Oliver Jeffers on Writing, Illustrating, and Bookmaking – Interview
Oliver Jeffers describes himself as “a maker of art,” but he’s really much more than this. He’s kind of a genius Jack of all trades. He’s an extraordinary painter, designer, and author of many award-winning picture books including most recently The New Sweater and Stuck. His latest picture book This Moose Belongs to Me concerns the trials and tribulations with ownership, antlers, and the rules of being a good pet. Oliver has also just released a monograph of his paintings cheekily entitled Neither Here Nor There. We’re honored to feature his thoughts on writing, illustrating, and bookmaking in The Children’s Book Review.
Nicki Richesin: It’s a great pleasure to get to interview you after reading all of your wonderful children’s books. You were born in Australia, but raised in Northern Ireland. You’re trained as a painter, but do you come from a family of storytellers?
Oliver Jeffers: Yes, I suppose I do. Although I was born in Australia, everything I know is Northern Irish—the birthplace was happenstance when my parents tried moving to Australia for a couple of years. It didn’t work out. Storytelling is a very important part of Irish culture. Oral histories were a very important part of social structure. Growing up, I’d be surrounded by adults who were telling stories, to each other, to kids, to everyone. Telling a story is an art form, and I know plenty of artists who excel on this platform. My dad always said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
NR: That’s great advice! I read that your work was discovered in a slush pile at HarperCollins. You must feel lucky getting such a tremendous start when it is almost impossible to break into children’s book publishing. Could you tell us about how you first began working with HarperCollins?
OJ: I finished my first book (How To Catch a Star) as part of my degree and decided after graduation that it was as good as, if not better, than anything else out there. I made a list of my top 10 publishers and went about a campaign to get the book published. This consisted of creating a package that took care in its presentation and outlined who I was and what I was trying to do. My thought was: there would be a lot of unsolicited material I’d be competing against, so I wanted to stand out from the crowd and I put a lot of effort into making it look and feel special. It worked. Whether it was down to my thorough research and landing it on the right person’s desk, the way it was packaged and presented, the content itself, or a combination of all three, I’m not sure. HarperCollins phoned me the day after I put it in the post box, asking me to come to London to meet them. I put on a tie and brought my older brother. They asked if I had more books up my sleeve. “Yes,” I lied. Though with hindsight, apparently I didn’t.
NR: Your latest book This Moose Belongs to Me explores the concept of ownership. Why did you want to write a book about this idea?
OJ: I didn’t necessarily start out looking to explore this theme, although it is one that interests me, especially since reading about the sale of Manhattan where the Manhattan Indian tribes were paid a paltry sum for the land, but then to the confusion of the Dutch, refused to move as the concept of land ownership was completely foreign to them. I read somewhere else that the best compromises are when both parties feel like they got the upper hand, though this didn’t turn out to be true for the local tribes. Anyway. The story was born out of a few drawings of a boy explaining to a Moose the rules of how to be a good pet. There was an absurdity that begged for more investigation, and as the story began to unfold, amid the absurdity a theme of ownership began to emerge.
NR: In your children’s picture books, the protagonist usually goes on a great journey. In How To Catch a Star, a little boy must undertake many daunting quests. I’m told the book was inspired by a Brer Rabbit story, but also a moment you spent star-gazing at the end of a jetty in Sydney. Could you explain the back story for this particular book?
OJ: Well, yes, you’ve hit both major reference points there. It goes a bit like this; I had an idea for a static image of someone trying to physically catch a star after seeing the reflection of a star in very still water and fooling myself for a second that it was something else—something shiny like a coin. I laughed to myself a little and made a drawing that was originally intended to become a painting. In those days I considered myself a painter only. After I had sketched that image, I made another drawing of a different attempt to catch a star, and somewhere in the process I realized the best platform for this idea was a book rather than a series of paintings. Once I made this jump and started telling the story, I remembered the Brer Rabbit story and something about it all felt right. It was then I recalled also seeing the starfish by the pier and had my stories ending.
NR: In The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Henry devours books and becomes a super boy genius. If you could devour any book which one would it be and why?
OJ: I’ve always felt quite ignorant in my lack of a second language, so perhaps it would be a Spanish dictionary in the hopes that some of it would digest into my brain.
NR: I recently heard your book Stuck read at a children’s book reading in San Francisco and the kids in the audience were completely cracking up. How do you convey humor so convincingly in your books? You make it seem effortless, but is it a struggle to pull it off?
OJ: The humor in Stuck was not a struggle at all. It all came out quite naturally, and I was laughing to myself as I made the book. Being Northern Irish, a sense of humor has always been very important to me. We have a fairly unique sense of humor in that part of the world, born out of some dark years where it was though ‘if you don’t laugh, you cry’. And who wants to cry? I suppose now that I think about it, if humor isn’t effortless, it will come across as it’s created—forced or labored.
NR: Do you feel as if you let your inventive pictures tell the story or your words—if they had a fist fight who would win?
OJ: That’s a tough one. They both have such different jobs to do. The pictures probably do the lion’s share of the work in conveying emotion and ambience, etc. but the words are the skeleton, and when you get down to using as few words as I do, they all count. It’s probably more like writing poetry than prose. That said, I’ve always considered myself an artist rather than a writer, so perhaps it’s the pictures who would win. Perhaps a better description for what I do would be ‘Visual Storyteller’, and then they could call it a tie.
NR: I believe The Heart and the Bottle is your most poignant and moving story. How did the idea for the book first come to you?
OJ: This was an old idea I had for a story, before I even made Lost and Found. But the timing wasn’t right so it was put in a drawer for several years. The story came from a personal loss, but rather than this conveying what I was going through was more a commentary on the destructive nature of the grief that other people put themselves through. It became a selfish thing, and in that process it seemed to me like the memories of a gone life were shadowed by self-pity. In my mind The Heart and the Bottle is not a sad story, but one full of hope, in that true immortality is enabled by the remembering, embracing and telling of stories.
OJ: I said that The Way Back Home would be the last Boy book. I also said that I’d never do a sequel to Lost and Found, because plenty of sequels can be seen for what they are, an attempt to cash in on the success of an existing story. That’s what I said. But then after I had the idea for another adventure for the two of them, and I couldn’t squash it, I felt compelled to see where it might go. And as the story came along naturally with pure intentions and wasn’t forced out of necessity, I think it maintains the integrity of the original and is possibly even a stronger story. So my answer is I’ve learned to never say never.
NR: What was your favorite book when you were a little boy?
OJ: The BFG by Roald Dahl.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as your favorite character from children’s literature, who would it be and why?
OJ: Perhaps Mowgli from The Jungle Book. That sounded like a lot of fun.
NR: Which projects are you most excited about working on now?
OJ: I’ve been working a lot on my fine art practice recently, though I’m getting ready to begin work on a pretty epic Alphabet book which might take me a year or two.
For more information, visit: http://www.oliverjeffers.com
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at www.nickirichesin.com.