Five Wounds - an interview with Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett

Reader Logo by Paul

Following The View From Here's recent review of Five Wounds, An Illuminated Novel, written by Jonathan Walker and illustrated by Dan Hallett (see review), I took the opportunity to interview Jon and Dan.  What follows is a valuable insight into the collaborative and creative processes that helped shape Five Wounds and Pistols! Treason! Murder! - from initial concept through to publication.

How does a collaboration like this proceed?

Jon: Both of the books we have worked on so far are illustrated books or hybrid texts rather than conventional graphic novels, so I write a full

60,000 word manuscript before Dan gets involved. I start thinking about illustrations once that stage is finished, and I write down a list of possible subjects or visual concepts. Often I’m trying to identify broad themes or ideas introduced in the text, and think of some possible visual analogue for those ideas, as well as trying to pick the dramatic episodes that would benefit from visualisation. You actually want to identify subjects where some kind of translation process is involved. If it’s possible to do a completely literal picture of a scene, then there isn’t really any point. It’s redundant if the words and the images are saying exactly the same thing.

Sometimes my instructions for an illustration are just a couple of sentences; sometimes they are a couple of pages. If it’s quite a diagrammatic kind of image, I might do a sketch, for example for all the heraldic coats-of-arms in Five Wounds. I also do some initial picture research to provide visual reference material, although Dan adds his own references too. Dan then goes off and creates the images, often adding details that weren’t included in my script, and he sends the results to me. If I (or he) feels a picture needs more work, then we pass successive drafts backwards and forwards between us by e-mail. I am a bit of a control freak, and probably a bit of a pain-in-the-ass to work with, but I also recognise that Dan needs to be inspired to do really good work, and no-one gets inspired with someone breathing over their shoulder. As we’ve gone on, my instructions have become less and less prescriptive, as we’ve both gained confidence. It helps that I’m a big fan of his work. I am always excited to see the next picture.

Dan: Well, we never sat down together and said, 'Let’s make a book', nor discussed what the end product should be. The form that Five Wounds now takes is the result of input from many people and experimenting within (and pushing) the limits and possibilities of turning a written manuscript into a valid publishable work.

Jon wrote Five Wounds long before I had any involvement. The first I heard of the project was via a message from Jon about drawing some portraits of the protagonists for a novel he had written. These portraits never went ahead, instead the illustrations which are now referred to as 'plates' were created from very specific descriptions from Jon.

By the time Five Wounds secured a publishing deal, two years later, we had gained more confidence working together; I was given more creative freedom and had a better idea of where Jon was coming from, which is the result of working together for a few years and also the reference and reading material that Jon had sent or suggested. Not being a historian myself however, I was unfamiliar with many of the quotations and references included in the writing, but I added my own take on the narrative. At times I did my own research and reached my own conclusions, which was intended and is part of what makes Five Wounds so special; the reader can enjoy a certain freedom of interpretation, especially in these 'grey areas' between meanings in the text and image.

Was the collaboration on Five Wounds a more straightforward process for having previously worked together on Pistols! Treason! Murder!?

Jon: The illustrations for Pistols! Treason! Murder! were completed in a rush on a very tight deadline. That had its advantages: it means they have a certain crude aggressive energy to them. It’s punk history, after all. For Five Wounds, I had the chance to think things through, and to theorise it more. And there are several different kinds of illustration, several different layers, which involved different methods of working. So Pistols! was more like the first rush of discovery, live on stage, and Five Wounds is more like tinkering around in the studio for months overdubbing. Pistols! is an amphetamine book; Five Wounds is a morphine book.

Dan: We established our work method with Pistols!, which then progressed over time. I had a lot more input on Five Wounds than on Pistols!, but it is worth bearing in mind that Pistols! Treason! Murder!, although unconventional, is a history book, whereas Five Wounds is a work of fiction. My own take on Venice in the 1600s, if it were presented in Pistols!, would probably not have stood up to academic scrutiny. Five Wounds, on the other hand, is an 'anti-historical novel', therefore I could work in a much more spontaneous and natural way, drawing from a broader spectrum of ideas and references. This time around we both also worked closely with the designer Zoë Sadokierski; it was great to have input from somebody from another area of expertise (and) vital to the book.

