Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Oliver Jeffers

h1 March 23rd, 2010 by jules

Can you imagine me here with my 7-Imp notepad, and I’m making a check on it? I’m checking off the name of illustrator and painter Oliver Jeffers, as I’ve always wanted him to visit 7-Imp and have coffee with me over breakfast. Honestly, I’m not that organized. No such 7-Imp notepad exists; it’s more like a scattered mess of chicken-scratch notes on my desk, but you get the idea.

I’m going to fall back on the old tired but true List of Seven Reasons It’s Good to Have This Particular Visitor Here Today:

1). Oliver’s Lost and Found (Philomel, 2006) is one of my Top Best Most Favorite Adored Beloved Treasured Apple-of-My-Eye picture books in all the world. Ever read it? It includes these two chaps . . .

. . . and it’s been adapted by StudioAKA into a half-hour animated film I haven’t seen yet (boo) and which, by all accounts, is incredibly faithful to the book, doing it justice and all that important stuff to us picture book nerds. (If you click on the aforementioned “StudioAKA” link, you can see clips from the film, and below is the trailer.)

2). Oliver’s latest title, The Heart and the Bottle, was released by Philomel this month and tells the story of a curious young girl who locks her heart (and wonder for life) up safe in a bottle and hangs it ’round her neck at the loss of what appears to be her only caretaker (either a father or grandfather). “And that seemed to fix things . . . Although, in truth, nothing was the same. She forgot about the stars . . . and stopped taking notice of the sea.” It is is simply beautiful, Publishers Weekly calling it a “quietly powerful treatment of grief.” While we’re on the subject of the professional reviewers, Kirkus wrote:

The author beautifully weaves themes of love, loss and healing into a stirring story. Tender illustrations, dense with detail when the protagonist’s imagination is thriving and sparse when her heart is disembodied, deftly delineate the character’s emotional state. The sophisticated palette creates a consistency across the pages, and the artwork, meticulously constructed and edited with a uniquely minimalist aesthetic, is signature Jeffers. Heartbreaking, witty and filled with hope…

I can already hear the naysayers declaring that this story is really a book for grown-ups in the guise of children’s lit, but I won’t agree. Children know what loss is, and Oliver’s story handles the subject with the utmost grace.

3). He is pretty much fearless when it comes to making art. Observant readers will notice the tiny-print note preceding the title page of The Heart and the Bottle that says, “The art for this book was made from all sorts of stuff. Some watercolor, some bits from old books, some gouache, a little amount of technology, some acrylic and even a bit of house paint. I think there is some oil paint on one page. But that might have been an accident.”

4). The very funny and entirely unexpected die-cut moment at the curtain call of The Incredible Book-Eating Boy (Philomel, 2007).

Hey, wait. Let’s take another moment to appreciate Lost and Found, this time the ending of the book, my favorite Oliver-Jeffers moment ever:

5). The brand-new product line that Oliver created with his two studio mates, You and Me the Royal We. “The product line is based on a simple concept: when Oliver, Mac or Aaron thinks of a product that would be cool but doesn’t exist yet, they figure out how to make it.” This, in particular, makes me laugh every time.

6). Good stuff like this happens when he gets involved in The Vader Project (Revenge of the Brits).

7). Oh yeah. And Oliver has never once made a picture book I didn’t like. That didn’t blow me away with its quirky sense of humor and charm. Yes, I just said “quirky” and “charm,” and I’m going to go to Reviewer Hell for using those used-and-abused adjectives. But Oliver has the real quirk and the real charm. I’m always impressed with how much he communicates with his minimalist style.

Oliver’s breakfast-of-choice this morning? “Of choice?” he said. “A sugar and lemon crêpe with a side of bacon, a proper cappuccino, and a freshly-squeezed orange. Of necessity: A bowl of cheerios and a cup of coffee.” I say we go for the crêpe and cappuccino. Or how about just all of the above. Actually, I’m going to serve him a beer, too. As you’ll see below, he’s really hankerin’ for one. Let’s get to the interview. First, we’ll set the table and get the basics from him before our seven questions over breakfast. I thank him kindly for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Oliver: I like to refer to myself as an artist, an illustrator, and a children’s book-maker. Only because it rhymes.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?


7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Oliver: My earlier picture books were entirely watercolor until The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, when I found myself in possession of several hundred second-hand books, which I painted on top of with acrylic and Dulux One Coat. My latest two books, The Great Paper Caper and The Heart in the Bottle, are a mixture of acrylic painting, collage, coloured pencil, and digital illustration.

