INTRO: I heard through the children’s literature grapevine that Hervé Tullet was coming to the United States for an extended stay. What I didn’t know is that when I reached out to him to talk, he’d be right in the middle of the move.
Conversation started 20 August 2015
TRAVIS: Hi Herve! I have a question. Do you know The Number Five Bus Presents? Phil and Erin Stead asked if I would like to have a conversation with someone for the site, and the first person I thought of was you. Up for talking with me?
HERVÉ: It’s a big yes! I’ve got a good memory of the last talk we had.
The interview will be my playtime, during these very complicated weeks I’ve spent and the ones I’m going to spend.
I’m almost homeless. I sold my place in Paris and we were hoping to get a green card late July to come and settle in NY in August. We do hope that it will be ok mid-October. A brownstone in Harlem is already waiting for us… actually all our stuff is here and there and that’s quite a big mess.
TRAVIS: That doesn’t sound like fun. We moved to a new house 15 miles away a couple years ago, and that was daunting (although, I suppose moving does help you to know what things are important and what things are not). I can’t imagine moving across the Atlantic.
What are you looking forward to most when you finally get to that brownstone in Harlem?
HERVÉ: Enjoy a couple of years in NY with my family and set up events with institutions in the US, in the same mood as the one I did in Jerusalem:
From my side I’m still in Normandy, waiting for the green card, last approval. My two sons are in the flat I rent in NY, with my Visa card – they’re enjoying the city a lot! And my daughter is also in NY, she just joined her host family, to start school.
Nothing that looks like boredom at the moment. I’m a bit destabilized. But that’s what I wanted, that’s what I get!
How are you? Who are you? Where do you live?
TRAVIS: It’s back-to-school time for me – I’m a school librarian (grades Kindergarten through 4) in Michigan and tomorrow is the first day. Even though I’m 34, the first day is always exciting/scary/wonderful.
HERVÉ: I get the same feeling when I’m leading a workshop or a reading.
TRAVIS: You mentioned boredom (or lack thereof) earlier. Here’s something I was thinking about today…
I was talking to friends yesterday about how I always eat the same thing for lunch (string cheese, baby carrots, Saltine crackers with JIF, trail mix). I feel like it might help me to be creative in other parts of my life. Or maybe I’m just very boring.
Anyway, do you have anything like that? A routine in work or in life that you don’t change?
HERVÉ: It’s complicated. I would say that I’m never happy. I need both. I associate the word routine with the word boredom. Routine sounds comfortable, but there’s a limit where the routine turns into boredom and at this point I feel a particular energy I’ve got inside me, that helps me to try to escape from it by doing things (ideas/drawings/books).
That’s a feeling that comes from very far away, from my childhood and my inner history. I always did try to escape.
I feel that the ideas I’ve got are coming from the boredom that I try to escape and that feeling comes from my childhood.
On the other hand I feel that when I’m overwhelmed by activities (drawings, ideas, books, workshops), I feel that too much activity is becoming useless and I want to go back to the empty, the boredom, the nothing. And for sure I wouldn’t bear a very active life as my routine.
Does that make sense?
TRAVIS: That does make sense. They depend on each other. Boredom plays an important role – as something to escape via creativity.
TRAVIS: While we’re talking about creativity: are you a person who takes a long time coming up with book ideas, or do you have ideas often?
HERVÉ: I had ideas often at the beginning. They were coming so fluently, as if I were discovering a new territory where almost nobody came before. From each book was born new books and new ideas. It was a wonderful energy very well supported, with enthusiasm, by my publishers. That’s why I was doing so many books per year (ten or sometimes more).
Now I feel that I know that territory quite well, and it’s maybe less easy to find new space (corner, place, spot) in that territory. I also think that I’ve already expressed a lot in my books and if I add a new stone, a new chapter to my work, I want to add it on purpose – if there’s really a meaning, another direction, experience, something still new. I don’t want to copy myself.
To get a new idea is more and more difficult, or takes longer, and somehow I like that (as if I was a beginner). From all my experiences, I also feel that this is the right time to share my work, and that is a real new direction to me. My next book describes the way I’m leading my workshops:
TRAVIS: This workshops book is a great idea. I think librarians will especially find it helpful – we’re always interested in creative programs for kids. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Switching gears (and maybe this is an impossible question to answer). What’s the most important characteristic for someone who wants to make children’s books?
HERVÉ: I don’t know. From my experience, very early I understood that the audience of the books I create wasn’t limited to the bookshop and the family. From going in schools I discovered teachers, educators, librarians. It changed my life. It gave me the meaning of my life as an author.
I felt very quickly involved in that field and I began to create books and to create events – experiences in schools – with the same intensity. It wasn’t to promote, it was to create long and real experiences for the school/neighborhood/people.
The two activities (books and interventions/sessions/workshops/etc.) were quite disconnected – separated in my mind. Of course each of these works enriched the other part. That helped me to understand/feel that the limits to create books for children is unlimited!
TRAVIS: I remember my first day of teaching. I was a school librarian in Holland, MI. For me it was a feeling of, “They are going to let me do this?” and then, “They are going to let me do this! This will be fun.”
Do you remember your first school visit or workshop?
HERVÉ: Yes I do very well. I had the feeling of being a pillar, feeling all the children leaning on me, feeling all the children’s pain and I didn’t know what to do, how to treat all that pain.
