An Interview with Joy McCullough, Author of Blood Water Paint – by Jennifer Ansbach
Today, Nerdy Book Club member Jennifer Ansbach is in conversation with author Joy McCullough, whose novel Blood Water Paint came out this week.
Told alternately in verse and prose, this novel takes us to the high Renaissance where Artemesia Gentileschi paints in her father’s studio, creating art he takes credit for. Comforted after the loss of her mother by the community of women her mother created for her through the stories she told, Artemisia finds the courage to stand up to her attacker and name him in court. Haunting and lyrical, this novel’s layers of art and intertextuality offers readers a glimpse into the past with a clear view of the present.
Jennifer: My questions come as a Nerdy reader, a writer, and a teacher. How did this story first come to you?
Joy: Artemisia Gentileschi’s story first came to me as a passing reference in a Margaret Atwood novel. The reference sent me seeking out information about the historical figure and I fell down a rabbit hole of research. She grabbed me as a subject I had to write about.
The day you sat down to begin writing this story, what compelled you to the page?
The day I began working on the play version of Artemisia’s story was so long ago I have no idea what was happening in my life. But more recently, the play was being produced and I was thinking about how much I hoped young people would come to see the play. By that time I had begun writing MG and YA novels, so I started to see the possibilities to reach more teens with Artemisia’s story if it were adapted into a YA novel.
This is your debut, but the tenth novel you’ve written. What of those other novels is carried in this book, whether literally or in its spirit and soul?
Oh that’s such an interesting question. And I think there’s an added layer in that I wrote Blood Water Paint as a play well before I ever started writing novels. So the story’s place in my heart pre-dates all the fiction I’ve written. It’s the story that would not let me go. But my experience in writing the first nine novels gave me the skills and confidence I needed to try to tell the story in another way. And also, after having written nine novels that did not get published, there was a sort of freedom in writing Blood Water Paint that I’d never felt before. I was 100% convinced it was completely unmarketable and I was so over caring. I just let myself write it how I wanted to write it, even if each choice seemed less marketable than the last. I did not believe it would be published, so I wrote it completely, unapologetically for me.
What advice would you give yourself before you sat down to start that first novel if you could go back?
The only thing I would tell myself as I embarked on writing the first novel is to keep writing, that all of the rejection and heartache and tears and words would be worth it. To try to stay in the moment and learn from each manuscript, each critique partner, each rejection, and keep writing the stories only I could tell. Because I don’t wish I had done anything differently. I don’t think there was a quicker way to get here.
How did you determine the best form for this novel?
Blood Water Paint is a historical novel, and a distant historical novel at that, set in 1611. But it’s also extremely relevant to the current day. I think it can be really easy for the details of day-to-day life in a distant historical novel to hold the reader at arm’s length. When those things are stripped away, though, as they are in verse, I think it makes it easier for the reader to relate the story to their own time and life. So that was one reason verse felt like a natural fit.
Also, this is an emotionally difficult story—it’s about sexual assault; there is torture, a beheading. I think writing and reading this story in prose would be brutal. It could certainly be done, but not by me. Verse allows the reader to make emotional leaps with just a nudge, rather than having a horrifying scene described in full detail.
Can you talk a little bit about the intertextuality of this novel, weaving poetry, prose, spoken storytelling, and the painting?
There’s a strong history of weaving forms in theater. Musicals blend singing and dancing and spoken scenes. Shakespeare blends blank verse, rhyming verse, and prose. Even a straight play with a consistent textual style is blending the art forms of the writer, the director, the actors, and the designers into one piece of work. So I think I’ll always be coming from my grounding in theater, and that’s reflected in the blending of the forms.
What is your ideal reader for this book?
I hope all sorts of readers read this book and I will be thrilled no matter who they are. I get most excited when I think about teenage girls reading, though. I wish I had known Artemisia when I was a teenager. Then again, a teacher at an all-boys school said she wanted to use the book in her class and I was thrilled. I didn’t write it for boys, but I will be delighted if boys read it and engage with it. Adults too!
What part of this book was the biggest challenge to write? Why?
