Graeme Base is a legendary British-Australian writer and illustrator. Generations of children have grown up enthralled by his creations, including Animalia (awarded the Children Book Council’s Picture Book of the Year Honour Book in 1987) and The Eleventh Hour (awarded the same prize in 1989).
His other works include Grandma Lived in Gooligulch (1983), The Sign of the Seahorse (1992), The Discovery of Dragons (1996), The Waterhole (2001), Truck Dogs (2003), Jungle Drums (2004), Uno's Garden (2006), The Discovery of Dragons: New Research Revealed (2007), Enigma (2008), The Legend of the Golden Snail (2010), The Jewel Fish of Karnak (2011), Little Elephants (2012), The Last King of Angkor Wat (2014) Eye to Eye (2015) and Amazing monster Detectorscope (2017).
Graeme also illustrated Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky (1987) and Jabberwocky: A Book of Brillig Dioramas (1996).
Nic Brasch: There are few family homes in Australia that don’t have at least one Graeme Base picture book on their shelves and probably several: Animalia, The Eleventh Hour, The Worst Band in the Universe, The Water Hole, Uno’s Garden, just a few. His latest, The Amazing Monster Detectoscope, is as intricate as any beforehand. Graeme, welcome to The Garret.
Graeme Base: Lovely to be here, thanks.
Nic: So what came first for you, was it a love of words and stories, or of drawing and visual creativity?
Graeme: First came getting sacked.
Nic: Oh, well, let’s go back even further, let’s go way back to when you were a kid.
Graeme: I don’t think I can think back that far. To tell you the truth if we are really going back to the dark ages, it was when I first came out to Australia from England over 50 years ago, a little kid 8 years old, a real strong English accent – you can probably still hear it now, but it was very strong then – and I didn’t know how to kick the funny shaped ball and all that, playground games and stuff, but the one thing at that point I was ok at was drawing. And I think any kid who is thrown into a brand new environment like that, quickly figures out, if you’re good at something, start doing it. And so, for me it was colouring in and within a couple of years I was the kid in class who was good at art. And it went on from there.
Nic: There was always one kid at school who was good at art and they were always asked by everybody, ‘Can you draw me?’ Did you draw your classmates?
Graeme: No, but if they were doing a project and they needed a sort of really good heading done for it, then they would get me…
Nic: Really? I didn’t think of that.
Graeme: … because I could stay within the lines. That was how I carved my niche in the playground.
Nic: And in return you got credibility and friends.
Graeme: I didn’t get bashed up. No, it wasn’t that bad to tell you the truth but this was back in the 60s.
Nic: [Laughter] Did you grow up in a house with a love of stories and books?
Graeme: Yeah, look it’s a funny thing, my Mum and Dad used to be horrified when I said I didn’t read much as a kid, because they did their best, I just wasn’t a great reader. Funnily enough it was, music was my Dad’s passion especially, at night when my brother and I would go to bed, Dad would bring in the old mono record player into the room and play us classical music, Dvořák, Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, things like that. I grew up with his love of that which made me even weirder at school.
Graeme: I was the kid who knew about classical music. And for me reading was a slow and fairly hard sort of grind. I was initially bought up on all the classic English fare, all the Wind in the Willows, all the A. A. Milne stuff, Pooh Bear and so forth, but really after I came to Australia it was much later that I found a book that jut did it for me.
My brother was an avid reader in comparison, read a lot of sci-fi and a lot of fantasy, and a teacher had given him a copy of The Lord of the Rings and then it came down to me after Pat had finished with it, and he said, ‘Here, read this’. I thought there was no way I was going to read this, it was all three books in one big whopping paperback, like a loaf of bread, and I started it and was totally hooked, and that was the book that for me broke it open.
Nic: And what was it that hooked you, the world, the characters, the imagination?
Graeme: Yeah, the world, the characters, I just believed in it, I just invested myself in that world. As an artist, when I was doing my little drawings as a youngster, it was always fantasy stuff. Drawing monsters and dragons and made up animals, and so this just fed into that, perfectly. A no brainer really.
Nic: Right. When you were just talking about when you used to draw the monsters when you were a child, I just see that so much in your adult world. I mean, in some ways… I shouldn’t say you’ve haven’t progressed, you’ve built on it.
Graeme: No you’re right, I’m, still the kid.
Nic: There’s a sense of that, but also what you loved drawing then. We’ll discuss this more later, about that, but a lot of writers also, what influenced then and how they wrote about it then, they still do.
Graeme: I would think Tim Winton is one of those, his life in the west has been really, his mind, is the thing that he’s gone to over and over.
Nic: From the Lord of the Rings, did that then introduce you to other books, were you then interested in other authors and readers?
Graeme: Yeah, well actually the next one, it was my sister, funnily enough, who introduced me to the world of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, which is this amazing gothic fantasy, very dark, much darker than the Lord of the Rings, and that was just gorgeous, just deliciously arch and evil almost.