I also remember another session, on that day. It was on the afternoon, the last session. The children were very excited and it was quite a mess and the teachers were looking at me, not doing anything to help me, just telling me with their glance, their eyes, “Hey fellow, that’s not an easy job, don’t you think?” What a hazing. From that time I made a lot of progress, believe me!
TRAVIS: I just got done working with three Kindergarten classes this afternoon. I think I understand your feelings a bit.
One thing I notice about good teachers (and good children’s bookmakers) is that they remember what their childhood was like, and they have empathy. What was your childhood like?
HERVÉ: My childhood was full of empty loneliness and lack of understanding about what was going on around me. Books and one or two good teachers came late, when I was a teenager. During that period I discovered books and culture (painting, poetry, cinema, and so on) it was another direction, a new world, a breath, which helped me escape from something that was already planned.
Of course this background gave me strong feelings – empathy – and a desire to convey art, culture, and ideas (thinking) as important tools to manage one’s own life, as it was with me.
TRAVIS: How did you move into making books? What was your first book and how did it come about?
HERVÉ: I was working in advertising. Then after ten years I felt that it was less and less interesting (less and less ideas required, more and more computers). My first son was going to be born, to him I wanted to feel proud of myself. So I decided to quit advertising, to become an illustrator, and a book for children was a part of the outfit.
But from my first book (1994, How Daddy Meets Mummy, not translated in English), little by little I ended up thinking that it was the perfect space for me to feel comfortable to express ideas, experiences, and novelty without a huge drawing challenge (as I wasn’t a good drawer/I’m still not).
Then I was awarded in Bologna in 1998 for Night and Day. I started to understand how to visit schools seriously. My publishers let me free to create, and it became more and more a passion.
Strangely, I could say that in the very first book there’s a lot of ingredients that I developed in all the others.
TRAVIS: I had a good time tracking down those early books of yours. Made me feel like a detective for a minute.
I came across this the other day and it reminded me of what we talked about earlier in our conversation:
Why the Capacity for Boredom is Essential for a Full Life:
But back to what we were talking about – your change of career and first book.
I consider myself lucky that I’ve never felt compelled to change careers, but I have a lot of admiration for those who “take the leap”. It’s brave. More and more I’ve talked to people who began in advertising or architecture and made the switch to making comics or books for kids.
What sort of things did you make advertising for? Did you take anything with you from that career?
HERVÉ: Thanks a lot for the link, that’s very interesting.
I was an art director in advertising. In some ways it helped me to build my skills in finding ideas, defending them, being able to talk in a meeting and so on. I was thinking that ideas could change the world (even if I was working in advertising – I was naive, ok!) These were useful when I became illustrator, and for sure I hadn’t enough personality to be illustrator at 23 years old.
As an art director I was working for products, companies, and business. The most difficult thing when I became an illustrator was to forget that I was a go-between and try to find true and deep feelings inside me, to feel that I was working for myself first.
To feel that the drawing must be good first for myself (for my eyes) before being good for the client (and still good even if the client refuses it). It was difficult for me to find my own personality. Because as a former art director, I was judging my drawings and feeling that someone else could really do better than me, the bad drawer. Advertising put me very far from the inner self I didn’t know, and it took time to recover.
Sorry it sounds very complicated to express what I want to say. Do you understand something????? And there’s a lot to say. Hope that you could extract something from this.
TRAVIS: This makes sense to me. I can see how it would be difficult to rediscover that inner voice after working in a field where you have to make something that the client is satisfied with or you’re out of business.
Kids are much better clients, aren’t they? I’m always amazed at how accepting kids are of all different types of stories.
HERVÉ: Yes! Indeed! They are open to everything without preconceived ideas.
TRAVIS: Have all your books been published in France first?
HERVÉ: Most of them, except Phaidon, who published my books in several languages at the same time. Some were also published by Tate publishing (in the UK). And the very next one will be published first by Chronicle, next March.
TRAVIS: Can you talk about your book with Chronicle? What will that be like?
HERVÉ: The next chronicle book will be another direction/exploration of the interactivity I set up with Press Here and Mix It Up.
TRAVIS: I’m excited to hear this. My students and I love Press Here and Mix It Up.
You mentioned earlier that you were planning to come and settle in New York in August, but you were experiencing delays. I was just wondering if that was still going on (and also, where are you currently living?)
Also, how much time have you spent in the United States over the years?
HERVÉ: I’m still in Normandy, waiting for my green card, BUT I think that I will receive it this week! Then I’ll take off and fly as soon as possible to NY. So I’ll probably be in NY next week.
I’ve been several times in the US, for leisure time or to promote my books, but not that much. It will be something really new for us to live there.
TRAVIS: I’m happy to hear that you’ll be on your way soon.
HERVÉ: Soon! Yes, next Saturday in NY. The green card just arrived yesterday.
TRAVIS: Next Saturday! Wonderful! Are you friends with any of the bookmakers in the US?
HERVÉ: Not that much!
TRAVIS: Anyone you’re looking forward to seeing or meeting?
HERVÉ: I came across a lot of wonderful people when I’ve been at some US book festivals: Jack Gantos, Peter Brown, Jon Klassen, Roxie Munro, and a lot more but I do not remember all the names.
I also met Mo Willems in Paris, where he spent one year, we walked and talked several times. I hope that my English will be as good as his French was!
TRAVIS: There will be a lot of people who will be happy to see you during your stay in the US.
I think this is a nice place to end our conversation. Thank you! Have safe travels, Hervé.
Hello from NY, and thanks a lot for your questions.
Conversation ended 18 October 2015