Leigh Hobbs was the 2016-2017 Australian Children's Laureate. The theme for Hobbs’s term as Children’s Laureate was ‘to champion creative opportunities for children, and to highlight the essential role libraries play in nurturing our creative lives’.
Leigh has been shortlisted for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award (for Mr Chicken Goes to Paris, Horrible Harriet and Old Tom's Holiday), and his books have won every major children’s choice award in Australia. His published children's books include:
- Old Tom (1994), Old Tom at the Beach (1995), Old Tom goes To Mars (1996), Old Tom’s Guide to Being Good (1998), Old Tom’s Holiday (2002), Old Tom Man of Mystery (2003), Old Tom’s Big Book of Beauty (2007), A Friend For Old Tom (2008)
- Horrible Harriet (2001), Hooray For Horrible Harriet (2005), Horrible Harriet’s Inheritance (2012)
- Fiona The Pig (2004), Fiona The Pig’s Big Day (2006)
- 4F For Freaks (2006), Freaks Ahoy (2007)
- Mr Chicken Goes To Paris (2009), Mr Chicken Lands on London (2014)
- Mr Badger and The Big Surprise (2010), Mr Badger and The Missing Ape (2010), Mr Badger and The Difficult Duchess (2011), Mr Badger and The Magic Mirror (2011).
Leigh's books have been adapted beyond the page, with the Old Tom books becoming an animated ABC cartoon TV series (1998-2002) and Mr Chicken Goes To Paris becoming a play adapted by the National Institute Of Dramatic Art (2012).
Leigh is best known for the humorous children’s books he writes and illustrates. However, he is also an accomplished artist and part of the Australian artistic and cultural fabric. He also taught art at secondary school for more than two decades and was a freelance contributing cartoonist for The Age newspaper for 15 years.
- Leigh cites the pirate and adventure stories of his youth (including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped) as influences on the characters he develops for children. He also loved and was influenced by the work of Ronald Searle, an English cartoonist.
- Leigh discusses his studio and the where he writers at length. You can watch the video of Leigh showing off the wooden board his father gave him more than five decades ago, a wooden board he still uses to write and illustrate today.
- Leigh sees similarities between his children’s books and Fawlty Towers.
- We also spoke to Leigh’s long time editor, Erica Wagner from Allen and Unwin, about her collaboration with Leigh.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today. This episode features Children’s Laureate, Leigh Hobbs. Leigh’s story in a moment.
This is our final episode of Season 2 of The Garret podcast. Thank you for your support. It has been a real privilege to share all of these stories with you. Season 3 is right around the corner and we have some big names ready to go. If you have any suggestions of who we could include in Season 3, let us know on Twitter at @GarretPodcast.
Leigh Hobbs is the current Australian Children’s Laureate. His books have captured reader’s imaginations for decades. Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Mr. Chicken – many of you will have fond memories of these delightful – though not always well behaved – creatures, created by Leigh Hobbs. Leigh is Australia’s premiere children’s writer and illustrator, and was honoured last year with the title and the accompanying duties of Children’s Laureate for 2016-17.
Leigh, welcome to The Garret.
Leigh Hobbs: Thank you, Nic.
Nic: Let’s start a long time ago when you were a child, and as a writer and illustrator, was it pictures or words that first attracted you to books?
Leigh: As a reader or as a creator?
Nic: Well I’m just asking… As a reader, as a kid when you think back.
Leigh: Well, I never had any ambitions to do books for a start or to be a writer. My ambition as a child was to be an artist because drawing is what I love to do, right from the word go. So, I think also, the books that I read weren’t fiction, they were… tended to be reference books.
Nic: Okay, do you remember some of the early books that caught your imagination?
Leigh: A magazine that I loved as a kid was Look and Learn magazine, and I loved books about pirates and history. I was as fascinated by the Crusades as an eight-year-old can be. And that came, I think, from the things I watched on TV, which was Robin Hood with Richard Green and pirate films with Errol Flynn. Something about that sort of adventure really seared my imagination. So, what I’d do is I’d look at those films or those TV-series and I’d think, ‘Wow, what was life really like?’. So, I’d go to the library and look at books on the eighteenth century.
Nic: Okay, so sort of fictional versions of stories that then took you to the real, the real delving.
Leigh: That’s right, the delving was what fascinated me, because I’ve always been interested in history and time.
Nic: And as you progressed then through your teens, do you recall particular books, or authors or even, as an artist, particular works of art that attracted you in those early days?
Leigh: Well, as an artist I was interested… the bloke whose work I loved as a child and probably pointed me in a certain direction is Ronald Searle, who was a marvellous, brilliant English cartoonist from the mid-twentieth century to, you know, early years this century.
So, as a little boy, they’re the books – I loved Ronald Searle books. I’d see them in the library at school and that’s what, I think, helped focus me in what I do now. But quite apart from that, I’d be looking at books about fine art and architecture.