I loved that and again, high fantasy. So those two books I would actually put down as the most profound things that I read as a youngster.
Nic: And as you’re talking I’m thinking, it’s no coincidence, obviously, that those are books for which a reader creates amazing images in their minds. So obviously, maybe that was the appeal to you, you’re seeing, creating these images in your own mind in the same way.
Graeme: I’ve always been visually driven. I suppose even now my books derive from a vision, a picture, rather than an idea for a story.
Nic: So were you the type of kid who loved going to art galleries. Were there particular artists that took your fancy?
Graeme: Yeah, I think that the first artist that I totally fell in love with was Albrecht Dürer and his fantastically detailed woodcuts and etchings, and again fantasy and fabulous beasts, like from hell, and the work of Hieronymus Bosch and people like that, a lot of imagination going on there. I then, a little later on, came across the Surrealists, as most young art students do, and had an amazing love of Salvador Dali and René Magritte, Max Ernst and a lot of my early work went in a very Surrealist line because of that. So those were the most obvious influences when I was a kid.
Nic: And when you were at school, were you considering a career in art?
Graeme: Oh nothing but. That was it.
Nic: So how did you… What did you foresee for yourself? What were you thinking?
Graeme: I think I was pretty ambitious. Certainly if anyone from the age of 10 or 11 had said to me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ I would say, ‘I’m going to be an artist.’ I was very lucky that I had parents who didn’t say, ‘Oh that’s nice, but what are you really going to do?’ You know, or friends, everyone was very encouraging, but then I was really into it.
I remember – actually this is almost a horror story – when I was in Grade 6 and still fresh from England, wanting to be the artist in the classroom. There was a teacher I had, Mr Fisher was his name. It was funny because my last teacher in England had been Miss Salmon, so there was this weird fish thing going on, I always thought that was curious, but Mr Fisher, who wasn’t the art teacher, still fancied himself as a bit of an art teacher, so he would on a Wednesday afternoon have art class.
And his idea of art class was to give us a subject and then give us 20 minutes to paint something and then he would stick them up on the wall – and this is true – then he would start going around ripping them down, ‘Well that’s rubbish, look at this one, what a terrible piece’ I’m horrified looking back at it. And yet there’s a nasty kick in the tail of the story, that at one point, I remember this so clearly, there were two pictures left up on the wall, mine and the other kid, Roger somebody, who was the other really good artist. Tension built and sure enough Roger’s came down and mine stayed up. That was the winner, if you like, of Mr Fisher’s art class for that afternoon. Horrible thing was, it meant something to me, and that was, I had arrived.
Actually, I don’t know, maybe it was more important than I could ever have thought at the time. I then started going home and drawing. And I would run home from school, and it wasn’t to watch TV or do my homework, it was to work on the picture I was working on at home. And when I got to high school, there was even more of an impetus because I began to sell them to my teachers – which was terrific – not for much, a few bucks here and there but still a sense of ‘I can do this’. I then heard of the job spec called a commercial artist – that’s what it was called in those days – and so I thought that’s definitely what I want to do, it sounds like I’ll be able to draw pictures and get paid for it. I went to college, did a graphic design course, and got out into the wonderful wacky world of advertising and that’s when the wheels fell off. That’s when I realised, this is awful, I hated it.
Nic: What did you hate about it?
Graeme: Being told what to do.
Nic: What sort of advertising did you do, because there’s so many different forms?
Graeme: I was working initially for a couple of agencies who had jobs, clients like Bob Jane T Mart. So I found myself drawing a tyre tread pattern one day, or a golf shoe. Seriously, the classic toothpaste packet sort of stuff, bits of furniture for a company called Saba who was out there for a while, doing newspaper ads. It was horrible, and it showed. I went through about three jobs, took a little bit of a break, came back, got another one, only lasted in the third job for three months, before the guy pulled me into his office at lunchtime and said, ‘Graeme, I’m going to have to let you go.’
I remember my initial childish inner self just going ‘Woohoo! I don’t have to come back here this afternoon.’ I felt released from prison, I held it together though and I tried to look serious and I said, ‘Oh, ok, why?’ and he just looked at me and he said, ‘Because you’re destroying my business’. Basically, incompetence, because I was messing up, I was doing work and I was forgetting measurements or just not doing what he needed me to be doing. So, I was ejected from that industry.
Nic: Well it’s so counter to everything you’ve been doing all the years before hand.
Graeme: Yes. There was no dragons, no monsters, no fantasy…
Nic: Another damn toothpaste box, and this one two millimetres different to the one you did before.
Graeme: Pretty much.
Nic: Brain destroying.
Graeme: I’d been keeping myself sane by doing my own artwork in the evenings, and it was just as well, because after I got ejected from advertising, there was nothing that I’d been doing for all of that time that I could have possibly have shown a publisher. It was meaningless, I think, in a creative sense, but my own work which was done for my own satisfaction… I then got together a folio and I started just going around to local publishers in Melbourne, trying to get work.
