Donotello and Roofael in conversation

Two of New Zealand’s most celebrated, funny and prolific author-illustrators let us eavesdrop on a chat they had recently. Here are Ruth Paul and Donovan Bixley, sharing their thoughts about making money, embarrassing art, hard work and hats.

They have both had stellar years. Ruth’s I Am Jellyfish (Penguin Random House) won the Best Picture Book Award, she’s illustrating the new picture book series by the bestselling Stacy Gregg, Mini Whinny (Scholastic), and is the author/illustrator of Little Hector and the Big Blue Whale (Penguin). Donovan has three new books out for Christmas: We’ve Got a Boat with Jay Laga’aia (Scholastic), How Māui Fished Up the North Island: Tales of Aotearoa (Upstart, advised by Darren Joseph), and the stunning Mozart: The Man Behind the Music (Upstart, a new edition of his 2006 book, Faithfully Mozart).

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Donovan wearing not-his-usual hat and a serendipitous T-shirt; Ruth as carrot, promoting Mini Whinny

Ruth: My first question. It strikes me that you have a fine head of hair. Is the hat hiding anything?

Donovan: Surprisingly, given the rest of the males in my family have no hair, no, it’s not covering my bald head.

R: So?

D: Kids usually ask if I’m a magician. I like to think that I keep a little bit of magic inside my hat. Like a cave of wonders, there are strange ideas hidden in the dark, just waiting to be discovered.

As authors and illustrators we all start out with a blank piece of paper and then scribbled lines and words just come out – we draw things out of our imagination – and before you know it whole universes appear, where there was once nothing. To most people in the world, that’s a kind of magic – it certainly seems so to me, because whenever I finish a book often think, Did I do that?

Actually, I hardly ever look at my work once I’ve finished it, which is why it’s always surprising when I see it again… How about you? Do you go back over your old work?

R: I like some pieces of art from my old books, some of the stories, but mostly I feel like I’ve moved on. Do you have a spare hat? Unfortunately I have an enormous head.

D: Yeah, I have tons of hats if you ever need one, from China, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal, Turkey, Iceland, Africa. I’ve been collecting them since I was a boy, and my dad would always bring something home from exotic places cos he travelled around the world being a geothermal engineer. I’m a real hat-wearer.

R: A sombrero might fit me. Now, we both write and illustrate books, and we’ve both also just released books we’ve illustrated for other writers. Which way of working do you prefer?

D: I love words, although the process of writing can be quite painful compared to illustrating. Pictures come more easily to me. However, there’s a tremendous joy in conceiving whole projects and bringing your own ideas to the world.

R: Describe the different processes for me.

D: Well, every day working on Māui was like going off to some magical world, and I loved every minute of it. With my own books I can layer in so many elements and really nerd-out over the research. But I do find I get overwhelmed by having to be solely responsible. With ‘Flying Furballs’ I have a long, ongoing series plot to wrangle and 21 principal characters to look after. I’ve created this self-inflicted pressure for producing the next book and the next and the next … and deadlines are no fun, but they get things completed! Having said all that, I do love having the total vision of my own projects.

When I work with an author I take what they give me, unquestioned. On my own projects, I’m constantly adjusting and tweaking the relationship between words and pictures right up until I upload it to the printers.

R: This is sounding familiar.

D: But, as I indicated above, I found it quite a relief to only be responsible for the illustrations. I love the fact that other authors bring you totally new material out of your zone. I feel I get the best of both worlds.

We’ve Got a Boat with Jay Laga’aia was the first book I haven’t done the design for in about ten years – so a real reduction in responsibilities. Also, someone to share the promotion with is great!

Sometimes when I’m working on my own projects, I’m so involved from conception to delivery that I worry that I’m missing a trick – overlooking some really obvious flaw, or worrying that I just can’t see the wood for the trees. And you?

Ruth (in blue) with Stacy Gregg, the author of Mini Whinny

R: My split personality likes being both author and illustrator. I leave one half to slug it out with the other in the hope of arriving at a workable solution. But I’ve also loved working with Stacy Gregg on Mini Whinny because it felt like a real collaboration, not just an illustration job.

Now for a question I often get asked: do you have a real job as well?

D: Haha. I support a family of five pretty much solely on my earnings from advances and six- monthly royalties. Which I have been doing for about seven years now. It makes budgeting and surviving a bit nerve-wracking. Having to make a living from the thing you love doing certainly has an effect on your enjoyment, because sometimes you feel like you’re just a conveyer belt. I have constant mental struggles being a full time author and illustrator.

