Author Maura Finn and illustrator Cate James both came from overseas to make Australia their home – and now they’ve joined forces to create a uniquely Australian picture book, By the Billabong. We wanted to know more about how it came to be.  

Cate, you’re Scottish and moved to Australia in 2015. How did you go about illustrating a picture book about native Australian animals?

When I first moved to Australia full-time, having visited many times over the years, the things that were most alien to me were the animals and the weather. In 2016 I worked on a project about animals and weather with patients at Sydney Children’s Hospital and I think this helped a lot when I was working on By the Billabong.

For the detail in By the Billabong I spent a day taking photos of trees and shadows and plants to get an accurate observation of this Australian environment. Most of the trees from that walk ended up in the book. We have daily visits from many different species of birds, and we also have a possum that jumps from our roof every night, and lots of spiders. I have to admit though, I was googling some of the animals to get a better idea of their sizes. I have been to Fraser Island and run away from dingoes, I see Golden Orb spiders everyday, I’ve been scared by crocs in Darwin, but wombats were a mystery to me.

What are your favourite local bookshops?

In my local shopping area we are lucky to have a Berkelouw Books, which is my go-to for most things. Avalon has a great little bookshop called Beachside Bookshop, and I can spend hours in Kinokuniya when I’m in the city, especially their stationery department. I’m very keen to get back out there and visit them all.

What are you working on next?

Currently I am working on a very large-scale artwork for Sydney Children’s Hospital, which is going to fill a whole wall of the oncology department. I visit the hospital as often as I can as a volunteer with ArtEx, which is their amazing arts program.

I am working on a story about memory-loss, which is something I am really very passionate about having lost both my mum and my grandad to Alzheimer’s disease. I have the characters and a rough storyboard, but being an artist that’s usually as far as I get with my ideas. Writing is not something that comes particularly naturally to me, but it’s a story I really want to tell, so I’ll keep at it.

I also have another book maybe in the pipeline, but with all the craziness that’s going on at the moment I’m not really sure what’s happening with that! But I never stop drawing.

Maura, being from New Zealand you’re also not a native Australian. What made you want to create a book all about native Australian animals?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that Cate and I are both originally from elsewhere yet have come together to create such a strongly Australian book! The origins of this story came from the word ‘billabong’, a uniquely Australian word, and from there came the idea to include the animals. I’ve always had a fascination with the word and I love the way it sort of bounces on your lips when you say it.

Also, earlier this year, and just in time for the books arrival, I took the Australian pledge and now hold dual citizenship for both Australia and New Zealand – perfect timing, and a very nice combination of countries if you ask me!

Learning the collective nouns for Australian animals is one of the joys of reading By the Billabong. Did you uncover any collective nouns that surprised you? (We love ‘a passel of possums’.)

Well, I did discover that the term ‘mob’ is the collective noun for quite a few Australian creatures, which had me worried for a moment as the wording might have lacked the interest of the final book!

A ‘wisdom’ of wombats is very sweet. They do have a certain sort of genteel wisdom about them as they bumble along just going about their day. But I think my favourite collective noun of all time is a ‘loveliness’ of ladybirds – not a native I know, but so apt, and I am blessed to have a ‘loveliness’ of them in my backyard in Melbourne.

What are your favourite local bookshops?

Ah, bookshops. I have yet to meet a bookshop that I didn’t like and I thank them all for sticking it out in what can often be a tough industry. Buying a book online is just never the same as discovering one for yourself when you’re browsing.

I love The Little Bookroom for its glorious collection of picture books and ongoing support of Melbourne authors. I also love their values in that they really seek to establish community, and promote kindness and diversity.

Readings on Lygon St because, well, it’s Readings and such an important part of Melbourne… and because it was my place of solace when I first moved to Melbourne and sometimes felt a touch overwhelmed by life in the big city.

What are you working on next?

I have another picture book coming out later this year, and a couple of other ones under production, and an ever-increasing queue of ideas that I’d desperately like to explore, but to be honest I’m finding this lockdown business a bit tricky in terms of creativity. I personally need a lot of space to wonder and daydream before anything resembling a story turns up on the page, but as in many households such space is at a premium right now. To make matters worse we have a new Labrador puppy and while I try to be good, and get a few words on the page, I just can’t stop gazing at his most majestic self. So no doubt he’ll pop up in a poem or two soon.