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Rising Star Fiona Katauskas: “I want to start with a simple premise: Common Ground”

I want to start with a simple premise: Common Ground. This is the only planet we’ve got and we’re in this together, literally and figuratively, so let’s all try and be kind. Climate change will affect us all, but the poor will be impacted disproportionately. If we want to do the most amount of good […]

I want to start with a simple premise: Common Ground. This is the only planet we’ve got and we’re in this together, literally and figuratively, so let’s all try and be kind. Climate change will affect us all, but the poor will be impacted disproportionately. If we want to do the most amount of good to the most people, we have to learn to co-operate and share what resources there will be.This will require a dramatic rethinking of the way we live and work.

All of this kind of stuff is horrendously tricky (even if you are a person of enormous influence) so the main thing is to bring people along and make them want to be involved. We all need to feel a bit of hope and Common Ground is about common humanity.

It could work on a policy level, with experts assessing the impact of climate change, what the community will need and offering practical suggestions, down to a grassroots level with people organising not only environmental activity but other experiences where people feel they can contribute in a positive way. This could include locally run websites offering free goods and services to those in need, to working with refugee groups in the community to a whole host of other things. The common thread is that they’re all looking to make positive changes, chances to be kind. Feels like everything’s getting kind of nasty so a chance to find common ground and be nice could be a good thing.


As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Fiona Katauskas.

Fiona is an award-winning cartoonist and illustrator as well as an author and television producer, based in Sydney, Australia. Her work has appeared in a wide range of books, anthologies, newspapers, online publications and exhibitions. Her book The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made revolutionized sex education for children in several countries around the world, was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards and Australian Book Industry Awards, and recently adapted into an animated short film series that brought her to the U.S. earlier this year to promote it.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Iwas born in Vancouver, Canada to Australian parents who met, married and had me while living In North America. My childhood was spent in suburban Sydney, Australia, on the edge of a large bush reserve in a family that loved reading, valued humor and only had one landline telephone for everyone to share (yep, I’m a Gen-Xer).

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I haven’t so much got a story about coming to be an animation producer as a series of chapters. Once upon a time, I was a freelance cartoonist for newspapers and print publications. It was a job I enjoyed thoroughly and one I’d probably be still doing to this day, had not a series of unfortunate events (ie the incremental demise of the print media) prevented me from making a living from it. Seeking my fortune (or at least an interesting job) I then started working as a radio producer which led to television production, with a bit of cartooning on the side. Somewhere during that time there was a romantic sub-plot, I had children, which in a roundabout way led to me writing and illustrating a sex education book, The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made, which was then made into an animation that I wrote and co-produced. It’s a story which has taken me along many winding roads to get to this career path and one which (so far) has a happy ending…although you never know what the next chapter has in store.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve been extremely fortunate in having loads of interesting things happen but most recently, it’s been the discovery that testicles can look good in hammocks and animation is magic.

When CJZ TV announced they were adapting The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made, I was a little trepidatious. I’d worked as a TV producer before but never on an animation and never on an animation of my own book. Fortunately, CJZ hired two of Australia’s best animators, Jonathan Nix and Sebastian Danta who, even more fortunately, turned out to be immense fun to work with.

The animators decided to stick closely to my illustrations but there were times when additional animation scenes were needed. One such case was when the narration, in a section about male puberty, says “Boys’ testicles don’t do much but hang around… but they become very important later on.” We threw a few ideas around then I said, as a joke, “How about we have a pair of testicles swinging back and forth in a hammock between two palm trees?” To my great surprise, both Jonathan and Sebastian enthusiastically agreed. “Bb-but… testicles can’t swing in hammocks,” I said in confusion, to which they both replied “It’s an animation — they can do ANYTHING!”

