Oliver Jeffers: Before my son, I wrote my children’s books for myself
Bestselling author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers always had ‘a sense of curiosity about the world’. But his perspective changed with the arrival of his son
Oliver Jeffers and his son Harland who has proved an inspiration to his doting dad.
Looking at Oliver Jeffers, you cannot help but think he himself would make a wonderful illustration. Wide-eyed, expressive and still boyish at 40, in a white woolly hat and a yellow raincoat with the collar turned up, he’s Tin Tin by way of Williamsburg – and you might need to draw some sort of lines around him to indicate he is all a-buzz with energy and go.
When he orders a decaf Americano and tells me he had to ease off on the coffee 10 years ago, I’m not madly surprised. Is his work any calmer because of it? “My heartbeat thanks me for it, I don’t know if my work’s any calmer.” he says.
Of course, Jeffers’ picture books are filled with calm. The children in them are quietly grappling with life’s mysteries in a strange sweet way; feeling lost, grieving, chasing stars. Belfast-born Jeffers has lived for 10 years now in Brooklyn, New York, but his accent is going nowhere, partly down to his wife also being from Co Down. He comes home regularly and is based here this month while attending to the printing of his new picture book, Here We Are, Notes for Living on Planet Earth.
“I was keeping notes of things I was actually saying to my son as we were walking around. He’s just turned two. So that’s exactly the tone of it. Me talking directly to him.” I tell Jeffers that I read it in bed the night before and found it very consoling. Was that the intention?
“I think anyone who is brand new to parenting, there’s no paradigm that will have existed in your life before that that would prepare you for that. It’s a completely different thing, and yes it is scary sometimes, but overwhelmingly inspirational at the same time. You suddenly put this filter on where you’ve got the micro and macro at the same time. You’ve never been more interested in this tiny tiny thing, but at the same time you’re more aware of the context of everything.”
Before the birth of his son Harland, Jeffers had written many picture books, several of which were New York Times Bestsellers. Who was the imaginary child he was writing for before now? “Me. Up until now I have written books that are primarily enjoyed by children, but aren’t necessarily written for children. Maurice Sendak used to say that he just writes books and somebody else says they’re for children. I write these stories and then I make the art for them and it’s me coming to terms with my own world and asking questions and telling stories that I want to see unfold.”
This is the first book Jeffers has written for someone else and its different to what came before. Where often his books are stripped back, one or two characters alone on the expanse of the page, this book is heavily populated with planets and stars and all the different people a person can meet in this world. His fine art training is there in the landscapes. He describes it as “non-fiction” and “more colourful and detailed than I’ve ever made”.
The tone of it, he explains, was born out of the tone of social media posts he’s made of late. Jeffers’ Instagram is moving towards the political, anti-war cartoons, illustrations emblazoned with ‘Stand with Refugees’.
“Once I knew that my wife was pregnant, I started thinking of things differently in terms of my voice. I used to think I had very strong opinions about the issues of the day but it’s not my place to speak about these, but when I realised that we were going to have a child, I was like, ‘if it’s not my place, then whose place is it?’”
It is a particularly anxious time to have a child and this new book is an answer to that. “When he was born, I felt an even bigger sense of responsibility because things took a very weird turn right around then with the way that xenophobia was sweeping through Europe and in America. I thought, I want to be able to look my son in the eye in years to come and say that I didn’t just shut up and stay silent.”
Initially, his posts were “sort of lashing out. All I was doing was further adding fuel to this divisive fire, and just making noise. So what I began trying to do was to retain an air of optimism and hope, rather than talk about what’s wrong, talk about what could be right.”
There is a childlike awe and wonder about the stars and planets in the book that reminds me of cosmologist Brian Cox who he admires very much. “I was explaining to my son the things that I find fascinating, which is that we are just this ball floating around this other ball.” So, yes while it is a weird time, “its always been a weird time to be alive. Life is a weird thing to begin with. The fragility of existence . . . I don’t think anything should be taken for granted.”
Jeffers believes New York is “a fantastic place to bring up a child, just the diversity that’s there and the experiences . . . incredibly more varied than you would get in Belfast. ” The people of Northern Ireland can be “quite small-minded about their problems and about their communities.”
Growing up in the Belfast did foster his creativity however: “A lot of my art has been about duality and looking at things from two perspectives. I had a wonderful upbringing in Belfast. Yes, I saw some terrible things. Yes, I learned that people have an awful tendency to be mean to each other and inflict violence, but I also saw the capacity for love. I think I learned the importance of tolerance at an early age.”
