Category Archives: Author Interview

Meet Laydeez Do Comics: Individual Stories in the Comics Collective by Emma Parker

Launched in 2009 by artists Dr Nicola Streeten and Dr Sarah Lightman, Laydeez Do Comics is the UKs first women-led comics forum, championing the works of female-identifying cartoonists, comics artists and graphic novelists. LDCs monthly events, which take place across the UK and beyond, are open to all and feature illustrated presentations from comics artists, filmmakers, writers, researchers, curators and more. 

In 2018, responding to the pronounced gender imbalance in British comics artists, Laydeez do Comics launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for the first Laydeez Award, the UKs first womens prize for graphic novels. 

Nicola and Sarah have both completed doctorates in graphic narratives and are themselves comics creators. Nicola is the author of Billy, Me & You (Myriad 2011), an acclaimed graphic memoir chronicling her bereavement following the death of Billy, her two-year old son. She is also the co-editor of The Inkling Woman (Myriad 2018), a groundbreaking celebration of 250 years of female comics artists and cartoonists in Britain. Sarah is currently working on The Book of Sarah , a visual autobiography which is due to be published by Myriad in 2019.  She’s also the editor of the Eisner-winning Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews (McFarland 2014). 

Nicola and Sarah kindly agreed to chat to Emma Parker, a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, to discuss their work as creators, academic researchers and Laydeez Do Comics.  

How has your collaborative work with Laydeez Do Comics influenced your own practice as comics artists?  

Nicola Streeten: It has been the most important influence for both my practice as a comics artist and my research as an academic. As a practitioner, it enabled me to align my work, in terms of both content and style.  

LDC very quickly allowed us to learn what women in Britain are working on. Because the landscape was rather sparse in 2009 for comics social activities in London, and because the comics community in Britain is so small, we quite quickly became known. This enabled us to have a “passport” to approaching high-profile women, inviting them to be guests at our events. Within academia we have both had the additional help of postgraduate status. The combination of these two positions has opened doors for us both, and we hope it will do the same for people who attend LDC events.  

Sarah Lightman: Every time I attend a Laydeez do Comics event I feel inspired and delighted by the speakers and their work. I am so proud of the space Nicola and I, and the other Laydeez, have created.  

Laydeez do Comics has helped me, as an individual, feel part of a wider comics movement, it’s been a supportive background chorus for my own creative work”

My artistic style for The Book of Sarah is very different from many of the works that are presented at Laydeez. However, it is the autobiographical aspect that I share with many of the artists of LDC. We are all searching to tell a personal truth and to record our vulnerable journeys. Through this process we often critique society and transform ourselves. The bravery in the artworks shared in LDC is a reminder to me to be brave as well, and never to forget that exposing individual wounds, moments and revelations, often has the most universal impact. 

sarah lightman painting outgrowth copy

Copyright: Sarah Lightman

Has the need for a supportive community of female comics creators increased, or lessened, in the nine years since you launched LDC?  

NS: It is difficult to answer. The landscape is unrecognizable compared to 10 years ago. We like to think that we were part of early initiatives that spurred people to set up their own groups and/or collectives, both in the UK and globally. The supportive community for female creators has definitely expanded with many more opportunities. For example, Broken Frontier, Andy Oliver’s blog supports small press creators and ensures platforms for many women creators. Myriad Editions has always had a good gender balance, and their bi-annual first graphic novel award has seen a healthy representation in their shortlists of women and people of colour.  

However, what is important about LDC (and other meet up groups) is the inclusion of physical meet ups. There is a lot of online activity, and it is important to balance this with social and fairly informal opportunities to talk to people face to face. 

There is an ever-increasing appetite amongst readers for graphic memoirsMarjane SatrapiPersepolis and Alison BechdelFun Home are international bestsellers. How important is the autobiographical within your own comics 

NS:  We begin with what moves us, taken from our life experience and ask questions from that.

“The autobiographical is the starting point in everything I do, and I think this is true for most people, including academics in a range of disciplines.”

Thus, the cartoons I began with for my PhD research were the ones I remembered from my early twenties as somehow quietly formative in the way I understood the world as a woman. 

screen shot 2019-01-04 at 11.50.33

Copyright: Nicola Streeten. Extract from Billy, Me & You: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery (Myriad, 2011)

Both of you have doctorates exploring graphic narratives: whats the relationship between your work as academic researchers, and your work as creators?  

