One family. One postcard for every day apart. The Butlers’ uncommon journey is told by the postcards from a mother to her daughter.
Collaborating with Dutch designer Irma Boom, Jennifer Butler has published an innovative book: JAMES JENNIFER GEORGINA, a taxi yellow, 1200 pages volume in limited editions of 999 copies, parted in three sections with a joint spine, telling a unique story through 1136 postcards and 20 dialogues.
Jennifer travelled the world with her husband James, in an effort to dry him out from his alcoholism, while their daughter Georgina stayed at home with various nannies, but Jennifer sent her daughter 1 postcard per day away – 1136 postcards written from 1989 to 1999.
205 flights taken, 268,162 miles driven, 2 bullfights.
A speeding ticket.
53 unpaid parking tickets.
13 cancelled flights, 1 bomb scare, and 205 churches visited, politics, wars, rising prices, births, funerals, holidays…
Yet what comes forward above all is their relationship.
We meet at the American Library in Paris, 23 years after the odyssey started.
As they arrive, Jennifer, a former model, on her side her very British gentleman James, holds a copy of the book in her hands, spiked with post-its of matching yellow. She is in full swing, mentioning another book by Allen Fletcher: “Be aware of wet paint,” he wrote in his beautiful handwriting: ‘I don’t know where I am going, but I am on my way’ and it really sums me up: I don’t know ever where I am going, but I have a sense that I am gonna get there!”.
It was in fact Allen Fletcher’s work, and particularly “The Art of Looking Sideways” that made her look differently at the value of the hundreds of postcards she had kept in boxes after 10 years on the road. When in 1999 the drinking of James stopped, so did the postcards. In 2007, Allen Fletcher was only a few months more to live, so he recommended to Jennifer to work on her project with Dutch designer Irma Boom.
Behind the book, says Butler, lies a passion “for extending the boundaries of what a book can be. And the knowledge that books have to be more, different than ‘information.’ More than being able to download them from the internet” she says. According to her, ‘the book’ is not in the ‘up’ – it’s in the ‘down’:
“The book remains to spread something else: maybe sheer beauty or a much slower, more thought-provoking message” Jennifer expresses in her first correspondence with Irma Boom, sharing the designer’s standpoint on book-making today.
Despite the highly sophisticated and calculated design, JAMES JENNIFER GEORGINA is an emotional matter: “The book is an extension of the content. Irma would not have designed that way for a book about tennis players, or about architecture, whatever. This book is married to the silk screen yellow that she chose, and the yellow canvas. The book is yellow because its full of light and success! […]”
“My husband, Georgina’s father, was drinking himself to death. And with one failed marriage behind me I fought to stave off a second.” James was given only two more years to live, so “to save us I took the difficult decision to leave Georgina at home. We travelled to dry James out and we travelled to shield her from the indignities of drink. Everyday we were apart I wrote to Georgina. If love waits upon a gesture, then my gesture was these postcards. I wanted her to know just who I was and just what I did. They’re a testament to a mother’s love and a sharing of advice, anecdotes, front page news and exotic places” she explains.
“The post cards were never written for public consumption. They were written because I loved doing them.
And I did miss Georgina. And I did feel guilty and it was a way, felt like mothering from a distance.”
For Jennifer, it is actually a very traditional story: “there is a situation, a lot of descriptions with the postcards of a story, there is drama and there are 3 characters. They’re just divided in a very innovative way, because the description and the situation is part 1, the drama is part 2, and the characters are in an album in part 3. Usually when you read about a family or a story or a novel it’s all in one. […] ” She continues, “when people hear the word alcoholism – you know its like a dirty word or somebody survived it. The alcoholism really gave the book its Alfred Hitchcock time element.”
Jennifer admits that there was certainly a bit of irresponsibility concerning the traveling, looking back on it:
“The structure was: let’s go. Like Thelma and Louise. And I was so excited having James sober and clean shaven! He was adorable and generous and he is so knowledgeable about Europe, its history and its wars. It was like being back in university when we were driving! And there was no drink. Because he was so excited being on the road. So it really was not just about keeping him sober. He was sober and I loved the way he was.”
The book is framing this story of longing guilt and salvation for a wider audience in a fresh way. Despite the 210 postcards that are printed full bore in the volume, accompanied by 400 in miniature, most remarkably, the book also features a series of conversations between James, Georgina and Jennifer: “One guideline that Georgina said, and James backed her 100% up was: there would be no editing! […] “
Irma Boom, according to Jennifer, had approached the book with an enormous integrity and much love for its protagonists had insisted “that we pose the question to Georgina in one of the conversations: what was the sacrifice made by not being there. I said: ‘oh, isn’t this fantastic, Georgina spends every night looking at them.’ My mother said: ‘this is disgusting! my granddaughter is alone a third of her life!’ – of course the people who love you tell you the biggest truths.”
“It was never ever difficult [to talk about our issues as a family]. We’re all very strong characters and I think the love is so loyal that nobody worried about sacrificing love. It was never difficult to talk about the painful subjects: most of all it’s a love story.”