Nic: So what made you decide to go to publishers? You’re into art and stuff, you could have been a painter, you could have done that sort of stuff.
Graeme: No there’s no money in that. [Laughter]
Nic: That’s the first time I’ve heard of something where there’s more money in publishing!
Graeme: I didn’t think terribly deeply about it in those days. I just thought, I’d have more chance of being able to do something interesting, doing book covers or illustrations for someone else’s story, because everyone needs a jacket on their book and so forth.
And I did a few of those and you know what, that came from earlier. At college, I had always wanted to be the guy who did the record covers and in fact I missed out on a job. Mushroom Records was hiring and it came down to me and another kid from my class at Swinburne, but this other guy got it.
Nic: I thought you were going to say, ‘It was Roger.’
Graeme: No, it wasn’t Roger. I don’t know what happened to Roger. But that other guy got the job and I really felt, no, that was my job, darn it.
Nic: Wow that’s like a dream job for a kid at that time – album covers.
Graeme: I think it was there but for the grace of god, because it was a very weird, druggy kind of environment then and I might have gone down the wrong road. Also because I was really into music, it was a big part of my life back then and it really just felt perfect. It may well have been too perfect, if you know what I mean.
Nic: What type of music were you into?
Graeme: Oh goodness, the stuff which I grew up on was actually like prog rock, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Nic: That’ what you think of with great album covers, you would have had a ball with those album covers.
Graeme: The covers Roger Dean, I would have just lapped that stuff up, that was me, that was what I wanted to do.
So, when I went around to publishers, doing book jackets was kind of a version of that in my mind. And I did a few and then I did one or two sets of illustrations for other people’s stories, which was ok, but I was still being told what to do.
Nic: Here’s a theme. [Laughter]
Graeme: Yes, control freak number one. And I figured if I was to write one of these things, and I was ok at English at school, that was the other thing that pressed my buttons was grammar and spelling and stuff and the classical music – as I say, weird kid – and I wrote one. I wrote a story, a poem called My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, and that found a publisher.
Nic: That’s going to be quite depressing to a lot of people out there who’ve had so many rejections. You just sent it off and…
Graeme: You’ve got to be lucky as well, you’ve got to work hard and you’ve got have skills, but you’ve also got to get luck, and I had a huge stroke of luck.
There was a guy called Bob Sessions, who at the time was working for a company called Nelson Publishers, Thomas Nelson Publishers, in the city and he was giving me a little bit of work and the people working with him, and so when I wrote this story, this poem, My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, I did three coloured pictures and three black and white pictures and gave to it him and he said, ‘I‘ll get back to you in a couple weeks’. And he got back to me in a couple of days and he said, yeah we love this, we’ll publish it. That easy.
Nic: Do you remember what it was he said he liked about it? Or what do you think he liked about it?
Graeme: I think part of what he liked about it was I bought him a package. I bought him a poem, which I read it now and I think it’s still a reasonably good light piece of verse, it has some comedy and a little bit of adventure. And the art work obviously appealed to him, he’d already known my art work and he'd given me works doing jackets and other illustrations, so suddenly there was a complete package. And I think a publisher likes that, they don’t have to worry about who am I going to match this writer with. You give them the whole thing.
Nic: Although today, publishers will tell you if you want to get into the picture book market and you’re a writer, it’s, ‘Don’t send us your illustrations, we will match you up with someone’, so that’s interesting. I don’t know whether that’s changed.
Graeme: I’m sure things have changed, a lot has changed. Actually, we might embark on that, what I did then, would it get a market now? I honestly don’t know. Especially something like Animalia.
Nic: Well let’s talk about Animalia because I mean, today but even back then, I’ve got to be honest, alphabet books have always been a dime a dozen, you know. What made you embark on another, Animalia? And did you think foresee its success?
Graeme: No, no, no. As I said, I wasn’t a very deep thinker. I just sort of, ‘I know, I’ll do this.’ And there was a sort of naivety which maybe in those days translated as charm. Who’s to know? But I just thought, ‘I want to draw everything. I’ve got one book out, Gooligulch, and now I want to draw everything, so I’ll organise it alphabetically. It didn’t even occur to me that there’s probably enough English language alphabet books already, I just wanted to do it.
Graeme: I did two pictures, the Horrible Hairy Hogs picture and the Lazy Lions Lounging at the Local Library, and I took it to Bob and he just said, ‘What’s this?’ And I said, ‘It’s an alphabet book,’ and he said, ‘You’re on.’ Again, it was just that easy. He liked the idea. It was a simpler day and age. There was… I’m sure now that there would be so many levels of approval that it would get derailed or watered down, especially the text for that book. Some of the alliterations are really obtuse, and the most obtuse of all was the V page which went, ‘Victor V Vulture, the Vaudeville Ventriloquist, Versatile Virtuoso of Vociferous Verbosity, Vexatiously Vocalising at the Valhalla Variety Venue.’
