In a quaint barn in the English countryside, there's a man, with a dog, documenting the human condition in its simplest form, through sketches about kindness and empathy, as we all navigate this new world.
"I sort of got quite obsessed with making drawings that encourage people not to give up," said Charlie Mackesy. "It just sort of came out of nowhere.
"I did a lot of them about, 'One day we'll be able to hug again, one day we won't be wearing masks.'"
Mackesy's sketches resemble Charlie Mackesy: whimsical, a tad disheveled, but honest and authentic.
Correspondent Seth Doane asked, "Does it usually start as text, or as drawing?"
"It starts as a feeling," Mackesy replied. "I have lots of close friends who ring me because I'm in sort of lockdown here. But when I hear something said in the conversation, when we're giving each other advice, I think, 'That could work as a drawing.'"
Some of those drawings just pile up. Others he posts online. "I think everyone is just trying to get home," one reads. Or, "Life is difficult, but you are loved."
Doane said, "Instagram is a real outlet for you."
"It really is. Instagram is sort of a kind of a way in. People responded, and we had this dialog, and still do."
That dialogue began when he first started posting a few years ago. It became a larger conversation as his following grew into the hundreds of thousands, and artist became author. "I didn't set out to make a book. I was just drawing away, working on these characters. I suddenly got a flurry of publishers saying, 'Do you want to make a book?'"
The friendship and simple conversations about life among his four main characters – a boy, a fox, a horse, and a cake-loving mole – became a graphic novel: "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" (HarperOne).
Is this a book for adults? "It's a book for anyone," Mackesy said.
"The idea was only to print 10,000 of these books?" asked Doane.
"Yes, if that, I think."
"How surprised were you when it caught on?"
"Oh, I'm continually – that hasn't stopped!" he laughed.
It has sold more than two million copies, spent 51 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Doane asked, "You must see a difference from this success when you go to the bank?"
"I don't often go to the bank," Mackesy said. "Of course, you know, it ends the worry about how I'm going to pay the rent. And that's really nice."
"Was there a worry at one point?"
"Oh, being an artist, over the years, it had its moments where you think, it's not an easy life. But I just somewhere in my gut instinctively felt: persevere. Just carry on. You do you."
"You do you" is a message reflected in the book, which Oprah Winfrey read aloud, online, for the Chicago Public Library. "'Tears fall for a reason, and they are your strength, not your weakness.' I love that line!" she said.
Doane noted, "She had a voice for the different characters."
"Yeah, that killed me," Mackesy said. "Blew me away. Still does."
Now he's reading it, for the audiobook version (which was released this month). During Doane's visit, he was still recording in a makeshift studio set up in the barn. His bed blanket served as a sound barrier. "I'm quite ashamed of this ridiculous construction!" he laughed.
Mackesy, and his dog Barny, are a fixture in the small coastal town of Walberswick, where his work adorns the local deli. "Every day I deface a bit more of the wall!" he said.
"You're like the local Banksy," said Doane.
He recently did a "thank you" series dedicated to the frontline workers of this pandemic, including delivery people and shelf stackers; and lines from the book were used by Britain's health service to promote mental health:
"What is the bravest thing you ever said?" asked the boy.
"Help," said the horse.
His Instagram posts draw thousands of comments, and he diligently tries to reply. "I got one last night from a guy who said, 'I decided to ask for help instead of taking my life.'"
"Wow. Do you feel equipped to handle the depth of these questions?" asked Doane.
"No! I'm an ordinary person who struggles with the same things. I'm not on this side of the river saying, 'This is how you get across.' I'm on your side of the river going, 'Wow! That's a big river! How are we going to do this?'"
Sometimes his friends joke that he should re-read his own book. Through his characters and their simple, yet sage, advice about life, Charlie Mackesy manages to distill what's most important about it.
"Especially in this world of social media, when we look at these perfect, you know, images of things, of people's lives, and then we go, 'Oh, no, you know, what am I?' It's good to remember we all struggle," Mackesy said. "You've got plenty of critics. So, don't be your own critic. Encourage yourself. Be kind to yourself."
For more info:
- "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" by Charlie Mackesy (HarperOne), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- Follow Charlie Mackesy on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.