Bollygum has always had a bit of magic, an ability to touch people in unexpected ways. It is only now, in its 20th year, as we take the opportunity to look back and reflect, that we understand more why this book has remained an Australian favourite.
As we started to put together plans for the launch of the 20th Anniversary edition in September, Garry’s high school daughter Claire was given a school assignment. To her amazement, the task was to analyse the story of Bollygum. She confessed to the teacher that her dad was the author. Delighted, her teacher asked her to interview her father about the inspiration behind the story.
‘It’s funny’, Garry said, ‘I’d never really discussed it before, but when I started talking to Claire about it for her project, I realised how significant all these things were and why Bollygum always had that special something, and has remained so dear to me.”
Here are Claire’s notes from her interview with her father. Garry’s words provide a wonderful insight and reveal the special threads that wove the story of Bollygum …
I began writing the story when I was about 18. I recorded a draft, and then put it down for many years. After gaining a break in the publishing world through Leonie Weldon, owner of Weldon Kids publishing, I revisited the idea. Leonie appointed Ian Cockerill, a wonderful journalist and author as managing editor on the project and with his mentorship it took about six months to complete the story.
The story has always remained a personal favourite, as it was written about my childhood — events, characters and places.
The idea was to write about animals, applying the traits and personalities of those closest to me. I grew up in a loving household with my parents, my brother and my Grandad, my mum’s father, Lawrence ‘Laurie’ Balzan.
Grandad was instrumental in who I am today. He was an incredible, intelligent man. He taught me how to make things, how to fish and how to be a better person. He was an amazing recycler (long before it became the way of the world), making clothes and undergarments from old bedsheets, and fishing floats from our used Chupa Chups sticks. He made kites from discarded Christmas wrapping paper, and re-darned 30 year old socks. (Mind you, his drawers were full of brand new un-opened packs he had been given over many years on birthdays and the like).
Some of his favourite sayings were, ‘Mother nature was the necessity of Invention,’ (which was his version of “Necessity is the mother of invention”) and, “Laurie don’t worry”!
I have never had a friend like him, and I never will. The illustration of Wombat fishing at the start of the book is a painting of our favourite fishing spot at Picnic Point on the George’s River.
Of course my Grandad is the wise Possum in the story —the guy who solves the problems and gets the job done. I wrote myself into the story as a Platypus: a character who loves to paint and fish, and lives on the outskirts of town.
Goanna was a late entry to the story, and began as a character based on my Uncle Walter ( Laurie’s son.) He was a large man, a fearless sailor and fisherman, a man of the sea, who took on anything or anyone and beat it with pure strength! As the story evolved I gave him a real you-can-do-anything attitude, incorporating a little bit of Leonie Weldon. She gave me the belief I could write a bestseller!
Wombat was actually based on a guy a few years older than me who lived in my street. He was quite a shy, misunderstood boy. I gave Wombat’s character some things that meant lots to me — like wanting to catch fish all the time, and always admiring someone who could.
I drew on Little Possum’s character from a girl I had met a few years before. She was little and cute, and we really hit it off. I even considered a long-term relationship with her.
But we ended up being very different in our outlook on the future. She was a city girl who could never see herself living in the country or the bush, and I was the opposite. I used her surname for the city family where Possum lived, ‘The Raymonds’. As fate would have it, we are still great friends today; and guess what — she lives with her family in the heart of Sydney, and I live with mine … in the country.
The illustrations of Little Possum and Wombat walking down the path to Platypus’ house and the sunset over the gorge as they leave Bollygum were both inspired by one of my family’s favourite bushwalks from Wentworth Falls to Murphy Glen in the Blue Mountains National park just out of Sydney.
The story is really just an adventure. It has a strong environmental message, exploring our great country and its wild places.
The story also has lots of sentimental moments, and these are also based on my experiences. My Grandad passed away from leukemia just before I completed the story. In my original writings, wise Possum found the healing tree. However, after Grandad passed, I changed the story, and wise Possum was devastated that he never found the healing tree. It was exactly how I felt: I didn’t find a healing tree for my Grandad. The blue button also revolves around his passing. He gave me a blue sapphire ring that had belonged to his dad. He asked me to ‘keep it safe’. I keep it in a small felt box in my desk drawer.
So these are some of the reasons that this story will always remain my favourite book. I hope it lives on for many years to come.
August 2015, 20 years after Bollygum was first published, and 26 years after I first thought of the story.