Books

I don’t simplify my work to cater to an audience: Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers and his son at work

Oliver Jeffers and his son at work   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The writer-illustrator on his new book, ‘The Fate of Fausto’, juggling a busy schedule, and focussing on fatherhood

This time last year, artist, writer and illustrator Oliver Jeffers was at Idem Paris, the renowned fine-art printing studio that formed the subject of David Lynch’s 2013 short documentary of the same name. He had been visiting sporadically over the course of a year to use Idem’s manual lithography press to work on his art for his latest picture book (or ‘painted fable’ as he calls it), The Fate of Fausto. “In bookmaking, unlike in fine art, the finished piece is the product,” he says, about his decision to return to a traditional technique. “Books are art that’s meant to be mass-produced, and I wanted to honour the timelessness of the process.” And with the “inevitability of technology” and increasingly digital processes, he saw lithography as a fitting homage to the craft.

The cover of ‘The Fate of Fausto’

The cover of ‘The Fate of Fausto’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The story of Fausto — an arrogant man who believes he owns everything, including trees, oceans and mountains — has been with the 43-year-old artist for five years now (“It came to me in a span of 10 minutes”). But he decided at the time to focus instead on his other picture book (his first work of non-fiction), Here We Are (2017). Inspired by the birth of his son, Harland, the #1 New York Times bestseller was Jeffers’ effort to introduce the (then) newest member of his family to the vastness of the world, ending with the comforting words, “You are never alone on Planet Earth.”

A metaphor for today

Unlike Here We Are, and his earlier, heartwarming books — which he has been publishing since 2004 and which, he reminds me, are not ‘children’s books’ but ‘picture books’— The Fate of Fausto has a more grim tone. It portrays a selfish protagonist who seems to care little for his surroundings. Sparse illustrations and text are interspersed with large swathes of white space, and somehow, the aesthetic minimalism only serves to make Fausto less relatable as a character.

Jeffers at work

Jeffers at work   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I can’t help but wonder if the story is a metaphor for the environmental crisis that has come to define our present times. “I hope a reader takes away the notion that they’re not separate from, or superior to, their environment,” Jeffers says, when I ask him. “We might feel like the world is not going to be around in the future, but the truth is, the world will be around for much longer than we are.” And, he says, if the story felt timely five years ago, it sadly feels urgent now.

Beyond the obvious

A big part of Jeffers’ perspective comes from his experience growing up in Northern Ireland, attending an integrated school that brought together children from across the religious divide. “When I moved to the US [over a decade ago], I viewed the conflict back home very differently — people weren’t thinking about it the same way here. I also realised that maps are political devices that lean into supporting whoever is making them. Africa is, like, three times larger than it is portrayed on maps, and Greenland is tiny. It is often made much larger so that Europe is in the centre,” he says.

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Imparting this evolved perspective (and accompanying sense of wonder) to younger audiences has been Jeffers’ forte. His books have sold over eight million copies worldwide, and they pack a punch with the simple language and whimsical art. His 2010 book, The Heart and the Bottle, for instance, tells the story of a girl who copes with the loss of a loved one by locking her heart in a bottle. The author takes the reader on a journey of discovery, showing us the ways in which his protagonist mends herself to find beauty in life again. “I don’t simplify my work to cater to an audience,” says Jeffers, about making his work so relatable to young readers. “I present things the way I see them, and I don’t think much about the audience.”

Looking back
  • 2019 has been a busy year for Jeffers, not least because of his new book.
  • In January, he unveiled his public installation, The Moon, The Earth and Us, featuring scaled replicas of the moon and the earth, placed one city block away from each other at New York’s High Line neighbourhood.
  • April saw the opening of a two-month solo show, Observations on Modern Life, at the Lazinc in London. Showcasing around 50 of his works from the past decade, it highlighted his fascination with cartography and the interconnectedness of the world.

He confides that he manages to get so much done because he is so organised (his to-do lists in his Brooklyn studio are a favourite talking point in his circle), and that the final form — picture books, illustrations, words, fine art — really doesn’t matter. “I don’t always start a project knowing what medium it’ll take,” he confesses.

Like with Here We Are, Jeffers agrees that fatherhood has made him more aware of the power of stories we share with each other. But he is careful not to force his children towards them. “It is more of a shared enthusiasm, and a love for reading,” he says. “I think enthusiasm is very contagious.” He is also candid about how his life has changed in other ways after the birth of his two children. “I have less time now,” he laughs. “I used to be most productive in the early evenings and nights, but that’s not always possible now.”

That is why the prolific artist has decided to take a year-long sabbatical after Fausto’s release and an accompanying two-week exhibit (about the story and techniques behind the book) at Sotheran’s Rare Book and Prints in London. What plans does he have for the months ahead? “Family,” he says, simply.

The Fate of Fausto released last month, and is available on amazon.com for approximately ₹1,597.

On writer’s block
  • “I do have moments of writer's block where I don't know how to solve something. I've also got days where I really don't feel like doing anything. You just sort of force your way through it, you simply move on to the next thing and then go back to the thing that was blocked a day, a week, a month later. And if it doesn't unlock itself, you do the same thing. You move on and come back again. I've always found that that has worked for me every single time.”

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 5:21:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/oliver-jeffers-the-fate-of-fausto/article29594803.ece

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