NS: My position through LDC was the reason I embarked confidently on a PhD. By looking specifically at British women’s cartoons and comics, I had access to the women whose works I wanted to consider. The research became about conversations with friends.

Through a double articulation as creator and academic, I had a direct way to reach other women artists. By using feminist theory and history as a methodological tool, I was also able to identify similarities in the organizational details and decisions around how LDC operates to strategies employed in both first and second wave feminism. This has continued to inform the way we think and analyse future plans for development. 

SL: My PhD was entitled “Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts” addressing feminist re-appropriations of biblical texts and iconography in women’s comics.  My own experiences as a woman and an artist are reflected in the comics I examine in my thesis, and I identified strongly with the challenges the protagonists face as daughters, partners and mothers. The title derives from a four page comic, “The Star Sapphire”, by Sharon Rudahl, where the artist borrows the pose of Eve in Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1424–1428) from the Brancacci Chapel inside the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. In “The Star Sapphire”, Sharon is drawn stepping out of the synagogue, the patriarchal biblical sphere that defined and undermined her, into a contemporary and autonomous world. That has been my own journey over the last few years. I also loved researching and writing my PhD. I felt the process transformed me, and my thinking. I not only engaged with feminist literary criticism, and feminist art history, but more specifically with Jewish and Christian feminist theology, allowing me to position The Book of Sarah alongside a literary and creative lineage. 

screen shot 2019-01-04 at 11.56.46

Copyright: Sarah Lightman

 The relationship between my academic research and creative work is evolving. It was a challenge to write about my graphic novel in my fourth chapter, as I was still drawing and needed to retain an academic voice within a very personal project. But using my own artwork in my thesis enacted feminist theories which champion the personal within academic research. Carolyn Heilbrun writes in Writing a Womans Life that “I could not speak of the problem of women today without speaking of my own life” (1979:22). By bringing my creative autobiographical output into an academic PhD I broke new ground for both myself and my University department. My next project will develop these interests, as I currently hold an Honorary Research Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London (2018-19), researching Jewish women and comics about Motherhood, Miscarriages and IVF. My output this time will be a personal visual essay in the form of a painted graphic novel and I want to develop this style of working in a post-doctorate. 

 Youve both recently launched the exciting Laydeez Award, championing new talent among female comics artistsWhich publications from comics artists and graphic novelists should we be looking out for in 2019 

SL: There are so many UK names to look out for, including Rachael Ball, Wallis Eates, The Surreal McCoy, Richy K. Chandler, Lucy Sullivan and others. These are just a start but I suggest people attend an LDC talk, and also follow our blog to keep discovering new talent! 

For more information about Laydeez do Comics please visit: 







Interview with Marjorie Lotfi Gill by Marta Donati

Marjorie Lotfi Gill was born in New Orleans, spent her childhood in Teheran and lived in the USA before moving to London in 1999 and finally Edinburgh in 2005. She is a poet, performer and creative writing facilitator. She runs Open Book, a project that promotes reading groups for the vulnerable and for adults in the community. She also works with schoolchildren and adults in community settings, exploring issues of journey, assimilation, flight and immigration through her initiative The Belonging Project. Her poetry has been performed on BBC Radio 4, has won several competitions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently published a collection of poems, Refuge (2018), based on her experiences in Iran in the 1970s. More about Open Book can be found at: More about The Belonging Project can be found at:

Marta Donati: Your recent collection of poems, Refuge, is a remarkable meditation on the concept of leaving, be it a house, a country or a family. Could you tell me about the genesis of the collection?

Marjorie Lotfi GillGiven the current crisis around refugees and migrants, I’m often asked to read my poems about Iran and my family’s experiences of living through a revolution, loss and assimilation. I thought it would be a good idea to put all those poems in one place, so that reading them together might give you a more complete picture of how those experiences might change a family, or affect your outlook. The sequence of poems “Pilgrim”, which is loosely based on my father’s life and makes up the second half of the pamphlet, was commissioned by the St Magnus Festival in Orkney to accompany some new musical compositions by Stuart MacRae. I decided to include it because it feels a kind of parallel to the other poems in the pamphlet as it follows many of the same experiences through the eyes of one person.

MD: Refuge seems to be concerned with two different kind of ‘spaces’ that naturally influence each other: the space of the self, which is personal and related to family roots, and the space of politics, which is filled with news reports and photographs. How do you navigate this relationship between the personal and the political?

