970s Wiltshire, and Trowbridge then was very Dickensian. Some of the accents were so thick that I didn’t even understand them. It was just a very strange place.

So what is the set-up of the book?

The deal is that there’s a boy who’s been raised by his grandfather under the world after being orphaned. His grandfather is estranged from the upper world and is basically in hiding. The boy is then suddenly caught above ground but is aided by a bunch of weird creatures that slowly become his family.

What gave you the idea of putting the Trolls in boxes?

The truth is that I was doing some animation modelling with boxes which involved sticking arms and legs on them, and they really appealed as characters. The world very much has its own structure and logic and I think the characters, however strange, are no stranger than characters in real life. In reality there’s a lot of weirdness out there!

A lot of the characters have very evocative names. How do you go about the process of naming them?

I think the names very often follow the drawings. I draw things, cut them out and stick them in scrapbooks. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of them and then I work on a character, developing it and working on a logic for it. You have to think about their whole society and how they would integrate. 

That’s where a lot of the charm and enjoyment is with writing because you’d discovering these solutions to how they might live and interact with each other and the story.

So it all really springs from the drawings… 

Very largely, yes. But I would say that I am influenced by lots of classic literature, like Dickens or Sherlock Holmes. What then happens is you throw your own ridiculous characters against those influences and weird stuff happens! It all goes in a completely different direction. 

That’s quite interesting actually, because if you take a classic story and then add your own bizarre characters with their own unique behaviour then it takes it in a completely different direction. How you control that and how you get it to work is the problem, but it also interesting in its solution.

What illustrators and authors would you say have influenced your work? 

I think my favourite illustrator of all time is Ronald Searle [the original creator of the St Trinian’s stories], who was easily one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th Century.

What projects are you currently working on? 

I’m actually building this completely crazy ice cream parlour in Bristol – It’s sort of like Fortnum & Mason go to Ratbridge via Terry Gilliam! I got very involved in food chemistry about a year ago, and I’ve been making mad ice cream ever since. I assure you that it’s going to be unlike any ice cream shop you’ve ever seen!

The Boxtrolls has obviously been done in stop-motion animation rather than CGI. And from what we’ve seen so far, the animation looks very impressive indeed. 

The quality of the animation in the film is unbelievable. Coraline and ParaNorman were stunning but they’ve somehow managed to go up a level beyond that with The Boxtrolls, and that’s largely driven by Travis Knight [the CEO of Laika, the film’s animators].

Does it feel strange to hand over your creation to a filmmaker, knowing that they’ll be putting their own twist on it? 

It does feel strange, but the positive thing is that when you collaborate with someone who understands the source material well then they can then enhance it and take it to places you’d never take it to yourself.

So you think the Boxtrolls story has been enriched by Laika getting involved?

Yes, of course. I mean it is out of my control, and there are bound to be things I would’ve done differently or in another way, but it’s definitely gone further down the line than where I could’ve taken it.

Looking forward to watching The Boxtrolls? Then click here to book your tickets.