Oliver Jeffers: ‘It didn’t really occur to English people that Northern Ireland was British’

The picture-book artist on his latest work, Brexit, and living in Belfast versus Brooklyn

Oliver Jeffers. Photograph: Caroline Tompkins

Tell me about your new book, Meanwhile Back on Earth. How does it relate to Here We Are and What We’ll Build?

It carries on with the line of thinking that started with Here We Are, which was an explanation of the world as we know it. What We’ll Build is about changing that world. Meanwhile Back on Earth is about showing perspective in both times and distances, looking at the conflicts that have divided us since almost the birth of civilisation - and subtly suggests, that as the only home we will ever have, that perhaps we are better than this. That there is a better use of enlightened consciousness.

I was struck by your drawing of a British passport with European Union crossed out and the words ‘eh, is there supposed to be another bit?’ after the United Kingdom of Great Britain and . . . Your thoughts on Brexit, the Protocol and the present and future of Northern Ireland?

I think most people missed the point of that piece, which, ironically, is the point. It didn’t really occur to English people that Northern Ireland was British, and thus, subject to the outcome of the Brexit vote. I don’t think many people stopped to think what a removal of the top half of the island of Ireland might mean in terms of borders and a long and hard-fought (and still fragile) peace process. It was also quite a public slap in the face of loyalism. It was frustrating to me that hardline unionists insisted on being as British as the rest of Britain, I always even though the only way that would assure the survival of the Union, was for unionists to vote Remain – as the break-up of the union now looks set to be certain. But, as I’m an optimist I think this could still bode well for Northern Ireland, in the hopes that voters wake up to the possibility of what might come from a kind of independence; being seen as both British and Irish.


Belfast versus Brooklyn: what are the pros and cons of each of your bases?

There is a fine line between inspiration and distraction. Brooklyn is inspiring, but the distraction is real when it comes time to doing something with that inspiration. We have a good balance now where we now come and go from that inspiration and can come back to a settled existence with the layers that come with being close to family. And green space. Northern Ireland is a bit too wet for my liking, though.

What are you working on now?

After launching the latest iteration of the Our Place in Space trail in Liverpool, I was straight home and into the new book. A book that continues the thread on from Meanwhile Back on Earth, and how we navigate civilisation into a thriving future.

When you look back at your career, is there anything that surprises you?

All of it. And none of it.

Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage?

Eric Carle showed me his studio. Does that count? I’ve also been to Roald Dahl’s writing shed. That was pretty special.

What is the best writing advice you have heard or what advice would you give to your younger writing self?

Don’t worry about the detail when you’re feeling a sense of momentum.

Which of your books are you proudest of, and why?

I’m not sure I can answer that. I think that The Fate of Fausto is the best book I’ve ever made. But there is something about The Boy books that defies description and is mystifying, that earns a place in the hearts of people globally. But I think I’d like to be most remembered for Here We Are, for the simplicity of its message which is at the core of the zeitgeist shift I hope we are experiencing.

Oliver Jeffers: "There is something about the Boy books that defies description and is mystifying, that earns a place in the hearts of people globally." Image from Lost and Found

Who do you admire the most?

I’m not sure I can answer that either. I’m not so interested in comparative measurement.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

If selective collective amnesia was possible, I’d go for that. Possibly the answer to all our problems.

What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

I recently finished reading Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It was brilliant – a utopian near-future science fiction about imaginative yet realistic climate change solutions told through a fascinating multi-perspective narrative.

Which public event affected you most?

Does a total eclipse of the sun in 2017 count? I remember standing in that path of totality and you’re suddenly looking at a black hole in the sky. You could feel the distance to a tree or a house. It buckled the knees from under me.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The people and the landscape. The unforgotten history, and the weather.

What is your favourite quotation?

“All of us invent ourselves. Some of us just have more imagination than others.” – Cher

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Snoopy. Part dog, part person, wordless yet expressive – grumpy, lazy and cool, and with many faces, be it an unsuccessful writer, a first World War fighter pilot The Red Baron or as Joe Cool. Snoopy is a slice of my young developing self.

Oliver Jeffers is a visual artist and author. His critically acclaimed picture books have been translated into more than 50 languages and have sold 14 million copies worldwide. He divides his time between Belfast, where he grew up, and Brooklyn. His latest book, Meanwhile Back on Earth, about a father who takes his two squabbling children on a journey into space to give them a new perspective on their home, Earth, is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times