Many of us can identify with the issues the now-legendary Spud Milton has faced. These vary from the horrors of his maths exams, or the pains of the pre-cellphone and social networking era of waiting by the phone for that special girl (or boy) to call – then worrying when they don’t.
And perhaps that’s where the attraction of John van de Ruit’s series of Spud books lies – that he taps into the magic of nostalgia, and strikes a chord with young and old.
Little did Van de Ruit know when he wrote the first of the Spud novels how his character would step out of the pages and into the imaginations of so many who eagerly followed Spud’s progress.
The key to what makes Spud so engaging is watching him grow.
Van de Ruit says: “What’s important is the subtle ageing of Spud’s voice, and allowing the characters to grow in each year. Book one was very much a coming-of-age story, book two focused on rebellion, and book three on boy politics, with book four very much being focused on sex.
“Also vital in building the drama is setting Spud obstacles and seeing the very powerful dynamics in Spud taking on responsibilities and aiming for his goals.”
What also contributes to the Spud series is its setting. Many readers have connected emotionally with the broad cast of characters at an age when youngsters are looking for ways in which to establish their individuality. Van de Ruit describes it as a “gentle satire” and elaborates: “It’s an absurdisation of something that my readers have said feels real. There’s a definite identification of the archetypes.”
But the series has gained an extra dimension in film, with actor John Cleese adding his particular brand of humour to the milieu. Books three and four were works in progress during the production of the first two films. Van de Ruit confirms a certain degree of cross-pollination occurred in his creative process.
“When we started working on the screenplay, I was told: ‘Your book has no plot, Van de Ruit.’
“The second movie has more of a plot than the first, which is more about a battle for acceptance. The second is about the Crazy Eight. It’s funnier, and I understand certain things are added to the movie.”
Van de Ruit’s background in theatre also came into play with how he approached the writing process, and comedy in particular.
He says: “Comedy is a science. There is nothing easy about it and it’s fundamentally more difficult to write than drama. If it falls flat, it falls flat. There are so many different forms of comedy in Spud – irony, satire, wordplay, slapstick and farce. What I do is mesh these, and part of the key is surprise. If you can see something coming, it’s not funny.
“While I was writing Spud, I was performing, and acting sketches on stage influenced what I wrote, and there’s a point where it becomes almost an obsession.
“How do you make people laugh out loud? Comedy works in contrasts. Sometimes it’s the unintentional humour, of the characters not finding themselves funny.”
The journal format in which the novels are presented also added to the overall voice of the narrative.
Van de Ruit says: “A diary is a wonderful thing: a confessional, but also in terms of writing, you see stuff happening during the planning stages and with a diary you can cut and paste. Numerous small elements can somehow fit in a multi-story plot line.”
Over the course of the four novels, Spud’s growth as a character was a process with which many identified. Van de Ruit elaborates: “Spud’s gone from a naive boy who didn’t quite realise the joke. But by book four there’s an irony to how he describes his fellow guys. There’s a surety in Spud – he doesn’t fear. He was scared in book one, yet here’s a boy who has grown into his skin.”
Van de Ruit has previously mentioned he conceived of Spud Milton as a shadow of himself, in which he lays bare part of his past. He is frank about this: “Perhaps I always hide behind the fact that no one knows what’s really me. I was badly bullied at school and I still remember what happened to me. Being able to go back and deal with these things is therapeutic. My humour comes from being honest, in giving part of myself.”
Van de Ruit certainly has had quite a journey since Spud first timidly ventured forth in his first year of boarding school. The author is adamant about his “less is more” approach when it comes to the series – it ends at book four.
Readers are free to imagine how Spud fares as he embarks on life beyond the boarding school environment that has shaped him. Van de Ruit adds: “Spud is eternally 18.”
Van de Ruit describes his feelings now that he’s concluded the tale: “There is a degree of sadness that the party’s come to an end. Spud was a bit of a legacy project, a book that somehow imprints itself on people’s minds. There is a sense that as a writer, the real glow is to think I’ve written something that will outlive me.”
As for what the immediate future holds, Van de Ruit intends to dabble in theatre next year, with two projects in the pipeline.
Concluding on an optimistic note, he adds: “I want to see how writing Spud has changed my modus operandi.
“If I hadn’t had a background in theatre, Spud would have turned out very different.”