Oliver Jeffers, WHAT WE'LL BUILD

Oliver Jeffers, WHAT WE'LL BUILD

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Oliver. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Oliver Jeffers: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, this is like Christmas in my house. I don’t even celebrate Christmas, but it would be like Christmas. It’s the greatest thing to be interviewing you. My kids were freaking out. I have four kids. They are obsessed. My little guy loves How to Catch a Star and obviously the Crayons and everything else. Delighted to talk to you. Let’s start with talking about your new book, which I only have on my iPad here. What We’ll Build, beautiful illustrations, per usual, and thought-provoking text. Tell me a little bit about your latest book. What inspired this one? Why now?

Oliver: Why now and what inspired it are both the same things, which is we had a second child, a daughter. I joked that I better write her a book because I’d never hear the end of it if my son had a book and she didn’t. Really, I was going through similar internal dialogues about the state of the world and what it’s like to be raising a child, and especially this time around. It’s not the first time we’ve had a child, but it’s the first time we’ve had a daughter. She’s actually the first female Jeffers in four generations. So quite some time just thinking about the timing and the feeling in the zeitgeist of this moment where so much change is possible, not guaranteed, but possible. The idea of raising a daughter in what will hopefully no longer be a man’s world, it feels like a special time to be trying to do that. That was one aspect of it. Here We Are, if that book was about trying to understand the world as it is and break it down in its simplest terms, which covers the strangeness that comes with being a parent for the first time, then we had already experienced that. Our thoughts were able to turn more fully to the future when looking at this brand-new bundle of life in our arms. If Here We Are is about explaining the world as it is, then What We’ll Build is about possibly changing it. In the quiet hours in the middle of the night as I was nursing her back to sleep, I would just be imagining these things and saying these . I just started to write it down. Then it came quite organically and quite naturally.

Zibby: Wow. You just have to keep having kids. You’ll have more and more original content. How old is your son?

Oliver: He’s five. He turned five in the summer.

Zibby: I have a five-year-old also. He must eat up these books like crazy. How cool to have a dad who does this?

Oliver: He does, but I don’t try to ram them down his throat either. I was never a big reader when I was a kid because it always felt like something that you had to do for homework. It was more like a chore. It wasn’t until I discovered books on my own terms that I became an avid reader. That was later in life. I had this deep-seated fear that if I tried to make him do something, it would actually put him off. He does, he goes to books, but he actually likes reference books more, books that explain things. He’s definitely more like his mother in that sense. She’s an engineer. He likes things to be explained logically. He also likes dinosaurs and diggers. My daughter, on the other hand, I think is a lot more similar to me in terms of chaos and creativity.

Zibby: What types of books got you reading?

Oliver: What types of books got me reading? There are books that I enjoyed whenever I was a kid, for sure. The first book that I read because I wanted to read it was a Roald Dahl book. I had read The BFG for school. It was the first book that didn’t feel like homework. It felt like a treat. Then I just went and read his entire backlog. Honestly, it wasn’t until much later in life that I became a read every single day type of person. I mostly read nonfiction, believe it or not. There’s so many interesting things that have actually happened in the world. I want to find out about all those things and how everything affects everything else. I can’t even remember what it was, but there was something that I didn’t understand. I was like, let me read about that. Because it was on my terms and I wanted to find out about it, it was a very different experience.

Zibby: Interesting. I remember growing up my parents had these encyclopedias which were all really fancy and bound and everything. I remember being like, wow, I could just learn about anything I want. I’m just going to pull this thing out. Let’s see what I find. The power in that.

Oliver: We moved to the US fifteen years ago. I realized that all the classic books that they teach in schools here — in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, they were Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, things like that. When I got the USA, I realized there was a whole different genre of classic books that were American classic books. I’d found a list of the one hundred classic American novels. I’ve been slowly working my way through them. I’ve discovered John Steinbeck that way, and . That’s been a real pleasure.

Zibby: Take me from what happened when you started reading Roald Dahl books to here. When did you know that you wanted to produce books? When did you start illustrating and writing? When did all that brew up inside you?

Oliver: From when I was a kid, I’ve always loved drawing and making things. A lot of the art, looking back on it now, has been very narrative driven. There is that old Picasso quote. All children are artists; the trick is just remembering how whenever you grow up. When people ask me, when did I start making art? I tend to ask them, when did you stop? We all made art at some point. Then all adults just sort of stopped and moved on to different things. I just never did. When did it occur to me to actually make a book? When I started thinking about real-life jobs and so on, once I learned that making art was a real-life job, I knew that that was going to be for me. I started to work my . The university experience is very different in the UK and Ireland than it is in the USA. Here, you have to start specializing, really, from the age of fifteen. Then you pick your degree, your subject. Then you pick where you want to go. Whereas in the US, it’s you pick your college and then you pick what you want to study. It’s a much different system here. I think it suits fewer people here because who knows what they want to do when they’re fifteen?