Nic: And at that stage did you have any early ambitions about your life’s work or where you were going, and were they all around art?
Leigh: They were all around art. I wasn’t quite sure where the focus would be. But one consistent thing is that I loved creating characters. And bit by bit it led up to me dipping my toe into children’s books and then creating my own.
Nic: Did you start creating things when you were young? Did you have exercise books and note books where you were trying that?
Leigh: Yeah. And it’s funnily enough, my dad who’s 93, the other day when I went and saw him he said, ‘Here, your mother had kept this’. And it’s a funny sketch book from the 60s, where I’d made up all these funny poems and limericks and characters that I’d completely forgotten about. So, things must’ve been cooking in my brain.
Nic: How similar or different were those characters and the language you were using then to your work today?
Leigh: They were pretty crude, as in rough, but I suppose there’s a connection – well obviously there’s a connection.
Nic: You then left school, studied art...
Leigh: I went to art school, and that was really where… I just adored it. And, you know, the bloke that was here yesterday interviewing me, I said, ‘In four years and I don’t think I missed one day at art school’. Every day it was like, ‘Gee, I can’t believe the work that I’m doing...’ And I sensed that all the work that I was doing in art school was heading me in the absolute right direction. Even things that I’d – because I was doing things that I hadn’t even thought of doing, like doing animated films and sculpture and stuff in clay. And I loved that.
Nic: Okay yeah, because I was going to say… For anyone learning any sort of creative art, whether it be writing, whether it be art, one of the things I’ve always said to students is, ‘Have an open mind, you never know when you’ll discover something that you’re good at or you enjoy without knowing’.
Leigh: Absolutely. I think accept challenges and stretch yourself and refuse, in all contexts, to be boxed in. See I don’t even like… it irritates me when someone says, ‘Leigh Hobbs, illustrator.’ Not in this context, but if you’re boxed in to being an illustrator I think ‘Well, hang on, I do paintings and I’ve made Flinders Street Station teapots and sculptures’. You know, and it sort of restricts and I think, as an artist, I’m an artist that does different stuff. And I think, if you think of yourself as one thing, you’re limiting. Because I find now even in the kids’ books I bring all my interests now into whatever they are.
Nic: Looking back now, what do you think you’d do nowadays that you would not have done if you hadn’t studied those sorts of things? You know, I mean, would you have ever thought about sculpture and teapots and things like that if you hadn’t been there?
Leigh: I don’t know. I don’t know. I probably would have gotten to it later. But doing that… I loved it. I mean, at art school I had to make an animated film… We had to do an animated film and it had to be a 3D sculpture that we’d made, so pixilation. And so, I actually… well I’ll show it to you later. I made one and thought, ‘Geez I love doing this’. And it ended up on the front of a magazine that was really well known then, and a double page spread, called POL magazine. And that’s where I thought, ‘Gee I can actually do this, and I can think in 3D’, because the main thing was to be thinking of characters. So, I loved it.
Nic: So, I know you also worked as an art teacher, now was that for financial security or was that what you thought you were doing to do?
Leigh: No. That was because I had to do it because when I was 19 I got a teaching studentship, we’re talking 47 years ago or something. But I got a teaching studentship and that meant that I think I got $25 bucks a week, which was a lot then. But before that, after I left art school I had two years of industrial experience, then I had to teach for three years. And I was bonded. And I found that, in fact, it worked for me when I was in my 20s because, you know, I’d be bushed after teaching, but still had enough energy to come home and work at home on what I thought was my real work. So, in fact, what the teaching did is paid to keep me from compromising with my own work. I didn’t have to work in an advertising agency or doing some crummy drawings for an ad, you know?
Nic: So, what was it you were creating back then, what sort of stuff, was it already books or…
Leigh Hobbs: No, no books. I created a Flinders Street Station teapot, one of which is up there. I’ll show you later because we’ll muck up the sound.
Nic: That alright.
Leigh: And one of those is in the National Gallery of Victoria. And I was a freelancer for The Age newspaper, and that’s how I started to write lines of text. And all sorts of stuff, various stuff. And I worked… My first job after art school was at Luna Park in Sydney. I was 20 and I worked there.
Nic: Doing what?
Leigh: Well, the park was being restored by mainly a very famous artist called Martin Sharp, Gary Shead and Richard Liney and Peter Kingston. And I was younger than them, and was clocking on and off for the day and I, at the age of 20/21 had to work out the colour scheme for an old merry-go-round. And I created two big characters.
Nic: Fantastic, that’s a lot of fun.
Leigh: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. But it was a big challenge because these were the men that… that I was working with, not Martin, but the workers there had built the Sydney Harbour Bridge and stayed on. So, they were all in their 60s. I was 21 and meant to be giving directions to some of them.
