Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
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Andrew MacDonald is the author of many books for younger readers but is perhaps most well-known for his Real Pigeons series about crime fighting pigeons. Because this is what most people associate with him, he has become known as ‘the pigeon man’. Below, he discusses writing, where the idea for Real Pigeons came from, other crime fighting animals and gets to answer a question from the son of a friend who is a big fan of the books.
Hi Andrew, and welcome to The Book Muse!
- Your series Real Pigeons looks and sounds like fun – where did the idea for crime solving pigeons come from?
The idea first occurred to me when I was travelling overseas and realised that pigeons are one of the constants that you see, from country to country. They’re everywhere!
I started wondering what hidden agenda pigeons might have and it made sense that they would be selfless creatures protecting the world from evil. Plus, pigeons look hilarious. The way they waddle around always makes me laugh. The idea for a series of stories about funny, loveable and brave crime-fighting pigeons really took hold from there.
And it all came together when illustrator Ben Wood began drawing the world of the Real Pigeons.
- How many books do you have planned for the series?
We initially signed up to do six books in the series – and we’ve just agreed to do a further four with our publisher, Hardie Grant Egmont. As long as kids are reading and enjoying the books, I’m very happy to stay in that wacky pigeon world and keep telling birdie stories.
- Have you written other work, or do you find that people mostly recognise you as the author of real pigeons?
I wrote a couple of middle-grade novels a few years ago, but I’m definitely best known for Real Pigeons now. Some people now call me ‘Pigeon Man’ and ‘That Pigeon Guy’ and ‘Why does he like pigeons so much?’ I don’t mind though. At this stage, I find being associated with pigeons is a positive thing. They’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for.
- Anthropomorphic animals are always fun to read and write – what other animals do you think would be crime solvers like your pigeons?
Animals are ideal for crime-fighting and mystery solving because we – the human race – tend to overlook them so frequently.
I’ll bet cats are online trying to solve cold murder cases when their owners aren’t home.
I’ll bet the flying foxes that zoom over Melbourne at night know exactly where the crime is happening below (I assume crime has a distinct sonar-y feeling they pick up on).
And who knows how many dirt-level crimes are being stopped by cicadas beneath our feet. Unless the cicadas themselves are committing the crimes. I’ve never been sure about cicadas. They could go either way.
- With book five out in May 2020, did you have to cancel any launches or events due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, everything we had planned to celebrate the new book – Real Pigeons Peck Punches – got cancelled. Bookshop events, library workshops, bookseller visits – and an appearance at the Sydney Writers Festival.
Ben and I still wanted to do something special to mark the release of the new book. Something that would also let us connect with readers. So we’ve worked with Hardie Grant Egmont and launched a special YouTube series called The Super Coo Club.
Basically, The Super Coo Club features weekly videos of Ben and I chatting about Real Pigeons, talking about our creative processes and sharing some writing and drawing tips – while also mucking around and making complete fools of ourselves. That’s what we normally do at events, so that’s what we have done in these videos.
We’ve also asked Real Pigeons fans to send video questions to us. We’ll be answering those questions in the Super Coo Club videos. It’s going to be awesome having some interactivity with young readers, despite everyone being stuck at home
Oh – and each episode comes with writing ideas, drawing prompts and downloadable activity sheets so that kids can get creative themselves after watching the videos. We’re really hoping they enjoy what we’ve made and have fun – from the safety of home!
- Which of these events, or appearances were you the keenest for, and why? (It’s okay if you want to talk about all of them)
We did have a special event lined up for our appearance at the Sydney Writers Festival – a Real Pigeons Live Mystery with live storytelling, drawing and a mystery for the audience to solve. That would have been really fun. But it’s always about the kids. When you meet a young reader who has connected with something you’ve written, it doesn’t matter if you’re at a big festival or at a library in a town most people have never heard of. What matters is that you get to be a part of a child’s reading journey. And that’s the best thing in the world.
- What made you choose the age group you write for, and what are the challenges and joys in writing for this age group?
I don’t think I ever consciously chose an age group to write for – the humour and silliness that you see in the Real Pigeons books is just me. That’s what I’m like. Some might say I haven’t evolved much since I was at primary school. But I like to think that I’ve just retained – or at least remembered – the feeling of being that age.
