Over the last four weeks, our Virago Book Club members have been reading – and reviewing – Girl Reading by Katie Ward. To conclude the discussion, we asked them to send their questions about the book to the author. Here is what they asked – and here are her replies:
I loved the book! I wanted to know whether you already had the end in mind when you started or did it write its own ending!?
Thank you for the lovely comment. I was in two minds about whether or not to write a futuristic chapter and considered ending the book in the present – but if I had, I’d have been inclined to leave it fairly loose and open. I knew a sci-fi type chapter was risky, but it was a chance to finish the book in a more definite and surprising way. The idea for the ending emerged from several thoughts I had at the time: Jungian archetypes for one; and just the strangeness of William Wetmore Story’s ‘Libyan Sibyl’, which is a Victorian sculpture but has a very otherworldly feel. I committed to the end part way through my first draft, so then it became a case of pointing more consciously towards it as I wrote and rewrote.
Having looked at the sources you used in preparation for this book, I was amazed just how many paintings there are of girls reading. How did you manage to keep it down to just seven stories?
There are loads! And when you start looking for them, you see more and more. The artworks listed in the book and on my website are just a small snapshot. Actually, I decided very early on to write seven because seven is such a powerful number with mystical connotations. When thinking about the size of the book it allowed for chapters of around 10,000 to 15,000 words which I thought was a good length. So then it became a process of selection depending on how inspired I was by a specific image, and how well women might be faring in a particular place and historical moment. Technology, style and patronage also influenced my choices because these were important to my characters.
Two questions: first, why did you choose the paintings you did, and second, were there paintings/eras that you wanted to include but didn't make the short list? If so, can you tell us which ones? Thank you, Katie.
Thank you for the questions. The paintings and photos emerged for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I was led by a specific image, for example, Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’, which I think is one of greatest paintings ever made and centuries ahead of its time. It answered the need to open the book with a sacred painting while also setting up the idea of progress. In Angelica Kauffman’s chapter I came across her as an artist first and thought what a great character she’d make. I then went in search of candidates and was fortunate to come across a striking portrait of an unknown poet. The Victorian chapter is more about the idea of cartes des visite which were very popular and accessible, but thought of as vulgar by ‘real’ artists . . . and so on, through the list.
Yes, there was a painting which didn’t quite make the cut. It’s of Elizabeth I as a princess, circa 1546. I was tempted.
Do you have any favourite books that centre around works of art or artists? Why do you think so many of the books and movies of today look to previous works of art in order to draw inspiration for new ones?
That’s such a good question. Part of it must be because art – including music, theatre, movies and books – often aspires to the great themes that move the human spirit. Being in the presence of art is a transcendental experience, and feeds the artist within ourselves. There’s an excellent discussion of this topic in The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. However, the cold hard reality is that most of the best art was made for the basest of reasons – mainly money – also propaganda, lust and vanity. We’re naturally fascinated by genius, but the fact is that artists are mortal too with human flaws and human problems. As a result the stories behind the creation of great art take on a special significance.
There are lots of books which deserve a mention, but I can only do a few, so here goes! Gillespie and I by Jane Harris; The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier; The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall; Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland; All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. For non-fiction I recommend, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh; and possibly my favourite in a list of favourites, Just Kids by Patti Smith.
If you could have been a fly on the wall during the painting of any real life art work what would it be and why?
Hurrah, an easy question! Painting the Sistine Chapel. The drama between Michelangelo Buonarotti and Pope Julius II is recreated in The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone which became a classic movie. I bet there were fireworks.
Why do you think women are such popular muses, even with female artists? Do you have a muse of your own? If so, who and why?
Dare I say because art and romance are linked, and because most of the art in the past was made by men . . . ? That’s a huge over-simplification though! The female perspective until the last century was almost invisible in art and literature, but that makes it richer and all the more intriguing. The ‘muses’ come from classical traditions and might be connected to the symbolism of women and creation, perhaps?
If I have a muse at all, it is the playwright from Warwickshire called Shakespeare because his work keeps giving.
Do you think Sybil is a believable reflection of the future of art in a digital age? If yes how does that make you feel?
Some technology projects in development now are very mesh-like, and who knows if they will take over to the extent that they do in Girl Reading? They might. But there’s no reason why real-world art couldn’t happily coexist with digital art, the way theatre coexists with cinema, and live concerts coexist with recorded music. I think the potential for harm would come if we were denied access to artistic and historical objects. Our treasures are fragile and finite, so we must look after them. I feel optimistic but not complacent.
Regarding my Sibil specifically, she’s mesh (digital) it’s true, but I think she might be something more which even her inventor can’t figure out. This is just in my imagination though, I don’t think any technology could create her. Could it?
The three women that you write about in Unknown are three very distinct, strong and different individuals, each of whom seems to highlight particular characteristics in another. What were your motives for creating such a contrast in one story?
This chapter, set during the Great War, was a very rare case of a genuine flash of inspiration. I had the idea, like a film clip, of a teenager running from a train station at the sight of a beautiful, sexual woman who will be her rival in love. I mentally followed her into the house where another woman, absorbed in her own intellectual world, is dismissive of the girl’s anxiety. That’s where the three characters came from. I’d been thinking a bit about nude readers which occur throughout art history, and the post-impressionism of the early twentieth century advocated by Roger Fry etc which was contemporary with this era, so that fed into the story too. But those women, Gwen, Cynthia and Sinclair, practically wrote themselves. They all have deep longings which rub up against one another under the same roof. The fact that the war is going on in the background makes their different impulses more urgent.
I was really drawn to the characters and plot of your first story, I wanted it to carry on! Were there any stories you felt were particularly hard to end and detach yourself from? Would you be tempted to turn any of them into a novel? Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Thank you for such kind feedback. I have to admit that I intentionally left each chapter at a point where the reader would want more rather than letting the stories run on, but hopefully with enough information to allow the reader come to their own conclusions. Yes, at times I found this hard, but I think it was the right choice. The first chapter set in medieval Sienna is especially difficult because Laura’s destiny has been shaped for her by powerful men. Her choices are terribly limited, and to make this seem otherwise would have been incongruous. I don’t think I could write another novel based on any one character or chapter without feeling compelled to revisit them all. I care about them all equally. It’s a cliché, but it’s true.
Regarding my next book, I can only tell you that it’s not about art, that I’ve done a lot of research for it, and that I’m absolutely ecstatic Virago will be my publisher again.
Which Girl Reading did you most relate to and why?
I think I’ve been a bit Gwennish in the past! A friend on Twitter told me she found Gwen a little too close for comfort, but I’m sure lots of us go through an awkward phase. However, Esther (the maid in Amsterdam) and Jeannine (the parliamentary assistant) are similar to each other in some ways, and I find them both very relatable. They’re independent. They’re trying to balance their work lives and their personal lives. They both live in cosmopolitan cities surrounded by people and yet are frequently isolated. Of the two, Jeannine is the more hopeful character because she has self-belief and opportunities for advancement; her burden is more to do with making the right choices, using her talents wisely and being with a man who appreciates her. And I think this is the kind of conundrum real women face if they are fortunate enough to be free and literate.
Thank you so, so much for the thoughtful questions and lovely comments, I really appreciate them all.
To join the Virago Book Club, sign up here.
Here's a selection of keyword-matched articles that you might also find interesting: