Activities

Interview with author Oliver Jeffers

We sat down with children's author Oliver Jeffers to chat about his inspirations and his latest book.

Children's author Oliver Jeffers. Photo: Erika Hokanson.

TP: What inspires you as an author/illustrator?
OJ:
Everything really. It’s impossible to limit it to one thing. Planet earth inspires me. It’s too varied to even begin to make a list. I rarely directly use a reference or an influence, but it all just kind of seeps in there and becomes part of my persona and part of the way that I see my world.

TP: What’s your writing/illustrating process like?
OJ:
They both happen at the same time. I kind of develop them simultaneously because they have to support each other.

TP: How do you organize your work?
OJ:
I don’t. A lot of writing lists that I never read again. And I do a lot of storyboards, which can be the trickiest part sometimes — trying to get everything to fit into the 32 pages of the picture book and having the story flow over that space. That’s where a lot of the creativity comes into.

TP: You use a variety of medium in your projects. How do you choose what you use?
OJ:
A lot of it is reacting to what I see in front of me and a lot of it is making a decision that this sky would look better in watercolour or a sheet of collage paper with collage-ing on the top. It’s feeling it out and listening to your intuition. It’s also about being willing to explore.

TP: Who is the boy?
OJ:
He’s everyone really. I made a decision when I was doing How to Catch a Star that the books were not going to be set anywhere and the boy was going to be as vague as possible so that anyone could apply themselves to the story. And because he’s vague and because the landscapes are vague, it means that people all over the world think that the boy is one of their friends and that the geography is where they’re from. And that allows people in and to fill in the details with their own personal details. So he’s a little bit of me, a little bit of everyone else who’s reading the story.

TP: Why does he spend so much time alone?
OJ:
I’ve pared everything back to its barest details so the relationships in the boy books are between him and only one or two other characters. There is no need to have everybody else in the story; they’re just added people that can complicate the story. It’s not that he’s alone or that he’s lonely, it’s just that I am literally putting in the essential ingredients that are necessary.

TP: Do you think that’s why kids relate to your stories?
OJ:
It might well be. I try not to think about why they work. I try not to dissect it too much because then you might not be able to put it back together the same way.

TP: A lot of your stories seem to be about loss or separation. Why?
OJ:
Some of them are. The boy ones certainly are; they’re kind of big and emotional. It’s funny what other people see and interpret into your stories and that’s kind of what happens when you leave them big enough. So that’s not necessarily the intention, but I think it’s cool that some people draw that conclusion. I mean, that might say as much about the people drawing that conclusion as it does about the actual work. Some people don’t think they’re about loss at all. There’s no real agenda behind any of it; it’s just they way that they’ve unfolded.

TP: How did you come up with The Hueys? What are they?
OJ:
That’s a good question; I have no idea what they are. I also work as a commercial illustrator and I was commissioned by this mobile phone company ten years ago or so to illustrate really boring information. It was job that never ended up really happening, but I kind of created a version of the Hueys to do that (illustrate really boring information) and I thought that they were really successful because they were fascinated by the mundane and the small and the everydayness of life… So I came up with The New Jumper as way to introduce them and their world so that people could buy into it or relate to it right from the beginning and get it a little more. So now that that’s established, they’ll go some interesting places.

TP: Can you tell us a bit about the new Hueys book?
OJ:
Yeah, this time they get into an argument. It’s a little different. I joked that I was going to call this book A Brief History of Political Conflict, but I decided to call it It Wasn’t Me instead. It’s more like an overheard conversation between kids in a playground than an actual arching story.

TP: Lost and Found was made into a wonderful short film. Do you have any plans to adapt some of your other stories?
OJ:
There are plans in the works. That one hit a few legal wrangles so it wasn’t really shown outside of the UK until just recently. But that’s cleared up now so hopefully it’ll pave the way to new projects.

TP: What about any apps?
OJ:
There’s an app for The Heart and the Bottle, which is interesting, but I’ve said no to a lot of apps. As far as I can see, they’re only existing to showoff what the app producer can do and they didn’t really further the story. They were an end to themselves, rather than a means to the end. What I liked about the proposal for The Heart and the Bottle app was it actually accentuated the story so the interactivity was relative to the narrative. So when the girl puts her heart in the bottle, you interact by taking things away, for example.

I don’t think they really do kids’ books anymore because they realize that by putting them into an app, they’re competing with every other app, whether it’s a music app or a map app or a games instead. Instead they’re reconstructing the app industry for kids’ books as advanced ebooks. But even there, we had an ebook of The Incredible Book Eating Boy and it was one of the bestselling ebooks in the UK and it still only sold like 500 copies. People I just don’t think are quite ready, even if the rest of publishing is totally galloping in the direction of apps and tablet-devices and whatnot, I don’t think picture books are ready and I don’t think the audience is quite ready for it yet.

TP: You constantly hear publishing is a dying industry and I wonder if it’s a reflection on that.
OJ:
I don’t know. I think that’s a fatal way of thinking. People, in a rush to be modern and to keep up, dispose of a lot of things that work well and then regret it later. Like vinyl is coming back into play and a lot of good records were thrown away. Linotype set — whenever digital printing came around, people threw away lots of really good presses and regret that now. I hope that enough have enough sense to maintain what is actually good and working and what is physical about books before everyone just jumps into bed with digital publishing. I think it’s going to create a new industry in that computer games didn’t replace films, they just created a new industry for itself.

TP: What do you wish kids of today would do more of?
OJ:
Go outside. Climb trees. Get dirty. Bust through the knees of their jeans.

TP: If you could back in time, what would you tell yourself as child?
OJ:
Brush my teeth more; I’ve got too many fillings.

TP: What advice do you have for kids who are interested in creating their own picture books?
OJ:
Keep drawing. Keep practicing. There’s a line Picasso had that is “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Keep practicing and writing everything down.

Oliver Jeffer’s newest book, The Hueys: It Wasn’t Me, will be available May 7, 2013.

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