Spread from Lost and Found (Philomel, 2006)

Unused art from Lost and Found

Unused idea from Lost and Found

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Oliver: I was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but moved to New York a few years ago. I am currently stomping around Brooklyn.

Spreads from The Way Back Home (Philomel, 2008)

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Oliver: I had known for a long time that I liked to write and draw pictures. When I was in my final year of Visual Communication at university, I was still buying and collecting children’s picture books for my own enjoyment. That year, for a piece of coursework, I used a character based on an extension of myself from an earlier project (which eventually turned in the character of ‘the boy’) to develop my own picture book. When I graduated, I decided to try and get it published. I knew I was in for a long and trying road of numerous attempts contacting publishers, repeatedly saying ‘have you read it yet?’ I sent a small sample book to the ten biggest publishing companies I could think of, figuring I would start at the top and work my way down. Expecting a healthy dose of being ignored and avoided, I was extremely surprised when I received a phone call from Harper Collins the next afternoon expressing their desire to publish my book.

Above and middle are spreads from How to Catch a Star (Philomel, 2004);
bottom is an early drawing from the book.

7-Imp: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


Sketch and final spreads from The Incredible Book-Eating Boy (Philomel, 2007)

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Oliver: My new book, The Heart and the Bottle, is being released the day after tomorrow. {Ed. Note: The book’s already been released; I’ve had this interview for a few weeks now, though at the time Oliver responded, the book was not yet released.} It is the story of a young girl whose life is filled with wonder, until an empty chair causes the girl to put her heart in a bottle to keep it from being hurt again. I am about to move onto working on my next book, which will see the return of the boy and the penguin.

A page from Oliver’s sketchbook

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set now for our breakfast interview, and we’re ready to dig into our crêpes. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Oliver again for stopping by.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Oliver: I begin with a single idea, which usually comes from a drawing, and then tease that out in my sketchbook with hundreds of other drawings and pieces of writing that explore how the narrative can grow and extend into something that is satisfying. Once I’ve got a basic plot, I work with my editor in streamlining everything down to fit the thirty-two-page format. (All picture books, with very few exceptions, are thirty-two pages.)

Getting the story to flow between those thirty-two pages is probably the most difficult part. It’s like directing a film, where the pace needs to be set and decisions made of what goes where. It’s at this point that many of the compositions get cut. There is a careful balance between what the pictures are showing and what the words are saying, and if something is shown, it often doesn’t need to be said. This is a great advantage of both writing and illustrating stories, as someone who just writes comes up with the entire manuscript before it is considered visually and much potential for interaction has gone.

So, once everyone is agreed on the layout, I make black and white line art of every illustration. I then work with the publishers designer on laying out exactly where the text will go before I go to final art. So, once all the text has been properly designed and laid out, I lock myself in a room for about six weeks and transfer the line art onto watercolor paper using a light-box and just get stuck in basically. I stop when it looks right.

The sketches and final art featured in this response are from
The Way Back Home (Philomel, 2008).

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Oliver: I share a studio with two other people, a sculptor/ animator and a jeweler, in Brooklyn. As I am also an artist and do quite a number of large-scale painting, I have divided my space into three parts, one part for painting, photography, and 3D work; one for any illustrations, picture books, typography; and one for digital artworking and office work.

3. 7-Imp: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Oliver: The Bad-Tempered Ladybird by Eric Carle and Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer are the two ones that jump out. And anything by Roald Dahl.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Oliver: Ralph Steadman, Eric Carle, and Saul Steinberg.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Oliver: I am currently listening to “Woo Hoo” by The’s. It was on a playlist given to me by my brother. My studio is on street level in busy Brooklyn, so its good to have something to drown out the noise.

Oliver’s Song Writing Machine; 2007 (guitar neck, typewriter, and glue)

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Oliver: I eat my cereal without any milk.

Sketch and spread from The Great Paper Caper (Philomel, 2009)

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Oliver: “Would you like a beer?” Yes. Please.

One of Oliver’s still life paintings

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Oliver: “The.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Oliver: “a.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Oliver: Roasting a chicken.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Oliver: A lack of manners.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Oliver: “C*** ******** *** dumpster.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Oliver: “Would you like a beer?”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Oliver: The rattling in my hard drive that I can’t quite place.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Oliver: Dry slope ski instructor.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Oliver: The person who operated the machine that took all the bites out of the back of my book, The Incredible Book-Eating Boy. I met him, and watching him work made me very nervous, but I can confirm he had all his fingers.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Oliver: “Would you like a beer?”