Nic: But I guess it also taught you the commercial reality of work and art and how art can become a commercial reality, and how it can be used in the commercial world.
Leigh: Yeah, that’s… I think so. I… Because I’ve never been given money in the sense that I didn’t come from a rich family, I knew that I had to work for whatever I had. So, I sort of knew the value of things, in a sense. If that makes sense…
Nic: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned being introduced to creating words when you were at The Age, tell me what sort of work was that and then how did that lead to getting into the world of books?
Leigh: Well when I was… in the early 80s, I was at a very rough, suburban school in Melbourne. I’d been up at my first school, Sale Tech, come back to Melbourne to teach and was at a pretty awful school, and I was desperate to get out of teaching at that stage. It was horrible. So, I wrote to the art director at The Age and said I’d love to do… anyway, eventually I got work, freelance. So, what they’d do is, pre-computer, they’d send out some text with a bloke on a motorbike and they’d say, ‘Well you’ve got – I still think in inches, so some sort of centimetre thing – this is the size, here’s the text. We’ll come and pick the drawing up in three hours’, or whatever. And I wouldn’t really understand what the article was about. It’d be about finance or something, and I really didn’t understand it. So, I’d be panic-stricken because of the time, stage fright, so I’d do a mad drawing and look through the text to see if there was anything I could sit with it. And I suppose what ended up happening is that the picture would say one thing and the text would say something completely different and there was no time to change it. And I’d send it in and innately or subconsciously I was actually… it was ironic. I started to get an ear and develop an eye for pictures saying one thing and the words saying something else and working against each other, and the humour coming from that.
Nic: And I can see now the link between that and then children’s books, because again thats…
Leigh: I got into kids’ books because someone asked me to illustrate a book and I did that. And then that editor said, ‘Why don’t you write your own?’, and I’d been fiddling around with this Old Tom character and that’s how that came about. But, I mean, it took ages to get someone to publish it.
Nic: And he of course led to that wonderful TV series and….
Nic: Great character, great character. And he’s so full of life and character and mischief and I love Old Tom.
Leigh: I think he is. And it was frustrating because I got lots and lots, well, quite a few knockbacks initially, because people wouldn’t publish it by sending a mock up. You know, some drawings and text. And people just rejected him, and I would feel dejected and throw the drawings under the bed and about every three weeks I’d drag the stuff out and resend it off somewhere else because I really felt in my guts that kids would like him. And finally, Erica Wagner, who was at Penguin then, said, ‘Yes’. And we were off.
Leigh: I don’t think it’s being disingenuous to say that I don’t think I’m… If I’m clever at all, I’m not clever as a planner. I trust my instinct and some drawings, it takes 25 times, truly, to get it right. That means to make it look fresh and loose, and that somehow, the look in the eye or the demeanour is what I sense is correct. But I work very hard to make the process look easy. Sometimes, I’m not – embarrassed is the wrong word – but a bit self-conscious about sometimes how hard it is to get it right, but that might be because I’m finicky. Now I’ve talked so much, what was the question?
Nic: [Laughter] I’ve forgotten as well. But, no, it was all about the character, about the dual nature of the characters.
Leigh: Oh, yes. Well they just appeared. Horrible Harriet though… I was at the end of my teaching career and the Old Tom series had happened and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be restricted to one character’. I felt that I had more happening, more characters hanging about.
So, a girl character seemed natural because where I was previously, the rough school, there were lots of real tough girls that drove me mad. But, underneath there’s something about their bolshiness and the strength of their nastiness. I mean, they were horrible, you know, but they were really strong personalities. And so, I thought, ‘I’ll do a girl character in a book, Horrible Harriet’. And she just sort of appeared. There she is, what a sweetie. And now she’s nearly on at the Opera House.
Nic: Yeah, no. I believe so. Fantastic.
Leigh: She’s there and I’m here.
Nic: [Laughter] Yes, a live performance.
Leigh: Yep, that’s right.
Nic: Brilliant. Just going to go back to something you said before, and it’s so true of so many artists and it’s almost the defining feature of great artists, is working so hard to make something look simple.
Leigh: Yeah. Simple dash easy, that’s right. I think… Yeah, because, for me there is something… When a drawing is right, when my stuff is right, it looks fresh, it doesn’t look laboured. And once I have… because I can’t rework anything, you know. And I never ever draw anything out in pencil first. It’s all just a pen going into black ink. Which means, you know, there’s lots of blots and stuff.
Nic: Yeah, I was just going to say, on that score, you’ve been good enough to invite us into your home and we’re conducting this interview in your studio, which is fantastic, and there’s not a spare bit of space anywhere, so I’m wondering how on Earth you actually do work. Can you give us some insight into how you work in your space and your process?
Leigh: This is it. I work and I sit here in this chair, and I have this crappy bit of cloth there and I wipe my brush on that. And I sit, and in fact I could probably sit anywhere because...
