The facts of life they don’t teach you at school

A great review of my book, The Facts of Life, from Different Shores – a blog about childfree living.

Different Shores

I’ve just read a graphic memoir by Paula Knight called The Facts of Life that seemed to reflect my own life. It’s an intensely personal story that tells of how the 47-year old author came to give up her pursuit of motherhood.

The novel follows the story of Polly, a 1970s child who grows up assuming she’ll probably have babies one day like most people. Along the way she watches nuclear-horror drama Threads and witnesses the AIDS tombstone adverts on prime-time TVthe EXACT same things that put the shits up me. Also, that dirge that was in the charts for ages, ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’? Who knew she was singing about being childless and pitiful!

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Polly is ambivalent about parenting: her head is filled with the same “negative chatter” about becoming a mother that plagued me, too – it’s almost as if she is trying to talk herself out of it, which is exactly how I was.

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The Facts of Life news

After working on The Facts of Life over six or more years, if feels so good to say that it’s an actual book now and I’ve held it in my hands!

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I’ve also pleased to announce that, in a deal negotiated by Louisa Pritchard Associates, Myriad Editions have sold the N American rights for The Facts of Life to Penn State University Press, and I’m excited that it will be joining their Graphic Medicine series. I’ve long been a fan of Graphic Medicine and I’ve spoken about this work at three of their events and conferences since 2011. It feels like the right home for my book over the pond. It will be published there around the same time as MK Czerwiec’s (aka Comic Nurse) book Taking Turns. I met MK at a Graphic Medicine event that was part of 2011 Comics Forum in Leeds, and we’ve had a similar timeline to publication over the past few years. I’m very much looking forward to reading this book, which is a memoir about her time working as a nurse in a HIV/AIDS unit in the 1980s. Other excellent books that I’ve read from the series include The Bad Doctor by Ian Williams, Hole in the Heart by Henny Beaumont, and Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park by Aneurin Wright, all of which were first published by Myriad Editions in the UK, so PSUP already feels like home!

In other good news, I’m delighted that my book is currently Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller for Biography/ Memoir. I’ll keep you up to speed next year with news about events I’ll be attending and at which I’ll be speaking about the book. All the very best for the festive season and wishing you health and happiness in 2017!

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The Facts of Life will be published by Myriad Editions and Penn state University Press in March 2017.

Thorns and Flowers

As well as finishing my graphic novel this year, I’ve also been involved in designing a booklet, Thorns and Flowers, for a research project by an all-female team from Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universties. Their research explored the infertility experiences of Black and Minority Ethic women living in Wales, and it was funded by Welsh Crucible. You can read and download the booklet here.

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The team used my comics about fertility and childlessness to prompt discussion in an art workshop attended by nine women at Women Connect First in Cardiff, whose charity is a partner on the project. It was interesting for me to discover their responses to, and interpretations of my work, especially differences in understanding due to varying cultural backgrounds. My intentions for certain pieces did not speak to everyone. For example, my use of the sun as a visual metaphor for hope (see comic below) was interpreted as a symbol of infertility – it represented dry barrenness to some women. They suggested rain as a more appropriate metaphor, because rain would represent the possibility of new growth and replenishment.

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Mother, or not? 2

There was also a basic drawing class, after which the women produced their own artwork about their feelings around their experiences of infertility. I attended the workshop and was so touched to see such personal and beautiful artwork being produced. I also knew immediately which image I would use for the centre spread! Many of the women were not trained artists, but, for me, this means that the work is often more honest and raw. Without the shackles of trying too hard to make something look perfect, and the self-consciousness of line that that brings, the immediate emotion is laid bare on the page and the images are all the better for it. It is my opinion that anyone can draw.

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My job was to bring together the artwork, research conclusions, and quotes from the women, in an aesthetically pleasing presentation for a printable booklet. This meant adding colour to some of the women’s drawings and illustrating one or two images. At first, I was wary of doing this on such personal work, out of a sense of respect, and because I didn’t want my ‘hand’ to show too much on their work. For this reason, I chose to use felt-tip pen as a medium for colouring the work – many of the women had used felt-tips in the workshop, and I felt that this would keep the aesthetic look of the booklet coherent and authentic. I did my own felt-tip colouring, but added it digitally so as not to change their original pieces of artwork.

