In conversation with Dermot O’Leary

Dermot O’Leary, broadcaster and author of Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape, talks to our Director Jonathan about his books, how he writes, his reading habits as a child and more.

On libraries

Jonathan Douglas: Did you get many books at home when you were a kid, were you much of a reader?

Dermot O’Leary: Well, we were lucky actually, Colchester — I don’t know how it is now — but it had a terrific library.

JD: Essex libraries are some of the best in the country, really good.

DO: Sorry to chuck you back a question, but why would that be?

JD: Traditionally they’ve had amazing services, particularly for children and young people, and their links with schools and book festivals in Essex are really top notch.

DO: Well, I used to love Colchester library. The thing is, what I loved about it was I could go in and wouldn’t necessarily have to pick up a book, there was so much reading material there, or you could get the papers and get them on the machine — remember that — where you could zoom in on the pages…

JD: So I have to declare an interest, I started my career off as a librarian, so everything you’re saying at the moment is just making my heart beat a bit faster!

DO: Well, I love the library. I went to a Church of England primary school, which meant I had to do catechism classes, because I’m Catholic — to get my first communion. My dad would always take me on a Saturday; all my mates would be off playing football and I’d have to spend Saturday morning with the nuns! As part of that trade-off, he would bring me to BHS where my mum worked and I could have whatever I wanted to eat so I’d have a strawberry flan for breakfast on Saturdays, and then he’d always take me to the library. So we’d spend about an hour or two of quality time in the library. So it was definitely the library — and we had a great mobile library as well, that used to come to our village. So that’s largely where I got my books from — and my dad’s a big reader, my mum’s a big reader…

JD: There’s that freedom in a library, isn’t there, of being able to choose whatever you want, and not paying, so it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong.

DO: You’re a kid in a candy store!

On the importance of reading and writing

JD: What are the Dermot O’Leary top tips for encouraging reading and writing, you know… the wisdom distilled from a literary life so far?

DO: Haha! We’re in for a world of pain if we’re distilling my wisdom! […] I think for me: let your imagination run wild. Even if the only people who are going to read this book are your parents or grandparents, your brothers or sisters, maybe a couple of friends at school — don’t be shy about it! Just go for it. That’s certainly my advice for writing. Don’t think about having the idea, just do the idea!

Actually Simon Mayo gave me that great advice, and Simon Mayo’s a brilliant writer himself, and he’s a guy I work with at Radio 2, I’m sure most people listening will know, and Simon’s written some great books. I love his books, there’s one called Blame which is a young adult fiction book about a dystopian future and living in a commune of a couple of prisons. And I was talking to him about a couple of ideas I had, and he said ‘listen, there’s no substitute for just sitting down and writing.’ And that kicked me into actually saying ‘you know what, let’s do this’!

And with reading, try new things, pick up everything. And make sure you give yourself time — because life’s so busy, I don’t think it matters if you’re eight or 80, the world just moves so fast nowadays. I think the most important thing is to give yourself time to read, and I think you’ll benefit from it. Whether that’s bedtime, whether that’s when you get back from school… my mother for example now, will have her breakfast and she’ll take herself off for half an hour upstairs with her morning cup of coffee and just read.

JD: Brilliant advice. I think that’s one of the key things I’ve got from talking to you is that thing about time. Whether it’s writing or reading, actually, life, as you say, is crazy and wonderful and fantastic, but actually we’ll all benefit if we can find a bit of time for what’s important.