R: Welcome to the club. I wouldn’t have been able to work on books and raise kids over the years without alternative part-time work and my partner having a real job, so big ups to you for achieving the seemingly impossible. I did note a trip to Italy, though, in your Instagram feed recently. Did you win Lotto?

D: No, unfortunately not (yes, even doing your dream job you still dream of winning Lotto) — but amazingly I was the recipient of the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award from the New Zealand Arts Foundation. That’s one of those awesome lifetime achievement awards that just come out of the blue. Literally, I thought it was a Nigerian scam when they first contacted me and said I’d been awarded fifteen grand. For once, it was money that landed when the car or the roof didn’t need fixing.

Donovan Bixley: Da Vinci fan-boy

I used the award to go to Italy because I’ve been working on a book on Leonardo for the last 20 years. I got to spend 45 minutes alone with his astounding paintings in the Uffizi in Florence, and I also had a private tour of the world-famous Music Museum in Bologna, where Mozart was the youngest person to be accepted into their famous academy of Maestros at age 14! Such an inspiring place, with connections to so many of my books.

Now, Leonardo’s a guy who can draw horses. I LOOOVE drawing horses. Your horses are super-duper cute, but… can you ride one?

R: (*falls off chair laughing, an indication of her stability on a horse*) I can’t draw horses! What’s with all those legs? Actually, I find drawing really hard, full-stop, and I prefer to ride bikes because they don’t have wicked intentions. For me, illustrating is a process of scribble, splodge and repeat (repeat, repeat) until it looks right. What do you find the hardest thing to draw?

D: Feet are hard.

R: You must have loved illustrating Fuzzy Doodle, then!

D: Fuzzy Doodle was a wonderful splodgy experiment … but everything’s hard in a way. Drawing a WW1 biplane is pretty hard, but I totally love WW1 biplanes so it’s all good, where-as I hate drawing modern cars and trucks — must be because I was always asked to draw trucks by the school bully when I was a kid.

R: I can’t believe you said that! Donovan Bixley finds drawing hard! For someone who draws like an angel, it is nice to know you are mortal like the rest of us.

D: My angel name would be Donotello.

R: My angel name would be Roofael. We could be Ninja Turtles. Which might have helped when that dude bullied you to draw trucks – I mean, toughen up, Donotello. I’ve heard of worse things …

D: Speaking of angels, I was once contacted by someone believing he was the reincarnation of Mozart’s best friend. Fortunately, he said I portrayed his good mate exactly as he remembered. Any weird correspondence for you?

R: Only the earthly kind from remarkably polite children. My best was the one that said, ‘Dear Ruth Paul, I love you, you were amazing at our school, we had so much fun (etc etc) but I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t there.’

D: That almost qualifies as other-worldly. Until I started visiting pre-schools, I never realised how good I was at drawing when I was little — my parents have a photo of me doing a pretty good brontosaurus at age three.

R: You and Shaun Tan!

D: But I have a REALLY embarrassing moment when I won a colouring competition … when I was 13 and all the other entrants were seven. What’s your most embarrassing artistic moment?

R: Mmmm. I won a poster competition for the Catholic Church when I was in primary school. The slogan was ‘Come Follow Me’, so I’d drawn all these feet in groovy ’70s shoes following a pair of Roman sandals (guess who they belonged to), and it was printed and put up in all the churches, and felt great until someone pointed out that all the big toes were on the same side. Meaning, I’d drawn only left feet. Biology has never been my strong point.

D: (*coughs, spraying tea out of nose and mouth like something from Dinosaur Rescue*) Oh, the shame. I wake up with night sweats, worrying that I’ve done things like that whenever I send a book off to print.

R: Yup, but my Dad graciously saved the day – and my ego – by telling me that Catholics were sometimes known as ‘left footers’ because of the way they genuflect in Church. It’s all about the spin, Donotello.

And on that perfect combination of God and Science, which pretty much explains the strange alchemy of a picture book, I’ll bow out and say goodbye to the Maestro. Thank you for playing. Let’s do it again sometime!

Ruth Paul
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Ruth Paul is an award-winning writer and illustrator of more than 20 children’s picture books, including Stomp!, Bad Dog Flash and the Little Hector series. Many of her books have received Storylines Notable Book awards and been shortlisted for the NZCYA Book Awards, and I Am Jellyfish won Best Picture Book at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018. In August 2019 Ruth received the Mallinson Rendell Arts Foundation of NZ Laureate Award for book illustration. Her latest book Cookie Boo, published by Harper Collins in the USA, recently received a starred Kirkus review. Ruth lives off-grid in a straw-bale house on a farm near Wellington, New Zealand, with her family and her adorable dog, Teddy.