'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Sunday 25 April 2010

Author Interview: Roland Harvey

I am personally thrilled to welcome Roland Harvey to Kids Book Review. One of my most beloved children's authors, it's been an absolute joy chatting with Roland about his writing and illustrating journey. Enjoy this sensational interview.

Who is this talented person? Roland Harvey

What does he do? He’s an author/illustrator.

Where can you drool over his stuff? rolandharvey.com.au

What’s his story? I grew up in Kew, Melbourne. My mum and dad were both what we now call graphic designers; mum worked freelance and dad was an art director at a big printing company. Dad had been in the 1st World War and then the Great Depression, and then got run over by TWO big trucks in Collins Street, and spent 18 months in hospital. My mother worked at home, and designed some great Australian icons: the Crown Lager bottle and label was one.

They wanted me to become a 1. Doctor, 2. senior public servant, 3. printer’s apprentice, in that order. I wasn’t smart enough to do any of those, so after a number of dumb uni courses including advertising, I did architecture. I loved it, but there wasn’t much work, and I think I was interested in the people part of it more than doing grand buildings that didn’t improve society.

I started illustrating to pay the bills and got hooked.

I started publishing Christmas cards and then books and ended up with a publishing business called The Five Mile Press.

What came first in his life – the writing or the illustrating? Illustrating came first, but I did pretty well at writing at school and uni. I tried to integrate the two in my books. I did my first book at age eight… a book about the forest, complete with bits of fern and logs and lyrebird feathers. That was in about 1953. The other part of my career started in 1978.

Why does he draw? Love drawing, never stop learning and improving, find it is the key to understanding things. If I can draw it, I must understand it.

What made him decide to pen children’s books? I wanted to tell some stories in an interesting way. To make people aware of history, and science and the world of nature. I wanted to bring those things to life for kids.

What does he love most about producing books for children? I absolutely love the drawing and painting part; and I learn a lot with each new book. I will be very happy to keep improving my watercolour for the rest of my life. The book I’ve just finished, by Mem Fox, is one I’m quite pleased with.

What’s his process – does he write a book first or illustrate it first? Both! Sorry. But It depends on the book. I do like to work out a way of telling a story – the illustrations, diagrams, cross-sections, etc., and then writing around it.

The text may be minimal, weaving through the pictures (as in Tassie to the Top) or in blocks or panels or anything that articulates the story in the most useful way. It might require condensing the text to just a few lines or even words, and I try to make the picture give a context and explain the words. And vice-versa! Often a little joke will say more than a lot of words.

I don’t want to make things too obvious; I want to make you wonder, and have to work it out. All the while, I am looking for ways to be self-indulgent with my painting. I want to push my own boundaries and do new and better paintings every time. It doesn’t always work, but that is how I get my kicks.

At The Beach was the first in Roland’s glorious series of children’s books featuring stunning, eye-swamping illustrations. What inspired him to write it? It was a great idea from Erica Wagner at Allen & Unwin, which became something else. I’d had a series of disastrous events and didn’t quite know what I was going to do next when she rang and it gave me some focus. It was an opportunity to tell some of the stories – in pictures - of the life of adventure I’ve had with my family.

I think it is a really important experience for people growing up to learn to make do; to get wet, cold, hot, scared; to have to work out how to get through a difficult situation. And it makes your mushroom and rice dinner taste a whole lot better.

It gives me a buzz now to see my 25-year-old daughter Jane working in Arnhem land with Indigenous kids, training them to document their ancient stories and archive them for future generations. She had been to a posh ‘young ladies’ school and turned her back on a life of glamour and fashion and luxury. She’s very happy doing it, too, which I enjoy greatly.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles he has experienced on his book writing journey? I can’t really work when someone is telling me what they want me to do. I suppose it comes down to letting me interpret for myself what is needed for the project.

Another real block is confidence. I need to feel good about the others involved, and that they have confidence in me. I need to know that ‘everything’s all right’ and the kitchen is clean, the bills are paid and someone has paid my tax bill.

The other thing is: I am really a performer! I need an audience, a market! I need feedback. I need a good editor/publisher/ friend to bounce off. I talk to friends like Bob Graham and Ann James and my wonderful partner Annabel and my kids. It is a big part of keeping a belief in what you are doing alive.

What’s a typical writing/illustrating day? My day depends on what I am working on, and with whom. So I will describe my ideal day:

Wake up 6am.

Cup of tea.

Run around park with friend or Annabel, ride with her to her work (15km) , do some exercises, ride home. Get a few jobs done, like plant a few grasses and trees or fish for an hour or so.

By now I feel guilty and rush to the studio to do some work.

Check emails, get important ones answered, hopefully some stimulating ones in there like offer to do the History of the world on i-Book.

Then get down to the reality of my current project. Warm up with some silly drawings and get into it.

Get out somewhere for lunch; probably some leftovers or chicken by the river.

Work again; maybe a meeting with a publisher, jotting down the odd idea/joke/word in my little book, for example:
“Coincidental: When two people have exactly the same teeth.”
“Coincide: When two people enter a building at exactly the same moment.”
“Coincidence: When two cars back into the same tree at the same moment”

I’ll use them somewhere, sometime.