The challenge is that you have strict parameters to work within when writing for a young reader, depending on their age. For example, the language and vocabulary need to be perfectly pitched and the stories can’t be too simple nor too complex. It’s a balancing act. But when it works, it’s so rewarding. Because kids can be very discerning readers – they’ll throw away a book quickly if it doesn’t click for them. But if they take to a book, they’ll often take to it passionately. And you can’t have passionate adult readers without first having passionate kid readers.
- You do many school visits – what kind of questions do the kids ask, and what is it like presenting to a junior school audience?
Presenting to a young audience isn’t without its challenges, but I find it really fun and rewarding.
If you’ve got a good story to tell and you can speak to kids on their level, then you’re bound to have a good time. Personally, I make lots of dumb jokes to get to ‘their level’. But there are lots of ways to do it.
And kids always ask smart questions. They want to know where you get your ideas from, which is essentially a question about how to facilitate and control creativity. They ask about characters and story choices. And they ask about the business of writing.
One question I get all the time is, ‘How much money do you make?’ That question can sound rude, at first, but it’s actually a great way to talk about how making books is a team effort. Authors are important but so are illustrators and editors and publishers and agents and printers and designers and marketing staff – among many others. It’s important that everyone gets paid for their work on a book.
- When on a school visit, what sort of things do you plan to include in your presentations and book talks?
I’ll always explain what drives me to write stories, how I went from being a kid who really loved writing stories to a published author as an adult. And I’ll explain my creative process. You can never tell anyone the best way to write their story with 100% authority. It’s different for everyone. What works for one person will not work for another. But I can model a creative process by demonstrating mine.
And, of course, I want to inspire kids to write and draw and read and be interested in the world around them. I love demonstrating how passionate I am about stories and reading, so they can see the effect these things have had on my life. A book can tell a great story. But it can also change your life. That’s a very powerful messag.
10. What sparked your love for the written word, and when did you decide you wanted to write books?
The spark came when I was a kid. I was so young I don’t even remember a sparky moment. I just always loved writing stories, drawing pictures and reading books. I often hung out in my school library just to help the librarian shelve books and sort book orders. What a book nerd!
As I got older, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I studied journalism at university, but around the same time I (re)started writing fiction. And so after I’d completed my degree, instead of getting a cadetship somewhere, I enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course. That course was amazing and it showed me how to write a book and how to go about the business of books too.
- How were you paired with illustrator, Ben Wood?
Ben and I didn’t know each other until Real Pigeons. I had already sold the manuscript to Hardie Grant Egmont, and they set out to find an illustrator. They had a pre-existing relationship with Ben, who had been illustrating Ailsa Wild’s very excellent Squishy Taylor series.
While I wasn’t actually involved in selecting an illustrator for the series, I remember saying to Hardie Grant Egmont that whoever they choose must be able to draw a hilarious-looking pigeon. Ben met that criterion straight away – and has since gone way beyond, illustrating an amazing universe of birds, animals and other absurdities.
12. Do you have any other series planned, or are you focused on Real Pigeons right now?
Right now we’re very much focused on Real Pigeons. We’ve just signed up to do books 7, 8, 9 and 10 in the series with Hardie Grant Egmont, which is really exciting. I still love spending time in our ridiculous pigeon world and I’m so honoured that kids are enjoying that world too.
13. I have a question from a young friend, Jarvis, who adores your books. He has asked if there will be a bin chicken and a wolf who will be best friends in future books?
Hello Jarvis! Nice to hear from you in the middle of this interview! Thanks for asking such a great question.
Have you met Straw Neck yet? She’s an ibis who makes her first appearance in the second book, Real Pigeons Eat Danger, when the pigeons meet her in a dumpster as she’s making inventions out of rubbish. I can imagine that Straw Neck would get along quite well with a wolf. She’s a straight talker and wouldn’t put up with any hijinks a wolf might try on.
You’ll definitely be seeing more of Straw Neck in the future. As for a wolf … you’ll have to wait and see, hehe!
14. Following on from that, would the pigeons ever team up with a cassowary or a kangaroo?
I especially like the thought of the Real Pigeons coming across a cassowary. Cassowaries are such beautiful, strong and dangerous birds. They’re like ninja emus that have dressed up in colourful party clothes. And I can just imagine the pigeons talking to a kangaroo who is convinced that hopping is better than flying. Who knows, maybe one of these ideas will show up in future books!