Nic: So, you’ve got a wooden board on your knees, you’ve got tables all around you and you’ve got a wooden board on your knees…
Leigh: Yep. Dad, my father, made this board and gave it to me probably – I’m 63, nearly 64 – so Dad must’ve given it to me 50 something years ago. Probably about 1961, so almost every drawing I’ve ever done has been on this board.
Nic: Wow. That’s fantastic.
Leigh: Only because, well, I’m just used to it. You know, it’s just right. I think, only because people have asked, I thought, ‘Wonder why I do use it…’ You can see all the mess. And what it is, I think, is that when it’s like this I’m absolutely focused. If I have to draw here, I’m distracted. But this is real beaut focus on my knee. Yeah, so that’s how I do it.
Nic: Wow, that’s… And you said you don’t start with pencil at all, you go straight to brush?
Leigh: No, straight to pen and ink. See all this?
Nic: Straight to pen and ink, sorry.
Leigh: No, it’s alright. Yeah, I’m not very…
Nic: It’s the old fashioned… I remember back in days of school using those sort of pen and inks.
Leigh: Kids used to have to fill the ink wells.
Leigh: No, I love pen and ink because I can get… I mean, of course it’s a never-ending search for ink that doesn’t clog up the pen, but I don’t care, I’m not technical so… My high-tech thing is the photocopier, the black and white photocopier. I love that.
Nic: How do you use that?
Leigh: I use that because sometimes, in my sketch book, I might do a drawing that is just right and I can’t recapture it, so what I do is do a black and white photocopy and colour that if it’s for colour-book. I love that photocopier. You can edit that out if you like.
Nic: [Laughter] No, no. We’ll put it in for sure. When you’re… What comes first in your mind when you’re creating a page or a spread, is it the words or the pictures? Do you know what... Yeah, which one?
Leigh: No see, this is the wonderful thing about my editor and publisher, Erica, she knows how I work.
Nic: So, you still use Erica…
Leigh Hobbs: Oh yeah, well, not use. I mean Erica – we’ve been together, working, for nearly 25 years. So, I created with Erica Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Mr. Badger, The Freaks in 4F and, what else, Mr. Chicken.
And so, I got an idea for Mr. Chicken going to Rome. So, I said to Erica, ‘I’ve got a feeling Mr. Chicken should go to Rome’. So I did a few, you know, silly drawings…
Nic: Is that because you wanted to go to Rome?
Leigh: No. It’s just that Rome’s a city I can see him in because of the ruins. And what prompted that was an idea that you’d have this ridiculous looking character that was fascinated by ancient Rome, which really is me.
Nic: Yeah. Because I was going to say, coming back to what you were talking about as a child, I can see exactly – when I was reading that and when you were saying that before – I can see the young Leigh Hobbs going, ‘Oh gladiators,’ and…
Leigh: But see, if I had a kid being interested in Rome, you know, it’s another sort of book. But the idea that this ridiculous creature is absolutely, in a serious way, a student of history, I think kids – you know, they can’t articulate it – but I think kids find that, sort of, quite endearing and hopefully hilarious and a bit like them.
So what happens is Erica said, ‘Yes, let’s do the book’. So, I paid for myself and I went to Rome for 11 days, and I just filled this sketch book. Because what I did is, I’d go around and see things like, for instance, these three-wheel – where are they – car things that I love, and thought, ‘Oh, great, Mr. Chicken would look hilarious in one of them’. And so, I thought, I’m not going to try and think of the story when I’m there, I’m going to just fill this with ideas and come back and then get it into some sort of order. And while I was in Rome I met this wonderful architect called Federica, who knew the people that I… friends of mine that were over there at the same time. Anyway, she ended up showing me around and it was just great. And when I came back I thought, ‘I need a means by which Mr. Chicken sees Rome’, and suddenly I thought, ‘Well, maybe he hires a guide called Federica and they end up being chums’. So suddenly you had the idea there, it took shape. You know, Federica on a… what’s it called…
Nic: The Vespa?
Leigh: Mr. Chicken on…
Nic: And I think that’s my favourite image in the book, Mr. Chicken on the Vespa.
Leigh: Well, at first Mr. Chicken was riding the Vespa and her hanging on behind and I thought, ‘No, it’s better if she’s showing… makes sense if Federica’s the guide and she’s showing Mr. Chicken around’. And it looks funny, him sitting on the back because, you know, in fact he’s really polite and courteous. He’s a gentleman. That’s through the book and then suddenly she sort of says, ‘Would you like to ride?’ Yeah, it sort of bit by bit takes shape.
Nic: So, what happens when you come back? You come back with a sketch book and…
Leigh: I come back with a sketch book and I come back with a rough idea of the arc of the story. And probably most authors would approach an editor with the story, but I don’t tend to think in terms of story. All my books are really a character study. And I think this is what confuses some adults. People that like my artwork, get it, because the kids do. But they’re character studies.
