Acclaimed illustrator and author, Donovan Bixley has created over 100 books earning accolades and awards here in New Zealand and around the world. Donovan's latest book, Draw Some Awesome, is a lively volume that guides readers through various drawing techniques, and it is sure to delight aspiring illustrators of all ages.
• I just happened to be born in Perth, because Dad was a geothermal engineer and he had a job in the outback when Mum had me. We returned to New Zealand when I was a few months old and moved to where the Taupō bungy jump is now.
I was always causing mischief when I was young, so I was very lucky I never fell down the 50-metre cliff at the end of our section, because we didn't have a back fence.
In the first 20 years of my life I broke my legs and ribs. I bashed all my teeth out and broke my nose twice. One of the most gruesome things, we had a big corrugated iron woodshed like Dog's kennel in Footrot Flats and one day I climbed to the top of it and, once I'd knocked the bastard off, I came down really, really fast using the side of my head as a brake.
After a while Mum stopped taking me to the doctor, because she was worried she'd look like a negligent parent. I have a big scar on my cheek where she sellotaped a cut rather than get it stitched. Luckily I 'm still in one piece, but I must've been a real pain.
• I was also really self-contained and I could keep myself entertained for long periods and, when I wasn't accidentally almost killing myself, I spent most of my time drawing and writing stories.
Then I went to AUT and studied art and design. That was really cool, although AUT prided itself on everyone finding employment when they graduated, so I was a real disappointment when I couldn't get a job. I tried film, advertising and design, but I hated those things so I decided to go back to what I loved, which was writing and illustrating stories.
I started by creating an illustrated biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but people
said it would never get published, that I was dreaming. It took six years to finish, and when it did eventually get published around the world, after all those people telling me it was a stupid idea, it was a finalist in the Montana Book Awards.
My whole career stands on that outrageously ambitious book, which goes to show, you never know where things will lead, and all these years later, my career has built on that attempt to do something really out there.
• Before I made a living from books I'd do anything to pay the bills. I designed websites and created Yellow Pages ads, getting up at three or four in the morning to do my creative work, before doing the bill-paying work.
But, during the first 20 years of my career, I often thought about giving up and getting a real job. If you've read Stephen King's book on writing, even when he'd been at it 20 or 30 years, he was still waiting for someone to tell him to go back to his other job - he was a high school janitor - and to some degree I'm still nervously waiting for someone to tell me to go back to doing Yellow Pages ads.
• The next big thing I did was Monkey Boy. It's part-graphic novel and part-traditional novel. It also took six years to make, and was rejected 17 times. I was told it had a hopeless plot, terrible writing, cliche characters but after six years of not making any money, Monkey Boy eventually won best book at the children's book awards. It was also named one of the one of world's top 200 books by the International Youth Library.
When I visit schools, I tell kids that it's great to be talented - but more than that, you have to be stubborn because no one will see your talent if you're not stubborn enough to keep going. I've often wondered if I should continue writing, so to have that success was brilliant.
Sometimes with creativity, you keep going just to bloody well finish a project. 'I'll show them, I think to myself'. Then you can rub people's noses in it and say there, I did it. That might sound superficial but I've stuck at some things out of sheer bloody mindedness.
• When you're creative, every time you put something in the public sphere, everyone has an opinion. That can be really nice when people say lovely things, but it can be hard too. You might get 10 good reviews, but it's the one bad review that you'll remember forever. Then something will come out of the blue.
After 18 years of making books, in 2017, I got an Arts Laureate award, and that was an amazing affirmation of my career. It has been hard going and sometimes I've hit brick walls - not creatively - more just wondering if I can keep doing this, so the Laureate came just when I needed it, emotionally and financially.
A similar thing happened with the ONZM. To have someone somewhere think that what I was doing was worthwhile, after all those years of working away, to have it pay off, in terms of kudos, I'm so glad I kept at it.
• A big Hollywood studio made contact recently. That was crazy, although to just go through the process of having them sign me on to their books took three months. Then they made their offer - but I was paid more to as a freelance designer, when I was a new graduate.
I've spent my whole life waiting for a Hollywood studio to contact me, then their offer was insulting, so I wrote a rather rude email saying, 'Bugger off, I don't need this. The guy who digs up my agapanthus gets paid more'.
Eventually they came back and offered me more, not heaps, but enough to make it worthwhile, and all those 20-year-old executives were probably asking, 'what the hell is agapanthus?'
That initial work led to me meeting a great creative team, and we've spent six months putting a pitch together. It's very elaborate, like a stage show and they're rehearsing it at the moment. I've no idea if anything will happen, I've no expectations. I also know America is the land of the long slow no, but you have to hang in there through all the tough times when you want to give up, or think maybe you really are useless or delusional. You have to stick at it through all that because some day, someone on the other side of world might think you have talent and want to work with you.
• I compare art to sport. New Zealand is sports-mad, yet no one expects you to become an All Black without practice. But some people think artists are born talented or they say, I could never do that. But I disagree.
Yes, people are born with talent, but you can certainly get better by working hard. You also don't need to be Leonardo Da Vinci or Mozart, you don't have to be perfect or a genius to enjoy the arts. To make art you just need paper and a pencil and an idea in your head. Our riches aren't material, they're in our heads and can never be taken from us.
• I've always felt creatively inspired and motivated, but there have been many times in my career where I've felt depressed, and wanted to give up, but that's largely been to do with earning a living and paying the bills. There've even been times I've had to ask Mum and Dad for money, and I'm so lucky to have a lovely Mum and Dad who said yes.
But this is the amazing thing - my most joyful books have come out of the times I've been most miserable. Sitting in my studio all bleak and depressed, I've created beautiful lovely books kids can enjoy.
• One of the things I love doing most is talking to kids, and seeing their happy shiny faces not yet burdened by the troubles of the world, and to be able to tell them about some of the many things that are possible, if they're motivated and inspired and stubborn.