Interview: Donovan Bixley

On April 23 this year it’s been 400 years Shakespeare passed away, aged 52. For all his fame, not much is known about the man himself. Well-known and award-winning New Zealand writer and illustrator Donovan Bixley wants to change all that with his new book Much ado about Shakespeare – a literary picture book.

What drew you to this project?

I’m fascinated by the lives of the great artists, and I had wanted to do illustrated biographies of my three favourite artists in the three great arts: Leonardo, Mozart and Shakespeare. That, combined with my love of painting the sumptuous fabrics and costumes of the period. But underneath those flamboyant clothes they still laughed and cried about the same things we do. Whenever I come across some familiar human situation or sentiment in my research, it gives me such a thrill. You can really place yourself right there next to them, it’s a form of time travel, and I guess that’s the real heart of what I’m trying to achieve in Much Ado About Shakespeare. I’m fascinated in how geniuses like Shakespeare are so different from us – but I’m actually more interested in the everyday things that make them the same as us.

You call this a “literary picture book”? What is that exactly?

The publisher and I were keen to avoid any confusion with children’s picture books or graphic novels. As you might imagine, the idea of doing an ‘adult picture book’ brings up all sorts of wrong connotations, so for Much Ado About Shakespeare my publisher invented a whole new genre – the ‘literary picture book’.

Why did you choose this format?

In children’s books we use illustrations to engage young readers to read longer, more sophisticated books, or to read subjects which they may not have thought were interesting. I’ve always thought that the exact same applies to adults. It’s been tremendous fun to create paintings with adults in mind – illustrations which have layers of meaning and symbolism that you wouldn’t put in a children’s book – though I do hope that young adults will get a lot out of it too.

How long did the research for this book take you?

Shakespeare is so dense and complicated that he’s really something I needed to discover slowly, bit by bit: from my first experiences as a kid, seeing The Royal Shakespeare Company thumping about on our old black and white TV; to being made to study Shakespeare at school; to being wowed by Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet; to designing sets for Macbeth – all these things have accumulated little amounts of understanding over a lifetime. But even after ten years work on this book, I still feel like a complete novice.

Given Shakespeare’s one of the most famous literary figures of all time, did you feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task?

Funnily enough, I think it can be really useful to be a little naive when coming to a project like this. You can see things from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by the weight of history. Of course, as I went on I soon realised how much I didn’t know – That’s one reason it took so long to produce! I mean, you could spend a lifetime just studying just one of Shakespeare’s plays. But to paraphrase the writer Neil Gaiman, at some point you just have to say ‘here’s my take on it, this is what I’ve come up with so far’, otherwise you’ll be 90 years old and still working on it.

Did anything surprise you about Shakespeare, or the times he lived in, while you were researching this book?

It was a shockingly brutal time compared to our modern way of living, but one of my favourite stories remains the creation of the famous Globe theatre. Shakespeare and his mates were having a few problems with their landlord at ‘The Theatre’, their playhouse just north of London city. Turns out, they owned The Theatre, but the landlord owned the land. So to solve their dispute, Shakespeare and his friends turned up one night after Christmas, dismantled the playhouse and carted it south across the frozen river Thames. This event made such a strong image in my head and is such a special part of the Shakespeare story, because they rebuilt The Theatre on a plot of land they’d leased and renamed it, The Globe.

Was it hard to find a publisher?

About seven years into the project, I’d got to a point where I’d almost given up hope that Much Ado About Shakespeare would ever be published, but I was lucky enough to put it in front of Kevin Chapman from Upstart Press, and he really loved the whole idea of an illustrated biography for adults. It’s just so incredible to have that level of faith from a publisher, so in some ways, that part was easy for me. The really hard part fell to Upstart, who put in a tremendous amount of work to find international co-publishers who felt just as strongly about it.

What’s your favourite of Shakespeare’s works, and why?

As I’m mainly a children’s book author and illustrator, I spend a lot of my day in the head of an 8 year old boy – so I think my humorous side wins out. I’m a big fan of the comedies Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night.

Shakespeare invented over 2000 words, 800 of which are still in use today. If you could make up one word that would still be in use for the next 400 years, what would it be and what would it mean?

It’s a bit hard to compete with old Shakespeare, we have to remember that he lived in a world dominated by written Latin – so Shakespeare was making up written English as he went along. I imagine that a lot of families out there have many of their own special phrases, that only they understand. Our family are always making up silly words or phrases – most of which don’t last more than a day or so. My current word of the moment is ‘doodle-daddle’. It’s just a more convoluted way of saying ‘thing’. Maybe if I weave it into one of my books it might catch on.

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Heidi North-Bailey Formerly working in publishing in London, Heidi is now a freelance editor and writer based in Auckland. A graduate of the Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University and The Creative Hub, Heidi also has a first class Honours Degree in Screenwriting and Directing from The University of Auckland, Heidi is passionate about good storytelling across genres and loves reading, especially literary and children’s fiction. When not being kept busy as a new mum, Heidi tinkers with poetry and is chipping away at a novel.

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