Not specific to one section of the book, but in adapting from a play, I often had to translate pure dialogue into something much more internal, with very little dialogue. I came into the process of writing the novel thinking I knew the character inside and out, from writing the play. And in some ways I did. But I had never been inside her head in the same way. So that was an exciting challenge.
What part of this collaborative process of bringing this story first to a stage gave you the greatest insight into character or craft in turning it into a novel?
Collaborative is a really important descriptor for works of theater, because even a one-person play involves many different artists. It’s one of the things I love about theater. Really wonderful actors bring all sorts of nuance to characters beyond what’s on the page, and working on the play, some of the biggest insight into character came through working with a wonderful Seattle actor named Michael Blum, who played Artemisia’s father. On the outside, Michael is a kind of gruff, perpetually disgruntled character. Scratch him with a feather, though, and he’s all heart. Artemisia’s father makes some terrible decisions. And there’s more than a little of my own father in Orazio, it’s fair to say. Michael’s performance gave me keen insight into Orazio’s layers, and I feel like those bled through into the novel, where I had to work to put that on the page, since I didn’t have Michael there to communicate it with his heart.
Many of us who teach writing rely on mentor texts to help guide writers. Did you have any mentor texts in crafting this novel, which blends different forms seamlessly?
Well first, thank you. The blending of the forms was something that came at the very end of the revision process with my editor. Up until then, the whole thing had been verse. And at the very end of revisions, before it went off to copy-edits, my editor suggested we try the mother’s stories in prose, for more of a contrast in the voices.
Playing with multiple forms, multiple storylines, multiple time periods is something I’ve been doing in my plays for a long time. So when it came to doing this in Blood Water Paint, it felt fairly natural. A couple plays spring to mind as early influences in this way. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill is a 1982 play in which a woman’s dinner party boasts guests who are historical and literary figures from a variety of centuries. Another is Arcadia by Tom Stoppard (1993), which is a play entirely about the relationship between the past and the present, weaving together the lives of the present day residents of an English country house with the lives of the resident who lived in the same house in the early 1800s.
How did you come about telling this story at this time? How do you see it in the current context of the #metoo movement into which it is now born?
I started working on the play in 2001, so for me it far pre-dates the #metoo movement. It’s a fluke of timing that the book is being born now. I’m grateful that Artemisia’s story—and many other stories—are being heard now. But I will say that I tried and failed to get the play produced for more than a decade. I told my own story to multiple churches who employed the youth pastor who abused me and there were no consequences for him. It’s more common for stories to be ignored or disbelieved than heard. Is #metoo a turning point? I don’t know. But I am grateful for the discourse, and aware that every time a story is heard and validated, a survivor is watching. Maybe they haven’t told their story yet, or maybe they weren’t believed. It’s powerful for those survivors to see stories like Artemisia’s brought into the light, and for that I’m grateful for the timing.
This book transcends both time and space, making 1610 Rome a contemporary text to analyze our world and the role of women in it. What of the original trial transcripts and story you came across did you find most resonant?
The way a woman—a victim’s—voice is doubted, scrutinized, diminished, held up to wildly different standards than a perpetrator’s leapt out to me as soon as I read the trial transcripts. Artemisia Gentileschi was literally tortured in the courtroom, in front of her rapist to prove she was telling the truth. He was not tortured. Of course we don’t use thumbscrews today, but social media and the press and the court system all work in concert to shred a victim to pieces in a similar way, while often leaving perpetrators unscathed.
What do you hope readers take from this book?
Whatever they need. Every reader will come to a book with different needs, different histories, different life circumstances the day they pick up the book. What a reader takes from any book is so personal and so varied that I’m just honored people are reading.
Because this is the Nerdy Book Club, what are you reading?
Yesterday’s bookstore haul included MARY’S MONSTER by Lita Judge, and ALL OUT, edited by Saundra Mitchell. I am so excited to dive into both!
Jennifer Ansbach is a lifelong reader and book lover. You can often find her on the sofa curled up with tea and a book. Her book Take Charge of Your Teaching Evaluation: How to Grow Professionally and Get a Good Evaluation is out now from Heinemann. When she’s not reading, she’s tweeting at @JenAnsbach.
Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint is her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter @JMCwrites and at joymccullough.com.