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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2021 - Author talks (primary) - 05. Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood

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ABIGAIL: Hi. I'm Abigail from Ebenezer Public School here at Riverside Theatre Parramatta on [inaudible] as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival's Primary Schools Day. I'm joined here today by the extraordinary Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood, the author and illustrator of the Real Pigeons series. How are you, guys, today?

ANDREW MCDONALD: Good. Thanks, Abigail.

BEN WOOD: Hi, Abigail.

ABIGAIL: So where do you guys get your information for your books?

ANDREW MCDONALD: Well, I guess it all started with pigeons, didn't it? Seeing pigeons walking around the street because ideas can come from anywhere, and my job as a writer is to wonder about the world around me. And I remember a little while ago, I was walking down the street, and I saw a pigeon, and I started wondering. And that's how you're gonna get stories and ideas for the stories.

I was like, oh, what if that pigeon was secretly a hairdresser or a teacher? And I was like, or even more fun, a crime fighter secretly protecting everyone in the city and solving mysteries. And so I was like, oh, that's a pretty great idea. I'll start writing these stories down and make it really silly.

BEN WOOD: And researching. And researching pigeons.

ANDREW MCDONALD: And researching pigeons. We discovered there are all these fancy breeds of pigeons. And as soon as I discovered that, I thought, OK, these are going to be great characters. Because as much as there are a rock pigeon--

BEN WOOD: There's not just one kind of pigeon. There's hundreds. And they all look really different. And there's some really, really funny-looking pigeons. So when I was looking for information on drawing them, I actually got to look at a lot of photos and also just studying how pigeons move.

ABIGAIL: So when did you guys write and illustrate your first book? And how old were you at the time?


BEN WOOD: That's a good question.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you could go all the way back to primary school when I was writing stories that were really short. And I remember in those days you'd write a story and one of the parents would type it up on the paper. And so you'd have the final copy. And that was really exciting.

But I think maybe 10 years ago, I published my first book. What about you? How long has it been?

BEN WOOD: Mine was 2007. I have no idea how old I was. And it was a picture book. It was 'Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees.'

ABIGAIL: So how many books have you written and illustrated?

BEN WOOD: I haven't written any books. I've illustrated over 30 books, both chapter books and picture books.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah, and at the moment, there are seven books in the Real Pigeons series, which he and I both worked on. So I do the writing, Ben does the illustrating. But we also actually collaborate heaps on those books.

And we don't really care about the writing or the illustrating, per se. We care about the story. The story's the most important thing. And so that's kind of the starting point when we're making Real Pigeons books.

ABIGAIL: So what do you think makes a good story?

ANDREW MCDONALD: I think that you need to surprise people. I think you need to kind of give someone something that they're both expecting. Like, if I pick up a scary-looking book, I need to be able to scare them, but you need to do it in a surprising way because the aim of the game is to get people to turn the page. And if you can't surprise them, then they're not going to be, like, wow, I didn't expect that to happen. I'll keep reading to find out what happens next.

BEN WOOD: Yup. Yeah, I find that especially when I'm reading a draft of one of the books for the first time, I'm always surprised by some, like, some things that happen. I know we talk about the events of each book before you write, but then I'm always like, oh, my god. I didn't know that was going to happen. And there's been a few times I've just been like, whoa. Like, didn't realise, and it was, yes, great being able to have that as a co-creator to be able to also have that surprise.

ANDREW MCDONALD: And it's great having Ben there, too, because if he is surprised by a story, he's like, wow, I didn't expect that to happen, but it totally makes sense. I'm like, great, I've written a good draft. And sometimes, Ben reads the draft and he's like, oh, it wasn't actually as surprising as I thought it could be. And I'll kind of go back and think about it and maybe do a different draft, and we'll just work on the story until it's good enough.

ABIGAIL: So what kind of research do you do? And how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

ANDREW MCDONALD: I did a lot of research about the different breeds of fancy pigeons that are out there. So we've got a few main characters that are based on fancy pigeon breeds. We've got a Frillback pigeon and a Tumbler pigeon.

And Tumbler pigeons are great because when they fly through the sky, they somersault and back flip all over the place. And they do it because it's a way of evading predators like eagles and hawks higher up in the sky. They'll kinda fly like this all around the spot to show those eagles and hawks that no, no, I'm all over the place. I'm going to be too hard to eat. Don't bother trying.

BEN WOOD: And you do quite a bit of research for-- the bearded vulture's a perfect example.

ANDREW MCDONALD: This is our bearded vulture. And we call him Beardy Vulture. And when I wanted to put a vulture into one of the stories--

BEN WOOD: He yells a lot. He's, like, hello.

ANDREW MCDONALD: I mean, vultures are great. And I chose the bearded vulture because the bearded vulture primarily eats bones. So I was, like, we don't want to have to draw a whole lot of blood and gristle. That would be gross. But we could draw a whole lot of bones. And so Beardy Vulture always has a bone sticking out of his teeth, which was your invention. And they kinda have this--

BEN WOOD: Just chewing on a bone.

ANDREW MCDONALD: They have this lovely orange kind of tone to their feathers as well. So all the birds and animals are based on real animals. That was just kind of the inspiration for the characters.

ABIGAIL: So if you didn't write and illustrate, what would you do for work?

ANDREW MCDONALD: I feel like I would bake croissants, and Ben would eat them.

