Friday 24th of August, and as the world’s largest literary bash, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, entered its final weekend for this year I headed in once more to the delightful environs of the New Town’s splendid Georgian jewel, Charlotte Square for my last event of the 2012 Book Fest, a double header event, in fact; unusually, it’s a husband and wife event which saw one of our most respected comics creators, Bryan Talbot, with his wife and now literary collaborator Mary, in conversation with literary editor for Scotland on Sunday and various other publications (and major comics fan) Stuart Kelly.
(Bryan and Mary Talbot talking to Stuart Kelly at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr, click for the larger version)
Much of the discussion centred around Mary and Bryan’s first literary collaboration together, the fascinating and frequently moving Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (published this year by Jonathan Cape), an intertwined double strand of biographical tales of two daughters, one being Lucia, daughter of celebrated icon of Modernist writing, James Joyce, the other being Mary herself, as a young girl, daughter of one of the pre-eminent Joycean scholars of his age (his work, I believe, is still, decades on, hugely influential and respected in that very rarefied field of Joycean scholarship). Having retired early from her academic work (where Mary has authored notable works) the couple had discussed a possible collaboration between them on a new book. Something autobiographical sprang to mind, but as Mary commented modestly, she didn’t originally see her own story as being of particular interest to begin with. But on learning more about the life of Lucia Joyce and her relationship with her writer father she started to see an angle that would allow her to tell some of her own relationship with her father, the Joycean scholar, interwoven with that of Lucia.
There’s a feminist angle to the work, unsurprisingly given Mary’s academic background, and in the eras covering both women’s younger lives it isn’t just the relationship with their fathers which are under the lens, but the social expectations placed squarely on women by societal norms of the time, how they were expected to behave, the limits on what they could be ‘allowed’ to do in ‘decent’ society. While our own contemporary society is far from perfect in terms of gender equality (as Mary noted at one point we’re in a sort of post-feminist period where technically in law women have that full equality they fought for, except of course we know in many fields they still don’t truly have anything like equality or parity), it is still quite shocking to modern sensibilities to see how Lucia’s desires for her own life and her burgeoning career as a dancer and stage costume designer would be so curtailed (all the more shocking when one considers Joyce telling his daughter off for this ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, you’d expect a pioneer of Modernist art, in the Bohemian Paris of the 20s, to be more open minded).
When they came to discuss how they actually approached the collaborative process, Bryan noted that he’s collaborated many times with writers over his career, but this was a particularly unusual creative partnership. As he said, usually if you are illustrating someone else’s words, then you receive a script, usually with some directions, and you do your best to visualise the panels and the layout to bring that written script to comics life. Sometimes, depending on the writer you’re working with, such as, for instance, Pat Mills or Neil Gaiman, it may also involve some long chats over the phone to thrash out more ideas and suggestions, to develop the work. However, in this case, being husband and wife they see each other every day and throughout that day, so suggestions could go back and forth between both of them constantly, they could talk about the book over dinner and so on. Mary is an experienced writer, of course, but not in the field of comics work, and while she worked on the script Bryan made some suggestions and he handled things like layout and scene transitions in addition to actually illustrating Dotter. That said, Bryan was quick to credit his wife, commenting that although they talked constantly about the project, Mary worked on the script herself for the most part, some suggestions and chat aside, and he didn’t actually see any of the script until she finished.
He worked on the illustrations and layouts, sometimes with Mary having a peek over his shoulder, he joked, and when Mary saw some finished pages she realised he had made a mistake. For instance she said that her primary school segregated the girls from the boys, one group on one side, one group on the other side of the room, but Bryan had depicted a classroom of the era mixed, as his own had been. Rather than redraw this, they added a note from Mary saying oh, silly husband got this bit wrong! And they found they quite liked this little personal corrective note, and so did friends they showed it too, so they ended up using this device in several spots in the book. One particular, extremely memorable image (certainly one which has remained in my mind since reading the book back in January), depicts Lucia during a period of confinement, in the centre of the page but in multiple poses as she might be in her dancing career, except instead of the balletic grace of the elegant dancer this is a desperate dance of madness, her trained body now contorted not for art but in pain, her upper body wrapped not in one of her own beautiful designs but in a straight-jacket. The image had come in a dream, Mary explained, and when she told Bryan about it he crafted a page to depict that dream in an impressive piece of art.
(Lucia confined, from Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by and (c) Mary and Bryan Talbot, published Cape)
Upcoming projects were also touched upon: Mary is now working with veteran cartoonist Kate Charlesworth on a new historical comic work, using a working woman who slowly becomes involved in the Suffragette movement, which again I believe is likely to be coming from Cape and which sounds very interesting (hopefully we’ll be able to entice Mary to return to guest blog on that further down the line as she did for Dotter earlier this year), and she mentioned that she had learned a good deal from Bryan about how to structure and pace a narrative for comics which she is using in this new endeavour. Bryan is just finishing off the last couple of pages for the third Grandville album, Bete Noire (due this December from Cape in the UK and Dark Horse in North America), before they both enjoy a nice break, and Bryan was kind enough after the event to let some of us leaf through some pages from the new book he had loaded onto his iPad – you will not be surprised to hear it is again an utterly gorgeous looking, lavishly illustrated Steampunk world that looks glorious, and I’m looking forward to reading the finished book this winter. Bryan also mentioned that he has a fourth Grandville, Noël, full scripted now, with a fifth in the series roughly plotted out, at which point it may be on to pastures new. It was a very interesting event and I’m very much looking forward to the new (and very different) works from both Mary and Bryan, and of course we’ll try to bring you more on those books a bit further down the line. Meantime I’d certainly commend Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes to add to your reading list.