The Mahy Questionnaire: Donovan Bixley

You know it, you love it – it’s the Mahy Questionnaire! This month we are featuring the prolific Donovan Bixley. Bixley, along with Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai was shortlisted for the Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua this year, and he was the 2017 winner of the Arts Foundation – Mallinson Rendall Illustrators Award. His most recent book is How Māui Slowed the Sun / Te Whakatautōnga A Māui I Te Rā (Upstart Press).

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1. Describe yourself in three words

Top, hat, man.

2. During the height of adolescence, was it good changeover?

It seemed pretty relaxed for me. For my 16th birthday party we went on a family picnic in the bush with mum and dad and my baby sister. Although … I’m sure there was something sometime to do with mum and all my belongings being thrown out on the lawn!

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

I have some hilariously revolting memories, which I won’t share here, I’ll just say that one inspired a key scene in my part novel/part comic Monkey Boy. I’ve had an extraordinary amount horrendous accidents (21 by the age of 21) — the stuff of family legend now — but I must say I’m never haunted by my past, I’m too busy charging forward to the next thing.

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4. MM: ‘Imagination is the creative use of reality.’ Is this true for you?

Definitely! Re-imagining and re-interpreting the real world is a massive part of what I do. From Mozart to Māui, or channeling WW1 history through pussycats in planes. As Terry Prachett once said, a writer sees a forest not as a woodman, but as a carpenter.

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

Too many. The best was our teenage windsurfing-mobile, a giant green Datsun 260 called The Tank. It handled like the Titanic – “hard-a-starboard in 3 miles cap’in!”

6. Which witch? Identify a favourite one from literature.

Has to be Bad Jelly, although I’m a huge Hermione fan — what a great heroine.

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7. ‘Come dance all around the world. And see all the beauty that surrounds us.’ Words for a romantic or just being mindful?

I’m definitely a romantic. I always wanted to dance like they do on the movies. I believe in magical stories about finding true love. It’s such a euphoric feeling on those times when you really take in a beautiful moment and take a ‘mental photo’ of it. Those moments are still as clear as a tuī’s chime in my mind.

8. A lion in the broom cupboard or a lion in the meadow?

I have a wonderful anecdote of a boy who painted a beautiful lion and then painted over the entire page black. “Why’d you do that?” gasped his mother. “It’s in the cupboard.”

9. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

Oh! That’s one of my favourite words. Recently I was performing Amazing Mr Mozart to a packed theatre with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Whilst waiting in the wings I thought I’d completely lost my mind. Seconds before I went on stage I had no idea what I was doing or why I was there. It was the most discombobulating and terrifying moment of my life, because I knew that I had to go through with it regardless in just a few seconds. Thankfully, as soon as I stepped on stage, I was re-combobulated.

10. What is your most favourite thing to do on a summery Saturday morning?

Sit with my toes in the sun looking out over my lovely camellia and rhododendron and play saxophone for a couple of hours.

A Summery Saturday Morning by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Selina Young (Puffin, 1998)

11. In what way might you be a trickster?

I’m a bit annoying when it comes to big news. I’m compelled to go to elaborate measures to create a big downbeat diversion before the final reveal. Crikey, now my family will see it coming next time! I better change my delivery in future.

12. Have you ever been rewarded when looking down the back of the chair?

No, just endless amounts of cat fur!

13. A pirate for a mother or a jester for a father?

Yes that’s a perfect description of my parents!

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

Most definitely … but only if it was Mozart or Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t think I’d want Māui sneaking around at my heels.

The Boy With Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (F. Watts, 1971)

15. “Horrakapotchkin,” said the cat. “I want to write a poem.” Is that how it works for you?

Mine is the visual equivalent. I start doodling and then decide to write a book because I’ve come up with something that excites me and I want to do more. “Doodle doodle doodle,” said Donovan. “I want to make a book.”

16. What I like for dinner when I am on my own is…( entertain us).

I’d rather not be on my own for dinner. But if I am, I guess I’d dream of being in some cosy Japanese bar, with dark wooden beams and dangling red lanterns, where lots of people come and go, having animated conversations, while a gregarious chef flames me up some teppanyaki, and hot jazz plays in the background.

17. If you find yourself nose to nose with a shark, the only thing to do is to…

Say with hopeful admonishing cheer “Norbert! … Norbert? … NORRRRRRBET!”

18. MM: ‘If things were fair, all stories would be anonymous…set free from the faults that go with its author’s name.’ Would you set your stories free in the name of anonymity?

I can certainly see Margaret’s point, but people have only just realised that I’m the guy who did Wheels on the Bus, and Faithfully Mozart!

19. You’re at a party and someone finds out what you do. What is the question they invariably ask?

(Speaking down to me) … ‘Actually, I’ve had an idea for a children’s book. You might be able to illustrate it?’

20. Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by songsense nongs?

When I’m after a cunning linguist, Shakespeare is my guy — with a way with words and a sense of humour and wicked innuendo. Spike Milligan for pure nonsense, and Jeff Buckley for romance of the heart (forget his cover version of Hallelujah — check out his own songs).

21. Which way does your heart lie: between the stars or anchored to the trapeze?

Anchored feels like a nice word for me. I’m a real homebody. I’d happily spend the rest of my days mooching about with my family at home. Anchored to the trapeze is even more appropriate. Walking that fine line between success and failure, family and work, art and commerce, passion projects and feeling like a machine. Life is a beautiful balancing act.

22. Would you rather be followed home by hippos or giraffes?

Phew, hippos are more deadly than sharks! I love drawing giraffes — besides they could look after those out of reach parts of our hedge!

23. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, bubble ‘o’ bill ice cream or Michael Bublé?

Oh that’s easy. I’m frontman in a 17 piece funk/swing band, Hot Tub, and we do everything from jazz standards, to funky Stevie Wonder, and big band swing versions of Guns ’n’ Roses — we even do several Michael Bublé songs.

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How Māui Slowed the Sun

Retold by Donovan Bixley

Advised and translated by Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai

Published by Upstart Press

RRP: $20.00

Buy Now

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Te Whakatautōnga A Māui I Te Rā

Retold by Donovan Bixley

Advised and translated by Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai

Published by Upstart Press

RRP: $20.00

Buy Now

Donovan Bixley

Donovan Bixley was born in Perth, Australia, but shortly after, his family returned to New Zealand where Donovan grew up in the geothermal wilds of Taupo, where he continues to live. His work covers a broad range of genres from his best-selling pre-school books The Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm, to his internationally acclaimed illustrated biographies Faithfully Mozart and Much Ado About Shakespeare which won the Russell Clark Award for best illustration at the 2016 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

He has just released the fourth book in his Flying Furballs series, Most Wanted (Upstart Press), and has also published The Christmas Looky Book (Hachette NZ) this month.