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Aaron Blabey makes books for children
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I'm reading
Aaron Blabey makes books for children
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I'm reading
Aaron Blabey makes books for children
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Pass it on
"I just lay there willing it to occur, and somehow it did."
Conversations
1 July 2009

Aaron Blabey makes books for children

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Daniel Guerra

Kate Bezar on Aaron Blabey

To most it would have appeared that Aaron Blabey was a pretty successful Australian actor. He had an agent, fans…but inside he felt like a fraud. A chance encounter with some paints on a theatre stage gave him the impetus he needed to leave acting and start painting. Painting led him to making children’s books and again he’s winning awards, this time doing what he genuinely adores. But life twists and turns and once more Aaron’s at a crossroad. We met him there…

This story originally ran in issue #20 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: What have you been up to?

AARON BLABEY:
Well I had my run this morning, it’s the one thing that’s keeping me from completely coming apart at the seams at the moment. I run 10km.

That’s a decent run.

It is. I was doing 20km during my break from uni but my knees started to collapse underneath me. I’m an obsessive and I have been since I was a kid. My son Quinn has it too I think. I fixate on details.

Do you mean OCD or just … ?

No, but I guess it’s in the neighbourhood next door. It’s a singular focus on things. It doesn’t allow you to rest much, but it does allow you to really get things done.

Maybe I need a bit more of that.

I dunno.

Or would you not wish it on anyone?

Sometimes I don’t, no. The way it manifests for me… At high school, because I’d moved so much, I never had any sense of home or place and no friends really until much later in my life, my 20s really. I grew up in regional places and

This story originally ran in issue #20 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #20 of Dumbo Feather

I was artsy. I was the ‘man from the moon’.

I’ve realised now that as a kid I used to draw pictures and things to get attention. Then I started to play music and that got even more attention, and then the easiest and most effective way to get attention in High School was to do acting.

Acting in school plays?

Yeah. Acting came really, really easily quite late, in Year 11 or 12. It was a choice that only an adolescent could have made. The only constant I had throughout my childhood was movies. Because I didn’t fit anywhere movies were an escape and evidence that there was a world beyond where I was.

[Eyes begin to water] I’m not crying I promise [both laugh]. Sorry, it’s just this terrible head cold I’ve got.

I was in Bendigo at that stage and I decided I was going to be in films, but that was an impossible leap. I auditioned for NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) and they said, “Go away.” Then, unbeknownst to me, I was seen in a High School play by a director from the Malthouse [Theatre] in Melbourne who cast me in a play. Then an agent who saw that got me an audition for a TV show and I won an AFI (Australian Film Industry award) for that role. It all happened in a year. So suddenly, at the age of 19, I had an acting career … overnight. It felt at the time like it was through pure force of will. I moved from Bendigo, had a little room in a share house where my uncle lived, and I covered the walls with pictures of – it’s really sad retrospectively – actors and films.

I just lay there willing it to occur, and it did somehow.

It just fell out of the sky. That was great, but because of early recognition, it became this albatross. I spent years trying to figure out why there was this massive discrepancy between why it worked the first time and why didn’t it continue working. I was always doing jobs, but they felt like they were a slightly crappy stepping-stone to a slightly better gig. Then eventually, after years and years of this, of dissatisfaction, I was sitting in a trailer in Queensland on a shoot and

I was suddenly no longer on my way to a better job, I was just a guy sitting in a van

on the Gold Coast. I thought, I have wasted 15 years, and that was the end of it, four years ago. In the interim I’d started painting. I’d done a play at the STC [Sydney Theatre Company] about an artist and there was oil paint on the stage. I became weirdly fixated on it. I didn’t know anything about art …

But you used to draw?

Yeah, but in Year 7 at High School there was a kid who could draw much better than me, so I backed away from it. I reached this point where it became about attention and I took this really weird route [into acting]. I think it was to meet Kirst.

When did you two meet?

We met in 1998, were married in 2000 and we left Sydney in 2004. There have been several times in my life where if I’d gone the other way, life would have been very different. I had a choice between two plays. One was with a very famous director in Sydney, it was the very cool gig to get, and the other was a slightly dopey play at another theatre company. I chose the dopey one because Kirst was in it and I thought she was really lovely. If I’d gone the other way, we wouldn’t be married now and wouldn’t have these two kids.

Right. And it was doing another play that you rediscovered painting?

