Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Aaron Blabey

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[music playing]

- Hi, everyone, and welcome to the PRC Bookfest for the Premier's Reading Challenge. We're in the [inaudible] this year. We're celebrating by talking to some of Australia's most loved authors and illustrators. And today, we've got an author and illustrator, Aaron Blabey, who's joining us. And we're sitting here in his very cool home, and we're going to talk to him about his books, his life, and his creative genius. Should I just go with that?

- Can go with that.

- [laughter] Aaron, have you always been a creative type of person?

- Yeah. I think-- I guess I have. Although it was misdirected for a long time, it took me a really, really long time to figure out what to do with that sort of desire or impulse to make stuff.

So I did the wrong job for almost 15 years-- I was an actor. I was a terrible actor, but I just-- it was-- I love movies and I love stories and books and things. So I kind of as a teenager picked the wrong job, it didn't suit me, I never felt comfortable doing it.

But the thought was right because it was being involved with stories somehow, but I just-- as a teenager, I thought, I want to be in them. And as I got older, I realised that's the last thing I wanted to do, I wanted to make them up.

But then I started painting and I liked that, but I missed having the story element. So then it seems really obvious now, but I thought, hang on, what if I take my paintings and put a story with them? And I started making books. So that's how it happened.

- We're going to talk a bit about 'The Bad Guys' later, but 'The Bad Guys' is surely a film waiting to be made.

AARON BLABEY: It-- well, it's funny you should say that. Yeah, yeah, it will be where-- I can't say who yet, but it's being acquired by a studio in America in Hollywood. So yeah, we're going to be doing--

- It sure sounds very exciting.

- It's very cool. Yeah, so we're going to be doing a movie of 'The Bad Guys' at some point in the future. It'll take a while. Films take a long time-- and big animated movies take a while, and then hopefully it will be quite a big one. So we shall see.

- So when you were, say, a little kid, were you writing stuff down? Did you have a notebook? Were you one of those kinds of--

- No.

- --kids? Or were you doodling? Or what was going on?

- We moved a lot. My-- and I'm an only child. So we moved from town to town a lot of the time, and I spent a lot of time-- you don't have to cue the violins, but I spent a lot of time alone. I spent a lot of time as a kid by myself. And I liked drawing. It wasn't anything particularly inventive, I'd just draw characters from Star Wars and things, really.

But I loved it. And it wasn't until-- I've told this story a thousand times, but it's good, it's important, I think-- I then went to high school. And in year seven, in the first week of year seven, there was a kid in my class who was the best drawer I'd ever seen. He was extraordinary. And I almost immediately stopped drawing, I went, ah, I'm not as good as him, and I gave up. And I didn't draw again, really, until I was about 30. Mm, that was a very long gap. And then in-between I was doing acting and things.

But yes, yes, stupidest thing I've ever done in my life, it really is. And I can call myself stupid, that's all right. It's OK if you're calling yourself that.


YVETTE BOSHOGLIAN: --they thought you were acting or on-set or whatever you were doing in your 20s?

- Not really, no, I don't remember creating images at all.

- Did you ever have a story that was a little seed in your head?

- No. In fact, I remember as an actor, because actors are always trying to figure out how to get that really awesome acting job, and then inevitably you start trying to think of, well, I'll make my own and I'll figure out-- I would sit down and go, I'll write a script, and just ehhhh-- I just hear time, there was nothing-- it was really strange. Until I separated from that, I just wasn't there.

And then as soon as I did, I remember I physically quit that job. I went to my acting agent and I said-- she was lovely and I said, goodbye, I'm not going to do this anymore. It was almost immediately that something was released, and I started being able to make things.

Yeah. And it came from very quietly painting. And I'm doing terrible paintings, really, really, really ugly, horrible paintings for a couple of years, just learning how to use paint. And not really having any idea what I wanted to paint, I just sort of paint people, really, there was nothing-- there was nothing particularly exciting about them.

And then when I put stories with them, it occurred to me that I'd spent two years actually developing a painting style that worked pretty well with picture books.

- And 'Pig the Pug.' Can we talk about 'Pig?' Because it's so lovable and so naughty at the same time. If I grab 'Pig,' can you tell us a bit about 'Pig' and where maybe the idea from? Who is this guy? He's just-- this is you.

- Pig's-- [laughs] I love Pig. Pig changed my life. And he really did, because I used to do a whole bunch of other jobs while making my books, as I could never make-- I could never make a living, I didn't make enough money just making my books. And so Pig-- and I think my earlier books before 'Pig' were-- there was a little bit of sadness in them, and it was a little bit melancholic. And something happened when I did that book. My books just became a lot more fun.