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I went to the booklet launch in Cardiff earlier this week, which was part of Women Connect First’s AGM where they were outlining their community projects. I was glad to meet the woman whose image I’d coloured for the front cover again. Her approval was very welcome, and she said that the other women were also happy with the booklet. The feedback for the booklet and the importance of its message was very positive, and I’m happy to have been part of this project. The main thing I took away was the importance of talking to one another about infertility, and to take the issues out into the wider community. Art is an altogether levelling and accessible way of doing this. And Women Connect First definitely have the right name – it was a very connecting experience, after all.

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Sofia Gameiro, introducing the booklet

The research team included: Sofia Gameiro, Alida Payson, Berit Bliesemann de Guavara and Elizabeth el Refaie. They now hope to distribute the booklet to healthcare providers and community leaders in order to raise awareness of the particular issues faced by BME women suffering infertility.

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FINISHED! Graphic memoir update

FINISHED! Work on my graphic memoir, The Facts of Life, is now complete, and the file is in the safe hands of my editor, Corinne Pearlman of Myriad Editions. She has been finalising work on the book jacket and getting it all ready for printing. The book will be published by Myriad Editions on March 16th 2017. I’m very excited about jacket quotes and reviews that I’ve had so far – from some excellent authors whom I’ve admired for many years! It’s six years since I started work on this book, and ten years since I first had the idea, so it feels incredible to have finished at last.

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There has been much toing and froing in recent weeks with the copy-edit, book jacket, and mysterious missing speech bubbles, which had fallen foul of the digital ether (i.e. mistakenly overwritten files that InDesign had a dizzy spell over in the final package). Such a huge learning curve! That packaged ID file was a hefty lump of over 4GB of data.

I’ve mentioned my health issues here before. I could not have completed this work without the help of my husband John Austin, who did the majority of my scanning and digital tidying. Computer work (any work) can leave my arm muscles very sore, so this meant that arm energy could be used solely for completing the hand-rendered artwork. I’m extremely grateful for his help, otherwise it might have taken another year, and I was already pushing myself to get things finished as it was.

I’m also grateful to one or two friends who’ve taken the time to read it and put my mind at rest about general brow-furrowing I’ve developed since the realisation of it being real!COVER_Couple_ChartBlueBG_redcrosses_darkerchart

I feel honoured that my book will be joining the Myriad stable of graphic novelists, which houses many books that I admire – some written by people who have become friends and/or supportive colleagues. I’m looking forward to taking it out into the world and crossing paths more often with these talented folk.

In the meantime, I’m having some time off to rest properly, and to catch up with friends. I’ll also be starting HBOT treatment soon, which I hope will help my ME/ Fibromyalgia symptoms. Some people have had good results, and I’ve wanted to try it for some time, but it requires a whole month of daily treatment. I’m hoping to do a HBOT diary with drawings and notes, but I’ll have to see how it goes, and whether it will be possible to draw while tooled up in an oxygen chamber with others who might not want to be drawn!

For more regular updates from my studio, please follow my Instagram account: @paulajkstudio

London Plane

I recently had an diagnostic laparoscopy. I felt like I’d been kicked by a frisky mule! I’m having a week or two off to rest and recuperate. What has the London Plane tree got to do with that, you may ask? Maybe nothing, unless you have a oxycodone-soaked post-laparoscopic brain.

I’ve recently been taking photos of trees and birds, and have taken lots of London Plane trees in their winter finery with those pendulous pods hanging a pattern against the flat winter sky.

London_Plane_photoThey remind me of 1950s atom designs, but also something visceral and bodily that I couldn’t quite put my finger on – maybe testicular? It wasn’t until I was in hospital, and there was one outside the ward window, did I begin to make a connection – one that might have been lurking in my subconscious all along. To pass the time and calm my nerves while waiting my turn on the surgical day-case unit, I did some sketching and stream-of-consciousness writing to record the experience. There wasn’t much time, because I was second on the list.

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Here’s what I wrote before my op, and afterwards when I was waiting to go home. I’ve never really tried stream-of-consciousness writing but I enjoyed reading A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride recently, so why not? I need more practice!