Bob actually said to me, ‘That might be a little too long and a bit too sort of tough don’t you think?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, it’s not what it means, it’s how it sounds.’ That’s the thing, it was the musicality of it that was driving all of these alliterations, and he got it, he understood. And I said, in a rather arrogant sort of way, ‘And besides, if people don’t know what vociferous means or vexatious they can go find out.’ So it got through. I just think that the tiers of decision making now would probably have suppressed that.
Nic: And there’s so many different things you have to take into account, they’d probably do a focus group.
Graeme: Oh, undoubtedly, that’s exactly right. And all that study, focus groups... the anathema of good creativity in my view.
Nic: It’s amazing, as you just mentioned three different pages or spreads from that book, and I haven’t looked at that book since my kids were small – so a long time ago, I probably haven’t looked at that book for 12 years – And as soon as you mentioned those three pages, you just mentioned, I saw the image in my mind and I haven’t looked at those spreads for more than 10 years. The impact it had both obviously on kids but also on the parents who were reading it, and that was one of the joys of it probably, I’m interested in whether you think it’s part of the success was, adults loved it…
Graeme: Oh totally.
Nic: It appealed like few other picture books, so totally appealed to adults and to kids.
Graeme: It wasn’t designed for kids at all, it wasn’t an ‘A is for apple’ alphabet book, it was anything but that and had that been done before? Well actually to tell you the truth, in one of those classic cases of parallel creativity, there was a guy in England who was doing exactly that at the same time. I found out about it about a year into the project because Animalia was a three-year project for me. Bob said look I don’t want to worry you but there’s this book coming out about the same time as you’re going to be finished, called The Ultimate Alphabet.
Nic: Who, do you remember who wrote it?
Graeme: By the way that’s a terribly modest title.
Nic: It is very modest.
Graeme: Yeah, the guy’s name was Mike Wilkes, an English fellow, and coming out with a very hip and together publishing company called Pavilion at the time. And they got a 20,000 pound prize for people who could figure out all the things in the book and I went, ‘Oh no I’ve been pipped’. And I was, actually if Bob had not said keep going, I probably would have abandoned it. I thought I’ve been done. I’m never going to be able to compete with that, but I just pressed on regardless with his total encouragement, and while The Ultimate Alphabet kind of cornered the English market, there’s kind of a bit of a truism, well there was at least in the publishing business, that you get one side of the Atlantic or the other. Well he got England, I got America.
Nic: You’d take that every day of the week, wouldn’t you?
Graeme: Evil wicked smile. I have fun with that, I tell a lot of people that story and then I say has anyone here heard of The Ultimate Alphabet? And nobody puts their hand up. I go, ‘Yes’.
Nic: It’s also a good point to make because a lot of emerging writers as they come up with an idea and they hear someone else has had that idea, and say, ‘Damn I can’t do that’. But you know, ideas are a dime a dozen and people use the same ideas, but it’s what you bring, it’s your voice, it’s your perspective, it’s what you bring as an individual that makes it alive and the idea in a sense doesn’t matter. I mean you could have twenty different successful alphabet books twenty different people.
Graeme: Yes, and it happens with movies too, the meteor movies, the volcano movies and so forth. Exactly right. And there are only a certain number of story types anyway, I’ve got no idea what they are by the way, I don’t even want to know.
Nic: I’ve heard everything from 7 to 32.
Graeme: Yeah ok. For me if I’ve got something which I actually feel excited about, that’s enough. Sure, the publisher may still say, ‘We don’t think so’, but mostly, I am able to convince them it’s not a bad idea and we go with it. Do I do market research? No. Do I think I should? Absolutely not. It would change how I approach the work. It would suddenly become, try and hunt for a market or sort of find that niche or opening and that’s not the right way – for me any way – to go about things.
Nic: Lets keep on this track about ideas. Take a couple of your books, The Eleventh Hour and the Waterhole, they both stand out for me from when I was reading to my kids, can you tell me where the ideas for those ones came from to give us a sense of your thought process and perhaps also let us know what the major challenges of those books were. You know, in terms of both production and also getting the idea onto page?
Graeme: The Eleventh Hour was actually born of a moment of blind panic. After Animalia came out, I didn’t have another idea. I was so focused on it and at the time I was also working heavily in music and I thought that might be my career until Animalia dictated otherwise and then somebody said, ‘What’s your next book?’ And I remember at the time someone suggested to me, ‘Oh you should do a sequel’. What? How do you do a sequel? Did I miss a letter or two? But I suspect they meant numbers. But anyway, I was lucky. Over that summer holiday break I had been reading a couple of Agatha Christie books, don’t remember which ones, but it put into my mind that maybe I could do a mystery story and rather than hide the clues in the text, hide the clues in the artwork.
