Drawing on talent

16:00, Oct 01 2011
EVERYWHERE A: From Taupo author Donovan Bixley's <i>Old MacDonald's Farm</i>.

Donovan Bixley's life's not beginning at 40 – it's turning out jolly well. By Megan Nicol Reed.

They say a man will grow to look like his dog. If, then, it is possible for a bloke to resemble a Shih Tzu, perhaps it is not entirely implausible that an illustrator will be the very picture of one of his characters. Tall, rangy, well-chambered eyes, a shock of blue-black hair with a scarlet strip: Donovan Bixley is like some steam-punk villain from the pages of a graphic novel.

There is no sign of a top hat on the day we meet, but in his publicity shot the author and illustrator wears one. "I generally, even just, like, on a normal day, I'll wear a top hat. Sometimes people will say, `What's the special occasion?' And I'll be, like, `Nothing. I just like wearing a top hat'."

Donovan Bixley is like some steam-punk villain from the pages of a graphic novel.

The day of this interview is, in fact, a special occasion. It's Bixley's 40th birthday. He and his wife (they were head boy and head girl at their school) have driven up from their hometown Taupo to talk about Bixley's latest children's book, a Kiwi reworking of Old MacDonald's Farm, and attend a launch party for the new Dinosaur Rescue series he has produced with Kyle Mewburn. Shouldn't he be leering it up?

"All I really wanted to do was hang out, be with my family and do stuff."

Father of three girls, Bixley paints a picture of a house where everyone just lies around drawing and throwing ideas about. He has a studio but says some of his best work is done on the floor or the dining table. Their eldest named their youngest – Sparkle – and much of his work, he says, is the result of the girls' input.


Commissioned to come up with a local version of The Wheels on the Bus, which was released last year, he was determined to steer clear of the cliches. "We'd just been to Te Papa as a family and they've got the colossal squid there. So we said, `Well, that's a native New Zealand thing. Let's have a colossal squid.' Cool. `Well what about if we had like sperm whales and stuff? If we had a whale hop on the bus ... "'

It all sounds like a lot of fun.

"You know," says Bixley, "like most creative people though, I've had, well not problems, but I can be a bit manic depressive. You're sort of like, `Yaah!' Then, `Boom!'

"You think you'll never do anything great again and you stress out about doing stuff and then when you're doing stuff, you're like, `Oooh!' And it consumes your whole life and you don't sleep."

He takes solace in a theory quoted by his dad, a big fan of Graham Greene. According to the author, at age 40 all these dramas iron themselves out and everything in your career gets sorted. Greene and Bixley's dad have been right so far.

"I've done one book a year for the last 10 and then this month I've got four books coming out and then I've got another book coming out next month and another three books coming out by the end of the year. And I'm already starting to line up stuff for next year. Crazy!"

After graduating from AUT in the middle of a recession, Bixley and his wife set up a graphic design business. There was a stint doing illustrations for The Listener ("You get disgruntled with the transiency of your artwork being in there and then in the bin."). And then he fell into illustrating books (100 to date), more recently writing his own. His coffee table book Faithfully Mozart, based on the composer's letters, was a finalist in the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. His publisher, Hachette, has commissioned a project that will take up the next three years. He won't reveal what.

"When I was young my parents used to travel overseas – my dad's a geologist – and we'd always be like, `Oh yeah we're going to go and live in Kenya for a year'. Or `We're going to go and live in Indonesia'. And mum would always say, `Don't go and tell everyone because you don't know what will happen'. You don't want to be going round a small town like Taupo going, `We're going to Kenya! We're going to Kenya!' And then two weeks later, `I thought you were moving to Kenya?' `Ahh ... no that's not happening.' So I have that same thing with books. I try and wait before I start crowing on to everyone about what's happening."

He is a self-described "old goth" and a "blabbermouth". Like his pictures, the details of which do not always reveal themselves at first glance, he has an endearingly messy and tangential way of talking. He is, he says, "totally into plot. I like things to happen." After dedicating six years to Mozart he is confident he knows what genius takes. About five things, he reckons. "Often people bring their kids and they say, `Oh little Johnny's really good at drawing, do you think he could be an artist?' To make a genius, you have to be in the right place at the right time, you have to have a whole bunch of skills that have been handed down to you from a mentor, so that by the age of 10 you're already at an adult's level. But at the end of it – and the thing that applies to just general Johnny and Mozart – you have to have that tenacious stubbornness to actually, really want to do it and not give up. There have been plenty of times when I've kind of sat round and gone, `I don't know if I can handle this industry any more, I'm going to go off and get a real job.' And then it's like, `Bugger that! I'm going to bloody well do it. I will do it'!"

Bixley's own tenacity was put to the test doing Old MacDonald's Farm. A misunderstanding over deadlines left him 16 days to produce a fully-illustrated book. "I just went a bit mental and did it. Sometimes you just fire, you just come up with stuff. Sometimes it's better when you don't have time to worry whether you're going to stuff it up or not. Sometimes you get that rawness that's not over-thought and you get a bit more personality, or a bit more ... yeah, just that energy that sometimes you lose when you've edited it or gone over it a million times or had a year.

"I don't know, maybe it's because I come from a more commercial background or maybe it's because as the breadwinner of a family of five, you have to make it work. You don't have the luxury to go, `Oh I want to spend two years working on this book and I'll get whatever money I get'."

Aesthetically some of his work is truly lovely, obviously the product of an extraordinary imagination, but there is a pragmatism to him often lacking in artists.

"I definitely don't see myself as an artist and I've never had any artistic pretensions. I've never wanted to do art but I certainly see what I do as an art form. I think there's a hell of a lot of skill and thought that goes into it."

There is, he says, a distinct pleasure in taking a classic like Old MacDonald's Farm and turning it on its head. "It's like having a passionate disrespect for what's gone before you."

Ultimately, though, Bixley finds true joy in writing and illustrating the stories he wants to do. "My real thing is blending those things together in a way that only an author and illustrator could, so you're not doubling on any information, so they flow into each other. It's words doing things that words do and then flowing seamlessly into a series of pictures which can do only the things that pictures can do. Being able to choose whichever one is best for whichever thing. Because that's what happens in children's books all the time, the words and the pictures flow together and they tell a bigger story than the whole."

Sunday Star Times