It was in Publishing News last year that I first found Oliver Jeffers, in an interview with, I think, Graham Marks. I was left with an impression of handsome biker, who was also the “in” illustrator of the moment, responsible for the World Book Day posters. I wasn’t all that interested, to be truthful.
By the time Oliver materialised at the local bookshop on Friday, I’d worked up more enthusiasm, and by the time he was done, the enthusiasm level was really quite high, and not just because of the biker looks and the designer stubble. I even had the opportunity to start by translating Oliver’s request for a USB pen into something more intelligible, rendering me an aura of being almost useful.
His appeal must be fairly universal, as the people who turned up to hear him talk were of all ages, and whereas my tolerance for slide shows and power point presentations isn’t that great, this was interesting. How a picture book is made and why they are often 32 pages and how the text comes last in the printing process. And how the Americans will change his words if they don’t like them. Now, how could little boy running out of rocket fuel near the moon possibly be seen as too unrealistic?
I’d made several visits to Oliver’s website, and had had considerable problems with all the insects, until I finally worked out what’s what. And then he said he was thinking of changing it, to make it easier. I said no, not when I’ve actually got it, at last. Anyway, I’d had a good look at some of his “proper” art, and if the witch household had any spare walls, not to mention some spare cash, there would soon be a Jeffers on our walls.
Being slow (me that is), I didn’t make the connection with Hopper until Oliver mentioned it, but that will be why I loved “my” favourite painting instantly. And look, there is Hopper in the books as well. Couldn’t be better. Quite liked Michael Sowa, too, who’s another of Oliver’s favourites.
Oliver uses whatever paint feels right at the time, but seems to prefer acrylics, at least now. He also uses water colours, Dulux One Coat, and finds his white pen extremely useful. With the water colours he sloshes on too much water, adds colour and then tilts the paper from side to side, letting the colour slide this way and that. And I think Oliver said he rests the paper on a toilet roll, until the colour settles as he wants it.
He has, or had, two work areas in Belfast; one for making a mess vertically and one for making a mess horizontally. Makes sense, when you think about it. Right now he is living and working in New York, so his visit here is a short one, and supposedly so he can see his uncle. Oliver was born in Australia, grew up in Northern Ireland, which is why he has that lovely accent, and has lived in Sydney, before New York. So, very cosmopolitan. At one point he and some friends also kept posting a work of art across the Atlantic. They started with an empty book, and then added a picture, before posting it on, and on, for 36 weeks. Surprised it didn’t go missing.
His interest in how words and pictures go together made him experiment, and before he knew it he had made a picture book without meaning to. Among his favourite books by others are Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, and Quentin Blake’s Clown. Oliver feels young children make the best critics, because they get bored easily.
I’d say he is rather like an overgrown child himself, with his ideas. For one page in The Incredible Book Eating Boy, he photographed books which he and his brother threw into the air, to let them fall in the right way, before Photoshopping them onto the page.
After meeting a quantum physicist he thought about how people become intelligent, and took to combining oil paintings of people, with equations. Another unusual idea is to leave his mug of coffee on the paper, letting it leave a ring and then doing a picture round the coffee ring.
Oliver did typography at university, so is very keen on doing all the lettering in his books, even when it involves writing the copyright page in Spanish by hand four times because he kept making mistakes. When asked whether it’s important to have gone to university, he says it is, because then you know all the rules, before you go on to break them.
Among things he has done that aren’t picture books, is a poster for Starbucks, an ad for the big bookshop chain, cards that the Government sends to all new born babies, and something unintelligible about Orange priorities. And a Darth Vader helmet.
It doesn’t sound as if Oliver is man who struggles, but when he does, coffee helps. That and knowing there’s a mortgage that needs paying.
His next book is, supposedly, called The Great Paper Caper, and has something to do with FSC paper, but he won’t say too much. “A children’s detective thriller”.
Lost and Found is being animated, using CGI, and Oliver got his Mac out to show a short piece from the film. Absolutely adorable, are words that come to mind. However, putting his own nephew (Henry, I think) in the penguin compound at Belfast Zoo, doesn’t strike me as very nice. Henry was helping illustrate Lost and Found, but what they did find, was that he’s scared of penguins.
Well, so much for the man who wins everything or is shortlisted for everything. Good artist, but is he a good uncle? And he uses books from Belfast Central Library to paint on. Hang on; that’s what I was complaining about a couple of months ago, in regard to Daughter’s school…
And have I just lost an opportunity to interview Oliver properly in the future? This blog post is too long.