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.

Wombat fishing

Wombat fishing

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.

Wombat and Possum on their way to Platypus's house

Wombat and Little Possum and their way to Platypus’ house.

leaving Bollygum

Sunset as the party leave Bollygum on their adventure

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.

Lawrence Balzan, 'Laurie'

My grandfather ‘Laurie’ eating his home-made soup that he made every day.

Garry Fleming is an award-winning wildlife artist, author, and illustrator with 137 titles published, in more than 56 languages, making him one of the world’s most published wildlife artists. He has won several awards for his work, including the Royal Agricultural Society’s Birds and Wildlife Award, the Wilderness Award for Book Illustration, the Australasian Zoological Award 2000, and the Highly Commended Wildlife Art Society of Australasia Award.’Bollygum’ was one of Garry’s first works to be published and remains an Australian classic.

“I grew up in Panania in Sydney’s south-west, and spent most of my spare time on the Georges River, which is where my love of nature begun. I was very influenced by my grandad, Mum’s father. When my Nan died mum and dad sold their house in Bankstown and we moved into Pop’s little two bedroom house. Mum and dad thought Panania would be a great place for my brother and I and then they could also look after Pop— I was five at the time.

I would often come home from school to find a note from Granddad: ‘Gone fishing. Hurry up. Pop.’ So I’d grab my bike and be off.

Every day I would leap off the bus after school and rush home, hoping to find a note waiting for me.  Picnic Point on the Georges River was our favourite spot.

Granddad and I shared a room, with me on the top bunk. He would often get into trouble for having the telly on too late on a school night, or for hanging out my window smoking.

I had a wonderful childhood. Mum’s sister lived next door, which meant my brother and I grew up with six cousins as play mates, and we remain close today.

Dad was Scottish, a leadlighter by trade, and mum was Maltese; she was a seamstress.

Dad was always called Scotty, although his real name was George. He was a quiet, gentle man, a good provider, and a hard worker. I could count on one hand the amount of sick days he took during his working life. I never saw him drunk, and I never saw him lose his temper.

Mum was the opposite of Dad — a typical fiery Maltese woman. If she was pushed too far, she could throw stuff.

My dad always loved music, and dabbled in bands in his youth; when I was a kid he started doing stand-up comedy on weekends. His called himself Angus McFungus, and he was soon in great demand; he also sometimes got work as a Paul Hogan lookalike in commercials.

When I was about 16, Dad left leadlighting and went into fulltime entertainment. It was Mum who put her foot down:  the strain of Dad working two jobs was getting too much for her; he’d get home from work and then be off again to some gig. So she said he had to decide – her, or his music. To her surprise he quit his job so he could have both.

He then came home with a keyboard, and said to Mum he was going to teach her to play, which was pretty funny as mum didn’t have a musical bone in her body. Mum was horrified but after much protest, and a lot of practise, she ended up on stage with him playing the keyboard — and carried on doing it for over 20 years.

Dad was a true entertainer and a very funny MC. Together they played Country pop music and their act was called Toucan Do It Two. They performed on the Club circuit, on cruiseships, private parties and corporate events.

Their partnership and love for each other has always been an inspiration to me. They fell in love when mum was 16 and married a year later, but even in their 60’s you’d catch them cuddling and laughing in a corner.

I always wanted to do kids’ books, and used to make them myself when I was a kid. I’d collect feathers and leaves and stick them in the pages, with notes.

I even got into taxidermy, much to my mum’s horror as I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember being proud of an owl I had stuffed with cotton wool, but the smell of it when it went off was enough to drive Mum crazy.

From a very young age art was my hobby but I failed art at school, mainly because of the theory, which bored me. I left school after Year 10 and got work as a labourer.

I went from job to job. I worked in a carpentry factory, and did a bit of sheet metal work, concreting, and even upholstery.

I then got accepted into a training program with the town planning department at the local council. My days were spent drawing buildings, trees and cars and after three months working as an unpaid intern, they offered me a fulltime position. I was there for a year before I was let go. I found out later the Mayor’s son wanted my job, so I was sacrificed.

I was driving home on my last day of work when I saw an old schoolmate at the traffic lights. We had a chat, and it turned out he was working as an illustrator at a souvenir company. He said they were looking for more illustrators, and suggested I contact them. I applied, and got the job.

Perfection Souvenirs made everything from fridge magnets and stickers to t-shirts and mugs for the tourist market. My boss was a wonderful mentor, and taught me many things about illustration and production. It was here that I started perfecting my style. I worked there for four years before leaving to pursue a career in wildlife art. My dream was to get into books. I had enough savings to live for about four months while I started knocking on doors.

