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Ten Terrifying Questions (featured on Booktopia blog, October 2016)

1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself - where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I am a children’s book author and illustrator based in Sydney, the town where I was born. I have been illustrating and writing books for twenty years. I grew up on a farm in the New England area of New South Wales near a town you’ve never heard of nor visited called Ben Lomond. It’s a very small, hilly place where people talk mostly about how cold it is or whether or not you’ve noticed a tawny brown goat, about yea high, wander by. I spent most of my schooling in Armidale. It was here that I acquired a knack for daydreaming and bewilderment.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

When I was twelve I wanted legs long enough to not require jean alterations. I also hoped I had the drawing skills necessary to draw pictures for a living. Aside from a good book, drawing was the only thing that could hold my attention longer than the time it took to devour a loaf of bread after school. I could draw for hours at a time without a single thought other than ‘where is this line going to go?

At eighteen I grew tired of everyone telling me that I should be an artist (how frightfully clever they all were) so I decided that I would abandon any artistic pursuits, move a long way away from everyone and ride a horse for twelve hours a day on a cattle station the size of Belgium. I drew (and wrote) in secret at night.

At thirty, I still wanted legs long enough to not require jean alterations but had learned enough from art college anatomy to know that this bird had long flown. Some things however, had changed. My clandestine activities were long discovered and I was now what everyone told me I should be: an artist. By this stage I was illustrating children’s books in Sydney and wanted nothing more than to keep the lights on, maintaining a living doing something I loved.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I had the misguided, naïve belief that everything was going to work out just fine without any of my actual involvement, outside of me starring triumphantly in the role of central character. Like a leaf on a stream I was happy to float aimlessly on ahead without a plan or direction. Once I worked out that I needed to plot a course, things became clearer and I arrived upon the idea of ambition and how it could be helpful. That and a belief that REM were going to keep making good albums.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer/artist?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham was a book I discovered young and never left behind. This multi-layered novel has had a profound effect on the way I write and is also the reason why my characters are always anthropomorphic.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. This is one of those rare books where I remember how I felt reading it. I felt excited. Mark Twain was really good at lifting the story off the page and into your being. It is very much a boy’s book and consequently I have many childhood memories that are associated with it in some form. It was easy to imagine myself as Tom Sawyer or Huck floating down the Mississippi with hours to kill. It was the first book where I can recall being aware of the writing and recognising that this was a valuable skill.

Harry The Dirty Dog written by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham. I read this book as a child but it wasn’t until I started to write and illustrate picture books that I truly appreciated how good a book this is. It’s pretty much a perfect story. I mean, it hasn’t left the bookstore shelves since it was written in 1956!

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write?

I was an illustrator first although I have written stories since I can remember (as a child I wrote stories that related to the characters I was drawing). However, it would be years, and many illustrated books later (seventy), before I mustered up the courage to show a publisher a story that I had written. At the time I felt frustrated; stuck in an endless loop of illustrating multiple variations of the same story like a bit part actor saying the same five lines in different voices. I knew the only way I was going to be able to work on the stories I wanted to work on, was to write them myself. So that’s what I did and it was the best career decision I ever made.

5. Please tell us about your latest book…

My new book is called Somewhere Else. It’s about a travel-averse duck named George Laurent and his friend Pascal Lombard, who happens to be a bear. George is a renowned baker of fine pastries. His friends regularly drop by to sample his latest offerings. They tell George of their travels afar and invite him to fly away with him but George always has an excuse, ‘I’ve got too much ironing to do.’ It’s only later we find out the reason why George never leaves home. Somewhere Else is essentially about travel, stepping outside your comfort zone and exploring the world. It’s also about the importance of home (and fine pastries).

6. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope children (and adults) find my books memorable. That’s pretty much it. The most satisfying thing to hear is when they’ve finished the book and want to keep coming back to it, over and over again.

7. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

There are a ton of authors I admire for all sorts of reasons in both the children’s and adult literary fields including; Louis de Bernières, Martin Cruz Smith, Mark Twain, Sebastian Faulks, Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, Enid Blyton, Jules Verne, Roald Dahl, Jan Ormerod, William Steig, Markus Zusak, Tim Winton, Julia Donaldson etc etc.

I’m particularly attracted to authors who write blindingly visual narratives, full of rich characters, without feeling the need to write dissyingly thick layers of detail; respectfully allowing you to fill in the gaps and immerse yourself in the story. Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago) was an expert at making the reader earn his bread.

Picture book authors are the cleverest of them all, of course.

9.  Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I just want to write stories without the annoying distraction of wondering if I have enough fish fingers in the freezer to feed everyone.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

I would say the most valuable thing you could do is read, read, read. Write, write, write. Nothing beats the basics of working out how your words fit together. Your style or ‘voice’ will naturally develop without you realising you had one. Also, don’t be too analytical. Just write what pleases you the most – it’s your head, they’re your stories.


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