The same moment almost, 15 seconds later, the title, The Eleventh Hour just fell out of the sky onto the desk and I thought that’s a great title for a mystery and I had no idea what the story is but that’s not going to deter me. I’m going to write a story called The Eleventh Hour. So I started riffing on the eleven animals, the eleventh birthday, 11 November, eleven games, and then eleven o’clock my mystery would occur.
I was so stupid, because Agatha Christie does murder mysteries, I was going to do the same. So, at eleven o’clock, at night by the way, all the guests go into one of the rooms and there’s one of them, you know the dog dead in the chair with the glass of poison and, Bob of course was horrified.
Graeme: He said, ‘You cannot do that’. Apparently you can’t have dead dogs in picture books, who knew? So, I changed it to this enormous crime of the theft of a feast, which is far more child friendly, I realised. And that’s what I love about parties anyway, food. Again, I had no idea of how I was actually going to achieve this theft and what the story was. I was travelling at the time, so everywhere I went I was drawing pictures of all the different places I was travelling too which is why The Eleventh Hour has all of these references, artistic references from all over the world, especially Europe, and during that time I just nutted out the story, figured how to build this whole thing.
Graeme: As for The Waterhole that was a classic one that came from travel as well, most of the ideas over my career have been inspired by being somewhere different, sometimes the connection is absolutely evident, sometimes it’s just a chance thing that I see and suddenly triggers an idea.
With The Waterhole, we were in Africa, we went to Kenya and Tanzania on safari, and the way that you get to see animals there is you go to the waterholes, that’s where the animals come to drink and as the season progresses and the waterhole begins to shrink, more and more animals come there. So I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea for a counting book’. One rhino and then two zebras perhaps, three giraffes, African counting book. And I realised I also wanted to hide lots of animals there, it’s a very layered book.
Graeme: It took a while for all of those layers to come together, but that was sort of the first basis of it. And then I figured if I want to be hiding all these animals and there’ll be nominally ten on every page as well as the feature animal, I’m going to run out of animals. I mean there are a lot of African animals but they’re going to start getting really obscure and sort of left field, so, I realised that I could control this water hole, make it magical and take it around the world. We started in Africa, next page is actually two tigers so we’re in the Indian subcontinent and so forth.
So that suddenly opened up a whole new meaning to the book. The Waterhole became emblematic of water as a global resource, and that’s the real essence and message of the book. So, it took some years for all of those things to finally sort of come together, and then finally executing the art work another perhaps year and a bit.
Nic: Your books, as I said at the very beginning, are very intricate, I mean in terms of the way, gimmick’s the wrong word…
Graeme: Entirely the wrong word, how dare you? Ha. Features.
Nic: The little features, the gimmicky features.
Graeme: Get out of it.
Nic: No, no. I don’t mean gimmicks. The features that make them, so each one, so special, the waterhole, the disappearing waterhole…
Graeme: Of course, the waterhole had the cut out the hole in it. Which was another – we won’t call it gimmick – feature.
Nic: Absolutely, feature! And very memorable. I’m just wondering – back then, Bob – did he have a heart attack when he saw what you proposed? I mean the production costs and production values as a first-time author, there’s no way you’re going to get it. Do your publishers go, ‘Oh God we’ve got another Graeme Base book coming up’.
Graeme: There might have been that, especially when it started getting into things like The Worst Band in the Universe, and this was me trying to restart a stalled career as a rock star, actually it was a totally embryonic and non-existent career as a rock star, and to leverage my success with books to…
Nic: You have got that Jimmy Barnes look, you do look like Jimmy Barnes, have you been told that before?
Graeme: No. Don’t tell Jimmy. So, I had this idea for a The Worst Band in the Universe, I’m sure it was slightly autobiographical, but set on another planet. The Federation of Tuneful Worlds where being innovating is a crime, and Bob said, ‘Oh that sounds interesting’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but I want to do the music for it as well. And put a CD…’ Back in those days CDs were very new-fangled and wow that would be incredible, in the back of the book and so he agreed. I don’t think it was grudgingly, he said, OK if I provided the master tapes of the music, then he would get them printed and put in the back of the book in the little fold out. So, I spent as much time on that book just writing and recording music.
Graeme: It was all me. I’m this terrible control freak, this thing that I’ve got, every click, snort and grunt on that CD was me either tuned up or tuned down, and that’s why it sounds so awful, I should have got more people to help me. [Laughter]
Nic: But so many of your books, the first time you put the proposal to the publisher would have been the first time they would have had to work out how to do that. So, do you remember any of them being particularly problematic?
Graeme: When The Eleventh Hour came out, at the very first printing of that book, it didn’t have the solutions in the back. It happened in a subsequent, and still happens in subsequent reprints, there’s a little sort of fold section called The Inside Story which is the answer to all the riddles and clues and so forth. But in the first one there was just a card, a big yellow postcard, which you had to send to Penguin and they would send you this booklet. Unfortunately, just by the by, nobody thought to say, send self-addressed stamped envelope, so poor old Penguin had hundreds of thousands of these things arrive and they just had to foot the bill, to put these things in envelopes and send them back. Which would have cut into their profit tremendously, I imagine.
