Where do you come from?
The untamed island of Tasmania, a short skip across Bass Strait from the south-eastern tip of mainland Australia.
What is your favourite place on earth?
Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain in the afore-mentioned Tasmania.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A zoologist, author and rare animal collector like Gerald Durrell.
You were once a paratroop platoon leader. How did that come about?
A thirst for travel and adventure, prepubescent patriotic fervour, the general desire to roll in the mud – who knows?
In any event, after graduating as a Lieutenant into the Royal Australian Infantry Corps I took command of a Paratroop Rifle Platoon at the elite Airborne Battalion 3RAR.
This was a particularly dramatic phase of my life because I was desperately afraid of heights.
I resigned from the Army after contracting a nasty lung infection in the Northern Territory of Australia during an extended training operation.
What other jobs have you had?
During my ’starving artist in the garret’ years I worked variously as a waiter in a Mexican restaurant, a cartoonist, and even did a spot of modelling (it goes without saying I was much younger and much more svelte).
What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever done?
I once dressed up as a giant red M&M for an in-store promotion. I couldn’t get my arms through the tiny arm-holes in the suit and I looked like some sort of gigantic red candy T-Rex.
On another occasion I was called up to a casting for the movie The Island of Dr Moreau for a role as a nude body double for actor David Thewlis (The Big Lebowski, Naked, and Harry Potter fame).
Regrettably, I didn’t get the role – not least because David is about one third my size.
The killer, apart from the frustration and humiliation of a wasted casting call, was that they made me wax my legs, arms and chest.
It was like waxing a chimp. The pain was excruciating and there was a lot of screaming.
What inspired you to write The Blue Day Book?
The short answer is I had a really bad day or two and it got me thinking… then I started eating greasy fast food and writing terrible, melancholy poetry. I even watched a Kevin Costner film.
I knew something urgent had to be done before I went over the edge.
The Blue Day Book was the result.
How many publishers did you approach?
Initially I approached – and was rejected by – every major publisher in my home country of Australia.
Undaunted, I set off for the USA where the first person to really get behind me was literary agent extraordinaire, Albert J. Zuckerman of Writers House, New York.
I endured another nine rejections in the US before getting a few modest offers.
My eventual acceptance by Andrews McMeel Publishing was the turning point in my career.
Is there a common theme, or message, to your books?
I invite readers to take whatever message or inspiration they choose from the words and images.
For my part, I guess the common thread to all my books is: ‘Don’t let the little irritations and let-downs of everyday life overshadow the many joys and surprises that make our brief time on this planet so worthwhile’.
Why do you choose animals to help convey the message?
Firstly, people don’t see these creatures as animals. They see them as people. More specifically, they see them as themselves or people they know. To be honest, that’s how I have always seen them too.
The other great reason for using animals is that I love them and they are utterly gorgeous.
Where do you find the photos for your books?
I work with many photo libraries and photographers around the world. (You’ll find them credited in my books.)
Although I am myself a keen wildlife photographer, I’ve only ever selected one BTG image – a brooding snow monkey I snapped on Mount Takao in Japan, which you’ll find in Tomorrow – adventures in an uncertain world.
What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
Write what is true for you, write for yourself. That way you’ll at least be guaranteed a passionate audience of one and, if you believe in yourself and your work and persevere, this will grow.
Take your work seriously, but yourself less so.
What are some of the wildlife conservation initiatives you support around the world?
- African painted (wild) dogs in Zimbabwe.
- Burmese roof turtles in Burma.
- Okapi in Congo.
- Mountain chickens in Montserrat.
- Forest turtles in Sulawesi.
- Seabirds in Antarctica.
- Crested igaunas in Fiji.
- Tasmanian devils in Australia.
- Kamchatkan brown bears in Russia.
I have sponsored dozens of programs with other groups and within parks and zoos around the world, from Rio and Moscow to Chicago and Sydney, and actively engage with conservation groups and leaders from many areas to try and create positive and effective partnerships.