When is he at his most creative? When there is a supportive, appreciative environment and a clear need for what I am trying to do, ie: there is real problem to be solved, where my contribution will mean something to the outcome, and be respected.

What advice does he have on creating great children’s books? I take the word great fairly seriously.

Humour and respect for the reader are important. Unlike my answers, simplicity is really good.

Work on originality and develop concepts that have some relevance to and challenges for kids in our culture. I am not sure that will make sense. It is me being idealistic!

Understand design, styles of art, some underlying philosophy, and contribute to a direction for Australian culture (what we would like it to be).

Be convinced that kids can and need to grasp difficult ideas, and to develop ideals. They need to get equipped to handle the propaganda of the commercial world, of advertising, of politics, the sometimes unrealistic expectations of parents and schools.

How has the children’s literary scene in Australia changed in the past decade and where is it headed? There seems to be a refreshing group of new young writers and publishers, at the same time as the established publishers are becoming more commercial. It seems to me that the blockbuster and the bum have displaced the innocent children’s book in all but the best bookshops.

If he couldn’t be a writer/illustrator, what would he be? I’d like to be capable of being a political activist of the green persuasion, or live on a boat and do docos on the wild places of the world, or have a little music venue with very good food and adventure tours in a book-friendly town by the coast.

Or design hot and cool things that would make the world a better more eco-friendly place; maybe an eco-village.

What books did he read as a child?
Winnie the Pooh
The ‘Eagle’ Annuals (from England)
The ‘William’ series by Richmal Compton
The ‘I-Spy’ Nature Science books (UK again)
Enid Blyton of all sorts
Disney comics
Whatever was available.

What are five of his favourite children’s books of all time?
Midnite (Randolph Stowe)
The Shrinking of Treehorn (Florence Parry Heide)
Wind in the Willows
Peter Pan
Max (Bob Graham)

What else does he like to do other than write books?
Music, singing, playing stringed instruments.
Cooking and Asian food.
Birds, fish, the sea, rivers, the outdoors, boats, exploring, bushwalking.
Painting and drawing.
The Australian landscape, conserving indigenous culture.

What would be his perfect day? Wake up, smell the sea, maybe the tide changing making a new sound, bringing new smells; catch a fish at daybreak, run 5k along the beach and swim, have breakfast with my girl Annabel and the kids (Borlotti beans, rosemary, lemon juice, tomatoes, egg, garlic, mushrooms, rocket, goat fetta Olive bread toast, coffee) and have a few laughs… make a plan for a trip to Laos in August.

Then… talk up some new projects, maybe a book, maybe a housing development for young people, affordable, sustainable, exciting… speak to publishers about next ideas.

So, now it’s 9.30am, go sailing to somewhere new, anchor off, have lunch (fresh fish, crayfish, salad, home made bread, crisp white, fruit).

Wow! It’s already 12pm and I haven’t been windsurfing yet so I jump on a board with a newly sprung-up 30 knot breeze and blast across the inlet for an hour followed by a bit of big wave stuff (that bit is wishful thinking).

Go home. Terry Denton, Bob Graham and Ann Spudvilas have called in and we discuss our latest projects and decide to get active on a couple of political fronts. We have a glass of wine and I do some work on my current book; an interesting challenge which will push the boundaries of conventional publishing (and good taste).

It is 2.45pm now and I work until 4.05 when some kids call in to tell me they have seen a whale off the point (which is unusual in North Fitzroy). And they’ve also seen some really wild mushrooms. We go and discuss how to paint these exciting things, and then I send them off to do their homework.

I work until Annabel rings and I ride down to meet her. We ride home and cook up a nice little seafood pasta and go to a play/film/pub. It is late, so we ride home (again) and I spend two minutes answering my fan mail, play guitar with Annabel on the deck and a glider possum zaps about telling us to get to bed.

I go for a quick sail in the moonlight and bring home a couple of fish for breakfast tomorrow. The breeze has picked up and I can smell a storm coming, so we tie the boat securely, put the stormboards on the chookhouse, and put Francis our pet pig in the spare room.

I send out a weather alert to the neighbours and other shipping, and listen to Beethoven as I drift off to sleep…

What five words best sum him up?

What’s next for Roland Harvey? I’ve just finished The Little Dragon and I’m very pleased with it. I want to follow that with a strong book, probably Ned Kelly. It might be a graphic novel. It might have a music component. It might be an iBook.

And maybe some more of my active kids books.

I have a few simple ideas, one of which is a book in defence of pigs, maybe a non-pork cookbook. Non-meat. Non-polluting.

I’m interested in starting a ‘Painters in the Park’ group, hoping to subvert a threatened freeway in the iconic Heidelberg School area near us.

Also, getting a venue going for young people like me to have a good night nearby with music and good food and art and literature…

There are also some grander-scale projects of the hi-tech variety which I find very exciting… I would like to have more of my perfect day…

Don’t miss the launch of Roland’s new book The Little Dragon in October/November 2010. And make sure you check out his gorgeous website, where you can download free Christmas Cards this Christmas! I’m so there! - Ed