Dark Imagination - Part 2

In the second part of their conversation, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Edward Corey discuss Ed's latest novel The Swallowed Man and the influence puppetry has had on their lives.

CHJ: In your new book, The Swallowed Man, you’ve taken the novel of Pinocchio and used a brief reference from it as the foundation for your own story. Do you find that using an existing story as the bedrock for a new telling is a good method of creativity for you?

EC: No, I don't usually take an existing story and develop it, this new book came about in a rather new way for me. I was given a commission to make art for an exhibition at the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi (it's a Pinocchio theme park in the town where Carlo Lorenzini spent his summers and took his pen name). I've always loved Pinocchio, the real Carlo Collodi version, how dark and strange it is - Pinocchio being hanged, Pinocchio crushing the annoying talking cricket in an early chapter, but perhaps most of all the final image of the now flesh Pinocchio observing his puppet self - which, in the original, remains present at the end, like a spent snake's skin, and this flesh Pinocchio laughs at it. Pinocchio to me is the patron saint of objects. And that is, wonderfully, how the book ends with a strange burst of cruelty. There's so much cruelty in Pinocchio. When I started work on the exhibition, I started making large watercolours of the principal characters. To begin with the cat and the fox. Then Lucignolo (Lampwick) turning into a donkey - he remains that way in the book and starves to death.

CHJ: It’s interesting how Pinocchio’s cruelty in the book was bypassed by Disney, who wanted an altogether cuter and more vulnerable puppet/boy at the heart of his film. Then there was the complete makeover given to the cricket. For me seeing the animated film as a child, Jiminy was the engine that powered it, more so even than Pinocchio himself. I loved the film never having encountered the book, but undoubtedly what attracted me more than anything was the design. Now of course I know it was Gustaf Tenggren’s magnificent mood paintings that entirely shaped the appearance and tone of Pinocchio - and to a great deal, Snow White before it. Perhaps more than Disney was comfortable with because he always wanted the artists to be the backroom boys fuelling the machine. Tenggren signed many of his mood paintings, a fact that became a bone of contention for Disney. When the two parted company it was with acrimony. Tenggren didn’t have much good to say about his experiences at the Disney Studio, but it’s a fact that he produced some of his most lavishly mood-drenched work for Pinocchio, the quality of which was far greater than he managed thereafter as a book illustrator working to very tight schedules. With his departure, the essential European character of the Disney fairy tales evaporated. Tenggren carried the European tradition in his D.N.A. He clearly immersed himself in Collodi’s novel as a preparation for the Disney film, just as you've immersed yourself in the novel as a preparation for tooling a new work out of the ‘Monstro’ episode of the tale.

EC: As I reread the novel, I became obsessed with Geppetto. He is a sort of Frankenstein/Rabbi Leow- like creator of an artificial human. In the book, and for two whole years, Collodi casually drops the old man inside the sea beast. And so - loving Robinson Crusoe and similar adventures - I decided that I would write his journal of confinement and make the art that he made in his prison. Collodi gives Geppetto's imprisonment a couple of sentences and no more so I felt free to explore. And Geppetto would have made art, made art to survive, to keep himself alive. In my book he chooses between eating ship's biscuit or sculpting it, and in the end sculpts with most of it. For me writing and making art go together, I can no longer do one without the other.

CHJ: Puppets have been and continue to be an essential part of my creativity. The maquettes that are such a crucial part of my ‘process’, are puppets adapted to my practice as a painter and illustrator. Collodi perfectly captures the anarchy of puppetry in Pinocchio. Not cute, but disruptive, deceptive, wheedling and decidedly cruel. Puppetry has historically been a dark art, and I’m at my most uncomfortable when those elements are revised or winkled out and swept away. Far too often it’s been misunderstood, underestimated and re-made as a nursery entertainment. I love the old European traditions, where puppets are wildly entertaining though unreliable as friends or witnesses. My early years in the theatre were spent working as a puppeteer with an extraordinary company that toured nationally and produced mesmerisingly strange and beautiful productions. It wasn’t only the puppets that were anarchic, but the puppeteers, too. The artistic director of the company was always complaining at the unbiddable nature of the puppeteers, who endlessly maintained that they were being ‘puppet-led’ as excuses for their bad behaviour, flightiness and even promiscuity.

