Upon entering Oliver Jeffers’ studio, it’s hard to know where to look. There are books and paintings and globes galore. The walls are emblazoned with lists and quotes. There’s even a potted plant with “Jesus” written upon it in Jeffers’ signature scrawl. “Because it keeps coming back,” he deadpans. It’s everything you might expect from a man whose work spans the gamut from paintings to performances to bestselling books. Meet the incomparable Oliver Jeffers…
On storytelling: To me, stories are social. Growing up in Northern Ireland, there’s an art form to storytelling. When you go out with a bunch of friends in Belfast, it’s not so much a conversation as it is sharing anecdotes. My favorite stories are the ones that will entertain a group of people.
On what makes a good story: Timing. I should have waited really long before saying that.
On everyday comedy: Northern Irish people are known for their dark sense of humor, I think in the best possible way. The old mentality is that if you don’t laugh, you cry, and nobody really wants to cry. It becomes a type of bonding where groups of men and women go out, and there’s a sense of camaraderie and kinship that is shared through mockery. The closer you are to somebody, the more you mock them. It keeps everybody humble. It also means that everything is potentially funny.
The closer you are to somebody, the more you mock them. It keeps everybody humble. It also means that everything is potentially funny.
On the “job” of being an artist: To call it a job makes it sound like I’m doing it for other people, but weirdly I’m doing it for myself. Because I’m doing it for myself, I think I have more to share with others. So I’m being generous by being selfish. I’m affected by everything around me, and I think by sharing that, other people can find a way to process things, too.
On books vs. paintings: With books, there’s a sense of control that you don’t have with an exhibition. People don’t look at an exhibition narratively, in a linear way. They go wherever they want — an exhibition is a bit more like a choose-your-own-adventure. But with a book, you sort of force somebody’s attention. If you have a lot of words on a page, it forces them to stay on a moment. Whereas if a page only has one word and a lot of empty space, you force them to quicken up the pace. And then there’s the turning of the page — that’s a punchline, a delivery, a discovery.
On dipped paintings: I was making art and hiding it, exploring the idea that, just because you can’t see something, does it still exist? With the first dipped painting, I decided to submerge it into paint as a method of hiding it. I became so preoccupied by the technicalities around doing that — how much paint you need, how to build a box, etcetera — that I forgot to take a picture of the painting before I submerged it!
It turns out there was a photograph of the painting before I dipped it, but I didn’t see it until a year later, and my memory of it had changed so much. I thought that was very interesting, and tried to re-create those conditions for other people. I’d invite them in to observe the new paintings I was making and submerging. They would not be allowed to take a photograph, and they would have to depend on their memory. What I discovered is that the human memory is very malleable, and eyewitness testimony is very unreliable.
The turning of the page — that’s a punchline, a delivery, a discovery.
On a favorite childhood read: The BFG was the first book I ever read because I wanted to, rather than because I was told to. There was a sort of darkness to it I felt like children shouldn’t be allowed to access. I felt like I was breaking the rules somehow by enjoying it. It’s just a brilliant novel. There’s a very fine line between satisfaction and predictability in stories, and I think Roald Dahl always toed that line just perfectly.
On education vs. learning: I didn’t become an avid reader until I was finished with formal education. It reminds me of something I heard an educator say in a TED talk, “Education is what somebody else does to you, but learning is what you do to yourself.” I moved to the states ten years ago, and I decided to look up a bunch of classic literature because people kept referencing these books I’d never read. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first on that list and I absolutely fell in love with it. That led to others, like East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which is one of my favorite novels of all time. My copy doesn’t even have a cover anymore.
On writing for children: I met somebody once who asked me what I did, and I said I write and illustrate picture books. (I actually don’t call them children’s books, because I think that alienates non-children.) And this person said, “Wow, what a responsibility.” I was like, “What do you mean?” They went on to say I was a human being’s first point of encounter with their cultural world. I had never thought of it that way before, but I suppose it’s true. I think visual literacy can be just as important as actual literacy. Our world is becoming more visual, and attention to detail is dropping. People are surfing rather than submerging.
On what makes a brilliant children’s book: I think lots of people say, “I want to write a children’s book,” and then they think, “Well, what do kids want to hear?” And they have a formula like, “Kids like this and this, let’s combine the two, because obviously that will satisfy lots and lots of children.” And it probably does. But I think the truly brilliant children’s books are the ones where the creator just got lost in it and then let everyone else follow.
One example is Tomi Ungerer. His books are totally unique to him. There’s a darkness to his books, and a sadness. In Moon Man, the moon comes down to earth to explore, because he sees all these pretty flowers, and he ends up being put in prison and then escaping. It’s not exactly a fluffy, happy bunny story. I don’t think children should be protected from sad stories, sadness is an emotion just like anything else. Children’s books should represent the full sweep of emotions, feelings, reactions.
I think visual literacy can be just as important as actual literacy. Our world is becoming more visual, and attention to detail is dropping. People are surfing rather than submerging.
On becoming more political: I always thought it was not my place to speak politically — to speak out, to be moralistic, to share my values or sense of justice with anybody. I thought, “Who needs to hear that? My job is just to entertain.” But then things started getting really weird, and I have an almost two-year-old son. I thought, “If I don’t speak up about these things, how many other people aren’t, and who will?”
Once I started, I kept getting told, “Thank you for using your voice to share what we didn’t have a way of saying.” And now, yeah, I embrace it. I don’t want to say I enjoy it — I wish I didn’t have to do anything political, because that would mean the world was just. But I definitely don’t regret going down this road.
On raising a feminist son: I’m lucky to be surrounded by many amazing women who remind me that as a man I see the world from a male perspective. I think a lot of men take that for granted, and either don’t realize it or forget it. I feel like I have a massive responsibility to raise a man who is a feminist, who believes in equality, and doesn’t turn out to be one of these misogynistic shits you see around the world right now. I have three brothers, and the words my father drummed into the four of us were: respect, consideration, and tolerance.
I feel like I have a massive responsibility to raise a man who is a feminist, who believes in equality, and doesn’t turn out to be one of these misogynistic shits you see around the world right now.
Library or bookstore? Ugh! I know I should say library but I do love a bookstore. Pass. No, you know what, library. Libraries are in danger and I think people undervalue their importance in cultural society. We take our son to the library to borrow books and it’s an accessible and easy way to enjoy lots of books without spending a fortune.
What’s your reading ritual? I try to read one page a night in bed before I go to sleep.
What’s one thing you enjoyed recently? The early mornings when my son wakes up and comes into our room and he just wants hugs and then he sort of putters around and has conversations with himself while my wife and I slowly wake up.
Do you have a favorite place in NYC? I have many favorite places. I love Prospect Park, I love Bryant Park, I love the middle of Grand Central Terminal, I love the Brooklyn Promenade. The Promenade is a fantastic place to watch the world go by.
If you could be a character who would you be? The lady from East of Eden.
Words to live by? Don’t eat anything larger than your head in one sitting.