Yeah, when I did that play and saw the paint, something was triggered again. I bought some paint and an easel and did horrible paintings for about a year. Then we went to Europe for the first time. I’d never been anywhere else before and it obviously blew my mind. The Picasso Museum in Paris particularly had an enormous effect on me and

I came home and started painting in earnest. I didn’t really know why because I was still an actor

at that point. The other turning point was when I was cast in a TV show that was meant to be a big success. It was called Crashburn on Channel Ten and there was a lot of hype around it, but it was a disaster, nobody watched it.

It crashed and burnt?

It certainly did. There’s never been a more aptly titled television programme in the history of the world. Simultaneously I did a film in France which was not a particularly pleasant experience and the combination of all that caused us to leave Sydney and move to a beautiful little house in the Dandenong Ranges out of Melbourne.

Had Kirst been feeling the same way as you about acting?

There were elements of it that I still enjoyed; I quite liked opening nights and previews. A lot of actors hate that, but they’d peak for me then, the adrenaline rush was quite enjoyable and then I’d get tremendously bored during runs of plays. But Kirst never really enjoyed it at all. It hurt her. I did a series of exhibitions [of paintings] on body image because it was a huge deal for Kirst. She hated the way she looked and a lot of actresses have that too. The size of her arse and all that awful stuff.

That constant pressure?

Yeah. Mostly I was the one in bits, and the move away was instigated by my mental health, but the carry-on effect was that Kirst had been coveting that kind of freedom from it for a long time too. When we moved to the mountains [Dandenong Ranges], I was happy as a clam almost immediately, despite the fact that all the little bit of money that we had went on the house and we were broke. I was picking grapes in the Yarra Valley for a while and Kirst was working in a cafe in Healesville. It’s incredibly cold there and for the first year we couldn’t afford heating so we just had the fireplace. It was an intense experience for the first year and it was a big transition for Kirst, but by the second year I’d done a few gigs and my first exhibition had gone really well so we bought a central heating system. It was immediately idyllic and remained so for the next three years. And I painted. I did six exhibitions in two and a half years and wrote three books. It was this incredible explosion that had been building up for a long time.

So the Aaron that ‘was in bits’, as you put it, came together pretty quickly?

I’ve never really been able to articulate the feeling, but it was immediate, and it was that house too. We couldn’t afford to buy a house in Sydney and probably never will, but we had enough for a deposit on a house in the Dandenongs because it was cheap. I got out of the car in the driveway and I immediately found myself saying, “We have to make an offer on the house.” I could feel it. It was the most extraordinary … Like when Kirst and I realised we both felt the same way about each other … We left our [then] partners without having slept together. It’s true, nobody believes that.

Least of all your ex-partners probably!

Abso-fucking-lutely, but it was the same sensation. We both went, “Christ, you’re the one,” and went home that day and told our partners that we’d fallen in love with someone else we’d met that night, which was awful obviously. The house was the other ‘miracle’. It had been really neglected and was in a terrible state, and by the time we left after four years we were still cleaning it up, but

it just said growth, evolution and happiness, all those wonderful things.

Have you always been fairly intuitive?

Yeah, I’ve started to think it’s the only real gift I have. I think

a lot of the skills I have have actually always been quite ropey, but I think my instincts are good.

I think I’ve sold a lot of ideas that maybe have been quite poorly executed, purely because the energy behind them is in the right place, maybe, I dunno. This is the thing, that singular focus I was talking about. With painting, it never occurred to me once I was inside of it that I wasn’t going to be a painter for the rest of my life. It’s all-encompassing, as it was when I was an actor before that. Making picture books is the first thing I’ve ever done where it’s something I wasn’t particularly into. I got into painting because I loved paintings and acting because I loved movies. I didn’t with this. I find a lot of picture books quite disappointing I have to say and a lot of them are not as funny or as sharp as I’d like them to be. I think a lot of them are over-written, so it didn’t come from a passion for the form necessarily. When I wrote my first book, Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley, it was a response to the fact that I was getting on a plane to go and open an exhibition in Adelaide. I realised that, because our income was from my exhibitions, it suddenly had a commercial expectation on it and that is a terrible place to be when you’re painting shows. I felt sick to my stomach thinking, I have to get on this plane to go and flog my work.

Remind me, had you had Quinn at this stage?

Yeah, about six weeks before, but that makes it sound like I had a baby so I decided to write a children’s book, but that wasn’t the case. I’d had the idea to write a book about Kirst and I for a long time, and again,

something clicked. On the back of my boarding pass and itinerary I started scribbling my ideas

and by the time I got off the plane I’d written Pearl and Charlie as it exists now.

On the flight home I did the drawings. I handed the first draft to Kirst and we knew it was something. It was emanating something that hadn’t emanated from my paintings. Anybody who’s bought my paintings doesn’t want to hear this, but I actually think my paintings were me learning how to make a picture to then ultimately put them in a book. When Pearl and Charlie won that award last year, in the speech I gave, I talked about how the bit that was missing from painting was the good bit about being an actor, it was the narrative part that came from loving movies. I’m studying design at the moment and the bit I don’t like about design is …

The lack of narrative?

Yeah, which is why, to the horror of a number of people I know, when I graduate I’m wanting to have my other job in advertising, because at least there’s narrative potentially within that. Design is purely visual and I don’t think I work that way. I need words.

I think really good design does have a narrative to it, but that too often it’s missing.

Yeah, my favourite designer is probably Tibor Kalman because of his love of the ugly. The older I’m getting, the more I’m falling in love with that. I’ve just been reading The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. It’s beautiful. It’s a thesis on buildings and the effect they have on us, the way we feel about ourselves and the world. There’s a paragraph in it about how

young lovers very rarely stop to take in the graceful curve on a balustrade.

He puts forward the idea that you have to be a little bit sad to start appreciating architecture; you have to have been around, you have to have lost and then you start to see the spaces you are within. It’s very, very beautiful. I’ve drifted right off on a tangent …

We were talking about writing Pearl and Charlie.

Yeah, when Pearl and Charlie was written and completed in an embarrassingly short amount of time …

You found a publisher pretty easily?

This was the other weird thing that happened to me, it was like the acting one, it was so, so simple how it occurred. I painted Pearl and Charlie in two weeks and was immensely proud of it, but had no idea what to do with it. This was a month or two before I’d left my acting agent so I was going to send it to them on the Monday. I dunno, it just wouldn’t have gone anywhere but, by some sort of miracle, on the Friday before the Monday, Kirst had done a play with Kate Mulvany, a playwright and actor. She’s one of my heroes. She’s one of those people, who actually does the work … A lot of people talk about writing plays, a lot of people think they have a picture book in them, but they don’t actually do it. Kate likes working at night, so during the day she shuts the drapes and she writes all fucking day and it’s brilliant. Brendan Cowell does the same thing. It’s incredibly impressive to me. So Kate was in Melbourne and came to visit us. I’d only met her briefly before and I was on a high because I’d just finished the book, so I showed it to her. She said, “What are you going to do with this? You should show this to my literary agent.” So on the Monday, instead of sending it to my acting agent, I sent it to Kate’s literary agent who loved it and sent it to Penguin and Random House who both made an offer within a week. I felt like I lived in an alternative universe when I moved to the mountains.

It was a utopia that wasn’t real, and what that allowed me to do was have no limits.
When I wrote the book – this sounds incredibly arrogant, but it wasn’t arrogance, it was just a massive childlike belief

– I had no doubt that it would be published. I had a suspicion that it would be published by Penguin for some reason – I just used to love Puffin paperbacks when I was a kid – and within a month that’s what had happened. When that had occurred I was sort of flooded with confidence and I rented a little studio outside of our house and I sat down and thought, “Well, what am I going to do next?” and I did Sunday Chutney which felt like it wrote itself really easily, but I realised recently that I’d filled five notebooks full of stuff trying to process what it was going to be. I’d loved the Eloise books and I wanted to do something like that, but the minute I start imitating something it’s just shit, so it became a girl character and then it became autobiographical. Once that idea had been triggered, again it was written in a minute. Then I immediately wrote and illustrated another one, Annabel, which is probably going to be published sixth. Again it’s about loneliness, but in the form of a ghost story. It’s much darker and it’s been bumped down the track because it’s for a very different audience. By then Quinn was a little bit older and we had no family [in Melbourne] so we had to move back. This glorious time ended with this glorious summer. I don’t know why, but we were playing Coney Island Baby by Lou Reed a lot under the chestnut tree with the baby and having vodkas in the afternoon. It feels like a scene from a beautiful film in my head. And then our time was up. The house sort of rebelled on us; the plumbing collapsed and we spent thousands of dollars repairing things you can’t see. As much as the house had called us in, and as much as I hate to admit this, it sort of felt like it was telling us to go away. Then two artists from England came over, saw the place and bought it. So suddenly we were back in Sydney, where we were before, and I was going to design school.

Why design school?

The negative side of living in a utopian, alternative reality is that you often don’t see things that are staring you in the face, like that you can’t make an awful lot of money in Australia making picture books. Even though Pearl and Charlie has done as well as a picture book can in Australia it’s financially the equivalent of having a part time job, it’s bugger all. What led me to design school was that I thought I’d get a job in publishing, designing books. Then the same thing happened, the missing bit was narrative, and that got me thinking about advertising. The other thing with ads is that I’ve been on sets forever and I’ve seen every film that’s ever been made, so I’m really film-literate too. Whether I can actually produce them or not is yet to be seen. This may be hilarious in a year or two, it may just not fit me at all, but I can’t shake the feeling that it will somehow if I’m in the right place. It’s an interesting point to be at and everybody from my previous life – there aren’t many people left from my previous life really – is completely bemused or horrified by the idea or the word advertising. To actors, advertising is one of the sleaziest words you can use, but when it’s good, it’s brilliant and smart. I guess I want to be an art director. When you look at what you actually require, the skill set you need to pull that stuff off at the highest level, and compare that to the ability to memorise some lines, it’s just another world. It’s hard. The guys who are really good at it have a dazzling level of left and right brain …

How have you found design school?

Frustrating actually, I haven’t learned as much as I was hoping I would and at 34 it’s hard being in an undergraduate course because everybody’s so young and not as driven as I expected …

How much longer have you got to go?

Seventy-four days [both laugh]. I counted at the train station yesterday! That makes it sound worse than it is, but I think that was driven by the fact that my days yesterday and today started at 3am with the kids. Jude has started teething and will loose the plot for two hours in the night starting at 3:30am and then the other one will get in on the act at 5:30am. I’m watching the Wizard of Oz at 7am and contemplating suicide by 8am.

How old is Jude now?

Seven months, so that whole drama happened seven months ago.

What happened shifted everything really, it shifted the way I look at everything.

Can you tell me about what happened, as much as you’re comfortable with.

Of course. Quinn was a Caesar(ian birth) because he was breach, but it was hugely important to Kirst that she have a natural birth with her second. Kirst is enormously tenacious and incredibly determined and the labour began … This is another story … The day Pearl and Charlie won the award, the ceremony was in Melbourne and the birth was two weeks away. I didn’t want to go, but Kirst and her mum insisted. I said to her as I was leaving, “Whatever you do, don’t go into labour, ha ha.” I got to the airport in Melbourne to fly back, Kirst rang and said that her waters had broken and then my flight got cancelled. So I’m stranded at Melbourne airport. I finally got home and we raced off to hospital. From there the labour is split into two parts in my head. It was 36 hours long, but the bit that was the actual labour was 24 hours long and then there was 12 hours of super-human tenacity, which is what went wrong. Kirst wouldn’t give up and the midwives were starting to say, “We should start to think about letting the idea of the natural birth go and have a Caesar.” I was getting nervous. It was no longer labour, she was just hurting herself. In those 12 hours she hadn’t dilated 1cm and it went on way too long. We were beautiful together during the birth, and I say that with complete honesty. It was us at our best. Then after 24 hours I wanted her to stop and she just hissed, “Support me.” It was one of those moments where, certainly retrospectively,

I wish I’d held my ground,

but I said, “Ok I will.” Eventually after 36 hours they pulled the plug and she had an emergency caesar, but what she’d done was that she’d weakened the uterus wall so much that she had a catastrophic bleed after Jude was extracted. I have a beautiful photo of Jude emerging and at that point she was fine, they’d given her the epidural and she was all cool. She went to recovery afterwards and that’s when it happened; her uterus just filled with litres and litres of blood. So I’m holding Jude in the birthing room waiting for Kirst to come back from recovery which usually takes 15 minutes or so. An hour goes by and she’s not back. Then we just plunged into this world for six days, nearly seven, where she was in the high dependency unit and she was gone basically. The nursing staff there were preparing me for the worst. The obstetrician was always very positive, but at any moment Kirst was going to drop. Then finally she turned the corner on about the sixth day and she left HDU. I just don’t know how single parents do it, because I was suddenly looking down the barrel of losing my best friend, having a newborn baby and, at the time, a two-year-old.

It was oceanic, the fear,

it was unlike anything I have ever experienced, or hope to experience again. I had to keep going to uni during all this too so it was a really weird and intense and dreadful time. I’ve been processing it ever since.

You probably will for the rest of your life on some level.

Probably yeah. We went away at the end of last year and rented a beach house and apparently, I don’t really remember this, but Kirst says that was the first time that I stopped talking about the hospital. All I did was talk about it for months afterwards, every day.

Haunted.

It was an amazing and terrible thing. If we hadn’t left the house in the Dandenongs, that I didn’t really want to leave at all, we’d have been in a country hospital and she would have been dead. I guess the point of all of this is … Dumbo feather‘s about journeys and I guess ultimately this will be a good thing, but I have entered a phase I my life where I have no real specific sense of direction for the first time.

I have lots of bits that make sense, but I don’t know how to put the bits together at the moment.

I know why, it’s because I have always just followed my heart, and for the first time, because of responsibility and the complication that comes with that, I have to marry the two somehow. I think this is something that a lot of people face, particularly creative people. I don’t know where the quote is from, but somebody talked about “that great enemy of creativity, the pram in the hall”. There is something to that. There are beautiful things that can be taken from it, but it’s also extremely difficult because the only way to deal with it is to embrace the free-fall and that can be hard. I’ve felt essentially like a tight-rope walker for my entire adult life, now even more so, and there’s no safety net and suddenly it’s not just me, it’s these two babies. That can be really, really scary.

Have you ever considered going back to acting?

Never in a million years, no. Kirst and I have often spoken about that. It’s a tremendous reflection on how much we didn’t like it at the end. I always made a living for the entire time I was an actor, but the idea of doing it again, no matter how frightening things got, is, and this is a strong word, completely repulsive. It would feel like such a betrayal of the path and journey that we’ve been on.

What is it about it that repulses you other than just knowing that it’s not what you’re meant to be doing?

I think the actual repulsion for me is what it brought out in me, what I became. It’s not necessarily that for everybody who does it, some people genuinely love it. I’ve always admired those old theatre actors like Peter Carroll, John Gaden and all those guys who just have love for it. It’s a bit of a dying breed as well. Their respect for the theatre, the craft of it, is enormous. I never had that. I was a really lazy actor, it just came really naturally to me. Retrospectively, I don’t think I was particularly good at it either. I think I was much too stiff because I was coming from the wrong place.

Now I know what it feels like to do something with ease.

Maybe ease is the wrong word, because it’s not ‘easy’, but it feels right. It feels like it’s coming from the right place. Acting never did for me. I think that because of this door to America that’s open now for a lot of Australian actors, I think maybe there’s lots of people who do it for all the wrong reasons. I was certainly one of them and I think that’s what’s so terrible about it. I’m now revolted by the idea of pretending to be somebody else because I’ve found myself after a very, very long time. I played lots of baddies on crappy tv shows; I was always a rapist, or a pedophile or a drug dealer, I did all those sort of gigs.

And now you write these beautiful children’s books!

I played a particularly nasty person in Wildside and I’ve always been terrified that it’ll come back on television and Today Tonight will do a story about it. But the idea of doing that eventually was hilarious. I could commit to that in my 20’s because I wanted to be Gary Oldman or Christopher Walken, but then

when I became really comfortable as me, it just was silly and I couldn’t take myself seriously doing it.

I started to become … inappropriately irreverent on sets and would offend people.

So if you hadn’t quit, the end was probably near anyway?

It was probably nigh yeah. My last job was a play with two mates and a really, really clever director; it was a three-hander at the MTC (Melbourne Theatre Company) and it was, for the first time in ages, a really delightful experience and that’s when I ended it … I think that’s what this has all been about, that whole process through all those years; I had no clue who I was. A lot of actors I think have that problem too. You haven’t decided to be a fireman, you’ve decided to pretend to be a fireman. You never really get to be inside them unless you’re Daniel Day Lewis who seems to be able to do that, but not many do. When I went to the mountains, it was the first time in my life that I was entirely in my day, what I was doing was what I was doing, and when you’ve experienced that, you can’t turn back from it. That’s why it’s hard being here at the moment, because I had moments, days even, of pure happiness. It’s a bit like painting is, in some ways for me, like a meditation. I would finish a day’s work where I would have done a page of a book and sit down at out table, have a glass of wine, and just be in a euphoric place. I have to find some way to find that again, and it’s harder once you’ve had it, when you actually know what genuine, unencumbered, egoless happiness feels like.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Daniel Guerra

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