MLG: In short, I don’t. My poem “On seeing Iran in the news” is making that exact point: I wrote that poem because when people ask me what I think of Iranian politics, I never know what to say because my views are shaped by personal experiences. I’m not trying to make a political statement with the poems, but expose the living breathing world that politics impacts. (The most political poem in the book is possibly “Route”, which was written in a fury at the BBC’s suggestion that one might understand the real dilemmas of refugees by playing an online game.)

MD: You often write in response to art. The poem that gives its name to the collection – Refuge – is written in response to ‘Les Voyageurs’, a series of sculptures by French artist Bruno Catalano. Each sculpture shows a person in motion, holding a suitcase, but missing parts of their body. They are, in a sense, characters you can ‘see through’: they blend with their surroundings. There is a tension between the movement of these bodies, and the sense of disembodiment provoked by migration. Could you say a bit more about your encounter with Catalano’s work and why you decided to write a response to it? Does poetry help you understand and relate to other works of art?

MLG: I wrote “Refuge” because when I first encountered that Catalano sculpture, I immediately recognised the life of a refugee. To me, the sculpture is remarkable because it actually stands, despite missing such a large part of the body, and on first encounter I spent time initially trying to figure out how it worked. That puzzle is true for refugees too: despite having lost so much, they manage to hold on to their suitcases and stand up, keep going. The end of that poem refers both to our unwillingness to allow refugees into our societies (written at a time when refugees are often kept in “camps”) and the inability of some refugees to do more that simply make it onshore, and hope for more for the next generation.

I find that artwork helps me express what I’m trying to say in poetry, rather than the other way around. If I’m struggling with a subject that I want to write about, often the form of an artwork will help me. (This sculpture of an oversized rifle by Cornelia Parker, for example, helped me to articulate the way that we’ve grown accustomed to guns in America in this poem – Of course, the act of observing an artwork closely in order to use it in writing does help me to understand the work better, to consider it more closely, and to draw connections between it and my own experiences, so I’m sure that the result works both ways!

MD: Reading your work, I often felt that art and poetry are somehow telling a ‘truth’ that news, television and reportages are not. One of my favourite poems of the collection is Route, which I read as a particularly angry and frustrated piece. In this poem you respond to BBC’s interactive Syrian ‘journey’: ‘if you were fleeing Europe, what choices would you make for you and your family? Take our journey to understand the real dilemmas the refugees face’. Does poetry represent a kind of ‘activist’ counterpart to the rhetoric of television and journalism in your mind? Would you say it is a healing device?

MLG: I don’t think of poetry as much as a device for healing as an expression or revelation of where we are right now. So that poem, for example, was intended to point out the madness in suggesting that anyone, even someone with life experiences like mine, could ever understand the “real dilemmas refugees face” from the comfort of their living rooms. I’m coming to the conclusion that the job or poetry – or at least one of its jobs – is to hold a mirror to the world, unmask what we’re too busy, or tired or distracted to see. It’s up to the reader to do something with that information.

MD: I’d like to speak a bit about your role as a performer. Do you generally write poetry that is already destined to be performed? What kind of layer of meaning does performing add to your writing?

MLG: I don’t think of performance when I write, but I do want the poems I write to be in my voice. Part of the process is reading drafts of poems out loud, to hear what they sound like (where the natural pauses are, where the line breaks could help with a play on language), and to make sure it sounds like me. (The danger, of course, is that you write the same poem over and over again!) Each time you perform a poem, it’s a different poem because the audience is different, is listening for different things; it would be impossible to write a poem with a particular audience or performance in mind. (That said, I did write “Pilgrim” sequence for performance at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney.

The written form in Refuge is slightly different from that performance draft because I knew the audience wouldn’t have a chance to see it again, and would need things to be a little more laid out, a little more joined up.)

MD: Throughout your career, you have worked with women’s charities, refugee groups, LGBTQ+ groups, disadvantaged children. Your poetry is filled with moments of solidarity: the opening poem of the collection, Gift, narrates a beautiful encounter between your Muslim grandmother and your Methodist mother in Teheran. Could you tell me about your work for and with the community and could you share with me a ‘gift’ you have received, a moment that has proven particularly meaningful to you and your writing?

MLG: My aim in writing with these communities of women (whether it’s refugee and migrant women, or those living with domestic violence) is always to honour their experiences. I don’t regularly ask about difficult times (though of course they often come up), but want to know about the other parts of their lives, to let these women know that they are valued, worthy, that their experiences as a whole person matter. We do that often by writing as a group, weaving the offerings of those around a table into a communal poem, which not only allows those who feel less confident to participate, but also brings the group together as a whole. My latest joy is training others to do this work through Open Book, so we can expand how many groups we can support in the long run.