Nic: Or your royalty I imagine, have you gone back and checked?
Graeme: That’s a good point, I’ll go home this afternoon and dig it out.
But having done that book, I had another idea for a mystery story, a book called Enigma: Magical Mystery, and I thought wouldn’t it be great to be able to relock that information. In other words when you’ve figured out the answer, you could open a relockable safe and then close it up again so your little brother and sister have to do it themselves. A huge technical issue though because I couldn’t include a real safe, it had to actually fit into the back cover, you know it’s three, no two and a half mil thick back cover of the book, of the hardback. But I figured out a way of using just three rotating discs of paper, where you could align them all and then suddenly a little panel will drop down. It took months actually of prototyping just for myself, cutting and drawing, cutting and drawing, and then eventually we gave it to the printers to refine and make it production ready. So that was probably the most challenging paper engineering that I’ve done.
Nic: This is why your books are heavier than the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, there’s so many different features to them. Would you have liked your books when you were a child?
Graeme: I assume I would have. Certainly, I’ve always been writing and drawing to the inner child in me, so unless I’ve changed imperceptibly without realising it. I love detail, I love puzzles, I knew Morse code when I was a kid and would send messages like that and other things, the ink pen codes and other codes and hidden things in pictures. The Coles Funny Picture Book stuff, where there would be something hidden and you’d have to turn it upside down to find it. So, I loved that stuff, really, I think that’s a source of where I’ve gone on with my drawing and writing.
Nic: Tell us a little bit about your work space. Do you have a studio at home, do you leave home to go and work, do you… what sort of space do you work in?
Graeme: I go upstairs to work, I’ve got a studio at home. For a while I wondered if I should get a studio and go to work. The reason being that I was always at work. You know, they say that’s the problem with working at home, that you never get home from work. And when my kids were young, that became a little bit of an issue, and I thought maybe I do need to go off and have a proper job. But I did the opposite instead, I said I want to keep working from home so we just I bought a holiday house instead and on the weekends we’d go there. And the rule was, that was a no work zone, we’d go down, play games, kick the footy, go for walks, no screens, nothing. And that solved the problem.
Nic: Jeez, your kids are better than mine, no screen weekend.
Graeme: It didn’t last that long, maybe for as long as I had complete domination over them, which was all of two years, three years, and then after that the iPhones began to appear.
Nic: Are you someone who works well to a… Are you disciplined worker, do you the routine every day, time wise that sort of thing?
Graeme: No, no, no, no. You say do I have discipline, yes. Do I work every day? Are you kidding, who does that when you don’t have to? But it’s all totally dependent on the proximity of the deadline. The weird thing about my working deadlines is that my deadline is not like tomorrow or next week, it’s like 2019. How do you work to that sort of deadline? It’s easy to just go, its ages away but suddenly it’s not. Actually, I’m a real lover of the deadlines.
There was a beautiful quote which I love but never subscribe to, of the late great Douglas Adams, who was quoted as saying, ‘I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by’. That really wasn’t me, I’ve seen them as being sacrosanct, over my career. I wouldn’t miss them, and that may be the early training in graphic design. Deadlines really were not this afternoon but at 12.30 and there’ll be a taxi waiting for you to finish that piece of art work to take to the client.
Nic: Any writer or any artist who has worked in a commercial sense has that. If you’ve worked as a journalist before becoming a writer, you learn deadlines and they stick with you for the rest of your life. It’s the same with an artist who’s worked in a commercial practice.
Graeme: A real work ethic.
Nic: You can’t go, ‘No, well I haven’t done it today, I’ll have to do it next week’. There’s clients waiting on it, there’s other people waiting on you to finish so they can do their bit, so that sticks with you.
Graeme: Lucky that it did too, so that does keep me focused and keep me actually producing the work.
Nic: And I imagine it is one of the reasons when you go back to the fact that Bob Sessions saw you as a package, that’s part of the package, isn’t it for a writer? A publisher loves an author they know is going to deliver on time.
Graeme: You’re right. I remember now that part of what I did too was I presented well, because that was part of it, presenting the work to the client. They’d all be properly framed up and really nicely done, it wasn’t just, ‘Oh it’s here somewhere, it’s in my back pocket and it looks kind of like this’. These were pitched concepts. So that might have worked for me.
Nic: Are there particular statements or ideas about the world we live in, you try to get through with your books? I go back to The Waterhole and you mention the water as a resource, I’m just wondering, I mean today you look at that book in a different light than when it came out, and you look at it in terms of climate change and all that sort of stuff, it seems to have a huge environmental message. Was that intended then? And are there other things in the books you put out that you are trying to make statements about or draw people’s attentions to?
