Artist and author Oliver Jeffers joins to discuss his first all-ages illustrated book Begin Again: How We Got Here and Where We Might Go – Our Human Story. So Far. We talk about cultivating a sense of optimism, the relationship between distance and perspective and the importance of the stories we tell ourselves. We also ask what reconciliation and justice look like if we want to move forward together, and what kind of world Oliver hopes for.
The Stacks Book Club selection for October is Tar Baby by Toni Morrison. We will discuss the book on October 25th with Minda Honey.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Oliver Jeffers. Oliver is the author and illustrator behind so many beloved children’s books, including some of the many Stacks favorites. Like Here We Are. And The Day the Crayons Quit. Oliver has just released his first picture book for readers of all ages, and it’s called Begin Again: How we got here and where we might go- our human story so far. Using vibrant colors and poignant words, the book builds on all of his artistic exploration of humankind’s impact on itself and on our planet since the dawn of our species. We talked today about how begin again is in conversation with all of his other work, what he hopes readers will keep in mind as they read begin again, and which parts of this book he is the most proud of. Remember, our book club pick this month is Tar Baby by Toni Morrison and we’ll discuss the book on October 25th with Minda Honey. Everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. Alright, now it is time for my conversation with Oliver Jeffers.
Alright everybody, I am thrilled today to welcome a Stacks family favorite. I am joined today by children’s book and now adults book author Oliver Jeffers. Oliver, welcome to The Stacks.
Oliver Jeffers 2:38
Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.
Traci Thomas 2:40
Happy to have you. So your new book is called Begin Again. And will you just tell folks in about 30 seconds or so what this book is about.
Oliver Jeffers 2:49
This book is… I think it’s a history and a trajectory of the stories that guides humanity kind of taking stock of where we are and then looking to where we might go and the stories that will help us get there.
Traci Thomas 3:04
So let me ask you when so you know, for my job, I get pitched books from publicists, and they’re like, you know, so and so has a new book coming out, whatever. And I read through all the pitches, and I decide who I want to have. And I saw they pitched your new book as an adult book by, you know, beloved children’s book author Oliver Jeffers and I fainted because I was like, Nah, not the what will build guy it’s too important. But I’m wondering how were you thinking about the book? Were you thinking about it for an adult audience? And if so, does that change how you approach the work?
Oliver Jeffers 3:36
That is a good question. And I’m not entirely sure what whenever, I mean, this book, I think is the manifestation of multiple lines of inquiry that I’ve been engaged in for, for a significant amount of time, and really trying to make sense out of all these patterns that I recognize. And when I began putting it on paper, it just required an a burst, because I was making some connections that I needed to document. And at the start, I wasn’t even sure if it was going to be a book, or you know, was maybe writing the beginning of a film, or was this going to be a series of large scale paintings, or all three, or possibly more, I didn’t really know. But I think I, you know, if I want this message, or the ideas, or the concepts in this book to reach as many people as possible, I think a book is about the best way to do that. So it began taking a ship in the form of a book, because I know how to do that. But you know, that it was a different process than the other books. Yes. And no, I mean, mostly No, because it’s not like when I’m making picture books that I’m well known for that are mostly enjoyed by children. It’s not like I sit down and think here’s a book for kids. What’s the way that I’m going to do this so that kids will like it most or what is it they want to hear? I’m always just trying to, I suppose communicate what it is that I’m thinking and feeling and as clear as possible and really trying to satisfy my own sense of curiosity. So I’m not really the process was much the same. It’s just slightly longer and more complicated.
Traci Thomas 5:09
Interesting. Do you think of this book? I guess let me put it a different way. I think of this book is sort of a companion to some of your children’s books for sure. Do you feel like and I say that because I feel like well, this book is longer and more complicated. And if you take the essay out at the end, because that’s obviously like some serious reading, it has a similar visual look, and has a similar feeling to it a similar sort of writing style, your prose feel very similar to where they feel like in the children’s books, is this something that you might imagine could maybe bridge the gap between your children, the children, and then the adults?
Oliver Jeffers 5:45
I’d say definitely. So you know, I don’t really know who the target audiences for this. I don’t think it’s kids necessarily, I don’t think it’s parents necessarily. Honestly, it could be and should be for everyone. I do just think that if people see my name at the top of a book in a picture book, they might mistake it for a bedtime story, which it’s not, I suppose the language which I’m using and the way in which I’m trying to simplify this was partly done so that I could engage people who feel disengaged, regardless of what age they are, what discipline they’re in, or geographically where they are. So there what I did need that simplicity for that. But yeah, I do think that this could be an excellent, maybe launchpad for conversations with with families at home. But equally, it’s for people who feel disenfranchised or disconnected from a future they feel that they’ve got no control over, you know, whether that’s could be anybody like somebody who works in a toll booth or cleans hotel rooms? Or is unemployed or a college graduate, unsure of their next steps? It’s, it’s really for for everyone, and anyone, I think, yeah.
Traci Thomas 6:55
How do you think about audience how much is your audience in your mind as you’re writing and creating?