In the exhibition Refuge and Renewal curated by my partner Peter Wakelin, there was a shadow puppet on loan from the V&A, made by the peerless animator Lotte Reiniger. It was shown together with a BFI restoration of the film in which it appears, Galatea. Reiniger was a massive influence on me as a teenager. The director of the puppet company I worked for had once been Reiniger’s assistant, so I learned shadow-puppet cutting at only one remove from the ‘master’!


 Hand and rod puppet made by Clive Hicks-Jenkins


EC: I love all this talk on puppets, it makes me very happy indeed. Lotte Reiniger! I didn't come to her until far too late, only a handful of years ago. Marina Warner wrote beautifully about her in a book about the 1001 Nights and I've adored her ever since. As a family we regularly sit and watch Prince Ahmed, Reiniger is indeed such an incredible master and there is something about the details and elegance of her work that can keep us all going in these times, it is exceptionally brilliant, an example of a complete art. We were lucky enough to spend some time in Prague seeing puppet shows, including a performance of the entirety of Mozart's Don Giovanni by marionettes, which far surpassed the previous night's performance by human opera singers. It makes so much sense that Capek and Rabbi Leow and Kafka came from Prague.

I worked with a shadow puppet master in Malaysia and he showed me what life and what range of motion could be drawn from a flat piece of goat skin. His puppets had a very sacred and revered position in his village. When someone was sick the puppets would be brought into the sickbed. I dreamt of his puppets when I was out there and they were very distinctive, living entities.

CHJ: My imagination is fired by the Asian tradition of the shadow screen as representing the fragile membrane between this world and the supernatural one of spirits. Performance as a dual act of worship and storytelling. Professional puppeteers often talk about being possessed by a puppet. It happens with mask performers, too. In both skills the performer is a channel through which energy generally flows in one direction in order to animate, whether it be puppet, mask or object. But the energy can back-flow, too, when something passes from the mask or the puppet and into the performer, and that’s where the dark magic lies.

EC: I love that comment about the dark magic and those times when a project takes its own control, and that can never be forced. I wrote my first novel in that sort of state, in the French countryside. I didn't know if it would work. And I didn't care. I just let it take me where it wanted to go and it felt very thrilling. I had no fear of failure then, if it didn't work it didn't matter. I try to get back to that often. But it takes welcoming a fog and I can't often get there. Allowing a thing to find itself, to be its own thing. To write and draw in a sort of controlled blindness. Almost like finding a sense of childhood again. My question for you is how much does an object that represents something, The Tiger's Bride for example, have identities of their own, beyond the people or animals they were made to resemble?

CHJ: Everything has a life of its own. It’s just that it’s more evident in the artist’s practice, where subject matter can evolve, establish and then shoot off in quite unexpected directions. I never suspected some six years ago when I casually made a few studies of a witch, that Hansel and Gretel would emerge out of the shadows on her heels and then proceed to take over my creative life. It just happened, and moreover gained an ongoing and self-generating energy that seemed to have nothing to do with me. Even the processes of making the various incarnations became self-propelling, so smooth and easeful that I wasn’t aware of any plan or effort. Pretty much as though I’d been growing the ideas in a Petrie dish, or even on occasion, channelling like a medium. No thought. An equivalent of automatic writing. I’m being fanciful but I’m trying to convey a sense for you of what it felt like. Perhaps it was the same for you with Madam Tussaud? You find yourself surveying what’s developing and thinking, “Now where the hell did that come from?” And of course, this doesn’t happen with every artistic endeavour, and it can’t happen if you try to engineer it. It’s either there or it isn’t. But for me it’s increasingly there, because I’m experienced enough to recognise where the fertile ground lies. I believe you recognise that fertile ground, too. One of the benefits of age. The eyesight may fade, but you learn to better see.
EC: I wonder is this material, this strangeness, a return to childhood in some ways? Were these tales a part of your childhood or, if not when did you begin to take them seriously? I teach a class in fairy tales to MFA students here in the States and have done for the last 15 years and I love it more than any other class. But to see such life in Staffordshire, Clive - like Brice Chatwin did in his marvellous novel Utz – is something very wonderful and exciting to me. The fairytale of the mantlepiece. Your earlier observations on how playing with scale can suddenly upset everything and let us see the world from a new angle and our everyday beliefs can instantly begin to wobble. The imagination of the drawing room. The fact that there's deep mystery in a kitchen cupboard.

