Donovan Bixley has illustrated over 70 stories and book covers, including the hilarious Dinosaur Rescue series written by Kyle Mewburn and Phoebe and the Night Creatures, written by Jenny Hessell. Donovan collaborated with Kyle Mewburn and Telecom customers to create The Story of Bo and the Circus That Wasn’t (February 2012).
Donovan lives near beautiful Lake Taupo with his wife and daughters. We asked him some questions about himself and his work, and here’s what he said...
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Perth, Australia. Alas, my life as a bronzed, speedo-wearing surf god was not to be. Instead my parents returned to New Zealand and I grew up in Taupo where I have also returned to live with my own family.
Where did you go to school? Did you have a nickname?
I went to Tauhara Primary and Tauhara College. I never had a school nickname that stuck. Perhaps Donovan was enough? My family used to call me Boodle (after Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird).
What were you like in school? What is the naughtiest thing you did?
Being really good at drawing was a good way to get the school bully on side. Teachers liked my drawings too. Most of the time I could do no wrong. Of course I did! Once I spray-painted another boy’s shoes and face. I used that experience in a School Journal story.
What was your favourite book growing up?
Probably Dr Suess’s The Lorax or How Droofus The Dragon Lost His Head by Bill Peet. Of course I was more attracted to picture books. I didn’t get into novels until much later. Even as a teen I loved Graham Oakley’s Church Mice series.
Who is your favourite children’s author?
Easy peasy – Roald Dahl. Dahl’s stories and characters lead you on with such ease and skill. I also love Neil Gaiman who has an amazingly wicked imagination.
What is your favourite food/colour/movie?
I love almost all kinds of food, except fish (which makes me want to barf). I wear a lot of black and red, because I used to be a goth before goths became emos and before I became too old to be either. I love all kinds of movies, but the movies I can watch 100 times and still love are by Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki. His stories and characters are so cool and imaginative and his artwork has so much life, energy and beauty – and scariness!
Who inspired you to illustrate?
My mum read me The Lord of the Rings when I was 7. I was so inspired by Tolkien’s world, and I drew pictures of my favourite scenes constantly. That was until I discovered John Howe’s LOTR illustrations. They were exactly how I imagined the book. So I gave up drawing LOTR and found other things I really wanted to draw. My inspiration to start writing came because nobody was writing stories about the things I wanted to illustrate.
How did you get started? How old were you?
Most authors and illustrators will tell you that they have been doing it their whole life – not me! I’ve been doing it since my previous life when I was a failed artist in revolutionary France. My paintings got me a date with Madame Guillotine. In this life I’m hoping to do much better.
Why did you want to be a illustrator?
I just love writing and illustrating – I’ve been writing and drawing little stories for as long as I can remember. It’s what I’d be doing with my spare time anyway. I’m driven to do it.
How do you think up ideas?
Usually I start with something cool that I really want to illustrate and a story develops around that. It can take years and years for lots of different ideas to come together into a decent story. Usually I think I’ve run out of ideas, and then something will pop into my head.
Do you have a special place where you illustrate?
I have a studio - but I draw and write all over the house – sometimes even lying on the floor like when I was a kid. My three daughters are always copying what I do – but the difference is, I don’t get told off for leaving a big mess!
What is the best thing about being an illustrator?
Having the flexibility to live anywhere I want and spend lots of time with my family – well that’s the plan, as long as I’m not doing too much work!
Have you had a funny or embarrassing moment as an illustrator?
My daughters are often horrified. They stand in as models for almost all of my books, but very rarely do they appear in the final illustrations as girls – or pakeha for that matter.
What do you do when you are not illustrating?
I love singing and playing guitar and piano with my band mates "Toe Jam". I also sing with a jazz-funk ensemble called ‘Hot Tub". I’ve been in several plays and musicals. Drawing pictures is a lot like theatre – you have to stage and act out every illustration.
What would you have chosen to be if you were not an illustrator?
I thought I wanted to be a movie director but directors have to work with too many people. I like being a megalomanic and knowing EXACTLY how my books are going to look, so writing and illustrating are perfect for me.
Which famous person from the past would you like to talk to?
Definitely Mozart. Wouldn’t you like to hear him play your favourite song backwards and upside down, at the same time changing the words to a rude joke?