Oliver Jeffers 7:02
Normally not at all? Because I, as I say, I am just trying to, you know, I think art is one of those few industries where the more selfish you are, the more generous you are. Whereas if you’ve, if you’re pandering too much towards to what you think your imagined audience might want, you can, I wonder if you can end up with something that is that’s like a little prosaic. And, Tim, whereas if you really are just willing to let the public watch, you go down a rabbit warren of self questioning self discovery, I think that lends to work that actually ends up being a lot more accessible to people. So but with this one, it started off like that, but then I kept reworking it, and rereading it to people to make sure that the points that I was trying to make were actually being received, and then would finesse that and maybe set a different way, or someone who’s been misconstrued come at it from a different angle. So well, this this one, after I’d got the guts of what it was that I was aiming to do, I definitely took into consideration of answer but more than usual, just so I knew that the it was as clear as possible.
Traci Thomas 8:18
Yeah, yeah. In the essay, at the end, you talk about, you know, when people tell stories, they’re focusing too much on the teller and not the told, are the people that were telling the stories too. Does that inform how you create at all are you is that at all a relationship that you think about when you’re making your art, like, what you’re trying to communicate to the people or like, what you’re trying to incite or excite.
Oliver Jeffers 8:44
In a way previously, no, for the reasons that I kind of pointed out there is I just, I’m just going to do this thing that I feel got compulsion to make, and then it is what it is people can take it or leave it or however they feel about it. But yeah, in that, but that’s about the specific things that I make. Whereas how I deal with life, I think, is the what that point is a little more directly speaking of is, you know, I think the word is made up of stories, everybody is a collection of stories that are the ones that they are told, which is explains you know, how somebody frames their context in relation to their existence, the stories that are told about them, so their reputation or whatever that might be, and then the stories that they tell, both to other people and ultimately to themselves. And so we, you know, in questioning the motivation of some of these stories, I think, is where I’m going with that where, you know, at the age of a very short attention span, people don’t apply empathy, all that often as much as would benefit society. And often, we’re still trying, we’re so busy trying to be understood ourselves that we forget to try and understand and to give an exam. Blue, I was like I, I’ve said this a few times to different people and talk them through it where I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who wanted to be disliked. And there’s a lot of people who are just like a bull. And, you know, invariably when I say this people like, well, well, obviously you haven’t met so and so and so. And I was like, Well, you know, but let’s, let’s take that apart, you know, when did you meet this person? What was going on in their frame of mind that day? What What, what are the reasons that they are the way they are? You know, we’re not fully aware of the full picture of maybe they have been abused their whole life, or maybe they something awful just happened, and you don’t have the full context and people just reacting and in ways that are dislikable. But ultimately, I think, you know, whenever there are clashes of personality, and somebody comes across as like bullets, it’s often I think it can come down to a mistranslation of story that, then somebody feels a compulsion to defend in an aggressive way.
Traci Thomas 10:56
Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I feel like one of the things that I picked up a lot in this book, and I think you sort of say it in that last essay is like, you have a pretty extreme sense of optimism, I feel I feel like you are searching for the good and people and positive. I have a positive outlook on what is possible and who we are and what we can be in, and maybe what we should or will be. And I’m wondering if that’s something that is innate in you. Have you always been that guy? Or is that something you cultivate and if it is something you cultivate how?
Oliver Jeffers 11:31
Well I think I think I’m in LA like that. My mother was ill. My whole life, she had Ms. And she passed away when I was was 20. But whenever we asked her how she was she would answer genuinely grit, even though she was bedridden. And it’s she wasn’t lying, because she would she would just re measured her priorities and what it was that she wanted, and you know, any any day, frankly, she saw the sunrise again and got to see her for boys, that was a good thing. That was that was good. And so I think I’ve been brought up with that optimism, and maybe why the optimism started to come through my work was whenever my son and then my daughter was born. And a lot of the things that I felt strongly about in the world I started speaking more publicly about, but I didn’t want to just add to the the noise and the anger. And so I thought, right, okay, you know, I suppose I forced optimism on myself at that point. But the more I did it, the more I realized I actually, you know, this is not Ill find it. And in questioning it even further. It’s like, well, why does it why does it really feel that everything is unraveling so much and everything is falling apart? And is it that things are really getting worse? Or is it that we’re actually not just aware of all of the problems that have always been, but we just can see them all at the same time, instantaneously, everywhere, to the point that we forget the things that have gone well, because bad news is sensational, and is more marketable, and happens very quickly. But good news happens slowly and over a longer period of time, so is less marketable. But when you examine where we are versus, you know, not as individuals, but as a society, or as a species, we, even compared to 100 years ago, we are so much better off, you know, the we have cures for so many more diseases than we did 100 years ago. There’s a lot less war than there was 100 years ago, there’s a lot more upwelling was under years ago, even take what I do. Picture books didn’t exist a century ago, for kids, because kids didn’t live predictably long enough to warrant having their own books. So these are the you know, whenever we take a step back and look at things from a, from a great distance and perspective, we can see that what individually yes, there’s a lot that’s still going wrong. There’s a lot of people who suffered trauma and turmoil and abuse in their life. But overall, we it’s easy to dismiss the progress we as a species have made and will continue to make.
