Monday, 8 December 2014

Things I've learnt: fight the pretty! ~ a writer's and artist's process

I wrote Rope of Words over a period of 5 years: this series of blog posts is about its writing process and the various illuminations that came from sailing straight into the rocks at every turn. At least I have the advantage of hindsight, to know the story did work out in the end. The artist who illustrated it, Lin Kerr, shared her process from the outset, with no such reassurance! You can see excerpts and images from the book hereIn September, Lin and I spoke to Oxford Scribes about the creative process behind the book, so here's both an artist and a writer's take on fighting the pretty.


The Lovers Held Together by Words

"In the maze, she found many treasures, including a thorny crown of unicorn horn, seven foot tall and creamy white, a mermaid’s purse containing a square of bobbin lace made by a sailor, a bolt of silver lining, a small jar of crystallised time, a collection of squashed butterflies, and a map of the world’s forgotten secrets.  She began to lose track of the rope, though, and even, at times, of herself.  She was running out of words and eventually was reduced to making a spidersilk-thin thread out of such leftovers as btw, fyi, nb, and asap.  At last, only one word remained: bitch."


Megan: A lot of what I write plays with the edges of the genres of fantasy and fairytale, which come with their own stereotypical tropes - you have the peasant boy makes good, you have the swords, you have the dragons, the beautiful elves, the unearthly music, and so forth; in fairy tales, you have the three things you do and then you meet with success... I find myself trying to fight that and pushing back against it. One of the ways that I avoid or resist the pretty-pretty is to play with register, going high and literary, then bringing it back down to the ground with a bump.For instance, when the woman in the story is sailing all the seven seas, looking for her words, the seas are described in grand narrative style, then she says, “She never knew for certain if she wanted to find those words or not.  If she did, it would mean he had sold them or given them to charity – at any rate, chucked them out.” One book group that I spoke to all objected to “chucked them out” because it jarred so much, but that was exactly what I wanted. Otherwise, you do end up with something that is too smooth and too beautiful. I felt similarly about the word bitch.

Lin: I found it really difficult to spoil this drawing – it could’ve been a beautiful painting. If you just saw it in isolation, you could think it’s lovely and romantic, with that couple sleeping together. Yes, tender is encased in amber, but  the viewer wouldn’t know that it was stuck. Then I had to put the word bitch in and I didn’t enjoy doing that. I put it as small as I could, but nevertheless, that nasty word lies between them. That was the word that changed the whole meaning of the scene. I wasn't happy about it, I'd like to Photoshop it out for a giclée [an archival print], but I’ve got to be emotionally honest and I’ve got to stick to the script. So there we are. It’s introducing brutality.

Megan: The woman's hair was another fairytale trope that I played with and resisted. At the beginning, she vowed never to cut her hair until she found her words and found her way back into the golden valley. So many stories feature such vows or women with extraordinarily long hair, ignoring how impractical such long hair is. So I had her make the vow, but then she's not the impractical heroine, trailing her beauteous locks behind her (in the mud!): rather, she uses it herself: she weaves it into a sail to surf the winds of space, she uses it as a parachute, and when she doesn't need it, she gets it out her way.

The Woman Who Plumbed the Depths for Words

"She dragged the canal and the rivers in the light, late summer rain. In a netful of detritus, she saw ev- poking out, and pounced on it. Was it evensong? evection? But it was every way, just a corroding fragment of cheap disposable poetry tossed overboard by the summer-loving punters. She’d already found its partner, floating forlornly among old champagne corks, every day."

Lin: A lot of people want to know the inside story of when Megan and I disagreed. Well, one of the things was about the hair. I found an image of a woman who was leaning over what looked like a deep gorge or a canal, and she had a long plait. The hair gave me a lovely image that I could play with throughout the book, with it getting longer and longer and its hairstyles. I thought the long plait hanging into the water would look lovely. That was the first time I said to Megan, “Can’t you change the words?” and she said, “No! She’s a practical woman, of course she’ll put her hair up on top of her head!”
Megan: Well, quite! Not dangling in the dirty canal water!