Graeme: It was intended, but I must say it didn’t have the same level of understanding and sort of publicity that climate change does now. It was more about… It started of as just talking about the cycle of the seasons and the idea of conserving, treasuring, sharing a resource, but certainly with an understanding even back then – it wasn’t that long ago, what was it, maybe the late 1990s or early noughties – that we need to take care.
And another book that did the same thing was Uno’s Garden, which was just a plea for balance, that we are a part of the natural world, we shouldn’t see ourselves as not supposed to be here. We are supposed to be here but we’ve got to make sure that everything else has their place as well and it was about just things getting out of kilter.
So those messages which are in the book, you can actually track back almost exactly to when I became a dad. One, two three times, suddenly I realised I could use my power for good, rather than evil, rather than just being about me and having fun and doing funny books with lots of things to find, I could say something.
And it occurred to me as a parent you have a great deal of influence over a very small number of children, your own. As a teacher, you have little, less influence but over a whole classroom and a whole period of a lifetime, hundreds. As a book illustrator you’ve got, and writer, you’ve got potentially a tiny bit of influence over thousands of kids, and this is something that I could… It was occurring to me that I could actually do something and say something worthwhile. I always had a love of a natural world, I wanted to lift up kids to love it and if you love something, you treasure it. So, at a lot of the books, Sign of the Seahorse, Waterhole, Uno’s Garden, they sort of carry that theme.
Nic: And you do have an influence, an ongoing influence, because I think back to when I was young and then also reading the same books to my kids, Dr Seuss and the environmental messages in some of his books, they stick with you forever.
Graeme: Well that’s brilliant, and it just felt like there was a chance to do something actually slightly useful rather than just fun.
Nic: In something like the Amazing Monster Detectoscope, matching the words with the images, are you working on them both together or do you just get the pictures and then add the words? Tell me how that works?
Graeme: Even though every book is visually driven, there’s no way, I just don’t think that it is possible to do a whole bunch of pictures and go ok so what’s the story? It doesn’t work that way so you have to put that desire to do the artwork aside and really sort out the story and the whys of it. Nic: Ok.
Graeme: And this book the Amazing Monster Detectorscope has two kind of origins. The first was, I was the kid who was scared of monsters too. I’m sure there was a monster under my bed, and occasionally I’d go ‘Mum!’, and she’d come in and we’d look but it wasn’t there. Funny that, where could it possibly go? Any intelligent young boy realised that they were hiding, they’re disguising themselves as something else, and I was told very young that a great way of getting over things like that was to draw them.
If you’ve got a monster that lives under your bed, figure out what it looks like and draw a picture of it. And then mess about with it. Draw a funny face on it or add some extra big ears or something like that and you begin to own it, control it. You’re nailing your demons to paper. And you do that as an adult, if you worry about things if you’re stressing about things, write a list. Write exactly what is worrying you and you begin to take hold of it and deal with it.
So, with the Monster Detectoscope, the most critical part of that book isn’t all the fun stuff where you’re seeing the, you know the paper engineering, the sofa turn into a monster and stuff like that, it’s actually the last two pages where the young hero who’s being chased out of his house by these monsters that he’s conjured up in his head, with help from this amazing monster detectoscope, turns, puts his hand out and says stop and in common parlance, ‘I’m the boss of you’, and that’s the moment the book is actually worth reading and worth having made.
Graeme: The other part of the book that I just alluded to then was that paper engineering. It’s actually what I can’t lay credit to, I actually saw this idea of a spinning disc even though I’d done a lot of spinning disc things with The Eleventh Hour and The Jewel Fish of Karnak as well. This was a clever idea which goes right back to the nineteenth century, when Victorian books had some paper engineering, and the book I saw hadn’t actually done much with it, it was like just two pictures of a child, on a swing and then walking in the garden, they weren’t clever or connected I thought, but it would be a great way of showing monsters come to life. That’s the way my mind works, so those were the two things that I put together, to make that book.
Nic: Wow. What do you find are the hardest things to draw?
Nic: That’s why there’s not many of them. [Laughter]
Graeme: That’s exactly right. How come you always use animals? I think, yeah, I could go down this path because it’s a wonderful metaphor for real people, like Aesop’s Fables and Jungle Book, and Just So stories, but no the fact is drawing people is way too hard. I was never trained in that way, life drawing is a skill beyond me, and I don’t know whether it’s taught an awful lot now, certainly graphic design students at Swinburne, but it wasn’t important, probably more in an art school. I never learnt it, not very good at it.
Nic: What’s the common question that you are asked by kids when you go into schools, little festivals and things like that?
Graeme: How much money do you make? Funnily enough the next one is have you met the prime minister? Yeah, they’re always interested in that. And after that, it’s where do you get your ideas from?
Nic: Of course.