Traci Thomas 13:57
Yeah, I mean, I think one of the big theses of the book, or maybe the thesis, but at least how I read it was that with distance comes perspective. And I feel like, you know, how do we balance distance with the feeling of urgency like that ignites that action that you sort of, you know, that you’re sort of calling for in this book? How do we balance like pulling back and seeing the whole picture, but also still getting riled up enough to like, want to make change?
Oliver Jeffers 14:28
Well, wait, but I wonder if you know, for for a lot of what I’m doing, it’s not necessarily looking at all the problems, but it’s looking in at your own motivation. So I actually think the the biggest thesis of the book is, is an internal model of that you have yourself and changing the way that you tell your own story. So one that’s, frankly, more productive to your existence, rather than just, it’s all falling apart and there’s nothing I can do. It could wear it and you know, it could well go from what’s in it for me, too? How can I help? And you know, that’s a small step that feels much more manageable than how can I save for work? You know, so it’s I think it’s the idea of changing the story that we tell ourselves so that it’s less about me as an individual more about us as a, as a collaborative species, I think, is a good place to start. And, you know, moving away from the ego of being right rather than wrong, and trying to switch your motivation to being better rather than worse. You know, though, I think those are some of the some of the big things. And I use this as a perfect perspective to show some those things. But I, you know, I don’t know how helpful that will be for everybody to do that. from the, from the idea of like, yeah, we’re a tiny speck in the middle of a vast cathedral of nothingness. That’s, that’s overwhelming for some people.
Traci Thomas 15:53
Yeah, it’s overwhelming. For me anything, I think thinking about space, and also thinking about the ocean are two of the most overwhelming stressful things, for me.
Oliver Jeffers 16:03
The two great unknowns. And what can I do about it, but you know, leading on from that, I think that we’re at the tail end of this idea of the individual being all important, you know, it’s all about you as a person, or you are playing the starring role in the film of your life. And of course, whenever that’s been the construct that there has been for the guts of last century, then when pitted against the really existential problem, you feel me as an individual, which you’ve been taught to your whole life, you feel worthless and meaningless, and you can’t do anything about it. But if we can revert back to the idea of it’s actually we’re a community being a species, and changing the way you think about that on a much smaller scale, I think we’ll have will have much more massive ramifications than, than anything else.
Traci Thomas 16:50
Yeah. Okay, I want to ask you a little bit about community because I think, a part of the book, and you know, you’re from Northern Ireland, and you talk about that in the essay, and when you were growing up, you know, the troubles were going on, and it was a very contentious time. And and, you know, that’s just one set of conflict that was happening in the world at that time, and what’s happening now and all of that. But I’m wondering, you know, if we’re thinking about us as a we and a collective and a community and not us versus them, is there a way to really move forward? Do you think and obviously, I know, you don’t have the answer. But these are the thoughts that came up for me. Is there a way to move forward without parsing what’s happened in the past without sort of hashing out who was right and who was wrong? Before we can get to the better?
Oliver Jeffers 17:40
Or, you know, the yeah, these are, these are questions for for much, I think bigger brands in line with the philosophy. It’s an interesting one, where I started recognize that Northern Ireland kind of is a bit of a microcosm for the for the world. And it’s, it’s possibly easier to measure and manage. But there there is a there’s a very real, very delicate debate that’s happening. And with, say, for example, take note that there was there was a report done about justice for crimes that were committed during the troubles that that never went being marked in any way. And there’s this call for justice to be done. And that is a very real, that’s a burial call that these families whose family members or children or parents were murdered, and disappeared, to have no closure of that is, is while fully painful. But as somebody asked at the time, and it’s very delicate, can there be a differentiation between justice and closure, because justice means punishment, which means that somebody is right and somebody is wrong. And by that logic, it the wronged it keeps the wound alive that we carry with us. Whereas closure might be one of the what is necessary, what is needed here, to be able to close this chapter to fill this void, so that the entire country can move forward. So it’s a very frightening question, to put it in terms of should the hurt of one family be sacrificed for the betterment of the entire country? You know, these, these are very, very delicate issues?
Traci Thomas 19:22
Well, so one of the things we talk about a lot on this podcast, because it’s something that I’m super interested in, and actually, I felt like it was in your book, but I’m not sure if it was intentional or just, you know, some of the stuff that you’re thinking about. And just hearing your answer is, all of this sounds a lot like prison and police abolition language and discourse, right, this idea of, it’s not about punishment. And you know, I don’t know that Justice necessarily means punishment. I think the way we’ve interpreted now that’s what it means. But I do think that there’s like a call for punishment when perhaps there’s something different, which I think you’re referring to as closure. Is, is maybe called for, right and like And you know, I don’t know, obviously, not my family, but I’m a black American. So there’s a lot of past racial history in this country that, you know, I still think about, and we also think about and deal with here. And I think like, absolutely, yeah, this call for closure, and, you know, here look sort of look like reparations, it’s like, nobody’s in trouble. Nobody’s being punished for this will play reparations, too. But this idea that we can move forward without some accountability, or some communal calling to account, I think is tricky.