Jeffers and his brother were some of the first people to go into integrated education in the North. “I was fortunate enough that my family were very open-minded.”
He talks about “Catholics and Protestants being segregated for no apparent reason other than stories that they’re told. That’s all anybody knows.” And so perhaps that created in him a drive to fix human narratives on a different track.
Jeffers wandered into the world of picture books by accident, because “a lot of the early art that I was making focused on storytelling.” How to Catch A Star was a series of “singular pieces that followed the same theme of someone trying to catch something completely intangible”. A friend suggested it seemed like a picture book for children. Jeffers made “that mental jump” and saw that “the book is a phenomenal platform to weave how pictures and words interact”.
And his work retains something of that “very specific” Northern Irish humour. “I suppose if you don’t laugh, you cry and nobody wants to cry. There’s a particular Northern Irishness where there’s an ability to find humour in everything, even the really dark stuff. I have to remember that sometimes, when I’m joking about with American pals.”
Jeffers still works in the realm of fine art. When his name is mentioned, I tend to think of his ‘dipped paintings’ first; elaborate portraits he paints in oils that he makes a performance out of dipping into a vat of enamel, almost entirely obscuring the image. No photos are allowed, so people watching must rely only on memory of what the portrait once was. “I seem to have two different personalities depending on who asks but it all comes from the same place, a sense of curiosity about the world . . . what we know and don’t know.”
Across the board, his work seems to be concerned with what is there and what is not, intangibility, things lost and found. He’s working on a new retrospective book combining his picture book work and other fine art – “to try and bridge that gulf a little bit” – and making a documentary with Belfast filmmaker Glen Layborne about the work, and how we inform our identities by memory and storytelling. “Like integrated education, we are all just stories that we’ve been told.”
How does he feel moving from the fine art community to the very different world of picture books? “In the early days, people in the fine art industry sort of looked down on the fact that I was in kid’s publishing but then the art world changed dramatically and the picture book world changed. Books have become fashionable in a weird way.”
Good work will ultimately be seen for what it is
Being a big fish in publishing and “a relatively small fish” in fine art “keeps me humble, keeps me thirsty.” He once considered a pseudonym for one of them, but his friend, New York artist and former tattooist Duke Riley, who is part of the art collective OAR with Jeffers, talked him out of it, saying, “Good work will ultimately be seen for what it is.”
I misunderstand what he says about books being fashionable, thinking he means with children. Don’t we see kids with iPads and iPhones all the time now?
“It’s hard to get kids to pay attention, there’s so much distraction,” he concedes. “I have a lot of friends who are parents who swore they’d never do that and then life is so hectic . . . ”.
Regardless, he is hopeful for the future of the book, the physicality of it is hard to replace, though he is considering an interactive ebook for the first time, “because this is non-fiction, there is so much potential for other directions you could spiral off into, or should I keep it to the simplicity of a book?”
Jeffers wasn’t much of a reader himself as a child. “I was much more interested in playing in the street. I never had a very long attention span and books were what you had to read for homework.” Roald Dahl was his favourite, and he became an avid reader only in art college when he was no longer made to do it.
A problem with authority? He laughs.
“There is this saying that education is what you do to somebody else and learning is what you do to yourself.”
Recently on Instagram, he quoted John Hume. “Difference is the essence of humanity . . .” This was spurred on by Trump’s recent actions on children of immigrants in the US, the DREAMers. “It just seemed spiteful, and I think it is.” Might he move towards art based on political statement?
“If I can see something that I think makes a positive contribution to a public conversation, then I will.” He thinks Trumps ideology is basically a dismantling of Obama’s legacy, and his goal is simply “to be talked about”. He’s enjoying the relative quiet about Trump while in Ireland. “In the States, you’re bombarded with it, 24 hours a day.”
It’s hard not to see his new book as a reaction to that bombardment. “I try not to get on and further somebody’s noise.”
He knows about the echo chambers, and “the edited reality”. His followers most likely agree with him on climate change, and embracing diversity, but he still believes in the message gently stated. “If you’re hitting someone over the head, ‘You’re wrong!’ nobody is gonna listen. A book will make a bigger impact than anything I do in social media because people will pick it up and I don’t think there’s anything in there that anybody can disagree with. No matter what your ethnicity, religion, political views, there’s nothing you can actually dispute in that book. That might win people over and remind them that the reality you’re experiencing is a set of filters that you put in front of your face.”
