Let’s give a hearty Mixed-Up Files welcome to Helen Rutter, author the MG debut, The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. Praised by children’s author Jacqueline Wilson as “Very funny, very touching, and very truthful”—and featured as a Waterstones Book of the Month—the novel was released in the U.K. by Scholastic on February 4, 2021. It will be available in the U.S. on August 3.
Here’s a summary:
Billy Plimpton has a big dream: to become a famous comedian when he grows up. He already knows a lot of jokes, but thinks he has one big problem standing in his way: his stutter.
At first, Billy thinks the best way to deal with this is to . . . never say a word. That way, the kids in his new school won’t hear him stammer. But soon he finds out this is not the best way to deal with things. (For one thing, it’s very hard to tell a joke without getting a word out.)
As Billy makes his way toward the spotlight, a lot of funny things (and some less funny things) happen to him. In the end, the whole school will know—
If you think you can hold Billy Plimpton back, be warned: The joke will soon be on you!
Q&A with Helen Rutter
MR: So glad to have you with us, Helen. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files! Huge congratulations on having published your first novel.
HR: Thanks so much for having me! It’s so exciting that the book is coming out in the U.S. The whole publication process has been a wonderful series of lovely moments, and this really is a big one!
Struggling with Stuttering
MR: Billy Plimpton, the protagonist of the book, struggles with stuttering. I can relate, because I too have a speech disorder—spasmodic dysphonia. Although my voice problem is different from Billy’s, I connected deeply to the character’s challenges and frustrations. As a non-stutterer, how were you able to capture Billy’s story with such authenticity? Was there research involved?
HR: The research came through raising my son, who is a stutterer. Over the years, we have been to speech therapy together, and I’ve witnessed all the ups and downs that come with growing up with a stutter. As most parents would attest, watching your child struggle and then learn how to deal with challenges is a pretty powerful thing. It’s no wonder he inspired me to write my first novel!
Inspiration for Billy
MR: As above, the idea for The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh came from your son, Lenny, who has a stutter. I’m guessing that Lenny was instrumental in the formulation of Billy’s character. Did he have any specific thoughts and suggestions? Any objections? What did Lenny think of the final product?
HR: He was a HUGE part of the process. I read him each chapter when I’d finished it, and he would let me know when I had really hit the mark. It was such a lovely experience, and offered opportunities for us to talk about things that had happened to him. Also, he told me when things did not work, usually when I used words that “kids just don’t say anymore, Mum!” He really enjoyed hearing the drafts of the story as they developed, and he was an excellent proofreader as his grasp of punctuation and grammar is far better than mine!
When we found out that it was actually going to be published, Lenny was thrilled. He has been involved in TV interviews here in the U.K. and has loved every second of it! He’s much older now, and his stammer has changed a lot. He no longer struggles with it in the same way, and it doesn’t define him like it once did. Because of that, his stutter is not as apparent as it used to be, which gives him more confidence. When it does come back, he realizes that it’s just a tiny part of who his is. I think the story is a great reminder of that.
Creating a Nuanced Antagonist
MR: At school, Billy is bullied mercilessly by a classmate, William Blakemore. I’ve never experienced deliberate cruelty because of my speech disorder, but I could empathize with Billy’s pain and humiliation. As a writer, how do you humanize a bully? What advice would you give to other writers who want to create a nuanced antagonist?
HR: Blakemore’s character grew a lot over the editing process. It took time to get enough of his backstory into the book, in order to give his character depth, without apologizing for his behavior. I didn’t want to hold back on the bullying, to show how brutal and heartbreaking it can be, but I also had to show glimpses of where Blakemore’s bullying behavior came from. For every character, you need to show that their life and personality are complicated, contradictory and nuanced, and to do that they have to do things that are not always expected.
The Joke’s on You
MR: Despite his stutter, Billy dreams about being a comedian when he grows up. His biggest fan is his beloved grandmother, Granny Bread. What is it about comedy—and about the act of telling jokes—that appeals to Billy? For someone who is reluctant to speak in class, telling jokes onstage seems like a herculean task.
HR: The size of the task is what made it so appealing to write. I love an against-all-odds story! Sometimes we are drawn to something that seems beyond our reach for that very reason. I also wanted to show that just because Billy stammers, he still has a lot to say. It’s easy to assume that people who stammer are nervous or shy, and that certainly is not the case with Lenny. He is incredibly confident. He never stopped talking, raising his hand in class, or making his voice heard, however hard it seemed.