Oliver Jeffers 20:31
Exactly. You know, it’s very, very tricky. And I think the accountability is, is absolutely right. And you can probably look historically at places that have done it in different ways. And others like Germany after World War Two, as well, yeah. versus, you know, Britain right now with their post colonial kind of existence could probably be handling that better, or America. Yeah. Well, I was getting to. But, you know, if, if, if we’re looking, you know, you sort of said about the prison system here, where it’s about punishment closure, it’s like, I wonder if that’s actually not the bottom of that, that debate? If it if it goes much deeper as to let’s look at why so many people are being incarcerated in the first place? Yes. And deal with those issues before we deal with the ones that are stacked on top of it. Right. So I think there’s an awful awful lot of work to be done about questioning the motivations of how we act. Yeah, as, as a species. And, you know, the, we start to see this, this idea of, of separation, and even to again, to wading into delicate territory, but to using those mountains as an example, where the Protestant people for the most of the country’s existence were the majority. And then the Catholics behaving like Catholics, quite literally having more children, they are no longer a majority. And so nine not wanting to be the bottom rung of the ladder, they are lashing out at all other sorts of minorities, simply because they don’t want to prove they’re the bottom. But that’s because the conversation is framed around this network of us versus them and that we are different, right? Whereas there’s much deeper issues that need to be addressed before we can start to address those issues of, of closure. I once joked when somebody asked me in a in a panel in Northern Ireland, what’s, what’s the solution to an Irish problem? And just off the top of my head, I said, maybe it’s collective amnesia. And, you know, if we just were able to sort of wave everybody’s long term memory, would that be a good thing? Like, how would we restructure everything? Without the pain of the past?
Traci Thomas 22:36
Yeah. I mean, that’s tricky, too. I mean, I guess if everybody forgot everything, maybe you could, I guess.
Oliver Jeffers 22:46
I suppose I’m just posing these questions. Often, the issues aren’t the ones that are seemingly obvious and apparent on the surface, it does require going a little deeper and a little deeper, and to looking at the motivation. And there’s a poem at the end of the book, that is called The Art of it. And it says, by asking the why behind the why enough times, you get to truth at the heart of it. And I do think that people stop asking why too soon.
Traci Thomas 23:11
Yeah, I think so too. And I think another thing that you say in the book that again, reminded me a lot of like the abolitionist writers that I read, is you talk about this essay, like what is the world that people want? And one of the things that you say is when when you ask that question, people respond with things they don’t want. They’re like, I don’t want this. I don’t want this. But they don’t necessarily say clearly what it is that they actually do want affirmatively design this world for themselves? Do you see a world for yourself? Clearly, that you want? What are the things that you Oliver Jeffers hoped for?
Oliver Jeffers 23:48
Well, I think my I see a trajectory for myself along these plans and of putting these questions forth. But you know, to be very simplistic about it, I guess I want to leave the US to use no camping motto is actually better than I found it but to make beautiful things and have fun while I’m here. And they they the closure of that poem at the start of the book is, I think what all people want is it is a den a pack position, and direction. Another way of saying that is that everybody wants safety. Everybody wants, dignity, community and purpose. And those things shouldn’t be that hard to accomplish. For everyone, it’s if we can just get out of our own way. And actually speaking of abolitionist, Belfast just two weeks ago, erected a statue to Frederick Douglass. Because he went there to I suppose hone his public speaking skills to come back to the USA to to continue his fight there. So I think that was that was a very cool thing that that that statue has gone up.
Traci Thomas 24:53
That’s very cool. I have to tell you, when I found out that you’re from Northern Ireland, I’m sure I did. What like every American probably does. Do you but I thought, wow, two of my favorite artists you and Van Morrison are northern are from Northern Ireland.
Oliver Jeffers 25:08
Just not gonna believe this but I see him fairly regularly. He goes to the same cafe that I go to at the bottom of my street.
Traci Thomas 25:15
Do you love your music?
Oliver Jeffers 25:18
I think he went a little off the deep end recently, I think. Yeah, but astral astral weeks is probably my favorite album of all time. A lot of people don’t know this but astral weeks. The whole the whole album is based in Belfast like Cypress Avenue. That’s a street in East Belfast. And all of the songs are a boat there.
Traci Thomas 25:36
Yes, I love it. Do you? Do you have to love him? If you’re from Northern Ireland? Is that like a thing? Like I’m from California? And like I live in LA, you have to love Kendrick Lamar kind of thing. You know?
Oliver Jeffers 25:46
No, you know, it’s definitely I think he’s sort of beyond this. But like the tallest poppy syndrome, where you get too big to your station and a final definitely suffers that in the south of Ireland. But I think our Morrison is, is so revered. But then when it’s off the deep end, there’s kind of an unwritten rule was like nobody bothers him. Got a grumpy old man and nobody bothers them. Yeah. So it just gives him his his distance.
Traci Thomas 26:07
Yeah, Astral Weeks is a phenomenal album. My my wedding song is into the mystic which I’m sure like everyone’s wedding song, but I just love him and sweet thing. I just love him Morrison, so much. So I was thrilled to find out that you are also from Northern Ireland, because maybe there’s something in the water there where all the great artists are from there. I don’t know, maybe are just my favorite artists. I don’t know.
