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Interview with Donovan Bixley

Donovan Bixley is an illustrator and designer. His design company, Magma Design, is based in Taupo. Donovan has illustrated more than 100 stories and book covers as well as over 50 books, including Harry Hobnail & the Pungapeople and Mr Tanglewood & the Pungapeople by beloved New Zealand author Barry Crump.

Donovan was the illustrator of the bestselling children’s book The Wheels on the Bus (2010) and Old Macdonald’s Farm (2011), Little Bo Peep (2014). He has also illustrated The Three Bears Sort Of written by Yvonne Morrison, winner of the Children's Choice at the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, as well as the Western Australian Young Reader's Picture Book of the year. He is the co-creator of the international hit series "Dinosaur Rescue" with author Kyle Mewburn.

He has also written and illustrated half a dozen books of his own, including Faithfully Mozart which was a finalist in the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

What is a typical working day for you?

My studio is out the back of our house, and after many years I have a pretty solid routine. I work a solid 8–5 kind of day. Almost all of my work is picture book illustration and I’m usually working on four or five books at once. I’ll be at various stages on each project. Right at the moment I’m doing concept drawings and pencil roughs for a picture book, final paintings for another, and I’m doing the design and layup work for the books as I go too. I stop for lunch at exactly 12, and a cup of tea when our girls get home from school at 3. A few days a week I go and swim some laps before lunch and I try to be involved and get along to any school events too.

I try not to take any drawing work home, because home is where I do writing and working on new book ideas. Having turned my love of drawing into a job, I like to keep my writing just an act of love, keep it away from the studio and those deadlines. Every once in a while, one of the books or short stories I’m writing turns into a published book. At the moment I’m transferring a teen novel that I have written out all by hand, into the computer, and I’m also doing some final fact checking and research on a follow up book to my Faithfully Mozart. I’ve been working on this new book off and on over the last seven years.

What are your three favourite books of all time? And why?

The Lorax by Dr Suess. This book is still as vibrant, energetic and deeply meaningful (maybe even more so today) as when it came out more than 40 years ago. The Lorax is the reason I wanted to become a picture book artist. I’d been doing a stint in advertising in my early 20s and I thought “if I could make just one book like The Lorax, then that would be a worthwhile use of my creative skills.”

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. This book is pure fun. A cheap airport paperback that was handed on to me. It’s a tale of ancient China that never was. Magical, evocative, action-packed, scary, sexy, hilarious and utterly silly. With a very convoluted ending, it manages one of the best wrap-ups I’ve ever come across. So satisfying, I’ve read it more than any other book. I wish I’d written it.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. So hard to chose from all the literary books I love, but I had to choose a David Mitchell novel, and this one is brilliant. Historical fiction, 18th century seafaring adventure, geriatric comedy, classical music escapade, 70’s cop drama, dystopian future, and a post apocalyptic world all wrapped in to one epic novel. A thrilling read, tied together by the thought-provoking theme of the many ways in which humans make slaves of ourselves and each other. Mitchell’s creation of time and place and character is beyond compare, with the type of ending that only he can wrap up – all in the final beautiful paragraph. “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops”. Brilliant.

Which author do you admire most? And why?

Neil Gaiman. One, because he is just such a generous author who shares so much of his creative process with his readers. He’s never condescending. I saw him at the Wellington Arts Festival a few years back and someone asked the tedious question “How do you get published?” – to which Gaiman spun an hilarious yarn, never once belittling the question.

Mainly though, I admire him because he writes such a diverse range: picture books; junior fiction; teen novels; superhero comics; complex graphic novels; adult novels; comedy; horror; drama; movies; TV; short stories. I really like doing a diverse range of work too, from preschool picture books to my biography of Mozart, so Gaiman is quite an inspiration. Oh, and it goes without saying that I really love his writing.

What tips would you give aspiring writers?

If you want to write, just do it. There’s nothing to stop you. If one day, you end up making some money from your writing – then that’s a fantastic bonus!

I think everyone should make a book. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it can be cathartic, and scary, and painful, and also very satisfying. However, don’t mistake writing a book (or printing a book for that matter) with publishing – they are very different things. Even though I have done more than 80 published books, there are still many books inside me that I know will never sell in the shops. So, I just make a one-off book, take it to the copy shop to get one copy made, and give it to someone for a Christmas present.

What’s your most memorable experience at a Literary Event?

I have a shirt which I usually wear when playing with my band. My ‘band shirt’ is a loud county music style shirt with lots of buttons and big embroidered swirls down the front, of the kind Johnny Cash might have worn (by the way I play in a big jazz/funk band, not a country music band). I decided to wear this shirt, along with my usual top hat, when I was on the Book Awards tour for The Three Bears Sort Of. I was at a low decile school and a boy asked if I was rich. I sarcastically said ‘Do I look like I’m rich?” and he said “Man, in that shirt you look like a million bucks!” Now I wear ‘that shirt’ to all my gigs.

If a movie was made of your life, what three songs would you want on the soundtrack?

Heaven on Their Minds from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. My Parents took me to see the show when I was three. I WAS Jesus for 6 months afterwards.

Stevie Wonder’s Master Blaster – the first time I heard funky music was a revelation.

Cossi Mi Narri, or anything from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. After spending six years writing and illustratingFaithfully Mozart, he changed my life. He still remains my most favourite person of all time and a huge inspiration for any freelance creative person.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

“Even though you’re thinking it ... don’t turn down The Wheels on the Bus!”


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