Seeing Things: Lizzy Duncan

23rd October 2009

Jill Glenn talks to Chorleywood-based illustrator Lizzy Duncan about life, Tollins, and how to draw…

Lizzy Duncan has been drawing every day since she was small. It’s both a discipline and a diversion. She spent her childhood in Chorleywood dreaming of making her ideas come alive, and a degree in Image-making and Design, followed by a career in TV animation, saw the fulfilment of those early aspirations. Now she’s hit the literary headlines with a collaboration with writer Conn Iggulden (of The Gates of Rome and The Dangerous Book for Boys fame) – Tollins: Explosive Tales For Children.

The Tollins phenomenon began at a local firework display. Lizzy was there with her children; Conn Iggulden was there with his. At the time they didn’t know each other, but when Lizzy overheard Conn explaining to his offspring that fireworks got their colour from little fairy-like creatures called Tollins, she was moved to join in the conversation. “I didn’t know anyone else knew about Tollins,” she said to him, sketching one out instantly on the drawing pad she keeps in her pocket for just such a purpose – and that was that. Light the blue touchpaper. Literally.

The first three stories have just been published in one volume, and the second is already under way. I meet Lizzy before I’ve seen a copy of the book, so when I ask her – unoriginally – where the idea first came from, and she replies “Well, I’ve known about Tollins for a long time, and I didn’t think anyone else did…” I’m taken aback. For a second or two my mind spins… I thought this was fiction; have I misunderstood?; am I completely unprepared for this interview? She laughs as I stutter… but I don’t think she realises quite how effectively she’d taken me in. Just for a moment.

She and Conn apparently never go ‘out of character’ when they’re talking about the Tollins, who live on Chorleywood Common, and who can be seen only by children, or by adults with blue-tinted glasses. Lizzy is keen that I don’t think that the Tollins are fairies, for example. “They’re like fairies – but they’re much tougher. They’d take it as a personal insult if you didn’t make that clear.”

I find myself falling into the mindset very quickly. When she describes the book as historical fiction (it’s set in 1922), I can’t stop myself from saying “historical fact, surely?”. “You see,” she says, “it doesn’t take long…”.

Her ability to think herself so fully into this enchanting other world must make the process of capturing the Tollins on paper more straightforward. After all, if you’ve been able to see them since you were a child, if you retain a child-like element within yourself, all you have to do is draw what you see…

Lizzy comes from a creative family. Her grandfather was a big band leader, who also made propaganda films (of the ‘don’t forget your gas mask’ type) on behalf of the government during World War II. Her father is a musician, too, in his spare time, and Lizzy somehow finds the time to sing in his band. Her aunt is a painter, with an exhibition just about to finish at the Barbican Library. Her childhood, with a brother and sister, and four cousins next door, sounds rich and happy, full of creative extravaganzas and very musical. “A bit Von Trapp Family, probably… but we didn’t know it was unusual.”

Her family are pleased about Tollins, but probably not surprised. After all, as her mother pointed out, she’s been working towards this for about 35 years. All those afternoons at the kitchen table.

Lizzy is a drawing evangelist. Delight in the process, and sharing it, illuminates her. She particularly enjoys workshops with children (“I love them”, she says, with an emphasis that really needs double italics to do it justice). Whatever you ask youngsters to draw, she explains, “every design is different… every one is fantastic in its own way.” She boosts children’s enthusiasm, and rebuts their accusations that drawing is easy for her by showing them one of her own early efforts – and roars with laughter as she recounts how they chorus “but that’s rubbish!!” – “and I say ‘exactly!’”. It’s an amusing story, but Lizzy is making a serious point, too. “If by the end the less confident children are drawing and having fun, then that’s a success.”

Her firmly held belief is that anyone can draw, and that there are probably huge mental health benefits to it. “There is no right or wrong way,” she asserts, “just find the medium, have the courage of your convictions, be yourself. You don’t have to be an amazing artist to put across an idea.”

She confesses that she can’t draw horses’ legs, or dogs’ legs either, really: “If I draw dogs, they’re always sitting down.” This minor inadequacy doesn’t seem to bother her, and it certainly hasn’t held her back.

Working with Conn Iggulden has been a pleasure. He went away, after that first conversation, wrote the story (based on a set of Tollins’ diaries, that had come into his possession…) and sent it to his agent. Then writer and illustrator sat down, and talked and talked and talked. Lizzy went away and drew and drew – and the result has just been published.

The phrase that’s being bandied about in the trade to describe Tollins is ‘Peter Pan with attitude… an explosive and magical new fictional world.’ In Lizzy’s words the book is “proper writing… a real keeper”. It’s engaging – for both children and adults – funny, clever, and has maps and diagrams as well as the wonderful drawings. With its high production values, it’s a thoroughly up-to-date old-fashioned story book.

To find out more, visit

Lizzy Duncan is holding an Illustration Workshop for 8-11 year olds on Saturday 14 November at 11am, as part of the Chorleywood Literature Festival. This is a very special opportunity for children to see how characters come alive, as well as to create drawings and characters of their own. All materials will be provided. Booking essential.
Tickets are £5 per ticket, available from Chorleywood Bookshop (01923 283566), 4 New Parade, and from Chorleywood Library (01923 471333), Lower Road.

Lizzy will be signing copies of Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children at Chorleywood Bookshop on the Chorleywood late night opening evening, Friday 4 December, from 6pm to 8pm, and at Gerrards Cross Bookshop, 12A Packhorse Road, Gerrards Cross, on Saturday 5 December, 10am-12pm.

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