I have been so lucky with gifts – I am regularly given the gift of trust, when women I’m working with tell me their stories, and trust me to use them wisely. I’m also often thanked by participants for this work, for listening and valuing where they come from, rather than their difficulties – and each one of those bits of feedback feels a gift to be treasured. To offset this kind of intense work, I was exceedingly lucky to be offered the Poet in Residence role at Jupiter Artland, where I was given the precious gift of time, silence and space for two years to walk alone in their woods and write whatever I wanted. Most importantly, I’ve been given the gift of encouragement by my husband, who suggested I return to poetry rather than law when my youngest child went to school, and has made space for my work ever since.

MD: Finally, I am curious to know about the poetry that inspires you and that you would recommend to others. Do you have a favourite poet and a favourite poem?

MLG: I have loved the work of Adrienne Rich since I was in my early 20s – and since then have added others like Sharon Olds and Sinead Morrissey. Philip Levine’s poems, particularly the close up look at the every day, stay with me wherever I go. John Glenday’s poems have a stillness with depth that I admire and return to again and again. And last but not least are the poems of John Burnside; I almost always carry his poems with me because his poems are a good reminder of the duality of our daily life, the inward and the outward.

One favourite poem?! Really? It would have to be an Adrienne Rich poem – maybe “Roofwalker” or “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” or likely “What is Possible (for its lines “If the mind were clear/ and if the mind were simple you could take this mind/ this particular state and say/ This is how I would live if I could choose: /this is what is possible.”). The last lines are a challenge to myself that I carry with me

An Interview with Gail Jones


Gail Jones is the author of two short-story collections, a critical monograph, and the novels Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams Of Speaking, Sorry, Five Bells and A Guide to Berlin (longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize). She is currently Professor of Writing at Western Sydney University.


V.B.: Over a timespan of twenty-five years you have achieved recognition as an important female author, not only on the Australian but also on the international literary scene. Your fiction has been translated into thirteen languages; it has, among other distinctions, been longlisted for the Orange prize, and has won many prizes including the Nita B. Kibble Award. These two mentioned literary prizes all share a particular interest in work produced by women. To what extent has your increasing international readership, with its specific expectations and demands and also with its diverse national and cultural backgrounds, influenced your own writing as an Australian female author? Has there been any evolution to your views about the role that female writers play, or ought to play, on the literary scene and marketplace nowadays?

G.J.: Imagined readership is not something I attend to in the writing of my fiction. I feel I have a commitment to the integrity of any project – its internal logic, such as it is; its wish to create a vivid and cogent world; its dedication to a spirit of openness in human encounters – these rather abstract principles guide my thinking and writing. The desire to recommend oneself as an exemplar of any kind seems to me a paralysing model of literary production. I also feel very humble about my own work – always hoping simply to “fail better” with each text – and try to detach as much as possible from the peculiar value system of prizes. I’m of course conscious of my role as a woman writer – but also see this more as a ground of possibility, as it were, than a determination of content or a fixed subject position on the world.

V.B.: Your latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, is named after a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. Interestingly, in the last section of Nabokov’s ‘guide’, the narrator, while watching a child observing the inside of a pub, muses in what appears to be a moment of revelation: “There is one thing I know. Whatever happens to him in life, he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup. […] I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollections” (Vladimir Nabokov. 1976. Details of A Sunset and other Stories. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 98). What is it that appeals to you in this idea of future recollections, which seems to crop up repeatedly in your more recent writing – I am thinking in particular of the last chapter of Five Bells, in which this forward-backward movement in time, and the verbatim repetition of the phrase “will remember,” is particularly striking?

G.J.: Yes, you’re right: this is a preoccupation of mine. What moves me about the conclusion to A Guide to Berlin is that the ‘guide’ imagines that the little boy eating soup will remember him, with “(my) empty right sleeve and scarred face”. There’s a lovely tenderness here: the narrator of the story imagines that his own mutilated body will be recalled by the child in the future, registered in its moment and location, preserved in a kind of delayed understanding. This encapsulates one of the truths of our relationships, that we know each other materially, through real-time contact and presence, but also immaterially, in recollection and the mysterious persistence of word and image traces. So this moment at the end of Nabokov’s story captures something essential about the way people matter to each other, and how we must cherish those apparently inconsequential encounters. It’s a small thought which recognizes the capacity of the ordinary to constitute memory and the apprehension that there’s a temporal and even metaphysical dimension in which, as Nabokov puts it earlier in his story, “every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right.” In phenomenological and existential terms we’re always in a forward-backward rhythm, not often fully here in the present moment – or rather our present is inflected and intercepted by the past and the future, pleated and folded. Likewise if we were to see our contemporary world with the eyes of the future, we might see it suddenly aestheticized and made endearingly strange.