I’m one of the fortunate people that did know because I knew that I wanted to make art. I got into art college. It was only at the very, very end of my art college when I thought I was going to be a painter — which is still something that I do. I have two completely separate careers. I had this concept for a series of canvases, but it occurred to me that maybe these canvases would be better served as a book. I made a book in my last year of college. Then I went about trying to get that book published. When I was showing that to publishers both in London and New York, the question was asked, “Do you have other ideas, or is this a one-off?” I was like, “I’ve got lots of idea.” I didn’t really. I was just like, I think that’s the answer they want to hear. Ever since then, the switch was very easy for me. Books came very, very naturally. Just today, I realized that it’s almost twenty years since I first made How to Catch a Star.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so relevant and so beautiful. I go to bed reading it with my son. It’s so crazy. Your ideas are in my house every night. It’s just the magic of picture books. It’s really unbelievable.

Oliver: I try not to break it down and take it apart to see how it works, ever, because I just fear that it won’t ever be put together. It’s such a strange thought that the work that I did alone in the studio then has a life of its own. It’s easier just not to think about that than to really contemplate what that means.

Zibby: You keep, obviously, creating lots of stories. Do they just occur to you? How does something trigger you to decide, this is going to be my next book?

Oliver: I have lots of ideas for stories that never really fully materialize into stories because every good story, every good picture book, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some of these ideas that I had, they might have just been the middle. It was a gimmick or an interesting visual or didn’t have one of those three things or couldn’t really be fleshed out enough into a picture book. My sketch book was whittled with those ideas. Then at one point, I thought, these don’t have all that it takes to be a full picture book, but maybe I could do a book of short picture books. That book became Once Upon an Alphabet. That really was me just plundering through my sketchbooks and lifting out the choices ideas and then attributing one to each letter. There was a few holes where I had to think up ones from scratch.

Honestly, each book happens in a different way. Stuck is partially based on a true story. The Incredible Book Eating Boy, the whole story came from both an art project that I was doing with a scientist in quantum physics and just a simple drawing that I made. I connected the two things. Then The Fate of Fausto, I don’t really know where that came from. I took a drive up the North Coast of Northern Ireland. I pulled the car over just on the cliffs in the absolute middle of rural nowhere. I took a nap as I was watching this storm come in. I woke up and that book was just on the tip of my tongue. I put pencil to paper. It came out pretty much as is. Who knows where that came from? Here We Are was originally written as a letter to my son. The same with What We’ll Build. There’s not a formula. Each one is slightly different. Sometimes they’re quite tricky to pick the lock of. Stuck, that’s based on really getting a kite stuck in a tree and really getting some other stuff caught in the tree, but I didn’t know how it ended. I sat on it for six months, eight months, maybe a year before watching my nephews play and just forgetting about one game and moving on to the other. I realized, maybe it doesn’t have to end. Maybe he just gets distracted and moves on. That proved to be the perfect ending. It’s different for every case.

Zibby: Then my daughter wanted me to ask you how you came up with the design for the crayons.

Oliver: Well, they’re crayons.

Zibby: I know, like faces and making them so human, how you came up with it. I didn’t say it was a great question, but that’s her question, so I’m going with it.

Oliver: It was fun to come up with the design for the crayons box because I wanted it to be completely unique and not associated with any existing crayons brand. I think it was based on, I saw an ad in a magazine for a packet of candy with that color spectrum, an old-time magazine or something like that. I was like, oh, that’s how that will do. Really, it’s the simplicity of it. When I saw that story, I just knew that this book had to be done so simply. You couldn’t overdo it because it would ruin the obviousness of the whole thing. The letters had to be written as if you got them in a stack. The crayons themselves had to be characters. That’s gauche paint. It’s the simplest way that I could have drawn them and made them look like physical objects. Then, of course, everything else in the book is a crayon drawing. It was like, what are the laws of logic that would apply to this if this really happened? Then I just went from there.

Zibby: Wow. Some books you illustrate only. Some books you write and illustrate. Are you still a for-hire illustrator? I can’t imagine you are.