* * * * * * *

This is a good video for those wanting to learn a bit more about Oliver’s book-making process:

All artwork and sketches used with permission of Oliver Jeffers. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in September 2009. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.

44 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Oliver Jeffers”

  1. What a wonderful interview! Oliver Jeffers is one of my all time favorite illustrators. That video at the end was brilliant 🙂

  2. Absolutely fab! I really enjoyed reading that , thanks. We only recently read the book eating boy from the library. My little girl loved it!

  3. This is incredible. You are so blessed to get such amazing interviews. Tell me do you actually meet these people, or do you do an email/telephone interview? If you meet them then you certainly have all the best authors illustrators in your area and i’m moving there right away.
    I adore Oliver Jeffers. Lost and Found makes me cry.

  4. This is one of my favorite interviews, which is truly something because they’re all terrific.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on The Heart and the Bottle. Thanks so much for this peek into Mr. Jeffers’s process and beer enthusiasm!

  5. Wow. That video is brilliant, and his paintings/creations make me want to step away from my digital illustrating and get my hands dirty again. I’ll be ordering his books now. Thanks!

  6. I absolutely love Oliver Jeffers’ style (the art and the stories). He is so original, and everything has such interesting detail. I have only read The Incredible Book Eating Boy and Lost and Found, but I plan on reading all of his work, and using it in my classroom! Thanks for this interview!
    Oliver, please continue to make children’s books!

  7. Oliver Jeffers! One of my favorites currently working today! Awesome interview

  8. Creativity just explodes off these pages. Thanks for another great interview…I just ordered all of these books from the library (again).

  9. Thanks for sharing in the Oliver-Jeffers geekery with me, you all (as in geeky fan-dom). Lucy, no, these are all cyber-breakfasts. I wish they were real. I live in Tennessee. Not exactly a hub for children’s lit illustration, but I try to make it a cyber-hub. Thanks for the sweet compliments.

    I don’t know about you all, but Eisha and I are rather humbled by his curse-word of choice. We email each other with new curses on a regular basis, trying our best to outdo one another (I guess we’re easily entertained), and so I pointed this out to her. And we have realized we are in the presence of a master here. A professional, no less. We’ll be wondering about that curse for days.

    Of course, his talent is more impressive than his ability to curse impressively, but I’m just sayin’….as someone who appreciates a good creative curse.

    Thanks for visiting, all.

  10. Oh, that mustache is dreamy! Oliver’s books are so marvelous. I loved The Incredible Book-Eating Boy. Thanks for the great interview!

  11. Milkless cereal, beer for breakfast, lemon crepes! Champion curser and brilliant artist. Thank you, thankyouverymuch!!

  12. Yowza! I had a bookcrush on Oliver Jeffers even before I saw that astonishing mustache, but now my little heart is going pitter-pat! Thanks for sharing the wonderful interview, too.

  13. […] The Incredible Book-Making Boy — Super talented author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers, whose new book The Heart and the Bottle was published earlier this month, interviewed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: I begin with a single idea… and then tease that out in my sketchbook with hundreds of other drawings and pieces of writing that explore how the narrative can grow and extend into something that is satisfying. Once I’ve got a basic plot, I work with my editor in streamlining everything down to fit the thirty-two-page format…  Getting the story to flow between those thirty-two pages is probably the most difficult part. It’s like directing a film, where the pace needs to be set and decisions made of what goes where. It’s at this point that many of the compositions get cut. There is a careful balance between what the pictures are showing and what the words are saying, and if something is shown, it often doesn’t need to be said. […]

  14. Wow. Just wow. I think have to go buy the Heart in the Bottle tomorrow.

  15. Meant The Heart and the Bottle.

    Also totally forgot to mention I am soooo intrigued by the curse word…any chance we can somehow find out? I would rank that one up there with the person who uses “Mary F#$%^& Poppins!” which has been my favorite from these interviews til now.

  16. Such a great interview! So wonderful to see all of the art on display.

    I too would like to be greeted at the pearly gates with the question “Would you like a beer?”. Or maybe “Would you like a blanc de blancs?”. Yes, that one. But in the same spirit (!).

  17. RM, maybe Oliver will stop by and tell us? Ooh, that’d be fun!

    Sarah, I’d take a glass of wine, too.

    Thanks, everyone, for visiting…

  18. His publisher has a poster of a new book of his called “Up and Down” here at the Bologna book fair. It appears to be a sequel to “Lost and Found.”

