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.

 

Halfway: Graphic memoir update

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HALFWAY! Through the artwork stage of my graphic memoir The Facts of Life. What? Only half way? I know – I’ve been on with the thing since 2010. Most comics creators are well aware of what a gargantuan labour-intensive task writing and drawing a long-form comic can be, many taking a good ten years to complete one alongside other work.

My personal reason for derailment has been health issues this year. When I signed the contract with Myriad Editions, and got my grant from Arts Council England, I was relatively well and thought that I could get the deed done in a couple of years. But this year has seen a relapse in my ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia symptoms. I was first diagnosed with this in 2008, and when I started working on this project in earnest, in 2011, it felt like I was comfortably in recovery. I started out working for six days each week to get the artwork stage of the project done by my original deadline, but it wasn’t to be. The illness raised its ugly head again around March/ April of this year after a particularly rapacious bout of blood-spitting bronchitis. (Never come near me if you have anything vaguely viral or snively.) Many describe it as a ‘fluctuating illness,’ and, well, it fluctuated the wrong way.

I’ve had to cut back on how much work I can do each day, and in summer I had to stop work completely for a few weeks due to chronic muscle pain/ soreness and clobbering fatigue. I’m back to work again now, but doing only four pages a week and that mostly seems manageable – although not every week. I’m grateful to Myriad Editions for their patience, support and understanding. The book is now due to come out in 2017 but no specific date has been decided yet. Here is the latest cover design: COVER_Couple_ChartBlueBG_redcrosses_darkerchart

In other news, my book was mentioned in The Bookseller recently, and in last week’s Sunday Times online, alongside some of my talented comics contemporaries – Nicola Streeten, Ian Williams, Rachael Ball, and Henny Beaumont. It was an article about the growing popularity of graphic novels with a medical theme (aka Graphic Medicine). There are some amazing books coming out, and already published, by those folks, so do look them up. Also look out for Una’s new book from Myriad Editions – Becoming Unbecoming.

Also, I occasionally post snippets from the work in progress, and ‘deskies’ at my work Instagram account: @paulajkstudio

A New Lyrical Ballads

Last night I went to this poetry event: A New Lyrical Ballads, part of Bristol Festival of Ideas’ season of talks exploring the connection between Bristol and The Romantic Poets. Twenty-three poets were commissioned to write new works ‘in the spirit of romanticism’.

I must admit that I haven’t read much poetry since studying for A Level English Lit, and I haven’t strayed far from Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land since. More fool me. My husband convinced me that this event would be a corker – he’s the poetry buff in this household and writes prose poetry. Several of his favourite poets would be reading.

The idea of ‘lyrical’ attracted me because lyrics were the first type of writing I ever did, and that led on to writing picture books, which require a similar type of structure and rhythm. Indeed, some of the poets last night spoke of the ‘economy of words’ in poetry, which is also an important facet of writing picture books and graphic novels (my current work in progress). I’d also stumbled over the Romantic Poets in the course of researching my book – the Romantic era being a period when motherhood was much sentimentalised in literature.

Although poetry is not usually a medium I read, I found much to offer here and ‘discovered’ some poets’ work I’d like to read more. In my drawings of the event I became interested by how each reader held their paper – aloft and confident, tentative or grasped. Ian McMillan introduced each poet, so bits of him are dotted around. It was dark, and I found it hard to focus from bright lights to shady page, plus I need to get this middle-aged eyesight situation sorted!

Graphic novel progress

Here’s a timeline and brief diary for my graphic novel, The Facts of Life, to date. It’s been a case of ‘comics interruptus’ so far for all sorts of reasons, but it’s gathering speed now and I’m ‘in the zone’:

2006: After reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, I realise that it’s possible to be a middle-aged woman writing memoir using the medium of comics. Can I play, too? Seeds of idea for a autobiographical graphic novel germinate. Start an alphabetical card file of memories. I begin to sketch memories and draw my first comic strip How a Baby is Made. Tentatively show one or two amenable friends who emit positive noises and suggest I go for it. I go to a comics convention for the first time but feel that neither myself nor my story fits somehow, and leave discouraged. (It would be a long time until I discover the the indie self-publishing scene).

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2007:  I enter How a Baby is Made to the first Observer Graphic Short Story prize – but it’s not really a short story. Join Deviant Art as ‘Missnibs’ and post strip there – but I’m not yet au fait with social networking and don’t get very far.

How a Baby is Made 1

How a Baby is Made 1

2007/8: Submit idea to a new comics publisher – initial interest and very encouraging but nothing solid. My proposal is still a little under-cooked. And so am I.

2008-10: Hiatus – all will become clear in book! Discover Laydeez do Comics.

2010: Timeline of memoir ends so ready to start writing – theme of story has changed somewhat due to life events! I go to Laydeez do Comics for the first time and feel more encouraged that there might be a readership for my story. I start to transfer the card file entries to colour-coded post-its, which stay on the wall for over two years until the glue goes crispy and they start to drop off. I use these headings to start writing scenes in words. Join Twitter as a proofreader (my other work) but end up using it to meet comics people instead, thus discovering Graphic Medicine. Further enthused. Sadly, I don’t attend the very first Graphic Medicine conference because I mistakenly think it’s for academics and medics only.