Oliver Jeffers 26:28
We definitely punch above our weight there.
Traci Thomas 26:30
Yeah, I love this. I love this for all of us. And I want to just quickly ask you about the title of the book, you mentioned collective amnesia. And I’m wondering if that’s sort of what what you were thinking with the title begin again? Or how you were thinking about it?
Oliver Jeffers 26:51
You know, they Well, the title it? I suppose it is its basic compositional? Language. Because if you if you know that you’re headed in the wrong direction, what do you do? I don’t really know what else I could have called it. But I was thinking about this, that watching my wife the way she’s just a brilliant natural mother, and, and kind of watching how she interacts with our kids, I noticed that I’m able to apply this to various conflicts of the world over the surest way to get somebody to change their mind is not by telling them that they’re wrong. And actually, the best way to do it is to just simply tell a more engaging story. So in some ways like that there doesn’t need to be resolution to something people just get more interested in something else. And they literally just Switzerland’s watch it with my kids all the time, and you watch it happen with adults. And in a strange way, that’s kind of exactly what Trump did in 2016, by United a very disparate group of people, by telling them all a story that was more interesting than the one that we’re hearing, and that included them. And so there wasn’t necessarily a resolution that was just, oh, this is more interesting. So, if but that that story happened to be about an anger and hate and blame, and I believe it’s possible that the same trick can be done with a story that’s about hope, and inclusion.
Traci Thomas 28:18
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if you ever heard of Barack Obama, but his, his whole retelling of the story, it was similar. I mean, he had a hope and change message that included a lot of people that had felt left out to you. But
Oliver Jeffers 28:29
Yeah, but I do wonder if it showed general just like how deep the roots of racism around here, that that a lot of people couldn’t win themselves over to that message, simply because it was coming from the body that that brain and habits, which is it’s wildly, you know, wildly tragic and unfortunate. But I guess you cannot deal with a force that you can’t see.
Traci Thomas 28:53
Yeah, but I think on the flip side, I think that, you know, with Brock Obama’s campaign, what we saw were, like, so many people who had felt left out who hadn’t had the message, you know, for them who registered to vote for the first time. And like, all of those things, and I think, you know, and just like with your example of Trump, he told a more interesting story to a certain group of people, just like Obama told a more interesting story to a different group of people. But I think like, that’s the thing about politics is that it gets really divisive. And it does become so much US versus Thanos. You know, and it’s tricky to find the story that includes everyone, I guess, or like, includes enough people to feel transformative.
Oliver Jeffers 29:31
I think, especially when it comes from a structure that’s designed to be Yeah, you know, almost like self defensive, where, you know, you ask any politician what their single biggest objective is when getting elected, and normally it’s to get reelected is the so it’s and they’ll do whatever it takes to do that. And, you know, there’s some societies like in Sweden, I think in Norway, they’re there they’re talking about no longer having career politicians but more Like elaborate jury duty, where people are lifted out and asked to govern. And I guess, you know, then decisions are made that aren’t about getting reelected or power but about what’s what actually society needs?
Traci Thomas 30:12
Because that’s such an interesting idea, experiment. process.
Oliver Jeffers 30:18
Because yeah, you know, and I think that there’s a there’s a book that I read a lot that I based in, aren’t you on, and it’s definitely coming to my, my thinking an awful lot with with this project. And it was written in the 1960s. It’s called the operating manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller. And, you know, in any sort of, there’s two, two points that I kept coming back to, and one of them is the main one, I guess, is that he puts forward the idea that if we treated our planet as a mechanical vehicle, oh, yes, which in many ways it is. Because it’s the spaceship on space through which we’re all passengers, we were treated very differently than we actually do. You know, it’s like, if you’re a car owner, and you’ve a flat tire, you know, you need to pump it up, and you’ve run out of gas, you need to refill it, so on and so forth. But we’re not treating our our spaceship that way. But the other one that I think is really interesting, is on page one of the book, he says, if you’re in a shipwreck, and a piano comes along, it would make an excellent floatation device. But that’s not to say the best way to design a floatation device is to make it look like a piano. But that’s what we have as, as a society have done all too often. Just because it works. Once doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.
Traci Thomas 31:23
Right. Right. And you have that moment in the book that I guess I’m obviously assuming it’s coming from this thinking is the moment where it’s like, if we all thought of ourselves as the crew of the ship instead of passengers, we would treat it differently. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Oliver Jeffers 31:37
And the the astronaut Nicole Stott says that an awful lot. And I had the pleasure of doing an event with her once and you know, she’s been up to the International Space Station, and has been one of the people who’s experienced the overview. And it is, it’s such a simple way to think about it. Like if you’re on a, say, a cruise ship, you expect me to do everything for you. Whereas if you’re on a two person, rowboat, and you’re something that seems like you’re expected to pitch in, it’s a very different attitude. Yeah. Can we collectively go from one to the other?