Oliver: No, I never have been. I always said I would never illustrate somebody else’s book until I was tricked into looking at the Crayons manuscripts. The editor that I work with, then in New York, called me into office and then says, “I’ve got to leave to take a phone call. Don’t look at anything on my desk.” Of course, I went over and looked. That was sitting face up. I read it and was like, this is a really great concept. It’s so obvious what should be done. I was like, I hope whoever does this does it the right way. Then my editor came back in. I said, “Who’s illustrating this?” He’s goes, “No one yet. Why? You interested?” I was like, “I knew exactly what you were doing.” I couldn’t not do it. Then the only other book I’ve illustrated that hasn’t been a Crayons book was with Eoin Colfer. We’re friends. We just basically said, yeah, we should work together. Artists and authors that meet at literary festivals always say that sort of stuff, and it never happens. Then about two weeks later, Eoin says, “I’ve got this idea that I think might be perfect for you.” I read it. I was like, “That is pretty good, actually. What about I do this way?” He’s goes, “Perfect.” Then it was just that simple. Then actually, there’s another book, but it’s unclear — people said, who wrote it? Who illustrated it? Sam Winston and I both said, “We both did. We both wrote it. We both illustrated it.” That was born out of just meeting this person, becoming friends, and realizing that all of our work, it overlapped so much. We said, “We should do a project.” We started doing what we thought was an art project that then morphed into a picture book. It’s been organic every single time.

Zibby: All the authors out there who would salivate for your help with illustrations can now just say, forget it, that’s off the table.

Oliver: Totally. I still work in the fine art world. My schedule over the next couple years is mostly based in public sculptures and paintings. It’s a strange mix. I’ve always laughed at authors who, they want to collaborate. It’s like, yeah, that’s fifteen minutes of work for you, and it’s a year’s work for me. It’s not that straightforward.

Zibby: What is it like? Tell me where you do the drawings, what materials you use, the process of illustrating a book.

Oliver: Again, it’s different book by book. My studio was in Brooklyn in New York. Although, I haven’t been there in some time because we were traveling before this pandemic hit. Then we came back to Northern Ireland to be with family. What We’ll Build is, that’s all paint on paper. It’s acrylic paint and a little bit of ink and some colored pencil on paper. Here We Are was some ink washes. That was then finished on Procreate on an iPad. The Incredible Book Eating Boy was all collage with acrylic paint. Lost and Found, How to Catch a Star, they were all watercolor. Then The Fate of Fausto, just because I wanted to make life exceptionally difficult for myself, I experimented with a completely different media, which is lithographic printing. There is no original piece of art for that, per se, because it was all made on stone and on metal plates layer by layer, color by color. Then those plates and stones were sort of destroyed in the process of making them. It was completely different. I really didn’t know what was going to come out the other end of the printer.

Zibby: Have you figured out what it is about your style that is so appealing to others? Maybe that’s too self-referential. Maybe that’s more for me to say. Have you kind of analyzed it, like when you start a new project?

Oliver: I try not to, but I think there’s a directness and a simplicity and an honesty to it where I’m just clearly enjoying myself. That’s just the way that I write. That’s just the way that I do a straight line. That’s just the way that it will look if I do this. I’m not trying to be anybody else. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. There’s maybe an integrity and a mild sophistication enough in it that I’m not trying to pander to anyone. I don’t know. Eoin Colfer’s son who was eighteen at the time asked me with all sincerity, he was like, “Why are your drawings so popular?” I thought about it for a second. I was like, I think that might be an insult.

Zibby: No, that is not an insult.

Oliver: It sort of was like, they’re so simple and so easy, why do people like them? I was like, I don’t know.

Zibby: That’s funny. Trust a child to say something like that. What advice would you have for an illustrator or an artist, a child who was like you as a child, just sketching and not wanting to stop? How do you have them not give up?

Oliver: Two things spring to mind. One, if you look at successful people, there are plenty of successful people that have all drive and little talent. There are almost no successful people who are all talent with no drive. The advice that I generally tend to give young and aspiring artists and illustrators is an Oscar Wilde quote, which is, be yourself, everybody else is already taken.

Zibby: That’s a great quote. What’s coming next? What are your next books that we have to look forward to?

Oliver: That’s a question I don’t know. I haven’t been in my studio in well over a year. As I say, we were traveling from the start of last summer. We planned to take a year off to travel. It took us about five years to prepare for it. We set off end of last July. We were intending to return just at the end of the summer. Obviously, in about February or so, that all came crashing to a halt. We ended up moving somewhere that we don’t normally live. I’m just trying to find a new rhythm and see what’s going to happen next. I do have a book project in mind, but it’s too early to say anything. If that doesn’t work, frankly, I have no idea.

Zibby: Are there more Crayons books coming?

Oliver: No, the last one, The Crayons’ Christmas, has come out. I think there was a Crayons’ Book of Colors. There was a concept book like that. The art was made quite some time ago. I think that’s already come out. That’s that.

Zibby: That’s it. End of the line for the Crayons. They really quit. Thank you for coming on this show. Thanks for all the hours of great quality time that I’ve spent with my children because of you. Best of luck with the new book. Thank you.

Oliver: Thank you. Thank you for having me on. I appreciate the kind words. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Oliver Jeffers, WHAT WE'LL BUILD