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2011: Get going! Background research and much reading. Enter 17 pages to Myriad Editions’ inaugural First Graphic Novel Competition. It’s good to have a goal. Air project in public for the first time at Laydeez do Comics in May (where I hear about the competition). Attend Arvon Foundation Graphic Novels course where I receive some welcome feedback and meet more lovely comics people – in full flow of quenching thirst from the overflowing cup of comics camaraderie at this point. In November I speak about my project at Comics Forum in Leeds at the Graphic Medicine day. It’s the first time I’ve spoken at an academic conference and it seems to be well received, although I’m extremely nervous. I’ve finally met ‘my people’, professionally speaking, this year! Trawl through old photos.p1_2010_gray

2012: Good news – reach shortlist of Myriad competition! It’s the first time I’ve got so far in any professional competition. Keep in touch with Myriad as project progresses. More research, reading, and story-boarding in between paid freelance work. Make my first self-published comic, Spooky Womb, to dip toe into water. I take it to autumn Comiket and it sells well. My first children’s books as author are published this year, too. A year of firsts.

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2013: More good news! Sign contract with Myriad Editions. Then follows another unfortunate 8-month hiatus. In summer, I speak at the 4th Comics and Medicine Conference in Brighton, which buoys me. Unearth old teenage diaries and letters. Start working on book again towards the end of the year, when I finish the artwork for my prologue.

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2014: Finish first draft of storyboards. Feeding of recycle bin with superfluous splurge. Successful application to Arts Council England for funding to complete my book. Re-read letter to make sure! They definitely said yes. Have a go at making a handwritten font for the lettering – aka a week of faffing resulting in alphabet spaghetti rather than beautiful lo-fi fontage plus sore knuckles from all the gnawing. Begin to make working drawings from the storyboards, which I transfer to Bristol Board for painting and inking. Fonts can wait until patience is restored.

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Onwards: Part three to jiggle,190ish pages of artwork and lettering to draw and complete, and the cover to design. Now working on it for six days a week stopping at eight o’clock most nights. I don’t get out much. I hope friends and family can bear with me for the confinement over the coming year. BBC Radios 4 and 6 are my friends now, plus garden snails and local cats at lunchtimes.

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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.

Comics from Brighton and Bristol to the Lakes!

A long-overdue catch-up post:

Upcoming comics events

Next weekend, I’ll be tabling at Bristol Comic and Zine Fair, organised by the lovely folk from Bearpit Zines. There are 40 exhibitors – some from Bristol; some from beyond – it promises to be a fantastic day. I’m especially excited to see that Gareth Brookes will be there with his graphic novel The Black Project out from Myriad Editions (my publisher-to-be). I’ll certainly be buying a copy. Gareth was the winner of Myriad’s First Graphic Novel competition in which I was shortlisted with The Facts of Life.

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Then, on 18th October, I’m off to the inaugural Lakes International Comic Art Festival where I’ll have a table in the Comics Clock Tower sharing with Ian Williams (Graphic Medicine man). On the Saturday night I’m taking part in Quick Strips – Myriad Authors and Friends, where it is suggested that we will be ‘revealing all’. I’m hoping that this means a 6-minute presentation of work in progress! It will be my first time as a guest at a comics festival.

I’ll be taking Spooky Womb, X Utero, and a newly repackaged non-limited edition version of A Fray, along with some pages in progress from my book. If you can’t make it to these events, my latest comic X Utero is available in Blackwell’s at Wellcome bookshop and Orbital Comics. Or you can buy them direct from me.

Ethics Under Cover – Graphic Medicine conference

In July, I went to Brighton to present at Ethics Under Cover, Comics Medicine and Society (Graphic Medicine) on the panel Whose story is it? with Mita Mahato, Peaco Todd and Linda Raphael. I talked about the ethical considerations of secondary characters when writing memoir – especially if their stories also contain medical details. I felt that it went well personally (I sold all my comics) and our panel was well received. Podcasts from the conference are regularly uploaded here. It was lovely to catch up with old and new Graphic Medicine comics friends and spend time eating samosas(c/o Mita) on Brighton beach.

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In other news

As a result of contacts made at the Brighton conference, I was approached with an offer of some paid comics work, which I did over the summer. I can’t say much about it yet for confidentiality reasons, but I was happy to have been able to use my artistic skills in a way that might be useful to others in a healthcare setting.

I’ve also just received a contract for a new children’s picture book text (as author only). I wrote it earlier in the year and Bright Literary Agency have been representing it since May – so I’m please to have had this interest so soon.

I expect that’s just about enough for now – phew – worralorralinks!

Starsky the Rainbow Trout

I wrote this at Cleveland College of Art & Design in Middlesbrough (1987-8) when I was studying for my Foundation Certificate. I made this book dummy as part of my response to a textiles module. The brief was to buy a whole fish from a fishmonger’s, which would serve as inspiration for the duration of the project. We had to draw and ‘get to know’ the fish – we kept them in the college fridge in between classes. The studio was ripe by the end of the module.

Starsky was executed in pencil crayons and inkpen (very 1980s – everyone wanted to be Raymond Briggs back then). I was a strict vegetarian at the time, and, although I eat fish now, I’ve never really fancied trout.

As a published picture book author, I would say to my young student-self:

  • Not bad for a first try at making a story book, but:
  • Avoid rhyming text for a first book; it makes translation of co-editions tricky, but if you must:
  • Try using a thesaurus to avoid lazy rhyming stanzas.
  • Learn some grammar and how to spell ‘fly’ and ’embedded’.
  • Fish don’t ‘shout’ – they scream silently (in the same way an uprooted flower does). They don’t laugh either. Mainly, they glug.
  • Think about page turns – who was lurking on the bank? Make the reader want to turn the page to find out. Same goes for the very last line – it would be more dramatic if it had a page to itself at the end.
  • Don’t simply illustrate the words, drop some words and let the pictures do the talking, too.
  • Try for a more imaginative title – publishers aren’t keen on ‘Sammy the Squirrel’-type titles. How about Massacre in the River Tees* instead?

I got an good mark for that module, and the tutor tried to persuade me to apply for Textile Design at degree level, instead of Graphic Design. I don’t think textiles would have been my thing. Too stinky.

*joking, of course