Well, not something happened-- what happened was I visited schools. I went to-- I mentioned earlier, I've been to 218 different schools visiting and speaking to kids. And by reading my books to them, I started to figure out what kids actually like to listen to and what they like to hear and books they like to read, and 'Pig' was the result of that, I think.

But he was also-- my mum and dad had a sausage dog and a pug when I was a kid, but he was quite a nice pug, the one my mum had, he wasn't mean or anything.

And then there was a couple other things. I'm a big fan of Ricky Gervais, and there was a little-- I wanted to do something with a kind of meanie character. I love the sort of inherent meanness in Ricky's comedy, it makes me laugh. And I worked with a man once who used to have tantrums if things went wrong, and I thought that was really funny.

So it was-- yeah, it was-- yeah, that combination of those things made 'Pig' just appear.

- I think the worst thing when I read 'Pig the Pug's' aspect is that as much as I feel sorry for Trevor, there's so much of that Pig that I recognise in myself. And that's not a great realisation--

- Ahh, it's good that--

- --because Pig's so naughty!

- Well, the reason I love making Pig, because-- there's a series, and there will be, I think-- at the moment I've got about nine books in total planned for Pig. And the reason that I can do a series of books about Pig, like a lot of my other stories-- like I love 'Thelma the Unicorn,' but she doesn't feel like a series because this story kind of wraps up.

The lovely thing with Pig is that he never learns. So you just take something that we all do as people-- and the kids do too, like being selfish and greedy or telling lies or whatever, and you give them to him, you give him one thing that we do wrong and then you have him do that and we watch it. And we see him mess up, and it's funny, and then he just resets in the next book and he does something else bad.

And that's what's really lovely, is that I just get to-- he just reboots at the beginning of each book, and I get to punish him again. I love it. It's really good fun.

- Well, one thing that we've learned at PLC from talking to authors and illustrators-- and you alluded to it before with the idea that you were working on your paintings and your painting style for quote a while, and lots of other writers talk about their draughts and so on.

- Yeah.

- Even when you're writing a picture book, can you tell us or give us a little insight about how it works? Do you sit and read out loud your text? Particularly with your picture books.

- I have a very weird, eccentric way of writing picture books. I was going to say something-- I won't. What I do-- OK, I'll trek it back. I used to get really lovely notebooks and sit down with my really beautiful hardbound notebook, and I found it really intimidating. I would sit down and you're scared to make a mark because every mark you make makes the book look less nice somehow. And I hated that, and it made me feel self-conscious.

So I started writing-- I preferred to write on scraps of paper, and in my studio I have white boards so can just wipe stuff out. And mostly when I write a picture book, I walk and I write on my phone.


- Yeah. Because the picture books, most of them, Pig's certainly, are inverse. And there's something about walking-- it's not like I'm dancing along, but I'm just in the rhythm of walking, I just go through the metre of what I'm writing. So Pig was a Pug and I'm sorry to say, da la la daa, da la la da daa, thinking like that, and then that's how--

And it's funny. When I'm writing a Pig Book, I just walk for a couple of days-- not unbroken, I don't just walk off, but I go have a walk and then I come home and I think about what I've done and I do it next day, I'd go for another long walk. And usually after a couple days I've got another Pig Book.

I always begin with an idea. I always know what the next one will be loosely about. The one that's coming out next year is called 'Pig the Star' where he's a show-off. So he won't let Trevor get any attention.

And so I start with that, I don't really have much more than that. I maybe have a little set pace that's something that's kind of heptameter, and then I just write and just try to surprise myself-- try to make myself laugh basically.

- And now we're going to go down and have a look in your studio to see some of the artworks in progress. But with, say, something like a picture book or the Pig books, how long does it take you to do the artwork or is it different for each book? Or do you plan out the illustrations?

- I do. Because I'm quite prolific these days, I've been doing a lot of books, I have to be really strict with myself in how much time I allow for things. I divide the year up, I have a writing phase, and then I have an art, generally speaking.

The art for a Pig book takes me around six weeks. And the art for a Bad Guys book takes exactly 10 weeks. Mm. Yeah. And that's going really fast.

But yes, I always do-- there's always a rough version first, which we chop and change images until we get that version right-- it's very scruffy and scribbly, but it's now I got it being able to look at the scribbly drawings and know what I mean. And then I go out and do the nicer pictures.

- OK. And can you just tell me a little bit about 'Don't Call Me Bear,' because it's one of my favs.

- Oh really? Oh good.

- Koalas, they need support with [inaudible], don't they?