Many kids who stammer do withdraw, so I wanted to show in Billy that even though he was tempted to retreat and stay silent, the need to tell jokes and make people respond to him in a positive way had more power. Lenny definitely doesn’t want to be a comedian in real life (he would prefer to be a drummer), but I do know a comedian with a very strong stammer, so when I had the idea of using comedy, I knew it was rooted in reality.
How to Respond to a Stutterer
MR: As a stutterer, Billy is hyperaware of how people react to him when he speaks. He’s even created four categories of listeners: The Encouragers; The Mind Readers; The Jokers; and The Waiters. How did you come up with these categories? Can you tell us a bit about each? Also, what advice would you give to people who interact with a stutterer? What should—and shouldn’t—they do?
HR: This section of the book was Lenny’s favorite. It came from how I had witnessed people responding to him, and he said that it felt like I had climbed inside his head!
The Encouragers do just that; they try and help by telling him to “keep going” or “slow down.” Generally, very kind people, but encouraging is not that far from interrupting and, as it says in the book, “Telling someone to relax when they are clearly struggling is like shouting, ‘Run faster!’ at someone being chased by a tiger.” They would if they could.
Mind Readers finish the sentence, trying to guess what a stammerer is going to say (and often getting it wrong, as far as Billy is concerned).
Jokers mimic the stammerer. I’ve seen this done to Lenny so many times. You may think that it’s just kids who would do this, but I’ve seen more adults do it. I think it’s an attempt to be playful, and I think it happens when a person doesn’t know that it’s a stutter they’re hearing. This is definitely the most shocking response I have witnessed.
Waiters are the best category as far as Billy (and Lenny) are concerned. This is what I would always try to do. It’s harder than you may think. People aren’t the most patient, but it’s a useful skill to practice and I’m grateful to Lenny’s stammer for reminding me to be more patient!
An Actor’s Life Is (not) for Me
MR: Before writing your first novel, you were an actor and stand-up comic. What prompted you to make the switch from acting to writing? Also, can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers about your path to publication?
HR: I loved acting, but after having kids the reality of auditioning and touring lost its appeal. In fact, I started to dread the calls from my agent instead of hoping for them, so I knew it was time for a change. After I had Lenny, I began to write and perform comedy as well as write plays and theater shows. I completely fell in love with writing–more so than any performing I was doing, so when I had the idea for this story, I knew that it was not a theatre show, but a book. It was an exciting moment!
A very quick draft followed, and I realized it was all character and no plot–and so the editing began! I found my wonderful agent and then things went super fast when she sent it out to publishers. After an auction, I was pleased to sign a two-book deal with Scholastic. It felt like I had just the right amount of luck and serendipity, as well as a pretty thick skin!
MR: What your writing process like, Helen? Do you have a specific routine or word-count goals? Any writing rituals?
HR: No word count goals; I think that would stress me out! I go and sit in my writing shed in the garden most days after school drop-off, and when the procrastination is out of the way, some writing usually happens.
MR: Finally, what’s next on your writing agenda?
HR: I’m working on book two, which is about a boy called Archie Crumb. He and his mum are really struggling, and just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, he bangs his head and his wishes start coming true! He has no idea if it’s all for real or just a huge set of strange coincidences. I guess, ultimately, the book is about hope, and how we can put positivity out into the universe.
MR: Oh! One last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack? Chocolate, of course!
Coffee or tea? Decaf tea for me. I don’t need to make my brain any busier!
Favorite joke? What did the drummer name his two daughters? Anna One Anna Two.
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.
Superpower? Flight. No, invisibility. No, flight. No… How about decisiveness?!
Favorite place on earth? My home.
You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? I am assuming I’m not allowed to say my family or dogs? I’m also assuming that sensible items such as a lighter, water and a boat are not what you’re after either. In which case, I will say suncream, a snorkel/mask, one of those notepads with an attached pencil.
MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Helen—and congratulations on the upcoming publication of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too.
HR: Thanks so much. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book. Fingers crossed at some point that I can come over to the US and see it in the shops!
For a chance to win a copy of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win!
All About Helen
Helen Rutter lives in the English countryside, just outside Sheffield, with her comedian husband, two children, and two lovely dogs, Ronnie and Billy Whizz. When she is not tapping away in her writing room, she loves walking the dogs, playing board games, and reading. Before writing her first novel, Helen wrote and performed her work on the stage. She has even done some stand-up comedy, and before that she was a jobbing actress. She now much prefers to write the stories than be in them. Learn more about Helen on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.