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Artist-Writer-Artist: Gerard Woodward

Gerard Woodward. Photo: Courtesy of
Picador Books.
I am extremely pleased that poet and author Gerard Woodward agreed to be interviewed for this series. Gerard and my wife, Patty, were colleagues for a short while at the end of 2008, when Patty taught for one semester at Bath Spa University, where Gerard is a faculty member in the Creative Writing program. Gerard spent the spring semester of 2011 in Chicago on a reciprocal visit. Gerard has published poetry, short-stories, and novels. "Householder", his 1991 collection of poetry, won the Somerset Maugham Award in the UK, and his novel "I'll Go to bed at Noon" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Of his most recent novel, "Nourishment", The Daily Telegraph reviewer wrote: "It is a novel to be savoured, and Woodward is a novelist to be treasured." It turns out that in addition to his success as a writer, Gerard started his adult life in art college, and still draws and paints when he can. So here, from a writer's point of view, is a discussion about how a writer sees, how a writer draws, and what parallels he observes between the sister arts.

PH: Your first stint in higher education was at an art college (and I believe you are married to a visual artist). What do you remember about yourself and your relation to visual art at that time in your life?

GW: I chose to go to art school as a way of escaping the humdrum working life I was living at that time. I left school at 16, convinced there would be a nuclear war by 1985, and didn’t want to waste my life in sixth form. So instead, I wasted it working in a Tescos supermarket (and many other places - I had six jobs in two years). So going to art school was a way of escape – but I didn’t choose it out of any life-long ambition to be an artist. In fact I didn’t want to be an artist at all, and had originally applied to do graphics, with an eye to being something like a designer of some sort eventually. But then, when I got there, I met lots of people who wanted to be artists, and we hung around in little groups sneering at graphics students with their scalpels and their letraset sets. So I switched, during my foundation year, to fine art, in the full knowledge that I’d just signed away any chance I’d had of getting the good job I’d come to art school to get, and would be likely to end up back in the factories I’d tried to escape.

"Survivors", oil on canvas. GW: "This is an older painting."

My time at art school was a very happy one for me, socially, although as a student I was very confused and angst-filled. For my studio show at the end of my first year I tipped all the rubbish bins in the entire department into one big heap, and painted the names of tutors onto bits of festering rubbish, with the principal and board of governors at the top, forming a sort of plinth for a sausage roll, the inarticulate message of which was that I thought the art school was a pile of shit and the only good thing about it was the canteen (it was a very good canteen). I remember watching the examination panel discussing this piece, and exclaiming fondly when they each found their name. Then one of them turned to me and said: “Are you unhappy here?” I dropped out early in my second year.

 PH: Why do you think you eventually turned to writing rather than becoming an artist?

GW: Well, part of the reason things didn’t work out for me at art school was that art was never my main interest. It was just something I was good at at school. I had no serious ambitions as an artist, even after I applied to go to art school. But the art school training was a complete revelation to me, the proverbial eye-opener. The emphasis on looking and close observation made me see the world in a completely different way. I was almost drunk on the amazingness of the visual world and felt as though I’d lived my life up until then with my eyes closed. So I’m very grateful for that experience. 

But I had wanted to be a writer rather than an artist for as long as I knew there were such things. Then, in my early twenties, after finishing my third or fourth unpublishable novel, I had second thoughts. Perhaps I should give up writing and try being an artist. So I did, and painted constantly for a few years, and wrote very little, or nothing. I rented a studio. I began approaching galleries. I failed to get into open exhibitions. Then, rather unexpectedly, I found myself writing some poems. I showed them to people and they liked them far more than anyone liked my paintings. So I wrote a lot more, and for a while I was trying to manage painting and poetry at the same time. But then I started getting poems published and pretty quickly it took over my life and my time for painting was squeezed until I had to give up the studio and work in a study instead. 

"Shed", oil on board. GW: "That's my mother-in-law's underwear hanging up in the shed."

"Racecourse", mixed media on board

PH: Yet you still paint and draw. What creative possibilities are you exploring when you do that, do you think?

GW: Yes, I still paint and draw, though rarely as part of any sustained project or anything more ambitious than a response to a visual experience. At art school I was becoming more and more conceptualist (if you can call a rubbish heap a concept) and if I had stayed there I would have probably left the painting department and played in the boundary between photography and sculpture. The paintings I have done since that time have played with storytelling and narrative in certain ways, but my main interest now is in rather straightforward drawing and painting as a way of recording and responding to visual experience. While I was in Chicago I spent some time drawing the panoramic view we had from our penthouse, in small sections that fitted together like a jig saw. In four months I didn’t quite finish it, but had a good sweep from the Sears Tower out to the lake, the resulting drawing must have been about eight feet long and five feet high (I still haven’t put it together since I got back), but the experience of being completely absorbed in the act of looking at a single thing for a long period was incredibly rich and rewarding, and is for me what it’s all about. Although I remain interested in the way imagination can impinge on experience to produce something that is not simply a record of seeing (whatever ‘seeing’ is), but something more, in the same way that fiction is something more than a record of lived experience.

PH: In several of your novels and stories (for example, “A Curious Earth”), you write about artists and their world in the context of the larger pattern of the story. What is it that attracted you about artists as characters for fiction?

GW: I some ways it acts as a compensation for not being one myself, in any more than the amateurish way I’ve described above. If I can’t spend my life painting, then the next best thing must be to spend it writing about the act of painting. This applies particularly to the novel I’m currently working on, which is about the life of a fictional artist and contains just about every thought about art and artists I’ve ever had. In many ways the life of the artist seems much more enjoyable than that of a writer and more fun to write about. A writer’s study is a bit dull compared to an artist’s studio. Splashing about with paint is more fun than tapping at a laptop. An artist’s life is less confined and solitary than a writer’s. So I’ve chosen the wrong job, obviously. And writing is harder than painting. Sorry, but it is. 

I’m not sure that the artist has been very well represented in fiction before. I’m just reading Patrick White’s “The Vivisector,” which portrays the artist as a cold, calculating monster. The other extreme is something like Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson (in “The Horse’s Mouth”)- a naïve neo-Blakean visionary. They are both great fictional characters but seem very much a product of a viewpoint which sees the artist as someone almost supernatural in their unworldliness. Artists might be like this but it is their underlying ordinariness that makes them interesting.

Nourishment from matthew scholes on Vimeo. A great promo piece 
of an actor reading from Gerard Woodward's novel "Nourishment"

PH: You write novels and short stories. Your first collection of poetry won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1991. You paint. What (if any) do you see as the common thread between these varied forms of expression?

GW: I increasingly feel there is little common ground between them, other than they are all means of expressing human experience. Poems are very different things from novels, novels very different things from short stories, and painting different from all three. It must be the case, or else we wouldn’t have need of the different forms. Another test is trying to translate one into another – a Rothko could be a good starting point for a poem or short story, but it couldn’t actually tell one. “War and Peace” couldn’t be condensed down to a single image. Neither would it make a very good centerpiece for a city square. What they can learn from each other is a different matter. A novel or a painting that is attuned to the rhythms and weird logic of poetry, a poem that has the visual richness of a painting, and so on. Another way of putting it is that the different forms are all suited towards certain aspects of imaginative expression – the novel and short story to narrative expression, painting to visual, the poem to non-linear narrative expression. They aren’t confined by these specializations, so poems and paintings can tell stories, and there are many possibilities for combining the forms, into illustrated text for instance, or into film or opera or installations.

"Nourishment" was released in the USA in October 2011 under the title "Letters from an Unknown Woman." Buy it here.

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