  19. I’m pretty near heaven. Over my lunchbreak today first the postman delivered my own copy of The Heart in the Bottle, and now I’ve just found and savoured your interview with the man himself. Just perfect!

  20. GREAT interview! I feel so inspired after reading this.

  21. AMAZING! Jeffers is one of my top five childrens book illustrators/writers. I need to get his new book asap. My preschoolers love his books, and I find something completely charming and moving and beautiful with his sweet stories, quirky illustrations and little stick legged people!

  22. LOVE that author photo, and his witty responses. “Would you like a beer?”

  23. Fantastic post – I love how encyclopedic you are.

    Very excited to learn that there is to be another boy & penguin story. Still my favourite Jeffers title although the new one does an excellent job of tugging at the heart strings.

  24. Ahh fantastic! I love Oliver Jeffers work and I’m so happy to have a bit of a look into the work of one of my favourite illustrators. Can’t wait to read his new book, when I can get my hands on it.

  25. Thank you for this wonderful blog about Oliver Jeffers. I had (somehow) never heard of him and was so drawn to his heart-felt stories and gorgeous illustrations that I saw in this blog that I went out and bought Lost and Found and now I am totally in love with it. Even though much of my adult family has been enjoying it tremendously ( my mom was on the verge of tears when the penguin was left alone and the boy started to to go back) I already can’t wait to read this book in my classroom, as I am soon to be a teacher. Thanks for another wonderful book!

  26. […] Jeffers: he writes wonderful picture books.  Things I learned about Oliver Jeffers from this fantastic interview: 1. Oliver Jeffers is writing a new book about the boy and the penguin (hooray!) 2. Oliver Jeffers […]

  27. ahhhhh. just what i needed tonight. thank you!!

  28. Book Eating boy my favourite as an author illustrator myself. Hmm, just yummy! Had a fascinating conversation about Mr.Jeffers with the rather marvelous Mr.S.Tann @ Bologna book fair this year ….The Lost Thing- vs-Lost and Found … very interesting conversation.Inspirational.Beer anyone ?

  29. […] you’re interested in Jeffers’ book making process, click here for a fantastic interview and short video. Amazing stuff! Love it? Share it:Like this:LikeBe the […]

  30. […] & Illustrator: Oliver Jeffers (Interview at Seven Impossible Things Before […]

  31. […] Oliver Jeffers pictured below (sans one of his usual great mustaches). He joined me here for a breakfast interview in 2010 and, if you’ll just indulge my inner fifth-grader, his […]

  32. […] While talking, one of the students mentioned this 2012 book from Oliver Jeffers, and I suddenly remembered this video he made, which I’d seen the day before. So, I showed […]

  33. […] […]

  34. […] Molly: Lane Smith, Daniel Pinkwater, and Oliver Jeffers. […]

  35. […] I have been writing picture book reviews, as of a couple months ago, for BookPage. Recently, I reviewed Drew Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel, June 2013), illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. […]

  36. […] Leila: I’d have tea with Shaun Tan. A glass of red with Sara Ogilvie. And a bottle of bubbles with Oliver Jeffers. […]

  37. […] inspires me? John Oliver, street art, Oliver Jeffers, hip hop, jazz, skate videos, Mo Willems, The Monster At The End Of This Book, heaps of yogurt, […]

  38. […] website Illustrator interview: The Great Discontent Illustrator interview : Today’s Parent Illustrator interview : Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Illustator biography : […]

  39. […] stack of books, he chose This is Sadie over everything else, including his beloved collection of Oliver Jeffers’s books. “I want the O’Leary,” he said. So, I beat out Oliver Jeffers! (Just don’t tell him, […]

  40. […] video Illustrator interview: The Great Discontent Illustrator interview : Today’s Parent Illustrator interview : Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Illustator biography : […]

  41. […] Author Information . What if? by Drew Daywalt. Oliver Jeffers’ webpage. Oliver Jeffers’ World interactive website. Interview with Oliver Jeffers. Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Interview with Oliver Jeffers. […]

  42. […] with Sam at typorn, and I’ve featured Jeffers’s work several times here at 7-Imp, but here’s my 2010 breakfast interview with […]

  43. […] York two years ago while I was on a summer residency in the School of Visual Arts.     Oliver Jeffers and Kevin Waldron were very instrumental in inspiring me towards illustration as a full-time […]

  44. […] and humorous illustrator, using watercolors and vague looking characters and landscapes so that, as he said in an interview, “people all over the world think that the boy is one of their friends and that the geography is […]

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