Nic: They are, they are.
Leigh: And what I think kids like, is that they’re actually getting to know a character. They know Mr. Chicken so well that they’re doing the trip with him.
Nic: Yes. Because most, I mean… There’s very little conflict in your books. They are basically ‘The Adventures of…’ but without huge conflict. And most stories obviously, of course, are built around conflict. And that’s one thing that makes total sense of what you’re saying, they are totally character studies. And I guess it’s that the fact that you create these three-dimensional characters means that you can get away with it, because kids do get to love and they just want to know what the characters going to do next rather than what’s going to go wrong for the character.
Leigh: Exactly, exactly. Because in a way, these books are about… it’s a bit like Fawlty Towers in, if you think about it, Fawlty Towers is a very normal setting with berserk characters, with a couple of berserk characters in it. Now, because you’ve got those berserk characters, that creates the story in itself. You don’t have to have, you know, a rocket… you know. And I think that’s the same in the books.
Some people don’t get the characters, and if they don’t and they think my drawing’s scribble, there’s a lot for them to criticize. But people who like the characters and art students that get my drawings, I don’t know, they seem to be satisfied. And the point is that I love the fact that there is kids’ logic. A child would never say ‘How come Mr. Chicken is sitting on the back of a Vespa? It would tip up’. But see, some adults say, ‘He doesn’t look like a chicken’. And I say, ‘Well, I’ve never ever said he is a chicken’. He looks like that and his name’s Mr. Chicken, you know what I mean? That’s where kids are terrific to work for.
Nic: [Laughter] Of course. Absolutely.
Leigh: And I never write down to them, I write up.
Nic: So, I’m going to try and get a response to a question I asked you before and that was: when you’re sitting there with your block of wood on your knees and you’re drawing a page or a spread, at what point do you know what words are going to be there?
Leigh: Oh yeah, right.
Nic: Are they already there in your mind or do you do the image first…
Leigh: Sometimes the line of text comes first. Like, there was one Old Tom book, Old Tom Goes to Mars, where, I don’t know where I was, but out of the blue I thought of a line of text. I must have seen the news or something about Mars. And the text, and I quickly wrote down, and it said, I’ve still go tit… ‘At 9:15 precisely, Old Tom left Earth for Mars.’
Now, when I thought of that line I immediately got an idea of a porthole in a rocket ship and Old Tom’s swirly black eye looking out the porthole.
Leigh: So, I had an image and a line of text. Now I showed that to Erica and I said, ‘I think there’s a book in that.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And that was enough for her, she just trusted. And I actually like that book. So that was an example where the text came first and I had an image.
Leigh: And because he’s a strong little character, I just created a story around it. And in fact, it’s sort of a classic type story because there’s very much a beginning, a middle and an end.
Nic: In creating a spread, how do you match the words with the image? Because you said before, what you don’t want is the words to exactly… for the image to exactly mirror the text.
Leigh: Yes, because there is no point.
Nic: So is the idea of the image to be giving extra information, to illuminate the words? Or in your mind what is the purpose?
Leigh: It’s to challenge them. See I have no interest at all – people have asked if I’d do a graphic…
Nic: A graphic novel.
Leigh: I have no interest at all in doing a graphic novel. It’s like saying, you know, when you make a silent film, I love having the words to play with because I love the – I’m using that word too much – but I do like, very much, having access to text to play against the image and to take the combined… make it that the combined meaning is something else. And I think that the kids love that once the kids hook into it. And adults do too because a lot of these books are read by librarians and parents. So, there are some adult jokes, like kids don’t understand why their parents laugh when they read in a bit of text that Mr. Chicken was going economy. And kids think, ‘Why is my father laughing’, you know. They’re laughing because they’re squashed up in economy, you know.
Nic: Do you find it difficult writing for two distinct audiences? Most writers have one audience but you do have…
Leigh: No, I’ve only got one audience, which is me. I can’t write for anyone else. My taste is certainly not for baby books. And see, as a teacher, then when I taught secondary kids and now as a visitor of schools, my voice when I teach is very much an adult one. I don’t say, ‘Hello, come on you kids get your pens and your pencils and get ready, we’re going to draw’, you know. But running through that sort of bossy adult voice is, I think, the same thing that runs through the books. I actually feel, not in a corny way, but I actually do… Not responsible, but I want the kids to feel safe that they’re in safe hands, that’s what it is.
Nic: Do you amuse yourself while you’re…
Leigh: Oh, yeah some things I laugh at. Erica and I laugh together because she’s just… I’m so lucky that I met her, that Old Tom landed on her desk. Because we work intuitively, so that sometimes she’ll look through the mock up and say, ‘Look, that’s very funny, that’s hilarious, but we don’t need it’. So, I think, ‘Alright, okay I loved that drawing…’ but 99 per cent of the time I’ll just agree with her. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Well in fact, Erica, I think you might be looking at it wrong, this is how it’s meant to be’. And she’ll go, ‘Ah, right.’ Because sometimes there can be two right answers to a problem.