- You know what? That came from the idea-- so I had a bunch of ideas come at once, and I suspect I'll never have a week like this again as long as I live. A couple of years ago, we moved up to the Blue Mountains, and I went on one of those walks and I was looking for ideas. And I'd walked for a couple of days again, and in that two and a bit days, I came up with 'Pig the Pug,' 'Thelma the Unicorn,' 'The Bad Guys,' and a couple of other things-- they all came at once just out of the blue.

And it will probably never happen again, anything remotely like that. I don't know where they came from, they just appeared. And that one wasn't amongst them. I had finished a couple of other books and I was thinking about all the picture books I could do, and then I remembered-- do you know The Koala Awards, which are the awards for kids that are voted for by kids, I did a little logo-y thing for them years ago, it's a koala sitting in a chair reading a book, and I thought, well, could the book be called-- at the time just as a joke, I wrote, 'Don't Call Me Bear' on the thing and that was it.

And then I was walking again and I thought, hang on, that would-- that would actually make a pretty good book. So that's where the idea came from, it wasn't anything special. But I just thought-- I liked the idea too of taking a cute animal and having them just be cranky for an entire book, like screaming.

- [laughs] Well I think right now there's going to be a lot of young writers and Illustrators planning a lot of walks, which--

- [laughs]

- --probably good because we work with the arts and sports. So thank you for that.

- Yes, yes.

- And the other thing that maybe they're thinking, which is something I wanted to ask you about animals, is there an animal yet that you haven't drawn that you would like to illustrate in some might way or am I just putting you on the spot there?

- No. There's a few, but actually, they're all planned, they're all in 'The Bad Guys.'


- There's another team on their way, which is Agent Fox's team.

- Oh my gosh.

- And they invoke some of my other feelings--

- OK, all right. Well that's exciting. Well maybe we'll talk about 'The Bad Guys,' because there's four books.

AARON BLABEY: Yeah. Well, there'll be 10.

- 10 more of them on the way?

- This series is 10. Whether there's more beyond that I haven't decided yet, but there may well. I have an idea for a second series with the guys, but as you'll see, there is a new team coming that sort of joins up with the boys.

And yeah, look, it's my favourite thing to do, really. I love making 'The Bad Guys.'

- 'The Bad Guys' is just great and just fun and hilarious, and I just think they are on the path to greatness and goodness, they just need to find their way.

- Well, the thing that I love the most about making this, and I really do, is that Snake is my favourite character. And it often surprises kids because Piranha's the funniest--

- I was going to say more after the Sunnyside Farm, isn't it?

- Yeah, honestly this is the thing. So Piranha's-- kids find Piranha really funny and Shark's really lovely, but what I like about Snake is that Snake is the one who struggles the most with what they're trying to do.

So the others are all trying really hard to be a good. Snake goes, I'm a snake, you know? What do you want? And that's what I like about him. And the story really of the 10 books is sort of Snake's journey, really. And what I like, though, is that these books, ordinarily for that age group, there isn't a long arc for a character who changes. You're just familiar with that character and they do what they do.

I've been really loving planting very gently a journey for Snake's development through that, which I really love. And I feel like I'm getting away with it. I'm not sure--

- I think I need to go back and re-read Snake's journey.

- Yeah, yeah, yeah. It will become clear as it goes on. But I've just finished-- we're about to do the layout for episode five and I've just-- I'm halfway through drawing the finished art for episode six. And then there's four to go after that at least.

- What are you doing talking to us?

- Ha!

- You should be working.

- I know, I know. It's silly.

- I just want to talk to you about the zombie kittens.

- Yes.

- And we're going to do some close-ups. So hopefully on the screen we can see zombie kittens, but that is truly terrifying.

AARON BLABEY: [laughs]

YVETTE BOSHOGLIAN: I mean, zombies are scary enough, but kittens, throw a cat into the mix--

AARON BLABEY: Absolutely.

YVETTE BOSHOGLIAN: They are crazy. And any animals that can become zombies. I mean, there's some serious issues happening in 'The Bad Guys.'

- What I liked doing with it as well, the part of the fun too is taking-- I do it with my kids, we've sort of-- we all love watching movies, and I like taking stuff that you wouldn't necessarily ordinarily see in a book for kids and then finding a way to make it for kids, you know? Because it's a series that is-- it's a little bit naughty and it's a little bit-- that's what I like about it. It feels--


- Yeah.

- In terms of the way you create them, and we'll get a little bit more of an insight, because it's almost storyboard comics, cartooning, but very filmic. Do you write a dialogue or do you draw the image first? How does it work? Or--


YVETTE BOSHOGLIAN: Can you tell us what you've-- happy to tell us--

- Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, no-- so what I do, I-- first of all, I walk.


