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In Conversation with Writer Tony Wilson

We find out about the collaborative process between author and illustrator with picture book writer Tony Wilson.

You’ve dubbed your exhibition at St Heliers Street Gallery ‘The Other Half’. Is that how you see the writing/illustration collaboration in a picture book, as a 50/50 split?

Absolutely! Although I would say that at risk of sparking an illustrator revolution and blackballing of my work! I really do believe it though. A picture book is an artwork that has to work on a few fronts. The story has to resonate, the language has to have a texture and rhythm and the artwork has to match the words, and illustrate and hopefully augment the story. Illustrators have almost complete freedom with respect to images. I normally only see them on completion of roughs, and might have some feedback, but usually I’m so wowed by their ability to draw that I leave it to them. So Sue de Gennaro (pictured) has the freedom to invent downtrodden maids in ‘Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas’, Laura Wood decides what Cow’s pre-moon jump training regime should look like (donut incentives), and Lucia Masciullo decided how Australia’s great attractions could be captured in beautiful double spreads for ‘Emo the Emu’. It’s definitely 50-50. Certainly, I always split the creator royalty 50-50 with every illustrator.

Did you ever attempt to do the illustrations yourself? Was that a major barrier for you starting out?

No, I’m a horrible artist. My wife is an artist, and she says that anybody can learn to draw, but I feel like I’m starting from a long way back. I sometimes do a drawing when I visit schools just so the kids can laugh at how terrible my work is. I didn’t see it as a barrier, even at the outset, because publishers are more than happy to receive a picture book text first, and then outsource the illustrations. Strangely, I don’t even particularly have strong mental images as to what picture should go with each page. This helps with being open minded when the illustrations come back. Sometimes I’ll change things. I take credit for making the night scenes in ‘Cow Tripped over the Moon’ more purple, but I’m not a very visual person.

Is this the first time you’ve had your name attached to an art exhibition?

Yes! I’ve found it very amusing to be at the centre of an art exhibition. My paintings and drawings have always been a bit of a family joke, so I’ve been playing it up. ‘I have an exhibition’ I say grandly to my parents. The key has just been making sure I don’t do any of the art!

How do you go about selecting the right artist for the job? Do you pick based on the medium – watercolour for a whimsical story and digital illustration for something with a bit more attitude?

There is a bit of that. A comedy title like ‘Harry Highpants’ or ‘Cow Tripped over the Moon’ wants to be bolder and more colourful than, say, ‘Emo the Emu’, which I really wanted to be very beautiful – not that Emo wasn’t meant to be funny – but I wanted the landscapes of Australia to stand up as paintings, and so Lucia did use watercolours and ink outline. Sometimes the medium is a complete surprise to me. I had no idea Sue de Gennaro was going to use collage in ‘The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas’, or texta in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes Horse’. It was just presented to me as a big ‘ta-da!’ But I liked it. I don’t mind good surprises.

Do the artworks provided by the illustrators ever influence your words, or does the writing always come first?

The writing always comes first for me. I sometimes write an illustrator directive (e.g. ‘textless page, cow is singed and despondent, her friends are comforting her’). When the artwork comes back, we will sometimes change the text because it doesn’t quite work with an image. Or more commonly, cut a line of text because the picture already tells the story. I remember one of my favourite verses from ‘Emo the Emu’ was cut – for space mainly, but also because describing Emo wasted time once we could see him.

Now most emus grow up to more than two metres
And most emus are not the fussiest eaters,
But Emo the Emu he slouched with a hunch
And only ate Cedar Bay Cherries for lunch.

That verse was cut.

Some people hold the misconception that writing for children is easy. Just how much work goes into each of your picture books?

I think writing for children requires skill with story and words, just as writing for adults does. The easier thing about kids’ books is that they generally don’t take as long as adult books. There’s less of a time investment which is good given the small amount authors generally earn in Australia. But the imagination required to find that winning idea, and the craft of shaping it into something that appeals to kids and parents, that takes practice and skill. So I might be able to write a picture book draft in a few days (Cow), or weeks (Emo), or months (‘The Thirsty Flowers’), which doesn’t happen with adult books, but the stand out ideas only land at relatively rare moments. I think I’m getting better and better at understanding the shape of picture books and what will work. Some of my early ones had good ideas, but were too wordy, too much for me, and not the audience.

After publishing your first novel ‘Players’ in 2005, what drew you to the world of picture books?

I’d actually already had two kids’ manuscripts accepted in 2003, before ‘Players’ was signed. They were ‘Grannysaurus Rex’, and ‘The Minister for Traffic Lights’. Andrew McLean got sick with mercury poisoning that year, so we took five years to get Minister out! It was launched here at the Convent, in the very same space as this exhibition, back in the pre-renovation days of 2008. I’ve always loved picture books. I was interested in them even as an adult and collected Dr Seuss titles. When I started trying to become a writer, there were ideas I had that were jokes or word plays, and sometimes best suited to younger audiences. E.g., ‘Grannysaurus Rex’ started as a pun I did, cleaning the dishes, about a migraine turning a grandma into a dinosaur – ‘Migrainysaurus Rex’. Once I pared it back to ‘my grannysaurus rex’, I thought, ‘Man, kids love dinosaurs, and grannies buy all the books! Eureka! I’m going to be rich!’ It didn’t make me rich, but it did invest me in this wonderful world of picture books.

Do you try to make your picture books appeal to parents too? Some Gen X parents likely get a chuckle from ‘Emo the Emu’.

Absolutely I do. I’m a father of four, and know the pain of slogging through a truly terrible children’s book (I’m looking at you, Peppa Pig book franchise people!). So, it’s great if there is something for parents to latch onto. ‘Emo the Emu’ has that joke in there for the parents, and in ‘Harry Highpants’, the politician Roy Bland ‘plays a saxophone on stage to try to make himself seem more interesting’. The reference is there for those of us who remember the Bill Clinton years, but no child is ever going to get it. Probably my favourite line I ever wrote is in ‘The Thirsty Flowers’:

‘He’s OK!’ Rose cried, as they watched the dust settle
Then Sam tried to walk but fell flat on his petals
But still he kept trying, with such strength of mind
That he took a small step – a giant leap for plant-kind

The four year olds are generally only so-so with their Neil Armstrong quotes, but the parents like it.

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’ve got two books coming out next year. One is Jed Kelly, which is a book about a redhead who makes a mess with some hair dye, puts a bin on his head, and is mistaken for Ned Kelly. That’s coming out with Lake Press. And Laura Wood and I have a follow up to ‘The Cow Tripped Over the Moon’, ‘Hickory Dickory Dash’. It’s also time-coded, and also a back-story nursery rhyme. Unbelievably, it’s been picked up as National Simultaneous Storytime title for 2018, just as Cow was this year, which means 700,000+ kids will sit down at the same time across Australia and New Zealand on 23 May next year, and read it. It’s released in February 2018. If you want to register a school or pre-school, visit ALIA website.

‘The Other Half’ exhibition is at St Heliers Street Gallery until 19 November. If you would like to purchase signed books, you can visit Tony Wilson in his studio or text him on 0416 100 645 or at