Nic: How long does the process take? So again, taking Mr. Chicken Goes to Rome as an example, from the time came back to the time you finished working on it and it was in the publisher’s hand for printing, how long does that take?
Leigh: It’s about a year. Because I’m doing other things as well – a million school visits.
Nic: Well that’s part of the Laureate thing.
Leigh: And living a life.
Nic: [Laughter] Living a life…
Leigh: Taking the blue heelers for a walk.
Nic: Love the blue heelers. They ever appeared as characters?
Leigh: Ah well, in fact, Old Tom is a mixture of a blue heeler and a Tasmanian Devil, in personality. I mean, I don’t like cats, I’m allergic to them. But Old Tom… I made up Old Tom to be a cat, because when you look at that drawing you can see the personality of that bolshie little bluey out there.
Leigh: Cats are independent so that’s why…
Nic: Yeah, totally. There’s a lot of people out there, and you would come across them all the time, who want to enter the world of picture books and writing and illustrating and doing it all. What sort of advice would you have for them? And also, what sort of common mistakes do you see people making that you might be able to advise them to rectify?
Leigh: Well, I’m more aware of my own mistakes. But I think the challenge is to find your own voice and to not write down for kids. You’ve got to develop an instinct for feeling what’s right. And you need to search for a good editor, and when you find someone that you have a rapport with, you’ve got to be ready to let go of things. But, for people who are just starting out, I suggest just going through tons of kids’ books, and not only in Australia but ones from overseas. French picture books are incredibly sophisticated. And you find that each country has a slightly different aesthetic, which is fascinating. But I think finding your own voice and even if people don’t want to write, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for them to practice putting a line of text with a drawing so they get a sense. But, I think too, characters are important in a story.
Nic: You mentioned just before you’re aware of your own mistakes, what are they?
Leigh: Well, I mean, I’m talking literally with the drawings and things.
Nic: Oh, ok.
Leigh: I think I’d probably plod along and do everything…
Nic: [Laughter] Well I don’t see a garbage bin here full of discarded…
Leigh: I just emptied it before you came.
Nic: And has your process changed over the years and do you consider yourself… What do you do now that is better or maybe quicker or more efficient than in the early days of Old Tom? And how is it better or different working on Mr. Chicken?
Leigh: The process is basically the same. I have an initial rush of ideas and enthusiasm and then, inevitably, there’s a time when I’m exhausted and I run out of ideas and I sort of curse the fact that I’ve started the project. But the difference now compared to, say, 24 years ago, is now I realise that that’s part of it, that I just have to battle through that. And also, it’s nice because I’ve been fortunate enough to have now a body of work under my belt.
Nic: Yeah. It’s great to know that writers of your caliber and experience still always battle with that…
Leigh: Oh, heavens.
Nic: Because it’s good for everybody to know, particularly emerging writers, that when you get to that point of ‘Oh my goodness this is too hard’, everybody faces that and that’s just something you’re going to get through.
Leigh: Well you can get panicky. And even Mr. Chicken goes to Pari– Ah, what’s that….
Nic: Rome. He’s in Rome.
Leigh: Yeah. He’s coming to Australia next.
Nic: [Laughter] Oh, good.
Leigh: In that, I remember late nights where I thought ‘I will never finish this book’. And then realising that I’d coloured about ten pictures with the wrong yellow… But then you just have to bite the bullet and do it.
Nic: Finally, I wonder if there’s a classic children’s work either from any country, not necessarily Australia, that you wish you’d created and why?
Leigh: No, there’s not one that I would dare say that I wish that I’d created. But the children’s book that I loved as a kid… I mean, the ones that I… talking about really old ones. But Dad read me Treasure Island and Kidnapped when I was a kid. And I suspect that they so fired up my imagination – you know, I can still get the images – that lead me on my path to, you know, the eighteenth century and pirates and all that sort of stuff.
Nic: Have you ever done a version of that?
Leigh: No, heavens, no. No, I haven’t. I’m very respectful about all that and stick within my own strange menagerie of characters.
Nic: Menagerie of creatures and characters.
Nic: Absolutely, look it’s been an absolute delight, Leigh. So, thank you very much for sharing your time with us.
Leigh: Thank you, Nic. My pleasure.
Nic: And good luck. I can’t wait for Mr. Chicken to come to Australia.
Leigh: Well, Mr. Chicken all over Australia, that’s what – it’s like a big egg.
Nic: Fantastic. Thanks, Leigh. Cheers.
Nic: I mentioned earlier that I caught up with Leigh’s long time editor, Erica Wagner. Erica is the publisher of children’s and YA books for Allen and Unwin, and has been Leigh’s editor since the very beginning.
