What Matters: Oliver Jeffers on the Afterlife and the Joys of a Simple Meal

Posted inDesign Matters With Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Oliver Jeffers is a visual artist and author working in painting, bookmaking, illustration, collage, performance, and sculpture. He is an NYTimes Bestselling author and illustrator of numerous books.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Making something beautiful that enables other people to see the world, or themselves, more clearly.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

When I was asked to leave my classroom at the age of nine to help make the set for the school play. It was the first time it occurred to me that there was power in art.

What is your biggest regret?

Not asking my mother more questions. It’s self-flagellation, I’m aware—how can you know what you won’t know and will want to know as a future self. But it was a lesson going forward. Ask people things about themselves and their lives, as you never know how they will reveal their story and what you might possibly learn from it.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Initially, by allowing yourself to understand that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you. But ultimately, by meeting someone else. Though you won’t meet “someone else” if you’re still in conflict with “what’s wrong with you” based on someone else’s expectations.

What makes you cry?

Any mildly sentimental movie + wine+ 30,000 ft. 

Or really any altruistic, personal story publicly, reluctantly, and humbly told. Or anything to do with mother/child stories. Those connections run deeper than we can articulate.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Not long at all. A couple of moments. Then onto the next. I don’t rest on my coattails as there’s always work to do. I don’t look back much, as I’m not going that way. Or, put another way: a person with one eye on the past is wise. A person with two eyes on the past is blind. 

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Oh boy. I may need another interview for this.

If I have to give a solid answer here, then I’ll say yes. But not in the way the classical sense of ghosts or heaven etc. I am a nihilist of sorts, where the awareness of impending oblivion is a huge motivator for me. When pondering what will become of “me” after I breathe my last, I once heard it said that it’ll be just like before you were born. Which I find comforting.

Though, there are strange things that I’ve recognized in my life that could fall into the realms of premonitions or inexplicable connections. The only mildly articulate thing I can say here and now is that I’m simultaneously aware that the basic component of science is that energy cannot be destroyed but merely transferred and that storytelling is perhaps the most powerful human creation of all. Trumping, I believe, even scientific reasoning. If science is the “how,” then stories are the “why.” We have more stories about afterlives than anything remotely scientifically factual. And that might be more important. We had more stories about the dots of light in the sky at night than any understanding of what they were for millennia. And in some ways, we are still governed more by those stories than the scientific understanding of the cosmos.

What do you hate most about yourself?

My inability to fall asleep or wake up quickly. So much wasted fucking time.

What do you love most about yourself?

My ability to wing it. With bells on. And mean it.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Of all the phenomenal experiences I’ve had around the world of both fine dining and first-class street food, my first instinct with this question was not to speak of food but experience. And experience, when it comes down to it, is about context and company. If I can be as plain as to answer this: a simple meal, (preferably cooked by yourself over an open fire) served al fresco and with good wine, with friends, family, good stories, and lots of laughter, is the reward for a lot of working hard.