CHJ: I guess I saw the Staffordshire from an early age, because even before the ‘Victorian’ revival of the 1960s, when the young and trend-setting took to frock-coats and petticoats and William Morris wallpaper was everywhere again, the Staffordshire had survived and was already present on the mantelpieces of my childhood. I made the connections straight away to fairytales. It was the giant dogs that did it. A print series with Staffordshire and other folk art at its heart, has been quite some time gestating, but it was inevitable given my tastes. Ed, tell me about your time working at Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

EC: When I left university - picking up all sorts of unskilled but wonderful jobs - I worked for a few months at Madame Tussaud's in London. It was quite inspiring spending time alone with the wax dolls before the public came in. Working there you soon came to respect the resident wax figures more than the visiting human flesh ones. The figures that Madame Tussaud made herself during the French Revolution have a particular power. But the last one she made - a self-portrait as an old woman - is a deeply moving and strange and powerful work of art, she seems to me something out of folklore.

Cruickshank drew her and this wax figure - Madame Tussaud beside herself. When I wrote my novel about her, I wanted to fill it with drawings that I claim were Tussaud's own.

CH-J: So you inhabited her, like a puppeteer! Or a medium, channelling spirits of the dead!

E.C: I wanted to understand how much space the actual woman took up in the world, so I carved a full sized Tussaud out of wood, a fully articulated, life sized wooden doll that lives at home with us.

CHJ: You and I are in the venerable tradition of artists either finding or making dolls/maquettes that become the sources of our work. Your Tussaud figure is magnificent. It thrills me that you and I share this practice of using simulacra to find our ways into stories. There’s a wonderful circular inevitability about finding narratives that inspire us to create the puppets/ maquettes that then feed back into more stories. Were Madam Tussaud to slip the tethers of time, walk up to you and begin a discussion about your wonderful conjuring of her in your novel Little, I’m betting she’d be tickled pink to know it all started with you making a puppet of her. As a maker of waxwork models, she would absolutely get that! In the same way I suspect that poor Ellen Bright, despite her terrible fate, would prefer to be remembered as the enchantingly pretty girl in flounces and dancing boots shown in The Tiger’s Bride, than the stricken victim so horrifyingly portrayed in the newspaper illustrations after her death.



Edward Carey

Edward Carey is a writer and illustrator who was born in North Walsham, Norfolk, England, during an April snowstorm. Like his father and his grandfather, both officers in the Royal Navy, he attended Pangbourne Nautical College, where the closest he came to following his family calling was playing Captain Andy in the school’s production of Showboat. Afterwards he joined the National Youth Theatre and studied drama at Hull University.

He has written plays for the National Theatre of Romania and the Vilnius Small State Theatre, Lithuania. In England his plays and adaptations have been performed at the Young Vic Studio, the Battersea Arts Centre, and the Royal Opera House Studio. He has collaborated on a shadow puppet production of Macbeth in Malaysia, and with the Faulty Optic Theatre of Puppets.

He is the author of the novels Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva: the Twins Who Saved a City, and of the YA Iremonger Trilogy, which have all been translated into many different languages and all of which he illustrated. His novel Little, which took him a ridiculous fifteen years to finish, has been published in 20 countries. His most recent novel is The Swallowed Man, which is set inside the belly of an enormous sea beast. He always draws the characters he writes about, but often the illustrations contradict the writing and vice versa and getting both to agree with each other takes him far too long. He has taught creative writing and fairy tales on numerous occasions at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and at the Michener Center and the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He has lived in England, France, Romania, Lithuania, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, and the United States. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, which is not near the sea.