Erica, welcome to The Garret and thank you.
Erica Wagner: Thank you so much for having me.
Nic: Before we talk about you and Leigh, we have a lot of listeners who are obviously fascinated by the world of publishing, and probably a few who want to work in it, have tried to get into it... Can you give us a brief outline of how you got into it, and how you got to be the publisher that you are today?
Erica: Okay, I’ll try and be brief. I got into publishing in a really unorthodox way. I had worked in a bookshop through my teens, and when I left school I went to uni for a year and then I dropped out. And I ended up travelling and then working on tomato farms in north Queensland living in a tent, and having kids really young. So, I had my son and my daughter in 84 and 85 and then suddenly I thought, ‘Oh no, I really needed to earn some money.’ So I went back to the bookshop and when I was in the bookshop I thought, you know, I suddenly had this epiphany – I wanted to be an editor. And I wanted to work with books but not with the public. And so, I wrote to Penguin and I said, ‘What do you have to do to be an editor?’, thinking that I’d have to do an Honours degree in English and so on, and I got a fantastic letter back from Bruce Sims, who is the adult publisher there and he said, ‘Try and get any job in the industry and work your way up’.
And that was just such great advice because it would have been really hard for me to go back to study at that time. And then shortly after that there was a job advertised as a trainee editor in the children’s section at Penguin, and that’s when I started in 1988.
Nic: Okay, and a couple of the roles you had up until today?
Erica: Yeah, so then I was there for about ten years, and gradually got into a commissioning role and a publishing role. And after about ten years then, I guess I got a bit big for my boots and I thought, ‘I want to do this on my own.’ So, when I left Penguin, I started a children’s list for Duffy and Snellgrove. And what happened with that, it ended up being acquired shortly after that by Allen and Unwin and I became a publisher here and I’ve been here ever since, which is from 2000.
Nic: How did Leigh Hobbs come into your world?
Erica: Well he landed in the form of a picture book dummy for Old Tom, which featured Old Tom in Angela Throgmortin’s lounge chair, smoking a cigarette, looking really dissolute, and all sort of kind of battered, but really charismatic. And I just looked at that character and I literally fell in love with that character. So then shortly after that I met Leigh in person and, I don’t know what, I think we just clicked.
And even though that very first book we… I was at Penguin at that time and picture books were tricky to publish then, and also there was a bit of an age group thing with Leigh because his work is actually really sophisticated. Also and I had a child, I had my two children, my son was 7 and Old Tom reminded me of my 7-year old son. So, we just thought of Old Tom in that way, and because at that age they tend to read junior fiction and so on, we ended up doing that book as a little black and white illustrated book. And that’s really how our relationship grew from there.
Nic: Does Leigh approach with an idea or do you pitch ideas to him – how does that work? Or was it a bit of both?
Erica: It usually starts with a drawing. Like, Leigh will email me a drawing, or in the old days it was fax me a drawing. And as you can see, even from that first story, it was the picture that lead the way, and I was always very interested in working with illustrators in a slightly different way to the way I’d been trained. The way I’d been trained was that you’d get a text from an author and you match them to an illustrator and then you make the book. But what had started to happen, is that a lot of the illustrators were really keen to tell their own stories. But their minds work slightly differently because they’re visual people. So, it wasn’t as obvious as having to come up with the text first. It was like, okay, well let’s let the pictures lead the way.
And so, what happened with Leigh, he would create a run of pictures with these hilarious captions and bits of text, and so in a way the story was kind of constructed from that. And sometimes we would say, ‘Okay, we’ve got a beginning, we’ve got a middle but how will it end?’, or, ‘We’ve got the ending but how do we get there?’. And there’s something about when we sit in the same room that we just have these mad ideas. We’re very serious, like, we’ll laugh, but it’s often just quite serious story creation and it’s really fun. I love it.
Nic: And it still works the same way, you still start with the picture and then go from there? Wow.
Erica: Absolutely. Yes and Mr. Chicken is a classic, where Leigh sent through this hilarious picture of Mr. Chicken on the Arch de Triomphe and we signed it up on the basis of that. So yeah…
Nic: It seems a no brainer once you have… In hindsight it seems a no brainer but, you know. Have there been any of those ideas that would gone a little way with and then realised this isn’t going to work or does it always pan out the way you expect it to pan out?
Erica: Well, it’s really interesting. It is an unusual relationship in that I think we’ve seen basically everything through to fruition. There’s a couple of characters that are lingering in the background, but I believe that Leigh will get to them when he’s ready and it just seems to happen in this intuitive, organic way, which is very refreshing and really nice for me in this role as well.
Nic: What is it about his characters, and I’m talking Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Mr. Chicken… that you think appeals to children?