Pistols! is an amphetamine book; Five Wounds is a morphine book.
What are some of the difficulties of working in this manner and what are some of the highlights?  How does it change you as a writer/artist?

Jon: Some people might see the fact that we live in different countries as a difficulty. I’m in Australia and Dan is in Spain. So everything is done via e-mail. But that means that you have to articulate everything clearly. Everything has to be explicit to avoid misunderstandings, and I actually find that helpful. I have little tolerance for mystification, for the idea that inspiration is some ineffable, inexpressible thing. Of course there are always elements whose power exceeds any rational analysis, which come from deep emotional sources, but fundamentally writing and illustration are both about communication, so you should be able to say what it is that you mean, what it is that you want, and having to write it down helps you to understand it yourself.

It’s also a process of discovery of course. One of the reasons I’m always excited to see Dan’s work is that it often reveals things to me I wasn’t fully aware of. Often, my initial response is, ‘Well, that’s not quite what I was expecting’, and then I have to re-jig my ideas to see how this new, unexpected thing might fit in to the overall pattern, or rather, how it actually changes the pattern. If there’s a particularly strong visual idea that Dan discovers, but that doesn’t quite fit the text as it stands, then I rewrite the text to emphasise whatever it is that the illustration has picked up on.

Dan: I agree with Jon, I think that the distance is a good thing. Communicating only via e-mail means that you have to think things through first to have a clear idea of what you want to say, and if it is worth saying at all. This reduces the possibility of irrational disagreements which could arise through face-to-face discussions.

Working in this way also means that Jon does not have to see the illustration that I am working on until I'm ready to show him and receive feedback, and likewise for Jon I guess; I never get a 'preview' of his briefs or what he is planning. We both maintain creative autonomy.

Obviously there are a number of influences in Five Wounds, in both the written text and in the art work.  Could you each say something about those influences that are most important to you and how you responded to them?

Jon: Dan and I had a set of common references for the illustrations, notably the etchings of Francisco Goya and the illuminated books of William Blake, so that we could use a shorthand for citing particular effects that were needed. And I sent Dan a whole set of pictures of degraded and deteriorating, badly conserved engravings and daguerreotypes to use, because in some of the images I wanted the sense that the whole book is actually falling to pieces, is putrefying like a corpse. But Dan obviously brought his own ideas to bear too.

In the writing, I tried to be as eclectic as possible, and I’ve done some posts on my blog on inspirations like superhero comics, Dante, Ray Bradbury, and the music of John Lennon, but there are two texts that are perhaps more important than all the others. The first is the Bible, which is not only quoted frequently, but also inspired the design and the layouts. It is, however, almost always wilfully misinterpreted, as if filtered through the consciousness of someone who hasn’t understood it at all, and can’t really remember it. Its meaning is decayed or rotten or erased, in much the same way that the illustrations mimic physical decay, and bits of the text have been crossed out. The physical integrity of the text is breaking apart. This is a decadent world. Everything is rotting, including meaning itself.

The second major influence is an example of auto-plagiarism, because Five Wounds includes several hidden quotations from an unpublished autobiographical essay I wrote on the deaths of my parents (it is no accident that everyone in the novel is an orphan), but which I chopped up and reinterpreted by sticking these quotations in a radically different fictional context. This essay is called The Art of Grief (named after the late-medieval genre of The Art of Dying). You could almost think of the whole text of the novel, which is arranged around these fragmentary phrases, as null characters in a ciphered message, whose only purpose is to disguise the quotations, but that’s not quite right. Rather, the whole point is that the novel transforms the quotations from The Art of Grief, so that they are almost unrecognisable. The Venetians ransacked Constantinople in 1204: they literally carried away large parts of the city, holy relics and marble columns and so on, and then they incorporated all the bits and pieces into new buildings like the façade of San Marco. That’s what I’ve done with my own biography.

I should stress that you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the book. I hope that it works as a story without it. I wanted a text that would reward you proportionately to the amount of attention and effort you had spare to give it. If you’ve only got time for an exciting plot, there’s plenty going on: murders, kidnappings. There’s even cliff-hangers. And some funny scenes, so long as you don’t mind your humour pitch-black. But if that’s not enough for you, if you want more, then there’s more to discover.

Dan: My first and foremost influence is Jon's writing, which does after all describe the world where the images come from. When I worked on the 'plates' I looked at Goya's etchings and tried to achieve the same quality and effect. Whilst working on the later illustrations however, I was no longer trying to imitate etchings, but their influence is evident in my drawings.

Other than the common references already mentioned above, Jon sent me Jeunet & Caro's City of Lost Children on DVD and I also watched Delicatessen; these films were intended to give an idea of the book's 'atmosphere'. Jon also sent me the Five Wounds soundtrack on CD. It is difficult to say to what extent these 'aesthetic' references were used directly in the illustrations, but they gave me a deeper understanding of the book, and so helped me to relate to it better.

I visited Venice for the first time whilst working on Five Wounds and spent three days there taking plenty of photos of palaces, dark alleys and rats. I have seen Escher quoted a few times as an influence; this would be in relation to the 'Gabriella's Palace'.

I created this illustration as a kind of automatic drawing, picking out furnishings and architectural features from my photos and constantly turning the image whilst working on it; so although I was referencing Escher's work, the illustration that I created has none of the mathematical logic and structure typical of his. The image is intended to reflect Gabriella's desire to remain lost in an incoherent web of rooms. I also visited Paris and Amsterdam whilst working on the illustrations and made quite a collection of photos of decorative architectural features which I used throughout the book, especially on the back cover cartouche.

Other than the main influences of Goya, Blake and etchings of architecture and alchemy, I approached each illustration with different material, and also tried to be as eclectic as possible. My studio is filled with a wide range of books, magazines, pinned-up images, postcards, etc, which all serve as a kind of reference library.

Jonathan, was there any one specific event, incident or thought you can identify which saw the birth of this as an idea?

Jon: On my blog, I’ve described Five Wounds as the book that my doctoral thesis was dreaming when it was asleep. In the mid-1990s, I was researching in the Venetian archives for my Ph.D., and I found myself increasingly frustrated by the whole process. You’re only allowed to write in a certain way; you’re only allowed to ask certain kinds of questions. So I took out my frustrations by writing a ‘fairy story’ at night, in which I indulged every vile, illegitimate narrative impulse, although I didn’t get very far with it at that stage.

Much, much later, in 2004, I picked it up again, after I had been told by several authoritative sources that I would never find a publisher for my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder! In fact, that book came out in 2007, but in 2004, I had every reason to believe that my gamble on it had failed, and that my academic career was also over as a result. So I reviewed my options, and I went back to the fairy story. I planned it out in my head for six months, and then I wrote a complete draft of Five Wounds during six weeks leave at the end of 2004, but that was only the beginning. In 2006, I brought Dan on as a collaborator, after we had worked together on Pistols! In 2008, Allen & Unwin bought it on the condition that we would do a lot more work on the design and the illustrations, which I was more than happy to agree to, because I couldn’t have developed my ideas further without that commitment from a publisher.

It’s evident through visiting your website that you’ve developed a strong connection with Venice, and there’s certainly a flavour of this in Five Wounds. Could you describe what it is about Venice that fascinates you?

Jon: My interest in Venice has nothing to do with romantic clichés. I have been going there for 15 years and I have never been in a gondola. But Venice has sustained my imagination across all that time and many different kinds of project: a doctoral dissertation (which should have been enough to kill any enthusiasm I might previously have had), a crazy biography of a seventeenth-century spy, a fantasy novel, and a documentary photography essay. In the first instance, I decided to do a Ph.D. in Italian history for the rather counter-intuitive reason that I didn’t know any Italian. It was a way of holding a gun to my own head and forcing myself to learn a foreign language. And Venice seemed a manageable place to get my head around. There was already a long tradition of Anglo-American interest there, so it seemed less daunting than going to Rimini or somewhere. So it began as a kind of marriage of convenience, but it has developed into something much more complicated. It’s an adult relationship though; it’s not an infatuation. I have no time for sentimentality about it. I want to understand it.

Perhaps you could say something about your decision to include alterations/deletions to the text and the significance of this.

Jon: Five Wounds is typeset in imitation of the Bible, in a two-column layout and with everything divided into chapters and verses. This suggests two ideas subliminally: that the text is somehow ‘fixed’ or definitive, like the sacred text of the Bible, and that it already has a history of interpretation and commentary attached to it. But the handwritten alterations and deletions send the exact opposite message: that the story is somehow unfinished, that what stays in and what gets left out is still undecided. To put it in Biblical terms again, which bits are canonical and which bits aren’t? And that’s on top of the fact that the text garbles and chews up several actual quotations from the Bible. So it’s saying two contradictory things simultaneously.

The book seems to be both immaculate and defiled, both sacred and profane. I don’t really want to explain that point further, except to say that, for me, this relates to the ending, or rather the endings plural, because there are two endings in Five Wounds, which contradict one another.

But independently of all these intellectual rationalisations, the idea has to work visually first. If it doesn’t work visually, if it doesn’t work viscerally, emotionally, then no-one cares about any of your intellectual explanations. And I think it does work at that level. The immediate effect is quite disturbing, precisely because the weird contradiction is actually made visible. It’s like walking into a church and finding someone has covered the inside in graffiti. And that’s a pretty accurate analogy for the book’s contents, so it also works as design: that is, the form itself reinforces the book’s overall message and themes.

I assume you specified preferences about typeface, format, etc, in your original proposal, or did this grow from discussions with Zoë Sadokierski?  Were many aspects of Five Wounds determined in part by your publisher’s preferences or does the final product closely resemble your original concept?

I felt completely drunk at the end of that meeting.
Jon: The manuscript that was originally offered to Allen & Unwin in 2008 was relatively conventional. It had a single set of illustrations, the ones called ‘Plates’ in the finished version, and it had been typeset roughly by a designer, because I wanted to use specific fonts, but other than that, it was fairly normal-looking. I did have a list of production ideas that I thought might be interesting, but I wasn’t sure if any of them were practical, and so I kept them to myself. There is no point in going to a publisher with a list of weird requirements. Why make it more difficult for them to say ‘Yes’? Why impose a set of conditions before you have any kind of a professional relationship? Possibilities open up as a result of good working relationships, and not the other way round. So the priority is to establish good relationships first.

Crucially, Erica Wagner at Allen & Unwin only bought the manuscript on the understanding that we (Dan and I) would turn it into something that they could market as a graphic novel, and that label – which is often derided for its imprecision and pretentiousness – was a godsend because it created an entirely different set of expectations production-wise than would have been the case if it was called ‘literary fiction’, or even ‘fantasy’. Under the label of a graphic novel, I could put all of my crazy ideas on the table with the understanding that they were just crazy ideas, and Erica was under no obligation to take any of them seriously, but in fact she said ‘Yes’ to every single one of them. (Actually, no, there was one exception: I asked if we could have the place-mark ribbon made in five different colours instead of just red, and that was a ‘No’.) In fact, I went to the production meeting expecting to be refused on most of my suggestions, and when I kept getting ‘Yes’, I rewrote the list in my head accordingly.

One of my mottoes is, ‘If opportunity knocks on the door, don’t answer it empty-handed’. You never, ever say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t have any more ideas’. I remember Erica saying, ‘I think we need to do it in full-colour, don’t we?’  This was a possibility that I hadn’t even bothered to consider because I never thought anyone would agree to it, and I had to think immediately of how we could use colour creatively, on the spot. I felt completely drunk at the end of that meeting.

Zoë Sadokierski, the designer, had been instrumental in getting the book published, since she introduced me to Erica, and it wasn’t until I could discuss the crazy design ideas with Zoe that they became real or meaningful. When you’re talking about visual ideas, you can’t really fully understand what they mean until you can see them. And in some cases with Zoe that meant figuring out how to do things that no-one had ever tried before, and it was Zoe’s job to solve those problems.

Once I had done with the readers’ reports, the structural edit, etc, the basic stuff every novel has to go through, then
Zoë, Dan and I were left alone to get on with our own thing. We reported back and let Erica, and Hilary Reynolds, the editor, review every step we made, and they had the right to intervene if they felt it was going off-course, but they paid us the great compliment of assuming that we knew what we were doing. I think that’s a question of trust, which is really essential in a project like this.

