It Takes Two to T’wit T’woo on CBeebies!

On Thursday I was very excited to discover that my children’s picture book It Takes Two to T’wit Twoo was read on the BBC children’s programme Cbeebies Bedtime Story, by Isla Fisher. It was a complete surprise – my cousin told me about it when she was watching with her daughter. It’s still available on iPlayer and you can see it here for the next 27 days. I love the way they’ve added sound effects and animated some of the illustrations (by Guiliano Ferri).

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The book was published in 2012 after being signed by Hinkler Books in 2010 for their Bonney Press series of picture books. It was the first time I’d been published as an author, and they signed two of my stories at once, the other being Robles’ Rain Dancewhich I’d written several years before.

The inspiration for the story came indirectly from another BBC programme  –Springwatch. Myself and a fellow bird-loving friend were discussing having seen an episode about how tawny owls call to one another. They explained that ‘t’wit t’woo’ is actually the sound of two separate owls, not one. On the way home, my husband and I were engaging in some motorway boredom banter, and I said: ‘It takes two to t’wit t’woo’, and the title had presented itself. I’m always on the lookout for potential titles, and many have come from daft casual conversations and a tendency to mess around with words.

The male owl in my book is called Albert, named after my grandfather who died when I was six. I don’t remember much about him other than that he always had a bad chest, and held the teapot very high when pouring a cup of Yorkshire tea. He came from Fulham, and rumour has it that he once played for Charlton Athletic. Football didn’t pay enough, so he became a heating engineer and moved to the Northeast where he met my gran at a Labour Party rally in Darlington. So, if you’re reading the book aloud, a cockney accent will do very nicely for the twoo-ing and a Teeside accent for the twit-ing.

Sadly, I’ve never heard ‘t’wit tw’oo’ all at once in the wild myself, mostly only a t’woo. That must have been an Albert searching for an Olive, who was too far away for me to hear.

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.

 

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.

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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.