Erica: I think they are fully themselves and I think that they show all their sides. So here I am sitting neatly with you and I’m trying to talk sensibly into the microphone, but at the same time I’ve got all this stuff churning around inside and that’s the side that we don’t show each other. And I think his characters somehow embody that, and it’s also a joie de vivre, like, there’s just so much joyful energy there. And yes, he can make a terrible mess of things – doesn’t matter. You know, someone will love you and look after you and it’ll be okay. So, I feel that’s such an important message to me to give to kids and to the world today.
Nic: Well, what state are his first drafts in when they come to you? I mean, they may not be his first drafts, I don’t know, but the first drafts that you see after you’ve had the initial images and ideas and you’ve said, ‘yYs Leigh, let’s go with this,’ what sort of state are they in?
Erica: Well, what I think is also interesting is a tactile process. So, it’s work on paper, it’s writing with a pen, it’s not typing it up on the computer, it’s not sort of rendering it too soon. It’s a spontaneity in the way that the words are actually written, so when you ask how it appears, it’s on a bit of paper with a hand-written caption. And a rough drawing that might end up becoming finished art, because Leigh often works with those spontaneous drawings and then will then develop them into a fully completed, finished illustration.
And again, I think that’s a good lesson for people to know. I think people feel they’ve got to have all the programs and they’ve got to use their computers and so on and sometimes I’ve even had to say to people, ‘Look, just use a bit of paper and a pencil or a pen.’ Because somehow you’re accessing your creativity in a different way and more spontaneous things will happen that way.
Nic: Have you actually watched him at work?
Nic: So, tell me about that, you know, I’ve been in his studio, I’ve seen his block of wood that he uses and I absolutely love it. I mean, his studio’s an absolute – I wouldn’t dare say mess because everything’s probably in its rightful place – but it’s got this beautiful chaotic, anarchic nature to it. So, what’s it like standing there watching him, how does he work?
Erica: Well I think it’s this… you know, he’ll centre himself but he can talk while he’s doing it. He’ll say, ‘I’ll just draw that.’ Like, we’ll have a mad idea and he’ll say, ‘I’ll just draw someone leaning over the side of a ship’, or whatever it is. And it’s just this facility that he’s got with using his technique. So, he’s got his beautiful pen, he’s got his ink and he’ll just dip it in and he’ll just draw, sort of, confidently in that Zen way. Like, when you look at the Zen masters, this is why he has… he fits into an art tradition of spontaneous mark making, and I feel he does that really, really well. And so I love just watching that and, you know, obviously his colour sense is really tuned in and he works wonderfully with our designer in-house, Sandra Nobes, who’s worked on all of his books, certainly here at Allen and Unwin. And they’ve just got this way of communicating that is really lovely.
Nic: Great. Have you ever had a major disagreement with him or reached an impasse on any aspect of one of his books?
Erica: I think sometimes I can get a bit overexcited and maybe then think that my idea is fantastic and ‘Let’s go with my idea’, and then I think, ‘Oh no I’ve got to pull back’. And that’s really good as an editor to realise that, and really respecting Leigh’s voice, but we established that, I think, really in the first book.
And I think that with every author that you work with, no matter who they are or how they work, the first book is always about: how do you work together. And some people you, you know, really assist, quite hands on, and other people you hang back or you might just even hint at something, because… Creativity can be killed so easily. Because you’re exposing yourself, you’re being vulnerable and there’s a sort of a shame aspect if someone comes in and says, ‘Oh that’s not very good.’ And then you think, ‘Oh, I won’t show you anything’. So, there’s this sort of fine line between nurturing, getting too involved, letting the person be, let the character be, let the book be what it needs to be...
I find the whole process absolutely fascinating, and I think with Leigh, we’ve just worked it out. And so, when you ask have we had problems – I don’t really see them as problems. Like, there have been moments when I’ve realised I’ve gone too far and that I’ve learnt to pull back, but we always get there, and I think we’ve learnt to trust that creative process, which is another really interesting thing, because you can get so tired. Like, after the meetings we might meet for two hours and suddenly you’re so tired you have to lie down. And then you realise it’s because you’re trying to get it out of thin air. So then you stop, you don’t try and push it too far and then let it be, sit with it for a bit. And then you push it again next time, so it’s just mysterious but really fun.
Nic: Just finally, is there any particular one of his characters you like above the others? Who’s your favourite?
Erica: Oh, that’s really hard. Like, I love them all as if they were my own children, and so I’m really really fond of all of them. I would find it very hard to pick a favourite, except I do have a really soft spot for Horrible Harriet, and there’s one of our mutual friends, Anne Spudvilas, who says that I look a bit like Horrible Harriet, and so I find that amusing.
Nic: Have you confronted Leigh about that?
Erica: Oh, we just laugh and smile about it.
Nic: Alright. Thank you very much, Erica, for giving us some insights on your relationship with Leigh and how it works from the other side. It’s been fascinating, thank you.
Erica: Thanks, Nic.