15. Working in the arts, you provide great entertainment for kids. For you, what does working in the arts sector mean, and what more can be done to support it?
It’s quite simply a privilege to write for kids and make a living working in the arts in this country. Being a white, middle-class man definitely put me in a good position to attempt a creative freelance career. I’m lucky. I think about that all the time. And it makes me determined to work hard and try to make the best art I possibly can, while I’m in this position.
But the arts industry in Australia is seriously underfunded. The industry is worth $15 billion yet federal arts funding keeps being reduced. And writers and literature organisations traditionally get a pretty small cut of whatever funding there is anyway. That makes it very hard for book writers and creators to establish themselves and maintain a career once they’re established. Australians are great readers. We buy lots of books, we read heaps. But there needs to be more support for emerging and established book creators, so that Australian readers can read Australian books. I don’t think that point can be overstated.
16. Do you have a favourite local bookseller, and which one do you find yourself always going back to?
I worked at Readings for many years, and they will always be one of my favourites. Their kids’ shop in Carlton is heavenly. But we’re lucky to have so many great bookshops in Australia.
The Little Bookroom in Carlton North is great. Avid Reader in Brisbane is awesome (as is its kids’ shop, Where the Wild Things Are). The Avenue bookshops are all amazing. And I actually think we’re lucky to have lots of bookshops in shopping centres, thanks to the likes of Robinsons, Dymocks, QBD and Harry Hartog. And I haven’t even mentioned some of the great regional bookshops like Squishy Minnie in Kyneton and Blarney Books in Port Fairy.
I could go on but if I wrote about every bookshop in Australia that I like, I’d use up all of the internet’s storage space.
- Did working as a bookseller help you work out what you wanted to write?
Working in bookshops reinforced my love for children’s literature more than anything. But it also exposed me to lot that has helped me on my author journey.
You’re obviously exposed to a lot of reading material when you’re in a bookshop every day. There are always ARCs to read. You get a good taste of what customers like (and don’t like). It’s interesting to chat to publishers who walk in to see how their books – and their competitors’ books – are tracking.
One of the things that I always think about, having worked in a couple of bookshops, is: how is a bookseller going to recommend a book to a customer?
In my experience as a bookseller, you get less than 30 seconds to pitch a book to a customer who has asked for help. That might not sound like much, but whenever I was asked for a kids’ book recommendations, I would throw a handful of books at the customer – with a few lines of recommendations for each one – then let the customer choose.
I think about this all the time because it reinforces just how straightforward the initial pitch for a book needs to be. Because if a bookseller can’t quickly summarise a book – or speak to a cultural reference point to help explain it – then there might be a problem.
18. What do you love about children’s and Young Adult literature?
I love that the books I read when I was young are the ones that mean the most to me today. I recently read and adored Normal People by Sally Rooney, but I’m not going to carry that book in my heart forever the way I carry Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harriet the Spy. I loved those books as a kid and they’re part of who I am in a very deep and integral way. That’s the power of children’s literature.
19. What is it like judging for an award such as the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award?
It was an amazing experience actually. I was judging the Young Adult category of the prize. There was a lot of reading involved, as you can imagine, but getting paid to read YA books and debate them with other people was a total joy.
It was also interesting reading an entire year’s worth of YA publishing in a small amount of time. It gave me a great overview of Australian YA that year. You could see the trends of that year – in terms of the styles and genres of books getting published. But it also impressed on me the quality and depth of local YA publishing programs.
20. Finally, do you have recommendations for good reads during isolation?
I struggled to read books when the pandemic first took hold. It was a stressful time and my brain was busy on other matters (reading the Guardian live blog compulsively, looking up value-for-money casserole recipes, etc).
But after a few weeks, things settled down and I resumed reading again. I’ve been reading Comet in Moominland as the Moomins are always a calming read in anxious times.
I’ve also been rereading Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (in preparation to read the new Book of Dust volumes) and am about to read Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Clearly, I’m taking comfort in fantasy that takes me far away from my #isolife.
Any further comments?
Nothing except to say thank you for having me. And please say hi to Jarvis for me and thank him for the questions!
Thanks Andrew, and good luck with Real Pigeons!