Traci Thomas 32:06
Yeah, I want to ask you a little bit about your process. First, with this book, you know, I’ve read it, I read it about three times. And as I was reading it, I was, you know, the first time I started was reading the words and looking at the pictures. And then the second time, I was really focusing on the words. And then the third time, I was looking a lot at the pictures. And I’m wondering, the illustrations, I’m wondering how you approach something like this? Do you write out the full text and like, as like a poem or a piece of prose, and then illustrate from there? Are there images that are coming into your head that you have to get down and you try to kind of find the right words for them? Is it a mix is that neither?
Oliver Jeffers 32:43
It’s a little bit of both, and each book is slightly different? You know? So like, a lot of my early books, it’s definitely I understand the feeling that I want to convey or the gun, you know, if you pitch your story in your mind, the it’s comes to you in both pictures and words, but they’re sort of in the cinema from each other. And then how do you get that out? It’s a little bit of both. So some of the books have been like that. Here we are started as a letter to my son. So it was written in its entirety, before I thought to put pictures to it, and we’ll build Thank you. And what we’ll build was written as a as a poem to my daughter. So it was also written its entirety before I put pictures too. And with with this one, it was a little bit of both where it was mostly written. Then once I started putting the images in, I was able to say, well, what can I take on what that’s being said or show more powerfully in the images? So it’s letting the image do the work rather than just as an added on? Decoration?
Traci Thomas 33:42
That makes sense. As I mentioned, here we are and what we’re building are two of our families, like most favorite books, can I just ask you like a really inside baseball about what we’ll build? Is that pig is that your daughter’s lovey?
Oliver Jeffers 33:55
Yeah, she’s a little stuff. And it’s sort of it became personified to a degree and sort of like, became a character. And she’s moved on. She’s got a new favorite one night. Which, which makes me sad, but you know, it’s, it’s her life. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And the Foxen that I kind of realized, after I’ve made the art is, I think, actually the representation of my mother who my daughter is named after. Because I was as when I was making that the spread with the fox first appears. It wasn’t it wasn’t in the sketches, I just sort of intuitively drew it in and then kept it in and I noticed that I was listening to my mom’s favorite music and at the time, when I was only when I was done, I realized like, wait a minute, that’s I just put my mother in this book and sort of subconsciously, but yeah, from here we are and then which is about the you know, the just the simple joy and pleasures and beauty of what it is to be alive on earth and 21st century. So the fate of foster which very much questions the, the structure of growth and greed that we reward through to what we’ll build which is about to the power of recognizing that the future is yet to be written, and doing that together. And then with Meanwhile, back on Earth, which is about viewing problems, from a great perspective, from a great distance, I think it’s this, this combination of all of these things has led up to, to begin again.
Traci Thomas 35:17
Yeah, I love that. I just, I love that I love the books, one of the things that I really appreciate about it as a parent, and I’m sure you’ve read the books with other children through the course of your travels and things, but I get so excited because when my kids are reading your books, they’re always stopping and asking questions and being like, Mommy, look, it’s a this or that, and it just feels like, and I get a lot out of them. And I think with a lot of children’s books, they’re very clearly written for kids, or they’re very clearly written for adults, which I really hate when there’s like, you know, it’s like these books are for adults, hey, no five year old cares about this. But your books like there’s so much to look at visually, that’s so exciting. And so stimulating. And also, the words are so beautiful. I mean, here we are, was a gift that I got from my bridal shower from my, my aunt and uncle. And our first copy my kids as babies, we read it 20 times and loved it and but as they got older in that destructive stage, they ripped it to pieces. And so when your publisher sent me beginning again, they actually sent me a replacement copy, because we had like, really worn the book to death. Like all the pages were out the sea page was just like half of it. They could only see the diver side they couldn’t see the icebergs I just was like we need and when we got it back and read it again, like a few weeks ago, it was it’s back on the table every day we read it just love, love, love. How do you like to write? How do you like to draw? How many hours a day? How often? Where are you? Do you listen to music, snacks or beverages? What’s your creative process like?
Oliver Jeffers 36:46
None of that is predictable. I think you just got to recognize when it’s on, and forgive yourself when it’s not. Some days, nothing good is coming at the end of your pencil or under your head and you just you by hammering away at things, you often tend to make them worse, I think it’s it’s important recognize days like that, go, go see your dad or go for a walk, just don’t have too many days like that. But then equally on the other side, there’s some days where you get a month’s worth of work done. And it’s having, I suppose the forgiving enough family and the discipline to just stay and work with a while it’s there. So I tend to do some of the better creative thinking when it’s either late at night, or I’m on an airplane or taking a walk when there’s less distraction. And I think you know, I have to jot things down in a notebook and force out some time to, to bring a few things together. But it’s Yeah, I think it’s just recognizing your own momentum. Yeah, getting out of your own way.
Traci Thomas 37:43
And when you do feel stuck, if if it is a few days in a row, you know, you go on a walk, you do these things and you realize it’s been a week or two, is there something that you do to tap into creativity? Yeah,
Oliver Jeffers 37:52
I just move on to a different problem, because I’ve normally got several projects on the go. So if one thing is not happening, don’t try and hammer to death, and just move on to the next project. And then often the solution or some point of entry will will present itself when you’re not really thinking about it. Or when some other thing happens that you connect subconsciously to that. So yeah, you just move on to something else.