- And I come up with-- well initially, I came up with the whole 10-- I came up with the plots for the whole 10. So I knew what the sort of the overall story was, and then I came into each one, and each one obviously has to have little cliffhangers all the way through it, like what's going to happen, what's going to happen? And then it has to end with another one. And that story has to wrap up, and then I have to end with a cliffhanger.

So I go for walks. I come up with their journey between each bit in each of the chapters. And then on my white boards I write out the list of chapters, and I figure out what sort of needs-- I need to get from A to B. I need to get-- at the end of this chapter, this has to have happened, and then at the end of the next chapter, that has to have happened.

And that's all I do. And then I sit down and I write it like a screenplay. So I sit down with my computer and I start writing, and I know in that little 10-page section, which is only a couple of pages typed, I have to get to this next bit. And then when I'm there, and then I write it like a script. And then once I do that, I do a rough, scribbly version of the pictures which are playing in my head while I'm writing it. And it's like-- so dictating a movie that's playing in my head, basically.

And then I scan those rough pictures, I send them to my editor back, who's over there. And we look for bits that aren't working and the bits that are, and then I go and I finish it off.

So that's sort of-- and it all happens quite quickly. That rough version, because it's still 140-something pages of drawings, it takes ages, but I just I listen to music and I just draw. I don't use my right hand, I use my left hand. And I draw, draw, draw.

- [inaudible] in colour.

- That's it. Again, it's really manic. I scribble and scribble, it takes about two weeks, usually, to do the rough art. And then it takes two more to do the first art.

- Perhaps when we're in the studio you can show us some of the implements. But is it like pen or pencil?

- It's pencils and these particular markers that are all different kinds of-- they're from really light grey to black. So it's greys and blacks. And they can blend together. And I use those for all the for the shading.

- Mhm, mhm. OK. We might go and have a look in your studio if that's OK.

- Yeah, cool.

[music playing]

This is my studio. I love it, it's really little. It's a little bit like the inside of my brain is how I'd describe it. So this is my desk. And when I do a Bad Guys book, I sit here. And I'm working on a Bad Guys book at the moment.

So this is like a page. It's just an [inaudible] full page, I rule it up. And I use pencils. And I look weird, I've got all my pencils here, but this is-- I use two different kinds of pencils.

And I use these markers. They're called Copic markers and they have ink in them. There's a chip in like that, or a chisel end, and a little fine end. And I do use them to do all the shading. Because they bleed through the paper, I use these little boards, they have these little boards here. So if I have to do a dark page, I get a dark board, and I put it underneath, and it soaks up the ink.

Or if I've got a light page, I use a light board. Otherwise, if I mix together and if I'm doing a light section on a dark board, the ink comes up and ruins the page and I've got to throw it away.

So sometimes this is the thing-- you don't get things right straight away and a lot of the time. So if I'm doing a particularly tricky page, I'll draw the page maybe 10 times and throw it away. It doesn't matter. It's a bit boring, but I just keep doing it until I get it right.

[music playing]

So once I've drawn my pages, I stick them over here. I'll bring it across. And I just put the-- this is Book Six. If you're a fan of the series, I'm drawing Book Six at the moment. And I just stack the pages in here until the book's done. And then we-- I take them into my publisher and we scan them and we start turning it into an actual book.

Now the rest of my studio, you might have-- you may not even know what these are, but these are records. Vinyl records. The most important thing for me when I'm making a book is music. Because I'm in here like a madman-- like eight, nine, 10 hours a day by myself. So music is just hugely important.

So these-- I don't know, here's a famous one from the '80s. And I just put on my music, this is a record, stick it on my recorder player, and I play music all day long. I love all different types of music, and it is-- I couldn't do what I do without them. So there's thousands of them all around me.

This is my white board. So I've got 'Bad Guys' 7 and 8 up here. I know sort of in my head what the story is for 'The Bad Guys' 7 and 8. But what I do in these little sections here is I write down the main points that will happen in each chapter, and then I sit back down at my desk on my computer and I write the story. And then I come back and I'll wipe this off, and then I start again.

When I'm looking for ideas, though, I'll just scribble on it. And again, I don't worry about it because it's just a white board, I can just wipe it off. All I do is take pictures of it, though, in case I forget stuff.

What else is in here? It's hidden over here. This is my easel where when I'm painting a guy like Pig, I put my easel over there. And you'll see here, this is the names of all the books that I've ever painted. And when I finish one, I just-- I don't know why, but when I did the first one, I wrote its name on my easel and I've just-- it's a thing I do. It's the last thing I do when I finish a book, is I write the name of it on the easel.

[music playing]

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