Interview with Heather Butler about Us Minus Mum

How did Us Minus Mum begin?

I was sitting in a café in Amsterdam and my foot started itching. I lent down to scratch it and as I did I imagined George scratching his foot underneath the safety of his quilt while he thought about what was going on in his life. It was like he and Theo wanted to dance and jump around my brain. So I started writing – I never go anywhere without a pen and notebook – and what I wrote that day became Facts 33 and 34 in Us Minus Mum.

Later that day I wrote where Chrissie takes Theo and George shopping (which became Fact 45). As soon as I had created George, I knew he was going to be the narrator and that he and Theo would face Mum’s illness together. George was also going to be the sensible brother, with Theo being, on the surface, the opposite.

Tell us more about George.

George became my friend. George is sensitive, loyal and dependable; I enjoyed developing his friendship with Dermo and I loved the way he and Theo interact and look after each other. I still teach and listened carefully to how children talked when they were thinking out loud. George’s ‘voice’ is the same – with lots of connectives and short sentences.

Everything in George’s life is spinning out of control. Adults aren’t being truthful, something is wrong with Mum, dark thoughts are buzzing round his brain, Carl Worthington is bullying him, Theo is being Theo. George gives the impression he is coping. He analyses what goes on with honesty. I loved writing the quirky take George has on everything and his random comments. It is what makes George so unique.

I thought hard about creating something that just George and Mum do in special times together. George loves words and The Visiting Game fitted perfectly. The Making It Better game he plays with Elise in the garden centre symbolises George thinking about a time when Mum is no longer with them.

Would you want George to be your own son?

Definitely. Lots of things George and Theo do are similar to what our sons did when they were children.

How did you create Goffo?

Originally Goffo was a cat. But as the story developed, a dog fitted better for the role the family pet would play. So even though I loved the cat I had created, I changed it to a dog. Goffo was great for showing Nana’s highly developed withering skills. I wanted Elise to be an outsider to start with, so she doesn’t like dogs and everyone else does.

As George and Theo’s lives are turned up-side-down, they need to control something. I didn’t want them farting in front of Miss Cortez. You have to be very careful using farts and burps – too many and in the wrong place is both boring and rude. Goffo, being an animal, could fart though. And does. And George and Theo do not get in trouble. I really enjoyed writing the Summer Showdown scene.

I loved writing where Goffo digs his way into Mrs Shardini’s garden and the boys and Dad watch Mum rescue him. Although Goffo is the focus of that scene, I could show the reader how the family got on with each other, how Goffo reacts to blue. It is also the first time the boys and Dad stand in a line. Look out for lines. There are lots of them.

Pig’s ears didn’t appear until the second draft of the book. I visited our local pet shop for inspiration, saw some pig’s ears and the timed fart idea popped into my head. Once Goffo had landed in my head, he fitted into whatever I wanted him to do.

So do you like dogs?

I was bitten by one when I was a child and am very wary of them. Friends with dogs let me join them when they went doggie walking. I found it a bit scary when other dogs came to say ‘hello’. But I love Goffo. He is my favourite dog of all time – because he doesn’t really exist!