No doubt this is something that animators have known for years but for me, it was a revelation and truly one of the most interesting things I have ever experienced. Testicles could swing in a hammock between two palm trees! They could bounce down the red carpet (that’s when “they become very important later on” — watch the animation!). And not only could they do these things but they could look great while doing them! Animation truly is MAGIC!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Many, many moons ago I was producing late night talkback radio in Sydney — my first full time role in the media. The presenter was a temperamental diva who seemed more like a badly written sit-com character than an actual person but fortunately my co-producer, J, had an excellent sense of humor which made the whole thing wee-hours-of-the-morning schebang bearable and frequently hilarious.

One particularly busy Friday shift, after lining up a whole switchboard’s worth of callers for the Issue of the Day, J proceeded to tell me a long, elaborate and rather filthy joke. Overtired as we were, we laughed hysterically until we both heard a polite cough in our earphones. The cough was then followed by an outraged elderly woman’s voice, informing us that not only were we disgusting and depraved but she was going to make sure we lost our jobs. She was, as it turned out, the final caller on hold on the switchboard and I had accidentally left her line to us open. She had heard every word we said.

I spent the weekend dreading Monday’s call from my boss telling me I’d been (deservedly) fired but it never came. I did, however, learn a couple of valuable lessons. First, ALWAYS double check to see that the lines that are supposed to be open are open, those supposed to be closed are closed and switches switched the right way. Secondly, sometimes, for reasons unknown, luck falls your way. I don’t know why that woman never phoned in that complaint but I’m eternally grateful she didn’t.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

As a freelancer I’ve always got a few projects on the go across a range of platforms. Right now, on top of my regular cartooning and television production work I’m writing a piece on the decline of political cartoons, developing some ideas for TV shows and — most fun of all — starting a podcast on swearing with an old and hilarious friend who is both a novelist and translator of Mandarin. You’ve got to keep those balls in the air!

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Diversity is incredibly important! First, LIFE is diverse, full of people of all different ages, races, religions and sexualities. We’re not stuck in the fifties anymore and if film and television want to remain relevant, it’s essential that they represent that reality.

Secondly, film and television are all about telling stories — stories which entertain, inspire and educate. Who wants to see the same stuff rehashed over and over? A diverse approach opens up a huge new range of characters, situations, themes and cultures for storytellers to explore and audiences to enjoy. It makes everything richer and creates empathy and understanding.

Thirdly, diversity in the entertainment industry leads a more inclusive society and one in which the previously marginalised can realise their potential. The old adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” applies in all industries but is especially important for film and television. When we tell stories about a wide range of people and have a wide range of people making those stories we show everyone that they are seen, that they belong, that they matter and might possibly have a role in the entertainment industry too!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t Worry So Much — If worrying was an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medallist for Australia many times over. Unfortunately it’s not and my special skill in this area has contributed way more to my chronic insomnia than to my trophy cabinet. Early intervention and an introductory course to meditation would have saved me a lot of time and stress..
  2. Give it a Red Hot Go — Creativity often comes with a fair bit of self-doubt as well as financial insecurity and I spent a few years concocting ideas and planning what I should be doing rather than actually doing it. I also found myself held back by the constant fear that I wasn’t good enough — a fear that I’ve found much more common in women than men. It was when I finally leaped in that things began to change. “Give it a red-hot go” is now a motto I live by and a lesson I’ve passed on to my kids. Sometimes things don’t work out but it’s usually worth a try and everything is a learning experience.
  3. You Don’t Have to Say Yes to Everything — as we all know, creative work is often insecure and unpredictable and for many years I felt compelled to take on any work I was offered. This sometimes led to me doing projects I wasn’t entirely comfortable with or work that I simply did not have adequate time to do to the level I wished. It took me a long time to realise that sometimes it was okay to say no and it wouldn’t kill my career.
  4. Constructive Criticism is Good! — As I’ve already mentioned, insecurity and self-doubt are often common in creative types and in an especially competitive industry, this can lead to us getting a little defensive. While this instinct of self- protection is understandable, it can also stop you from listening to others when they’ve got good advice. It took me a while to realise how valuable constructive criticism is but now I absolutely welcome it. Not only is it the best way to learn and improve, it can foster great relationships with mentors and build connections with others.
  5. The only constant is change — the entertainment industry has gone through huge changes over the last couple of decades as the online world influences the way we consume our news and entertainment. When I started in the media as a newspaper cartoonist, I expected the workplace to remain as it had for decades and was initially thrown by the upheavals all around me. Over the years I’ve learnt to adapt, to diversify and to find ways to stay in the industry I’ve chosen but it took me a while to stop fearing change and to work with it rather than against it.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Try, as much as you can, to work with people you like and respect and to work on projects you believe in. Of course, that’s not always doable — sometimes it’s nigh on impossible — but it keeps your sanity and your passion intact. It’s worth taking a pay cut every now and then to do those projects and to feel that energy.

It’s also useful to have interests, hobbies or friends who have nothing to do with your industry. Film and television can be all-consuming and it’s important to try and give yourself some mental space and — most importantly — a different perspective.

Above all, have a sense of humor. This is a great general rule for life but in a competitive industry with a fair bit of pressure, humor can be a life — and work — saver.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

You only have to take a cursory glance at any news outlet to see that the world’s not in a great way at the moment. Political division, disinformation, xenophobia, refugee numbers and climate temperatures are all on the rise and there’s an underlying sinking feeling that everything is not as it should be. Climate change is only going to exacerbate these problems and, unless we all work together it’s going to get very ugly,

I want to start with a simple premise: Common Ground. This is the only planet we’ve got and we’re in this together, literally and figuratively, so let’s all try and be kind. Climate change will affect us all, but the poor will be impacted disproportionately. If we want to do the most amount of good to the most people, we have to learn to co-operate and share what resources there will be.This will require a dramatic rethinking of the way we live and work.

All of this kind of stuff is horrendously tricky (even if you are a person of enormous influence) so the main thing is to bring people along and make them want to be involved. We all need to feel a bit of hope and Common Ground is about common humanity.

It could work on a policy level, with experts assessing the impact of climate change, what the community will need and offering practical suggestions, down to a grassroots level with people organising not only environmental activity but other experiences where people feel they can contribute in a positive way. This could include locally run websites offering free goods and services to those in need, to working with refugee groups in the community to a whole host of other things. The common thread is that they’re all looking to make positive changes, chances to be kind. Feels like everything’s getting kind of nasty so a chance to find common ground and be nice could be a good thing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I credit my one of my oldest friends, Andrew, if not for kickstarting my career at least pointing it in the right direction.

In my mid-20’s I was working in an NGO focused on human rights and overseas aid. I’d studied political science, travelled extensively and had volunteered for years to finally get an entry-level position only to be made redundant after less than a year when the whole sector experienced major staff cuts. Depressed and despondent, I met Andrew for a beer and to wonder aloud what I should do next. Andrew had a suggestion — become a cartoonist. At first I was taken aback at such a ridiculous suggestion until he pointed out that I’d been doing It for years without even realising it and that my friends had collected and treasured the work I had made for them.

I decided, mainly to get him off my case, to give it a go and to my surprise it all worked out, turning into an immensely satisfying, never boring, ever evolving 25-year long media career. I don’t know if I ever would have figured it out on my own but either way, I’m grateful I had Andrew around and he’s still a close friend.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Kurt Vonnegut

Kindness is often portrayed as a weakness but is one of our most underrated qualities. I’ve long been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut for his deep humanity and this quote has stuck with me as a guiding principle and moral code to live by. It’s an unpopular notion, especially in a world where being an asshole seems to get you so far but God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If it was possible to bring Mark Twain back from the dead, I would LOVE to spend a long lunch telling him what’s been happening over the 110 years since his death and hearing what he has to say about it. Failing that (and I’m totally cheating here — one person is just not enough!) I’d love to meet Deray McKesson for his inspiring and practical tips on making the world a better place, David Byrne for his endless creativity and incredible brain and Chrissy Teigen because she’s gutsy and hilarious, would know great places to eat and I’d LOVE to hear about how she’ll be talking to her kids about sex education.

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