Graeme: Of course. That’s the perennial question, and it’s the best one and it’s a great question because it does all flow from having a good idea. And for me as I say, its travel. A really classic simple example was The Last King of Angkor Wat, travel to Cambodia went to the old temple complex of Angkor Wat. I knew I was going to be coming back with a book idea, and it didn’t disappoint, so that was very straight forward.
The Legend of the Golden Snail came from just a chance, being in a hotel room with my kids and family in France, and there was this lamp on the wall which had a spiral brass thingy, don’t know what the technical term is, thingy will do, which looked like a snail, and the curvy bit – shade, we’ll go with shade – was like a sail, so I said to the kids, ‘Hey kids, look, a snailing ship’. Dad’s joke, they took no notice and went back to whatever they were doing on their iPhones. But I thought it was kind of cute, so I drew this character with sails, a little galleon, because this what I’ve always done, I’ve travelled, I always draw things and then keep them and I put this into my bag and when I got back to Australia found it again and thought, ‘Hey, you’re really cute’ and so I drew him up and then developed a story which became the Legend of the Golden Snail.
Nic: Have you ever had a, was it Mr Fisher, have you ever had a Mr Fisher moment. Have you ever had a young artist come up to you or a moment when you’ve been talking to kids where you know you’ve had an impact on them, or someone’s come up to you and said, ‘I decided to become an artist because I read Animalia when I was a kid’, or something along those lines?
Graeme: Well I usually say, ‘Look, you can’t blame it all on me’.
Nic: You know, when you’ve just had that moment of extraordinary pride knowing that you’ve actually made a difference to someone?
Graeme: It is fantastic. I’ve been doing this for long enough now, there has been this generational shift happen, and it used to happen just once or twice but now every single time I do a book signing, there’ll be multiple times where somebody comes and says, ‘You signed a book for me… My mum brought me to have a sign and now I’m bringing my child’. And I’ve had grandparents doing the same thing. So, it’s incredibly humbling and wonderful at every level. And occasionally there has been somebody who says, ‘I’m a young artist, graphic designer, writer and I’m, doing it because of your books’.
It’s flooring to think that you can actually have that influence, the influence I was talking about. A little bit of influence and in some cases, it can be a lot of influence and hopefully its good influence.
Nic: And what would you say to emerging writers, illustrators out there that are trying to get in, they’re sitting at home and they’re doing their drawings and they’re doing their alphabet books?
Graeme: Go and get a proper job. No, what I would say is this, if you’re lucky you have a passion and a vocation, and if you’re super lucky, you don’t get it stomped on, like my parents said, ‘Great, go for it’. They didn’t say, ‘Well that’s terrific, what about if you be an art teacher, or an art historian or an art something’.
It’s like being a musician, I remember it was Harry James Angus of The Cat Empire, he wrote an article about that, he said, ‘I want to be a musician’ and he couldn’t even enter that in the sort of fill in the form thing, it had to be music teacher, music historian, not musician. That’s awful. Sso I just wanted to be an artist, and I was allowed to be. Again, if kids want that, and I’ll say this to their parents too, you’ve got to live the dream. It is possible. I know, because it happened to me. I was the kid who coloured in and I’m still colouring in. That’s my job, believe it or not. So, it is possible, you can do this.
Nic: And finally, which Australian picture book other than your own do you wish you had created? And why?
Graeme: Well that cuts out Harry Potter, so. Oh look there’s some great talent out there to try and ones which influenced me. To try to say there was one, in all honesty I don’t know how to approach that question. You’re sort of aware of all the stuff that people are doing.
Nic: Well what are the ones that come?
Graeme: Ok, I’ll say it, when I first started, the work of Ron Brooks and Peter Pavey, who are now the elder statesmen of the business, I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that’. Things like One Dragon’s Dream from Peter Pavey and The Bunyip of Barley’s Creek and stuff like that. And then, more when I was working for Bob Sessions another artist who was doing a lot of work with him at the time was Jane Tanner, and I aspired to and I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder if I can do stuff like Jane does’. We’ve become great mates over the years, which is lovely. And she was thinking the opposite, she was thinking, ‘Oh I wonder if I can do stuff like Graeme Base’. She just told me that to make me feel good, I’m sure but it was sort of like, you know, there was a sort of community of people working around the same time.
I also had a lot to do with American illustrators at the time because really almost immediately when Animalia came out my major market just by weight of numbers, was America, and I’d spend half my time over there, touring and stuff and there was some great artists over there, Chris Van Allsburg comes to mind, another one was Bill Joyce, who did something called Rolie Polie Olie which was very early, almost computer generated kind of work and I just loved the stuff that he did as well.
Nic: Fantastic. Graeme it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you, thank you for coming in and sharing your story, and keep churning out books, no…
Graeme: [Laughter] Churning out those gimmicks, I love it.
Nic: Keep giving us these unbelievable books that as I said every Australian family has got shelves full of them.
Graeme: Of course they have.
Nic: And they are just so memorable.
Graeme: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.