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Needless to say, I’ll never be able to look at another London Plane tree without thinking of uterine fibroids! The ‘O’ the surgeon made with her hand was pretty much the same size as the seedpods hanging off the tree out of the window. Perhaps I’ve been noticing these trees more recently in a subconscious bid to understand my pain. Or maybe I just like the look of them! Nature often echoes the human condition, but that’s only because we have the consciousness to consider ourselves apart from it and thus reflected in it*.  I think we probably see what we’re searching for or need at that time. In reality, the London Plane seeds are its fertility – not unwanted troublesome growths, which is what I now see. Some sort of transference has happened between me and those trees – perhaps because I’d rather my experience could somehow be located somewhere other than inside my own body. Whatever my interest in the trees is about, at least drawing, writing and taking photos is a distraction from pain!

*I’ve also been reading some nature writing recently – Nature Cure by Richard Mabey describes these ideas quite well.

 

Heredity

Here is a comic on the theme of heredity that I did a couple of years ago. It is part of my collection, X Utero (A Cluster of Comics) available from my shop, at Orbital Comics and Foyles in London.

It was a way to process the knowledge that, not having had children and not having siblings, family traits will die out with me. Quite an egotistical thing to be concerned with, really, but one that people who haven’t had children occasionally think about – possibly because they are glad or sad that they won’t be passing on their DNA! Rather than being too concerned about my own DNA coming to rest, I was more sad about the prospect of family photos becoming obsolete – so I made a comic with them for anyone who ‘cares to take a look’. It might have worked a little better if I’d been able to find a photo of my dad as a child wearing glasses!

And, this week, Andy Oliver has reviewed this comic along with my other comic of a graphic medicine flavour, Spooky Womb, in his Small Pressganged column on the comics news site Broken Frontier. You can read what he has to say here.

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Nathan Filer talk

I was lucky to get the last ticket to Costa winner Nathan Filer’s talk about his book The Shock of the Fall. Waterstones Bristol was packed out, as you’d expect for a visit from a highly successful local writer. Unfortunately, the downside of having read it on e-book is that I couldn’t get mine signed and it reminded me of how much I like books as objects. I won’t go into too much detail about the talk itself – I’ve put some of the salient points in my notebook, here: NFiler_notes3 NFiler_notes2 NFiler_notes It’s always a relief to hear a writer say, ‘Ten years ago…’ in relation to when they had the seeds of an idea for their book. I can give myself a break in that case, because, by the time mine comes out, it will easily be ten years since I started. Not that its genesis was altogether proactive at the time. I also found it encouraging that only the main character remains from his first attempt to write the book.

When I started reading The Shock of the Fall, although I knew Nathan Filer had grown up in Bristol, I didn’t realise the book was set here – some of it is based on a ward at Southmead Hospital, where Filer trained to be a psychiatric nurse. His characterisation of Matthew’s (main character) friend, who hangs around the corner at the junction between Stoke’s Croft and Jamaica St., made me think of the people you might expect to see there and thus made them more real to me – and is an illustration of how the book helps to break taboos about mental health issues (although I’m not suggesting that all who hang around there have mental health issues!) But it does beg the question: what becomes of people whose care services have been cut? For me, part of the importance of this book is that it draws attention to the fallout from government cuts in an implicit manner. The ward where Filer trained is now closed (although I’m unclear if that was a direct result of cuts).

The payoff for not being in the signing queue was that I had the pleasure of meeting the author’s mum. She came over to speak to me because she had seen me drawing during the talk – she’s also an artist. I apologised that it’s hard to get a likeness when someone is moving around! I can see where he gets his sense of humour: Mrs Filer suggested I look up her son’s poetry readings on the internet. She explained that he often alludes to the Oedipus complex in some of them: ‘It’s Not True‘ she assures me. We laugh. It was a pleasure to meet her.

I highlighted so many sentences from this book it’s hard to pick one. As someone who is both writing and drawing a memoir that includes taboo subject matter, I was particularly drawn to Matthew’s insights on that very process – how memory is so fragmented and how you put it back together in the writing process. I won’t quote them all here, instead I’d urge you to read the book. Here’s one of my favourites:  

‘Patient is engaging in writing behaviour’. From The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer.

I myself, for the rest of day, will be engaging in writing behaviour, patiently.

ps: If you are interested in reading books about mental health care, I’d also recommend the graphic novel Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham, pub. Myriad Editions.