I’m very proud to be a Founding Governor of the Taronga Foundation, which raises funds to support Sydney’s world famous Taronga Zoo and its various wildlife conservation programs. We continue to do a great deal for many endangered species from Australia and around the world (including breeding programs for three rhino species (black, white and Asian), snow leopards, Asian elephants, orangutans, silvery gibbons, Pryzwalski horses, Sumatran tigers and many more.
I am also a Patron of Painted Dog Conservation Inc, a Life Benefactor of the Durrell Wild-life Conservation Trust (UK), and an Honorary International Conservation Ambassador for Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.
You are also a great supporter of the ‘endangered art’ of poetry. How did this come about?
Alongside wildlife, poetry is my great passion.
Poetry provides a wonderful voice for the individual to express his or her ideas, feelings and passions. Moreover, it encourages young people, in particular, to engage with words and language.
I was the Chairman and principal sponsor of the Taronga Foundation Poetry Prize, Australia’s premier prize for young poets (ages 9-19), and am an Ambassador for the Dymocks Literacy Foundation.
Who do you most admire?
Richard Feynman, Jacques Cousteau, Julius Caesar, Muhammed Ali, Philip Guston, Gerald Durrell, Rachel Carson, Howard Carter, Robert Goddard, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Marie Curie, Yuri Gagarin, Erwin Rommel, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, David Lynch, Steven Speilberg, David Sterling and Warren Buffett.
Who is your favourite author?
Not one but three – namely Gerald Durrell, Douglas Adams and Joseph Heller.
What is your favourite book of all time?
Gerald Durrell’s hilarious international best-seller, My Family and Other Animals. I think it’s fair to say it has influenced my career and life more than any other published work.
I first read it when I was 10 or 11. To this very day it still makes me grin like an idiot, not to mention snort and dribble in public.
What languages do you speak?
I know a little Spanish and Portugese. I also possess enough French to offend pretty much everyone.
I’m proud to say I can count up to ten in Cantonese, apologise for my barbaric behaviour in Japanese, and speak just enough English to get me into really serious trouble.
I am now learning Italian, so we will see where that leads me….
What is your favourite film?
Today I will say My Life As A Dog. But tomorrow I could well change that to Cinema Parardiso, Apocalypse Now or Blue Velvet.
Who is your favourite artist?
The artist I most admire is America’s reformed abstract expressionist, Phillip Guston. That being said, I am currently collecting the gorgeous abstract landscapes of contemporary Australian painter, David Kirk.
What music do you like?
My hearing was somewhat compromised by my brief but deliciously damaged military career. As a result, I am quite fond of pretty much anything that is loud enough to register on my aural horizon.
At various points in my life I have played the French horn, trumpet, tenor horn, mandolin and ukulele, badly.
If called upon to name a specific musician who particularly inspires me, I would probably nominate the jazz pianist-God, Thelonious Monk.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
The lace-making, latently heroic Beaver from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting Of The Snark.
Who is your favourite poet?
Billy Collins is my favourite contemporary poet – I rarely travel without one of his books to calm the nerves, salve the senses and generally tweak my hypothalamus.
I also have affection for the work of Cseslaw Milosz and Les Murray, or the more comical Haiku and Senryu of Issa and Basho.
Who is your favourite comedian?
I have always loved the Monty Python team, but then who doesn’t?
Denis Leary’s written account of his one-man show at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, No Cure For Cancer, had me in stitches. Brilliant stuff.
If you could have another job, what would it be?
I would like to own and run my own private conservation zoo – like Jersey Zoo, but with creatures from my part of the world.
What else excites you?
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, I love skydiving, scuba diving and dirt biking. Once I rode my dirt bike more than 4000 miles across the Australian outback. Although I had a few spectacular high speed dismounts, it was strangely poetic – on one particular day I rode for over an hour through an endless cloud of black and yellow butterflies.
What annoys you?
People who don’t ask questions.
In a nutshell, what is the BTG philosophy?
Do what you LOVE and be relentless.
Where would you like to be in 10 years time?
Somewhere with turtles.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like people to smile when they hear my name.