From Ratburger to Grandpa’s Great Escape: David Walliams reveals the secrets of his bestselling children’s books

David Walliams has two Christmas specials on TV this year – but who are the real people who inspire his weird and wonderful characters?

David Walliams (Mag shoot and illustration, EH)

You’ve created a world of colourful characters and disgusting titles: where do they come from?

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They come out of my head! I’m often inspired by something or someone in real life; for example in Ratburger, the character of Burt is based on a Britain’s Got Talent contestant who ate live cockroaches from a paper bag. He got me thinking – if he eats live cockroaches, what else might he do? Might he turn rats into burgers? Might he sell those burgers to kids outside schools? That was the first little seed.

Is Grandpa’s Great Escape based on your own grandpa?

He was actually inspired by a news story about a guy called Bernard who escaped from an old people’s home to go to Normandy for a reunion with his Army colleagues. My real grandpa died when I was quite young.

David Walliams (BBCPictures,mh)

Is Raj the newsagent real?

He was, but he’s moved away! He didn’t look exactly like Raj, but he was called Raj and the shop was called Raj’s News. He had a messy shop, and he was quite fun.

Did your dad inspire your new book, Bad Dad?

No, my dad didn’t go to prison! But I’m a single dad, and this is a story about a single dad and his son. I was trying to reflect that relationship.

And at the end there’s a gay wedding. It’s interesting. I got two reviews on Amazon both saying, “Don’t let your children read this because there’s a gay wedding.” What a shame… My best friend from school is gay and I was best man at his wedding – my son was the ring-bearer. There were lots of children there, and I thought what a wonderful thing that these children will grow up without any sense of prejudice against gay people.

I don’t think children reading it will be the least bit bothered.

What stories did you read as a child?

I’ve got fond memories of my dad reading me Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. I used to love Richard Scarry’s books, Busy, Busy World and the Mr Men books. When I got a bit older I wasn’t that keen a reader until I discovered Stig of the Dump and Roald Dahl… books I connected with.

Did you have imaginary friends?

Yes. They’re still my friends. They’re not imaginary, are they? I really liked being alone with my imagination and my toys, creating comedy sketches. I used to think that my bedroom was a spaceship and I could pilot it out into space at night. Your imagination is formed as a child and I think writers tend to be more solitary as children.

David Walliams (BBCPictures,mh)

Where do you write?

I can write anywhere on my laptop; all I need is solitude. I like to be alone with my thoughts. I liken writing to trying to remember a film I’ve never seen. But if I’m being interrupted, I lose my concentration. I do sometimes try to get away and write staring at the sea but I haven’t got a Goldeneye in Jamaica like Ian Fleming. There are too many things keeping me in London.

Do you find it daunting starting a new book?

I never set out to write a masterpiece. Some writers can’t get started because they want to be the next James Joyce. I don’t worry too much about that. My books are there to entertain kids; everything else is a bonus.

How long do you take to write a book?

Once I’ve sat down and started, three or four months. And as soon as I finish one, I start thinking about the next one.

When are the illustrations added?

The book has to be 99 per cent finished before Tony Ross the illustrator comes in. Occasionally I make notes for him if the illustration has to be a certain way to tell the story, but otherwise, I just let him get on with it. Quentin Blake recommended him. Quentin illustrated my first two books, but then said, “I can’t keep up with the pace you’re doing them; I think you’ll like Tony.” I didn’t want to suddenly have a different aesthetic because it would have been disorientating for kids, but Tony’s work is in the same universe as Quentin’s.

Have you considered writing adult books?

Maybe – there’s nothing stopping me other than I’ve had success as a children’s author. But I enjoy writing for kids. The characters aren’t that far removed from those I used to come up with for Little Britain. That’s why it surprises me when people question whether I’ve actually written the books! But I can’t worry about that. What can I do? Go around and speak to them all individually and convince them?

What kind of adult book would you write?

Probably a comic novel. I can’t imagine being the next Kazuo Ishiguro and winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, but books take lots of different forms. Everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to Katie Price’s latest autobiography. I’m probably somewhere in the middle.

What are your plans for Christmas?

I’ll be with my family and will probably watch Grandpa’s Great Escape with my nephews. Last year I wrote a book for them so they’re in their own story. I had it illustrated and printed, and read it to them on Christmas Day. Hopefully I’ll do that for my son one day, too.

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Ratburger is on Christmas Eve at 6pm on Sky 1 and Grandpa’s Great Escape is on New Year’s Day at 6.55pm on BBC1