Review Blog

May 01 2012

Meeting Stephen Axelsen by Fran Knight

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By anyone's standards, Stephen Axelsen has had an amazing life as an author-illustrator, beginning with a Social Science degree, ostensibly to lead him into his father's business. But driving to Perth from Sydney and sleeping under a dining room table for the next three months while he wrote his first novel, The Oath of Bad Brown Bill led him to win a commendation at the CBC Children's Literature of the Year Awards in 1979. A career in business set aside, he produced cartoon strips for the NSW Education Department's The School Magazine for some 20 years, while illustrating at least 40 books. He recently won the May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust Fellowship which gave him a residency in Adelaide to work on a new project.
Sitting in Mary Martin's Bookshop/Cafe on Norwood Parade one lovely Adelaide autumn day was all that I wanted, with Stephen telling me between salad and English Breakfast Tea, about his work. Authors I know have had to struggle to make ends meet. Their daily task of writing is often shelved to do stints at schools or festivals or even picking oranges, or at the every least, relying on a partner's income for daily sustenance, and illustrators are even more constrained, Stephen tells me, his last book taking 1100 hours of drawing to see it finished.
His current project The Nelly Gang for Walker Books Australia concerns the antics of a girl during the Gold Rush in Victoria. First appearing as a comic strip in The School Magazine, Stephen expanded the idea to make a graphic novel. The graphic format gives Stephen an ideal opportunity to research the times, something he relishes as he strives to get the background of the story drawn as accurately as possible. And being a lover of bushrangers and paddle steamers he is able to delve into several of his passions at the same time. Begun in 2008, this will be published in 2013.
He has seen publishing houses come and go since his first book was polished in 1975. Names like Rigby, Lothian, Collins, Nelson, Pan, McVitty and many more are now amalgamated with other companies or have simply vanished. One publisher which held copies of his earlier book about Vikings, accidentally pulped all the copies, so your copy is sure to make a small fortune on the secondhand market sometime soon.
In the recent past he has written and illustrated a series beginning with A Very Messy Inspection, many titles for Puffin's Aussie Nibbles as well as Lothian's Gigglers, and the Allen and Unwin series, It's True, in fact pick up many books for middle primary which are resplendent with funny, quirky illustrations, and you may find Stephen named as the illustrator. His clear, large line drawings are instantly recognisable, offering an unfussy, lucid adjunct to the words in the book.
Always fascinated by other illustrators' work, we talked about Craig Smith, Shaun Tan, May Gibbs, Dorothy Wall, Vivienne Goodman amongst others, which easily led us to talk about his preferred method of drawing, a graphic tablet with the Wacon program for digital drawing. Stephen sketches out his illustrations, transferring them to the graphic tablet before filling in the colour and detail. He demonstrated this at his evening presentation for the May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust gathering at Burnside library recently, and he was surprised at the level of interest it created. None of us had seen this before and the children in particular were keen for some hands on experience.
Self effacing (see his drawing of himself on his website), Stephen found during his university years, that drawing suited him and spent many hours sketching his friends, using the illustrations of Dorothy Wall, Ronald Searle and Arthur Rackham as his models. From there opportunities beckoned and we are the richer for it.
I loved The Mostly True Story of Matthew and Trim a Notable book in the CBC awards in 2006 and was surprised to find it out of print, as my copy has mysteriously found a better home. But books do not seem to hang around a long time anymore, and this can be a problem for an author illustrator who relies on his books to live. When researching Stephen's books prior to meeting him I was amazed that my local public library had to retrieve his books from storage. Stephen was most sanguine about the way publishing is headed and saw this as a sign of the times.
For more information see his website which offers a fascinating insight into the work he does other than the books we see on the shelves.
Fran Knight (April, 2012)

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