The Woman Who Travelled the World for the Words of Love

"Her skin darkened to gold with the sun when she sailed through the bright seas below the tropics, where deserts bordered the ocean.  It paled to snow when she sailed through the midnight seas, where only the stars and the moon ever show.  She manoeuvred through the mangrove seas, where sweat dripped and plants crawled.  She navigated the bitter northern seas, where sea and sky tasted of iron and sunsets were copper, and the summer seas, with fat fish and fatter sharks.  She spanned the salt seas, where no life stirred and the ghosts of albatross circled skeletal wrecks, and the magical seas, where manatees made like mermaids, starfish shimmied in seaweed forests, and seahorses ploughed the waves."

Lin: I was also dealing with fighting against smooth and beautiful. A lot of my creative process leading up to the story was trying to find the right way to portray the woman. I first looked at photographs of nudes - if you’re going to draw, you’ve got to get a model, and it’s not that easy to just find a model.  But artistic poses are invariably classical poses and this woman was always active. So that knocked that idea to pieces. I then bought a book of pottery figurines by many different artists to get inspiration from that. Then we went on a family holiday for our fortieth weeding anniversary and saw a contemporary sculpture exhibition in Agatha Christie's garden. I suddenly thought, this is it.


I needed to have an elongated figure with the light piercing right through the figure. You can actually cut a hole right in the middle of her body and you still haven’t lost the essence of her figure.  So that was the first thought, then it reminded me a bit of Matisse's work. Once I'd thought of Matisse, I considered his very bright colours - he totally disregards local colour. That set the scene for how I was going to do the woman.


A young friend, Katrina, offered to model for me and for "The Woman Who Travelled", she sat on my table in the studio in her bikini, with a broomstick to paddle with. This ended up being her favourite piece, because she said it made her feel like an adventurer, who was paddling her own canoe and finding her own life.  The original drawing was very large; I photographed it, put it onto the computer, reduced it to size, put it on my lightbox and traced. I started a very very tentative tracing where I hardly got the body pierced by space at all, and then I went onto my next one and I thought, well what can I leave out, where can I make more spaces and still get away with it? And so the woman began to develop.



As well as piercing the space, I had to work on her face, from the second one to the fourth one. In a way, I uglified her, to  take away the saccharine sweetness or tweeness that you could end up with.

The Woman Who Stole the Words of Angels

"One of the ships carried a vast star, which was white with cold and rimed with frost, and in that ship she saw a word, bright and smooth as a sheet of lightning: Elohim. No words on earth could express her love; then she would be The Woman Who Stole the Words of Angels. She plaited the skeins of her extraordinary floating hair and wove the plaits into a huge pointed sail. She lifted her chin, found her footing, and surfed the winds of space, chasing the angels, following the star."

For this painting, I faced a similar dilemma. (By the way my lovely model sat like this for 15 minutes while I did the drawing of her hands above her head!) At first, it just looked so pretty, as if it could be put on a duvet in a little girl’s bedroom. I really didn't want that; I had to get it more edgy. I started working on the face, because this was the first time I’d done a full-frontal face and suddenly I had to work with the nose again. Picasso often uses a profile view combined with a frontal view, so I borrowed that approach, and again that made her edgier.

Megan: When I collaborate with someone who works in a different art form, I try not to dictate their processes or their choices at all, because this is their language and they’re going to speak it much better than I do. When Lin first said that she was looking at really elongated figures, showed me the statue, and started talking about bushmen paintings and long shadows, I was horrified. Body image is something I feel very strongly about. I hate the constant photoshopping in ads, where the woman is elongated, all the parts of her body stretched and parts of her shaped away, and how that is then presented as "normal". I absolutely did not want that false ideal of beauty, especially as I related so strongly to the character. I wanted her to be a person, not a pretty idealisation. Nevertheless, I kept schtum, I nodded and smiled, and said, "Whatever you think’s best." When I saw the first figure, with the woman paddling, my heart sang. Yes, she’s stylised, but she still had the generous curves that I wanted to be in place, and the "uglification" (as Lin calls it) worked perfectly to create her individuality. Sometimes, uglification is more beautiful.


"Rope of Words" won the British Fantasy Society short story competition and is now a fully illustrated fine-printed book, in a limited edition of 600 signed and numbered copies, each one handbound by the artist. To see more, buy the book, or buy the artwork, visit the Rope of Words site. You can also get a free gift wrap if you're buying it for Christmas.

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