How author Aaron Blabey found happiness through greedy and selfish Pig the Pug

Aaron Blabey is ruminating on the problems with exploding belly buttons. And kids whose heads fall off when they whinge too much.

He’s explaining how those themes might be a touch dark for some publishers.

I’m barely blinking by this stage, however, as we’ve already mulled over a pug named Pig who is mean and nasty (not to mention a money spinner) in most every way. And how a unicorn called Thelma, who is actually a Shetland pony in disguise, has struggled with the trappings and artifice of fame.

In the world of Aaron Blabey, it all makes perfect sense.

Almost overnight, the Australian writer and artist is a riotously successful children’s book author. But success has been a long time coming. His is a story of a creative talent who spent 15 sometimes miserable years finding the right outlet to express himself.

A talented artist as a child, he stopped painting because others were better than him. A successful actor, he hated acting. And a career as an advertising writer left him so unhappy he would sit in tears under “the sobbing tree”, as he called it, near his Sydney office.

Now 42, Blabey is savouring the runaway success of two children’s book series. He’s been awarded a Book of the Year Award by the Children’s Book Council of Australia and a NSW Premiers Literary Award for Children’s Literature. His stint at the recent Sydney Writers Festival was a sellout.

Young readers can’t get enough of his Bad Guys books, a comic strip based series about a group of misunderstood man eaters, led by Mr Wolf who tries to convince his pals – Mr Snake, Mr Shark and Mr Piranha, no less – that instead of being killing machines, they should work for the forces of good.

Pig the Pug, on the other hand, is the story of a horrible hound who relentlessly terrorises his pal, a sausage dog named Trevor, stopping only when karma, in the form of a bowling ball or a tumbling from a window, catches up with him.

Arranging lunch, Blabey cuts to the chase. He’s in “deadline hell” and can’t take a day to come to Sydney.

“I have 15 new books slated for release between now and the end of 2018 so I’m running wildly beyond capacity,” he tells me. So we’ve arranged to meet at Sanwiye Korean restaurant in Katoomba.

“I go there most days and order exactly the same thing so that I don’t have to expend thought on what I’m going to eat,” he confesses.

Oddly enough, the staff are relieved to see him.

“I was in here literally every day for a year but a month ago I stopped because I just had too much work and I’ve not been able to stop for lunch,” he says. “I came in this morning to tell them [we were coming] and they were like, ‘Where have you been? We were all worried about you!'”

He barely scans the menu. “I have the fish fritters without the salad and kimchi, which I put on the rice. It’s kind of monastic what I eat in here.”

Spend time with Blabey and you quickly realise he’s hard on himself.

He grew up in regional Victoria, moving around a lot as a child, and so books, notably Herge’s Tintin, were a refuge.

“I was always at new schools so I’d hide in the library and read books, pretty constantly from year 1 to year 6.

“In terms of actually creating things, I think it was just being alone a lot. I was an only child who moved around and didn’t know anybody really.

“Tintin had that wonderful kind of 1940 espionage thing in a beautifully illustrated story book format and I’m constantly ashamed of my drawing when I look at that.”

Did he realise he was a promising artist? “I spent all my early childhood drawing and loved it and then when I went to high school there was a boy … and he could draw better than anybody and I looked at his drawings and just gave up, just bailed.”

University held his attention for precisely one week.

“I was seen in a high-school play by a director who asked me to … well, I went and butchered Romeo for him.”

Bit parts in TV crime staples like Water Rats led to his big break, cast as the lead in the ABC minseries The Damnation of Harvey McHugh. He won awards. Suddenly, he had a career and regular work for more than a decade.

“I forced it to happen for a really long time. I didn’t allow myself the thought, ‘What if this isn’t it?’ No, it is. It has to be this. So the more I did that the less I enjoyed it.”

Unhappy, he picked up a paintbrush again. And he began writing, including his first book, Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley, a melancholic book on childhood friendship.

A family loomed, so pragmatism demanded a move to Sydney where he began a career in advertising.

“It was, ‘How can I make more money putting words and pictures together?'”

He kept writing and painting on the side, trying to make books work. Then fate stepped in. A rival publisher who had seen his book The Fluff (the one with the exploding belly button) got in touch.

“He had simple requests: Can you do a shorter book and can you make it about animals?”

Sparked into action, Blabey took a fateful walk in the Mountains. Hardened by rejection in the advertising industry, he didn’t come back with one idea, he came back with 13 in case the publisher didn’t like them. They’re now working through the list one by one.

“It was that thing, how you can just keep hammering and hammering and get nowhere and then a slight shift to the left, you slightly alter the angle somehow – and it was just really lucky that [my publisher] made that call.”

Blabey’s characters distil pure silliness, his stories reflecting an in-your-face humour.

“Pig was a pug and I’m sorry to say, he was greedy and selfish in most every way,” begins Pig the Pug.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to have a character embraced who’s not a nice character,” says Blabey, who nominates Ricky Gervais’ Office character David Brent as providing more than a spark of inspiration.

“I’m a huge fan of Ricky’s meanness in his comedy. I just find that intrinsically funny, somebody who’s just mean and has a blind spot.”

He recoils laughing just thinking of the character.

“His blind spot is he thinks of himself as the joker in the pack. It’s the context, he gets that so badly wrong that it’s excruciating.”

Pig is about to be published in the United States. Bad Guys is now published in more than 25 countries. The demand from the US for new editions is relentless. Blabey is discussing screen rights.

Finally, he has found a place where he’s both successful and enjoying himself.

“Every day I get emails from parents, particularly with Bad Guys, saying they have kids for whom books are Kryptonite, they just don’t want to know about books, and they’re reading it.

“That’s just a really exciting reason to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve been searching for that my whole life, just trying to find some vehicle to reach an audience with and that’s what happened and it’s incredibly thrilling to be able to do that.”

It’s a long way from advertising. “I used to work in an agency opposite the Botanic Gardens. There’s a tree there and we’d call it the sobbing tree – I would sit and weep under this tree every day then go in and do this job.”

But it hardened him up. “Pig and the Bad Guys, as much as I hate saying this, it’s true, they’re inconceivable without that experience – I couldn’t have made them as direct – there’s no fat on any of them.”

Blabey knows he’s on a good thing and is running hard – an edition of Pig each year and more Bad Guys. And fresh projects are on the boil too.

“It’s a purple patch, it can’t last indefinitely. Obviously the fire will burn out,” he says. “At the end of the day all I care about is the kids reading it, and kids saying, ‘Can I hear that again?’. You only get that if it’s entertaining. If you’re not getting that then they’d rather play on their iPad.”

Michael Evans – THE AGE