V.B.: In some ways A Guide to Berlin can be considered a companion-piece to Five Bells’. Indeed, both novels narrate the coming together in one city of individuals carrying very different childhood stories and national histories. However, whereas (in Five Bells) the five characters meet unknowingly and form a community on the level of discourse, the six international travellers in A Guide to Berlin form a less unwitting literary community, based on a mutual passion for Nabokov’s oeuvre. Significantly, both communities experience a terrible fate, characterised by loss, grief and mourning. In a sense, it is only through your knitted readership that a certain type of community seems to re-emerge in the larger world. Hence my question: what redemptive narrative responsibility does the writer wish to shoulder in the face of this sense of the precariousness and ephemerality of communities in the actual world?

G.J.: That’s a difficult question. Communities are indeed precarious, and A Guide to Berlin is perhaps a pessimistic take on capacity of narrative to establish genuine community. But I hope too it’s affirming random beauty, the mystery of patterns, and a final insistence that we share deep pleasures in language, story and friendship. One of the differences between the texts is the Japanese lovers – they are characters not damaged or enigmatic in the way the others are, but have been rescued by love, and are joyful and artistic. The Japanese perception of the fleetingness of things is for them both an explanatory mode and a sense of meaning –  this is ‘redemption’ on a small scale, if you like. The film theorist Siegfried Kracauer talks about “the redemption of the real” through acts like photographic looking: this was the kind of thing I had in mind. Particularized redemption – and not as a general project. I like to think this book honours the final irreducibility of other people. We think we know the characters in A Guide, because of the candour of their disclosures, but there is always something held back, perhaps even wordless, that lies at the centre of their being. Judith Butler talks (in Giving an Account of Oneself) about how it is the opacity of others that finally obliges us to construct a robust interpersonal ethics: I like this idea.

V.B.: The five characters in Five Bells come to Circular Quay on the same train. In A Guide to Berlin, two characters, the Australian Cass and the Italian Gino, are obsessed with trains, stations, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. More generally, the characters in your stories travel a lot, not only through space but also through time. To what extent do you see time and space as being interrelated, interwoven, and perhaps even interdependent?

G.J.: I’ve been teaching an MA level course on “time” and reading a lot of philosophy. I’m genuinely intrigued by space-time (Einstein’s formulation of the indisociability of space and time), but also by figures like Michel Serres and Bruno Latour – especially Latour’s mischievous model of the polytemporal. We all exist in many times simultaneously. It seems to me that lyric time matters (the time of stasis in which Being seems to unfold before you), but so does lost time, accelerated or decelerated time, and the various metaphors we engage to try to personalize this experience (rivers, folds, spirals, etc.) also have an effect on our being-in-the-world. Superimposition interests me. Nabokov famously wrote: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.”

As to trains: in western modernity trains radically over-signify – speed, industrialization, even the holocaust –  and this fascinates me. I like the fact that trains, seen at night, resemble old-fashioned film-strips, an image I discovered Nabokov also loved (the tram on a bridge at night). They carry our seeing, as much as they carry our bodies; and somehow differently to cars, since they’re haphazardly communal and allow us a corridor of to walk against the direction we’re moving in. So yes, interdependence and interrelation is at the base of this kind of knowing, and this principle offers all kinds of poetic and symbolic satisfactions.

V.B.: During one of their meetings, the six international travellers of A Guide to Berlin exchange their views on their favourite places in the city. There is the Berlin aquarium with its jellyfish and Nabokovian tortoise, the fountains, among which the enigmatic Medusa head in Henriettenplatz, the Stattbad, a former swimming pool turned into a club, and the Bebelplatz, which commemorates the book burning of 1933. Interestingly, Cass and Gino respectively choose, as their favourites, the trains (the U-Bahn and S-Bahn), and the ruin of the Anhalter Bahnhof (the former point of departure for Jews sent to Theresienstadt). More generally, your own guide seems to focus more on interstitial places and spaces, as well as on timeless worlds and monuments. Why this particular, non-touristic approach?