Traci Thomas 38:18
Yeah. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer or a visual artist, or
Oliver Jeffers 38:25
I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Yeah, I was wanting to be a panther. I thought I was going to be a panther before it occurred to me to make books. Once I learned that, that was an actual job. I was like, yeah, that’s, that’s for me. Yeah, and never really looked back.
Traci Thomas 38:39
And is the handwriting in the books? Is that your actual handwriting? Or is that like a, like a drawing version of your handwriting?
Oliver Jeffers 38:47
No, that’s my actual handwriting. Um, if I’m writing something really quickly, like scribbling a note to myself really quickly, I’ll tend to use cursive a little more just for speed. But the I work with a lot of different materials, you know, all pants and colored pencils, and collage and, and all sorts and in Brooklyn, New York, space is a premium. So I need to add more, I could do with a studio three times larger. So everything is has its as its place. And I need to know where things are. Because when I work, I tend to work urgently and quickly. And so I took to, you know, years and years and years ago labeling drawers and labeling things and, and it is my handwriting, but I just want to take a little more care. I sort of, I enjoy it looked in. And I can turn the volume up on a little bit, but it’s by and large that tie right.
Traci Thomas 39:38
I love that. And where are you? Are you in Brooklyn now? I was trying to figure out where you’re left, but it said a lot of different options on the internet. Yeah.
Oliver Jeffers 39:47
I’m in Brooklyn right now. And we we decided that we would travel around the world with our then one year old and four year old before they started school and we got we rented our apartment in Brooklyn and we got caught The sound of the world when the pandemic hit with nowhere to go. So we ended up going back to Northern Ireland, and my dad then got sick. And so we decided we would hang around there for a bit. But now that my kids are in school, and we’re sort of relishing the benefit of having a lot of family around and open space, so my main studio still unbroken, so I pop back and forth a little bit, my wife a little less frequently, and then the kids a couple of times a year.
Traci Thomas 40:26
Okay, so that’s why I couldn’t get a clear answer, because it’s, it’s a lot of fun. Okay, I feel better about my shirt skills. Is there anything that’s not in this book that you wish could be?
Oliver Jeffers 40:37
No, because I think there’s enough, it’s because otherwise it runs the risk of overcomplicating, and I’m actually in the process of preparing a talk to give when I’m on tour with this book, and, you know, sort of recognizing the strands, the points of the, as you say, like the thesis of it, and there’s, there’s a few and they weave in and out of each other. And so the talk that I’m trying to give is more, I suppose it’s closer to the essay at the back, it’s about the things the book is about, rather than the actual book. But you know, that distance comes to perspective, the power of community, the power of storytelling, and sort of recognizing that we have all been convinced we’re victims and are acting defensively as a result of that, you know, these all of these themes and threads, they’re enough. I think, if I were to throw any more in here, it would just be, you know, my mother might all cram at the door, and nothing would get through.
Traci Thomas 41:34
Yeah, were there any parts of this book that stick out to you as being particularly easy or particularly difficult?
Oliver Jeffers 41:41
Easy and difficult? It’s not it’s the it’s not the right answers. I think there’s there’s bits that are more profound than others, because it’s just, you know, when it’s in the fluids in the flow. And it’s easier to talk abstractly about the feeling of something than spelling it out, which is why I’m having a harder time with the talk than with the actual book. May it may, as we said that nobody remembers what you say they just remember how they make you feel. And so it is it’s that idea of a feeling. But you know, I think of the spreads to the ones that are more important for right now i i the very obvious one at the end is that we need to tell better stories and a bigger one that includes everybody, which is a doable task, I think. But the other ones, I think that that needs to happen before that can work is the spread where it’s, you know, after hearing a good joke or a good story with the first thing we think to do is Who can we tell is recognizing that actually what we really want is each other. Coupled with the why we may not be cogs in the machine, designed to be replaceable parts, we are trees in the forest, no one more important than any other. And I think that sort of flies in the face of, of liberalism, and a lot of ways where it is is like you as an individual are all important. And everybody matters. And without I haven’t said it this way, because it sounds sort of harsh and heartless, the what I’m sort of trying to say is like, everybody wants to matter, but and in a sort of a weird, dark way. Nobody actually really matters. It’s the collective, it’s the, the amount of us and the forest of us. That is actually what matters. And if we can kind of use that as a base understanding, I think it makes the telling of a better story. All the more simple.
Traci Thomas 43:29
Yeah, one of the images that really sticks out to me, is the one where we’re all kings of our own castle. And then there’s like the recording device and he’s sitting on the pile of the junk. I found that one to really just really resonate of like, what it feels like to be on social media or like a person alive right now.
Oliver Jeffers 43:51
Yeah, this edited reality of who you are. And you know, I think there’s there’s a lack of ability and willingness for people to talk about mental health that’s changing more so here than in the UK or in Northern Ireland. But it’s the you know, what we were saying earlier is like when you ask somebody what they want they tend to answer what they don’t want but also sometimes when if they don’t do that they’ll answer with a bunch of stuff like money or power or whatever. But I think you know again, if you go to applying the ask the next why he was like why you know what is what is money it’s it’s leverage, what do you want that leverage for? What do you want stuff for right? And I think it’s it’s the slow chipping away of just the recognition that we we just we all just want to be loved.