BEN WOOD: I think my-- yeah, I think my dream job would be to be a restaurant critic because I could go into restaurants and eat all the food and then, oh, I don't think I'd ever be mean because food's the best. So I'm always just like, yes, new food to taste. Like, so I think I'd really-- I think that would be my dream job.

ANDREW MCDONALD: But you'll be mean to me if you ate a croissant and you're like, Andrew, it's good, but you could do better. You know that collaboration would continue.

BEN WOOD: It needs to be more flaky, flakier or something.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah. Flakier with a surprising end at the end, a twist at the end.

BEN WOOD: A twist at the end.

ABIGAIL: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

BEN WOOD: For me, it's definitely because the books-- each book has three different mysteries in them, and there's over 200 pages in every book. For me, the hardest part is just the amount of drawings that I'm doing per book, and I've just got to keep up with my schedule. That's probably the hardest part for me.

And just to keep being excited. And that helps with Andrew just introduces so many wonderful stories and characters. Like, I'm always excited. But it's, yeah, mainly the amount of drawing.

ANDREW MCDONALD: But it's so great having someone else involved in the creative process because it means that if you're bogged down at a certain point, not quite knowing how to draw a character or finish a story--

BEN WOOD: --or move on from a scene.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah. We can talk about it, and you can kind of tease out ways to make that story great. And I think that you can do that even if you're just writing a story by yourself. You can talk to your friends or talk to a trusted friend whose opinion you trust. That story? And just kind of see what ideas they have.

BEN WOOD: Yeah. And we send each other photos of things that we're having trouble with. I'm just, like, I need you to look at this. And, yeah, it's a really great working as a team.

ABIGAIL: So if you guys had a favourite childhood book, what would it be?

BEN WOOD: Well, mine would be 'The Wizard of Oz.' I loved 'The Wizard of Oz' as a kid. I just like that it's about someone trying to find their home, and she has all these friends who-- new friends and a found family that come and help her get back to her home. And that's sort of what I like about Real Pigeons as well, that it is a found family, and they're all helping each other for a common goal.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah, teamwork is a big thing, which kind of makes sense. Our collaboration is about teamwork and then the pigeons are all about teamwork. It works beautifully. I really loved funny books. Paul Jennings, Emily Rodda, and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is a classic.

BEN WOOD: Yeah. Oh, and the BFG.


BEN WOOD: Love the BFG.

ANDREW MCDONALD: But 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is great because there's so much food in there. And food that sounds familiar but also different so you're, like, I wonder what an Everlasting Gobstopper tastes like. I always wanted to taste one. So inventive.

BEN WOOD: Yeah and in BFG, they have the Dream Bottles. That's amazing. That's just such a magical thing that I liked.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah. Yeah. Roald Dahl's imagination was inspiring from such a young age and it still is.

ABIGAIL: So how long on average does it take you to write a single book?

ANDREW MCDONALD: Writing a Real Pigeon story takes me about six months. And I do a lot of different draughts before it kind of gets finished off and sent to Ben to start doing the rough illustrations as well.

BEN WOOD: And then to illustrate it, it usually takes me about four months. So but, again, Andrew's involved in that whole time. So sort of a lot of back and forth.

ABIGAIL: So what is a workday like for you, guys?

ANDREW MCDONALD: I will get up. I will have 10,000 million coffees. And then I'll be--

BEN WOOD: 10,000?

ANDREW MCDONALD: 10,000 million

BEN WOOD: Million.

ANDREW MCDONALD: And then I will be ready to go. So I like to work in the mornings because in the mornings, my brain is fresh, so I'll try to get as much writing done as I can in the mornings. I'll try not to look at email or social media or any of that stuff until I've done some actual work. How about you? You're up early in the mornings as well.

BEN WOOD: I'm an early bird, so I love working early. I usually will take my dogs for a walk, Wombat and Bilby. They're my little Jack Russell dogs. I take them for a walk and then I usually eat a bit of cake or a slice or a croissant or something like that before I start work.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Importantly, one of the perks of being a writer or an illustrator is that you're your own boss. So I'll get up in the morning. I'll be working. And then someone will knock on the door, and I'll go and open it. And there's a delivery, and I'll look down, and I'm in my panda pyjamas because that's how I'm working. No one has to see me except for the delivery person.

ABIGAIL: So how did publishing your first book change your process of writing and illustrating?

ANDREW MCDONALD: When we worked on the first Real Pigeons book together, it was about establishing the collaboration. Ben and I didn't know each other when we first started working on the Real Pigeons books. So I remember that we had the manuscript for book 1, and we were looking at it in a room in a meeting. And we kind of mapped it out what the pages might look like and what some of the scenes might look like on a whiteboard.

BEN WOOD: And it was really fun to do it like that because usually it comes down to my decision a lot, but it's really great. We were able just to spend time together and sort through how we were going to tell the story.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Yeah, we were really lucky that we both have a similar sense of humour. The publishing house were like, oh, Andrew and Ben might be a good combination. And it all just kind of clicked. We were really lucky.

BEN WOOD: Yeah. Very lucky.

ABIGAIL: So that's basically all the questions I have. Thanks for spending time with me today, and I'm looking forward to the next book that you guys will be publishing.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Thank you, Abigail, it's been a pleasure.

BEN WOOD: Thanks for having us.

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