Oliver Jeffers and Eoin Colfer | 'There was none of the hair-tearing angst you sometimes get working with other people'

Oliver Jeffers and Eoin Colfer | 'There was none of the hair-tearing angst you sometimes get working with other people'

This autumn a collaboration between two of Ireland’s best-known children’s storytellers—author Eoin Colfer and author/illustrator Oliver Jeffers—will hit the shelves.

Imaginary Fred (HarperCollins Children’s Books) is a text- rich picture book about a young boy’s imaginary friend. The idea for the story had been knocking around in Colfer’s head, but it was a chance meeting with Jeffers at a book festival in Auckland, New Zealand, that pushed him to write the first draft. “I have so many book ideas. It’s like a horse race, I start off with six ideas and one pulls ahead,” Colfer says. “When I met Oliver and he agreed to do a collaboration [as the illustrator], I sent him a first draft three weeks later.”

In the book, Imaginary Fred dreams of finding a human friend who won’t ignore him when adults are around. He soon meets Sam, a boy suitably in need of a friend, and the two embark on a series of adventures, including making comic books, playing musical instruments and learning French. Sam then meets Sammi, a girl who has an imaginary friend called Frieda, and the adventures continue as a quartet. Yet when Sam and Sammi begin to grow up and look to fulfil their dream of playing at Carnegie Hall, their imaginary friends are left to become a twosome.

“There are a lot of stories about people with imaginary friends but I couldn’t find any about the imaginary friend him or herself,” Colfer says. “I tend to do that in my books, to move the nerd or the bad guy centre stage, so this is the next step: taking the character who would be discarded at some point when his friend finds a real friend and making him the lead character.”

However, despite the original idea being Colfer’s, the author and illustrator agree that putting the book together was a true collaboration. After the first draft they worked on the story together, giving each other feedback on their work through emails and Skype discussions (Colfer lives in Dublin, Jeffers in New York).

One of the first things Jeffers did was trim the text down, says Colfer. “Oliver would say things like, ‘you don’t need to do a big description here, I’ll just draw that picture’, and ‘there’s no need for you to say they were speaking French, I’ll just do bubbles coming out of their mouths with French words in them’. He also changed the ending—for the better.”

In Colfer’s original idea, the two real friends and their imaginary friends all end up on stage together at Carnegie Hall. Jeffers thought that had a “lack of satisfaction” and had a different idea about “how it might twist in on itself and reference the beginning”.

The pair also both looked at the pictures over the course of creating the book, with Jeffers sending batches of images to Colfer as he went along. Jeffers was inspired by French cartoonist and author Jean-Jacques Sempé, who created the iconic line drawings for the French school-set series Le Petit Nicolas, written by René Goscinny. Most of the illustrations in Imaginary Fred are also line drawings in ink, with some grey washes, but Jeffers says he “experimented for a while” to try and find the right look for Fred, finding it hard to “portray in ink someone who isn’t really there”.

“I was playing with colour halftone, which is how photos are printed on newspapers, when it occurred to me to do that with Fred then add colour over the top,” he says. Fred appears in a splash of blue dots, in a colour Jeffers made specially. “Generally you can’t print such a vibrant mint-blue as a bright turquoise, so I opted to mix a special ink that really sings.” Frieda appears in yellow dots and on most pages the imaginary friends are the only splashes of colour, apart from a few lightning bolts, sparks coming out of a magician’s hat and two imaginary scientists who appear at the end of the book.

There was none of the hair-tearing angst you sometimes get working with other people

Both authors say that working together was a delight. For Colfer “there was none of the hair-tearing angst you sometimes get working with other people”, and he enjoyed the collaborative process. “With a novel you sit down and work on it for six or eight months, then maybe three months later you will get some edits back. But with this, Oliver would knock up a picture every couple of days and send it off.” Jeffers says the process was “pure fun . . . there are no cons with Eoin”.

Despite living on different sides of the Atlantic, the pair are planning on spending some time in the US and UK to promote Imaginary Fred, although no dates have yet been announced. They also say they would happily work together on another book, although Colfer admits finding the time would be difficult given how much they both have on. “Both of us have pretty busy schedules for the next three or four years but I would like to do something else,” Colfer says. “It would be nice. Although perhaps next time we could try and be in the same city.”

Credit for Oliver Jeffers' photo to Malcolm Brown