Australian Geographic Magazine gave me some freelance work for a space project, which was encouraging. I then landed a job as an apprentice picture framer and was deciding if I should take this more stable option, but I broke my knee so I couldn’t take the job. I felt this was a sign to keep trying to make it as an illustrator.

I picked up some more freelance work from my old boss and cleaned toilets at an auction house to subsidise my income. I did this for two years, every day from 4am to 9am.

During this time I caught up with an old girlfriend for coffee. She gave me a copy of Birds International, a high quality magazine of the time. I made an appointment to meet with the publisher, Grant Young.

Dad waited in the car while I hobbled in on crutches to see Grant. He didn’t have any work for me, but he said there was a lady downstairs I should meet. He then took me to the office downstairs to introduce me to Leonie Weldon. He never mentioned she was his wife.

Leonie ran Weldon Kids, a small children’s publishing company. When I walked in she was discussing an upcoming project with a customer, The Big Book of Wild Australia, a huge glossy cardboard book. Every page was to be a montage of Australian animals from each habitat.

When Leonie asked if I thought I could do it I jumped at the chance. I walked out with the contract shell-shocked, this would be the biggest thing I had ever done, and it would be ‘my’ book, my first book. Not only that, I could quit cleaning toilets. It was a huge project and took over six months to complete. We sold 65,000 copies in two months, and followed it up with a calendar that sold out in a month.

Weldon Kids then offered me a contract to be their in-house illustrator. Over the next two years I produced other titles ‘Wild Australia-Close-up’, ‘ Just Imagine’, ‘The Very Ordinary Caterpillar’, ‘Home for Christmas’, and of course ‘Bollygum’, along with any other illustrative work that was needed. It was a busy time and not limited to just painting and writing.

When Weldon Kids were asked to quickly produce a one-off magazine on the bushfires in ’94 Leonie had me down the National Park taking photos. I got access with a bogus ACF name tag. Weldon Kids was doing very well, we were all under 30, we all worked hard, but God did we had fun.

Weldon Kids nurtured me and believed in my talents. The time there gave me the confidence to have a go at writing my own stories. Leonie involved me in every area of publishing to teach me as much as she could. I visited printers to understand the printing process, and worked with writers, editors and designers. I went to the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna with her, and she organised for me to visit the world famous bird illustrator Bill Cooper to pick his brains.

Weldon Kids was a gun team of young people producing great quality children’s books. They worked closely with a great team at Scholastic who distributed their books. It was during this time that I showed Leonie my first draft of Bollygum, with a couple of illustrations.

‘From the minute I looked at Wombat walking down that bush path and read the rough draft of Garry’s story I knew it was special. But most of all I thought, at last we have a title which can showcase all of Garry’s talent, and his personality. The story had a good environmental message, was all Australian, portrayed true mateship, was wholesome and even had humour’  Leonie Weldon.

In 1999 Leonie decided to close down the production office of Weldon Kids to spend more time with her children, who were now getting to high school age. We had had a good year; it was nice to finish on a high.

I was then out on my own again, but I was busy from the moment I stepped out that door.

To date I have 137 titles under my belt, with worldwide sales of over 5 million. I now have a publishing company of my own, and have a few art exhibitions a year selling my paintings.

Over all the years Leonie and I have stayed close and have always wanted to work together again. The 20th Anniversary launch of Bollygum is just the start, we have many things planned.

I now live on my property, ‘Pineberry’, in the Southern Highlands, with my gorgeous wife Sandy and our four beautiful children, Clare, 16, Grace, 15, Ruby, 6, and little Max, who is 4.

We live in a rambling weatherboard house I built with wide wrap-around verandahs, and leadlight windows made by my father before he passed away. Like dad, I do a bit of music on the side, and have a band, ‘The Dirt Road Band‘, playing country rock and rhythm. We write a lot of the songs, I’m the lead singer and we have fun playing at different pubs and events.

Both my parents and my pop have passed away and I miss them a great deal but their influence on who I am and how I live is still strong. My love of life, my work ethic, the importance of family, believing in your dreams and having a go, all these things came from them, along with a good dose laughter.

Looking back I feel very grateful, here I am living here with kids running across the veranda, chickens in the backyard, working in my studio, surrounded by family, doing what I love.”

Garry onsite putting the finishing touches to a commission work.

Garry onsite putting the finishing touches to a commission work.

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