G.J.: These days Berlin is celebrated for its hipster life-style and artistic freedom. It has always been a space of avant-gardist ideas and art movements. But my first impressions of Berlin (and these have in part remained) were of its rubble, its melancholy and its devotion to memorials.  It was enormously moving to contemplate Eisenman’s ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, which is of course almost entirely abstract, with no figuration, numbers or words.  Moving through obdurate shapes – the 2,711 slabs – obliges solemnity, reflection, some awareness of what eroded or destroyed representation might be, some need to imagine loss in wholly unsentimental terms. This was one of the starting points for my text – the places that exist, in Benjaminian terms, committed to the philosophy of ruins. Wordless places, thinking places: these ought to be especially meaningful to writers and readers. This all sounds rather grim, so I took care to include the spaces that also animate and enliven us – the aquarium, full of visions – those that generate wonder and delight.

V.B.: Quite ironically, A Guide to Berlin is a successful story dealing with “the failure of any tale”, to quote directly from it. It invites its reader to silent propinquity, shared understandings and empathetic imagination, and yet, by the same token, it acknowledges the failure of its extraordinary community of six when it comes to narrativising personal truths and secrets: its quintessence then lies in all that remains hidden and unspoken. Thus, beyond the nod in the direction of Nabokov, A Guide to Berlin includes a reference to itself as a meta-discursive avatar of Gino’s personal, undisclosed guide. To what extent does your novel strive to encapsulate your personal acknowledgment of the failure of words to fully come to terms with traumatic events?

G.J.: Ah, “fail better”, once again! I’m pleased you recognize that there’s a commitment in this text to the principle of silent propinquity – the standing with an other, the sharing of delights and griefs.  But it’s true too that there are many “guides” spiralling in this book, including Gino’s inaccessible text, which may (hypothetically) be the most reliable.  I’m hoping not to stick to Nabokov so much as to ask: what guides us? When we are in a city not our own, what surfaces in us symbolically to make sense of the signs we encounter? And as you state, there’s a space here too for the wordless world of trauma, which does not always enter into linguistic expression. In these ways, yes, it’s a deeply personal book, though I’m not Cass (I’m much more joyful!) and usually retreat – shy and embarrassed –  from autobiographical readings.

V.B.: You seem to share with Cass an obsession with snow. Indeed, “Snow” is the title of the first short story collected in Fetish Lives; there is of course Stella’s recurrent snow dream in Sorry; Pei Xing in Five Bells is mesmerized by snow; and, in A Guide to Berlin, it turns into an obsession for both Cass and Gino. What is it that fascinates you so dearly with snow? Can you comment on your decision to approach it as an “aestheticizing medium”, as you termed it in an interview conducted by Eleanor Wachtel?

G.J.: Yes, I am dearly fascinated by snow. In this text I decided simply to indulge my own enchantment, since the gorgeous transmogrifications of snow still seem a secular magic to me. I didn’t see snowfall until I was an adult, and found the experience crazily exhilarating. Deeply sensual, world-changing, a combination of wholly unanticipated physical and cognitive effects. There’s no doubt a kind of naivety to this response, a daft unworldliness, but I’ve tried to preserve those first immersions in a new sensorium as an experience of the poetic. As a child, swimming in the ocean with snorkel and goggles gave me the same sensory overload and sense of imaginative reconstruction.

V.B.: In A Guide to Berlin, Gino takes Cass along to the refugee-camps on Oranienplatz. One year after your twelve-month stay in Berlin in the context of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, the media are certainly arguing that ‘the refugee crisis’ has reached worse than ever proportions in Europe. What role should literature play, in your view, towards reflecting and interpreting the severities and the injustices of today’s world-wide migration phenomena?

G.J.: The plight of refugees today deeply concerns me. Like many readers and writers I consider this one of the great moral challenges of our times: how to be welcoming and open, how to combat racism and prejudice, how to imagine a future in which we better share global resources and opportunities. The distress of refugees is heart-breaking to witness, even televisually. The Oranienplatz camp was a big issue in 2013 (I spent a bitterly cold month in Berlin in March 2013); but was dismantled at the beginning of 2014. So there’s a strange untimeliness and repetition to my writing of this episode: I wanted to emplace a refugee narrative at the centre of the text, but as a kind of provocation, and one unresolved and uncertain. Now, it seems a much harder idea to contemplate, since there’s a different sense of scale and urgency. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that literature has an ethical charter, and that imagination has a moral dimension.