Traci Thomas 44:40
Yeah. Do you have any favorite image in the book doesn’t have to be the most profound but just an image that you’re like I nailed that. All over it.
Oliver Jeffers 44:52
Yeah, well to the I think the fire at the start because I really loved how the the the ink overlay works with the neon color and took a lot of expose are mountains for that? Yeah, that one. And I think the the one where it’s the the pier where it’s like the you know the that’s how it’s always been the slow passing of stories to and for each other and stories that give us an idea of where we fit in the long line of time and a safe harbor. Because it was it was a very technically tricky image to make, especially when mixing in those the neon colors this one so that one yeah, yeah, I’m pretty happy with how that one turned on.
Traci Thomas 45:25
I love this one. Okay, this is so important. What is a word? You can never spell correctly on the first try? And because you’re an artist, what is the thing that you can’t draw? And you can’t say hands because you are Mr. Hands. You’re like the only artist I ever knew who was like I just dropped tons of hands.
Oliver Jeffers 45:46
I can’t spell dyslexia. Oh, like why did Why’d they make that such a hard word? Feels a little- Bicycles. I have a very hard time drawing bicycles. Interesting. You starting to like, Wait, where did where does the? What’s the engineering here?
Traci Thomas 46:02
Yeah, yeah, I’m, I’m a terrible speller. And also, I’m a terrible draw driver driver. And I don’t have that many artists on the show, because this is a show a lot a lot about books. But I know from people who draw that hands is like a very common answer to that. And so I found it funny when I was thinking about writing on my question. I’m reading the book. And I’m like, Well, I he better not say hands, because he does it all the time, like in the hands?
Oliver Jeffers 46:30
Well, again, you know, like, if you look at a lot of the 100 just a scribble is a gesture. And your brain sort of fills in. It’s like it knows how it wants to be felt. So it’s just there’s just some simplistic gesture about it that just does the emotional job of storytelling.
Traci Thomas 46:47
Yeah, I know that you mentioned the talk. And I know that as we’re speaking now the book is not out but as people are listening it is out you can go get it. Do you know what comes next for you?
Oliver Jeffers 46:56
I do I trying to take there’s there’s a few developments ripples outwards from this project where I am starting experiment with taking some of these concepts as larger paintings, but then also some of the talking points and how they might how they might be represented on on stage. Why live drawing? So I’m starting to play with some ideas like that.
Traci Thomas 47:19
I love that. Can people buy your art?
Oliver Jeffers 47:24
Yeah, they can. But there’s not an awful lot of it out there because I you know, I’ve one foot in the fine art world and one foot in the publishing world. But I’ve a gallery that’s based out of Boston where I have a show every few years and and yeah, it’s called Praise Shadows.
Traci Thomas 47:39
Praise Shadows. Okay. I’ll link to it in the show notes. For people who love begin again, what are some other books that you might recommend to them that are in conversation with what you’ve made?
Oliver Jeffers 47:48
There’s a lot of history books like the guns, germs and steel, the People’s History of the United States. Sapiens for the Yuval Noah Harare, the operating manual for Spaceship Earth that I that I mentioned. There’s someone’s like that. And there’s another quite abstract one, the big I am by Ralph Steadman, which is sort of a graphic collection of paintings that this you know, he’s just reminiscing on the idea of existence at all. Other things, there’s probably some more that have come in and coming in one eye and out the other.
Traci Thomas 48:23
Yeah. What do you hope people will keep in mind as they read begin again.
Oliver Jeffers 48:28
I guess what I hope that people keep in mind is just to check their own motivation and to, to apply more empathy. There’s, there’s an old Zen mantra that says, Be gentle with everyone, for we all carry a great weight. Nobody sets out to be an asshole. And often, it’s just stories that are misconstrued. Be gentle with yourself, be gentle with others, and tell yourself a better story, one that is leading towards a productive outcome, rather than an aggressive defense one.
Traci Thomas 48:58
I love that. Okay, last question. If you could have one person dead or alive read this book. Who would you want it to be?
Oliver Jeffers 49:05
Oh my goodness. Carl Sagan.
Traci Thomas 49:10
Okay, great. That’s it. You nailed it. Everybody you can get begin again. Wherever you get your books. It is out in the world. I highly encourage that you do. Also, if you’ve never read Oliver Jeffers, other children’s books, get them for the people in your life who are parents or not or children are not there. So so good. All the books are beautiful. add to your collection. My fav. Thank you so much for being here.
Oliver Jeffers 49:38
Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
Traci Thomas 49:40
And everyone else, we will see you in the stacks.
Alright, y’all, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you to Oliver Jeffers for being our guest. I’d also like to thank Shawna Nuland for coordinating this episode. Remember, our book club pick for October is tar baby by Toni Morrison which we will discuss on October 25, with guest Minda Honey. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the snacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcast be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks. Follow us on social media at the stats pod on Instagram threads and tick tock and at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter. And of course you can check out our website at the stackspodcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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