Everyone trusted each other; everyone knew that we all had the same idea of what it was we were trying to do. And it was a very long production process. So that’s a lot of trust, because it took a long time before everything could be assembled and we could all see what the end result was going to look like.

So, in short, the book is exactly how I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t possible to work out exactly how I wanted it to be, except in collaboration with Dan and
Zoë. Five Wounds wasn’t a Platonic idea in my head that started off perfect and then got dirtied and compromised by the publication process. Initially, it was only a set of vague, unrealised possibilities, which only became concrete and meaningful because other people were willing to work on them with me.

To sum up, the main difference between Five Wounds and a conventional novel is that the initial manuscript of 60,000 words wasn’t the be-all and end-all of it. It was just the starting point for a whole series of other, completely independent creative and collaborative activities, more like a screenplay almost.

Dan, does your work in textile design shape your illustrative work to any extant - or vice versa?

Dan: The nature of the textile work and Jon's work is very different. The designs for high street brands are created to stay in the shop for a month at the most. Although it is nice to see people wearing your designs in the street, they are not created to last in the same way as a book is. Textile design is very eclectic because trends change rapidly; one week you could be working on punk-inspired designs and the next week Japanese Kimono prints. The cover of Five Wounds benefited from my years of creating patterns and arabesques for textile prints. One year esoteric images and skulls were in fashion; my work was particularly suited for this, after working on Jon's projects and being familiarised with wood cuts, so my boss let me design the whole men's collection for his shop.

Jonathan, you've recently been a guest at Sydney Writers’ Festival.  What were the highlights of that experience?

Jon: I was on a panel with visiting comics creator Josh Neufeld, and with
Zoë as a chairperson, on ‘Graphic Novels vs. Illustrated Texts’, and it was in the midst of the annual Zine fair at the Museum of Contemporary Art, so it was an audience who actually knew something about the subject. We didn’t have to do the tedious, ‘They’re not just for kids you know’ spiel that seems to be obligatory for most journalists. We could actually start the discussion a bit further on, which was great. I’ll also be a guest at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival later this year, which I’m really looking forward to.

How about you, Dan? What projects are you involved in at present?

Dan: I am currently finishing off a 32 page comic book which I will be selling in Barcelona, entitled EL GLOBO. It began as a small hand-made edition to put on a stand for book day in my village; one thing led to another and an artist and bookbinder offered me a very good rate and help to print it.

It consists of various comic strips and drawings. The main strip is a reworking of a personal project that I began a while ago, using my own dreams and half-remembered people and conversations as its basis. It opens with the protagonist returning to his home town only to find that the people he once knew have changed in disturbing ways. He then goes off into an endless journey, motivated by curiosity, through changing and unlikely surroundings and situations, engaging in insightful conversations with a retired raver, a graveyard-dwelling vagabond and other interesting characters. The original strip was partly inspired by Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which I was reading at the time.

I have some exhibitions lined up too.

Where to next in terms of writing/photography and art/design?  Do you have plans for another joint project?

Jon: The plan, we hope, is to do an actual graphic novel next, i.e. something that tells the story entirely through sequential art. I also have a much delayed non-fiction project, in the vein of my first book, which will include illustrations by Dan in the style of seventeenth-century woodcuts (as Pistols! Treason! Murder! does), but I’m still not sure when that will be ready.


Jonathan Walker's website
Dan Hallett's blog
Zoë Sadokierski's blog (case study of the typo/graphic novel)
Five Wounds at Allen & Unwin
Jonathan Walker's Literary Agent is Mary Cunnane
See also Jon's post on The Making of Five Wounds at Spike


Jane Turley said...

Having read both review and interview this sounds like a fascinating, multi layered book Paul; I particularly like macarbre tales with religous undertones too so this could be one for me:)

Am I relieved though to read that Dan doesn't get "a preview of his (Jon's) briefs"!! - Classic:))

Paul said...

You should certainly get hold of a copy, Jane. It's a well-crafted book in every aspect, and I think the grittiness of it would appeal to you.