An Interview with Susan Sellers

Interview by Shelagh Weeks

Professor Susan Sellers is based at St. Andrews University.Her specialisms straddle three main areas: creative writing, modernist and contemporary women’s writing, and literary theory. Her novel ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ is a fictional account of the intense sibling rivalry that existed between Virginia Woolf and her painter sister Vanessa Bell (Two Ravens Press in Britain and by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States). In this interview she discusses her latest novel ‘Given the Choice’ is published by Cillian Press. 

What was the genesis of the novel, and how did the ambitious, yet flawed character of Marion emerge?

I spent a number of years in Paris as a doctoral student and had a variety of jobs to make ends meet. I came across a businesswoman I suspect may have been Marion’s alter ego. What struck me about her was the way she used her considerable intelligence and creativity to further the careers of other people. My previous novel Vanessa and Virginia explored how the making of art was essential to both Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell. Marion is different. She realises early on she doesn’t have what it takes to become a professional artist,so her energy and passion are expressed vicariously through her clients. I liked this idea of a female Svengali. Another impetus was that moment in life when we must decide whether or not to become a parent. For women, the issue is pressing because we cannot easily have a baby after the age of 40. So we must make the choice in our 20s and 30s which often disadvantages us professionally. In Marion’s case the situation is complicated because her husband is desperate to start a family. The other strand was our infinite capacity for self-delusion. Marion is convinced she has plenty of time – and in the way we all do when we want to believe something, can produce stories of women having late babies to support her stance. Marion deludes herself about various things, but I was conscious of the flaw at the heart of the feminist message which says women can have it all on the same basis as men. While studies indicate men’s age is a factor in conception, men can and do go on fathering children until much later in life. One of the characters Marion comes across is the forty-seven-year-old Amanda, who has missed the window when she might have become a mother because of divorce.

This is a tightly structured and crafted novel, with background detail carefully inserted to build and develop key themes. Rather than use chapters, you have given titles or headings for each section: I wonder why you chose to direct reader attention in this way? Sometimes the headings are merely descriptive, but increasingly they seem to imply, comment, are playful or employed ironically e.g. ‘the waiting game’/ ‘just deserts’/ ‘happy ever after’.

I always write my first draft of a novel as freely as I can, telling myself that at this stage no one will ever see it and I can therefore try out what I like. The headings were there from the start, and I realised – as I cut and rewrote – that they could be useful in a number of ways. Though I wanted to write a novel with interesting characters, I didn’t want readers to empathise with them too closely. I enjoy novels where I become so wrapped up in the characters that my hopes for them dominate my reading, but I didn’t want this to happen here. The headings helped create this distance – signalling the text’s artifice to readers. In line with its title, the novel gives the reader the choice of ending, and the headings were crucial in signalling these. There are three endings rather than a straight either/or choice because I wanted to indicate a spectrum of possibilities. The endings are deliberately generic. There’s the inconclusive ‘real-life’ ending, an ending where Marion gets her come-uppance, as well as a happier outcome.

The novel overtly explores social contexts, growing up, houses and homes, parenting, creativity, the way that art expands meaning and consciousness, ageing; it touches on issues such as single parenthood, poverty, youth employment, and also, quite potently, exploits the undercurrents and symbolism of dress, surfaces, nourishment, hunger, place, spells, water and colour. Was such a conscious (or unconscious)weaving of the explicit and implicit in your book an incremental development?

My novels go through many drafts, and change each time. In this case I began with a number of ingredients: a successful if manipulative businesswoman, the art world setting, the need to make a decision about children. Then there’s the stage of ‘what if?’ If my businesswoman’s married, what would her husband be like? What if he wants children and she doesn’t? What might make her not want to have a baby? Is her career a sufficient reason? Or is there is something more? And of course the more one works, the more the material opens up avenues for exploration and reveals ingredients of its own. What’s essential is that any exploration or ingredient I incorporate should fit the novel’s arc.

At times, as I questioned or disliked Marion’s assertions, her use of money, power, and her interactions with others, I wondered if a male protagonist might escape such scrutiny and whether you had deliberately set up such reader reactions so we were forced to question our own judgements and our choices as a reader? 

Given the Choice is set in 2007-2008, just before and then during the sub-prime fiasco that not only led to wide-spread bankruptcy, but also fuelled the realisation that free-market capitalism might not be the best model for a world with finite resources. Money is a crucial element in the novel. It underscores the hype of the art world setting,and removes any financial consideration from Marion’s decision about maternity. It also gives Marion power since she can use it to transform the lives of the artists she represents. I liked the idea of taking a ‘tricky’woman as my protagonist. Marion is capable of generosity, but can also be ruthless and resort to lying when the going gets tough. We have plenty of sympathetic women in fiction now,and we even have some downright bad ones (who usually get their just deserts). What we don’t have enough of are ones in the middle -perhaps because they are more like ourselves then we care to admit. Ambitious women, for instance, who when circumstances require play dirty.

I felt, throughout, as if you were setting up the possibility of Marion and Jean-Claude having some sort of liaison (just as the novel hints that Edward may look elsewhere). Was this deliberate, and if so, was such plotting a ploy to sustain tension, or was it a gesture towards those things in life that might happen, yet don’t?

That’s fascinating! Jean-Claude is certainly one of the most important characters in the novel and his relationship with Marion is central. I’m not sure I ever imagined they would have an affair – Jean-Claude is too chaotic for Marion, and he despises her easy wealth -though when their business relationship breaks down they miss each other. The notion that what happens in life is more often than not the result of contingency is an important strand to the book. I’m intrigued and thrilled to discover you felt an affair between Jean-Claude and Marion was hinted at, because it becomes yet one more thing that might have occurred.

I struggled with the shift into multiple versions of the same event; the narrative, up until that point, had seemed to inhabit a different sort of terrain. Nevertheless, I appreciated what this conflation added, structurally.  Can you expand a little on these writerly choices?

I wanted to lead readers through all three endings so that the dissatisfaction or ‘rightness’ of each could be experienced and reflected on. This meant I ruled out an announcement that might have prompted readers to only look at one. At the same time,I was aware of the need to make what I was doing clear. I couldn’t help thinking of John Fowles and how, when he wrote multiple endings for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, some of his readers complained to his publisher that there had been a printing error. It was the painter, Jean-Claude, who came to my rescue. He’s working on a series of paintings which all have the same subject. However, each picture is different – because his mood changes, or there’s a shift in the way the ingredients assemble, or because a new perspective emerges. Jean-Claude also has the last word.  As he looks at his unsold canvases,another version of his subject occurs to him which he resolves to try. So I hope the reader is left with the sense that there are many more possible outcomes than the three I have sketched in.

I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, many of the pacey jump-cuts between parallel stories, the flashbacks and the writing of Marion’s near drowning; what sections did you most enjoy writing?

I always enjoy those parts of the writing where words seem to flow. This can happen at any stage, though I suspect it does so most frequently when I have been able to clear some proper time for writing and don’t have my head half-full of all the other things I should be doing. Personally I find it very hard to write in an odd hour here and there (though I am admiring and envious of writers who can). I seem to need to carve out much larger blocks of time in order to immerse myself, and for what I write to have any chance of coming alive on the page, let alone flow. In Given the Choice, I enjoyed researching the contemporary art world and then creating the art installation Marion takes Peeter (a young Estonian pianist) to see. I also enjoyed writing about the music Peeter plays. And I have a soft spot for Jutta (Peeter’s Estonian girlfriend) who is perhaps the only character not to be caught up in Marion’s spell.

Conversely, what did you struggle most with in the novel?

Marion is a fairy-tale figure – she can make her clients’ dreams come true. But (as Jutta realises) she is also manipulative, destructive and witch-like. In fairy tale characters are schematic – often reduced to functions of the plot – and their power resides in inviting us to match our experiences against the templates they offer. I think there is currently too much emphasis placed on characters in fiction – on whether or not they are likeable, on how easily we can relate to them – at the expense of everything else a work of fiction contains. I don’t particularly like Mr or Mrs Ramsay or even Lily Briscoe in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and yet I think it one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. With Marion as my central character, I was aware of a tension between wanting to distance readers from her, and providing a rationale for why she behaves as she does. This was particularly difficult when it came to her back story, and made me hesitate about how much of it to give. In the end, quite a few details about her growing up were either omitted or alluded to in passing, so I could focus only on those which were crucial (such as her relationship with her mother). It was Marion’s husband Edward who enabled me to make these issues explicit. Quite late on, he gives up his high-paid job as a financier and decides to enrol for a degree in Classics, which is a long-held ambition. One of the essays he has to write is on myth, fairy tale and what it is we want fiction to do.