Throughout the conversation, Jeffers always refers to picture books, not children’s books.
It's half a dozen sentences and 32 pages of black-and-white drawings
“I think if you call them children’s books, you relegate people who aren’t children from thinking they’re part of the audience. Some of the best books on a number of subjects take the form of a picture book, like The Giving Tree, or The Enemy by Serge Bloch, which is one of the greatest books on war and the soldier’s mentality that I’ve ever read and it's half a dozen sentences and 32 pages of black-and-white drawings.”
So there’s no plans for a distinctly adult book? “Is this book not that? It started off as a book about new parenting and very quickly became a reminder to myself and to everybody else about the basic things it means to be a person.”
When he became a father, did people think he would be a natural, given his ability to communicate in the books? “There is that expectation, and it’s not always true. People lump children all into one category. That was one of the best pieces of parenting advice: don’t listen to any piece of advice because this person you’re about to raise has never been here before. And every person is different so whatever feels right, feels right.”
The hardest thing about being a dad is “being away from him. And this impending sense of doom about what kind of a world am I letting this completely innocent fun-loving curious child into. But I do what I can about that.” The best thing is “watching the synapses fire. Watching everything through this new filter and suddenly not being the most important person in your life anymore.”
Jeffers paid the bills for a long time doing commercial illustration, which became “massively frustrating, executing someone else’s mediocre vision, and then being told to do it again”. He no longer has to walk the line between maintaining his integrity and paying the bills. “We don’t have a very lavish lifestyle but I’m able to not take on a project just because I need the money” which is what he has always been working towards. And there is no resting on laurels here.
In 2015, Jeffers illustrated the backdrop for part of U2’s Innocence tour, and one of their videos. Ali Hewson had read his books to her children, himself and Bono went for a drink. The collaboration that came about in an “organic” way. He has collaborated with authors such as Eoin Caulfield, and illustrated the 10th anniversary edition of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for John Boyne, “a massive honour.”
Has he always worked this hard?
“Yes. It’s not a sense of desperation so much as this sweeping reality in the back of my mind that we all only have a finite number of rotations around the sun. There are things that I want to happen and if I don’t do them, nobody else is going to do them for me. So I feel a sense of compulsion, but now that we’ve got a two-year-old and one on the way, I don’t want to be in the studio the entire time either.”
He may speak in robust terms about his work, but he has shakier moments. “There’s absolutely periods of time where I think, ‘who am I kidding, what is this?’. Neil Gaiman talks about the fraud police, everyone thinks they’ll be found out. I still think that sometimes.”
Jeffers’ wife is his manager, but they keep a balance there. “This last year has been very good. I’ve been there for breakfast every morning and dinner every night. I’m filled with energy, but it’s how you spend that energy . . .”. And as much as he loves New York, it may not be forever.
“It takes an awful lot of energy to live there. New York is one of the most inspiring places I’ve ever been, but it’s also one of the most distracting places and it’s a fine line between the two.” They visit Belfast often to see family, “so that our boy feels like that’s his home as well.”
In the meantime, there is no shortage of new ideas. “I have sketchbooks filled with half-cooked things, waiting for the day that I have the time to expand on them.”
Does he ever sit down to write a book and think the concept will be too adult for a child? “There are things that feel too unresolved, not that they wouldn’t work for kids, they just wouldn’t work for anybody. It’s not the story I want to hear.”
Jeffers likes a direct message that comes “from a real place”.
That’s the experience that somebody else went through and it’s quite a sort of insular aggressive . . . experience
The Heart and the Bottle “was about comparing the process of my grieving my mother with somebody else’s process of grieving somebody that they lost. I think I was fortunate enough, the attitude in our family when my mother passed away was ‘let’s embrace the stories that she told and let’s not hide behind this fact that she’s gone’. It was quite open and joyous. But that’s the experience that somebody else went through and it’s quite a sort of insular aggressive bitter grieving experience and I felt really bad for them. It’s so much better if you can just realise there’s this alternative way to think about this.”
Jeffers has made a career out of telling a better story.
“There’s a degree of myself in all the characters because they have to look and feel natural which they only do if it is partly something I would do or say.”
Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers will be published by HarperCollins on November 14th. Oliver will be in Belfast and Dublin to promote the book between November 19th and 21st. See oliverjeffers.com