Interview with Joanna Walsh

Photo: Wayne Thomas

Today I’m pleased to interview Joanna Walsh, a writer and illustrator I have admired for a long time. I first discovered her work on the walls of the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Company. We got to meet over coffee and talked about our favorite authors, Paris, and the pleasure of writing and editing.

What brought you to Paris?

It was somewhere I didn’t know anybody.

What keeps you coming back?

Friends, work, croissants, the way the winter light hits the top stories of the buildings.

Joanna’s art at Shakespeare & Co

Are you a different person in a different country?

I don’t think so, but perhaps I’m a different person in a different language. When I speak French, I’m especially frank. That’s partly because of the reputation the French have for being ‘franc/he’ but it’s also, of course, down to my French being a lot more primitive than my English.

Portrait of the brilliant writer Jean Rhys

 How do your artwork and your writing fit together?

They don’t really. Most of my artwork is illustration for newspapers, books etc. It is usually in response to something written, and plays with the words and ideas in the text, and the gaps between them. When I’m writing, I’m usually putting words together in a way that leave these gaps for the reader. Writing isn’t just saying what is: it’s more like making a kind of structure that can be experienced by the reader; a structure with an uneven surface. There are points at which I want to be deliberately obscure, or ‘fail’. There are also holes I don’t anticipate when writing: I don’t think reading is a one-way process by which the reader only receives information from the writer.

There are a very few writers who are known equally well for their visual artwork. I love Leonora Carrington’s writing and paintings, but I find it almost impossible to write something and simultaneously think about how (its texture? its rhythm?) could be interpreted visually. That said, I am writing a children’s picture book for Tate, which I will also illustrate. I originally submitted it as text-only, so I didn’t think about providing the illustrations while I was writing it.

You have written a book about hotels. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea, the research, and how the book evolved?

When I started writing I did some work as a hotel reviewer. It was a way to practice writing things that had to make sense, to a deadline. I was also fascinated by the glamour of these places where I could never afford to stay, and by the kind of desires they seemed to meet. It was only after I hadn’t done any reviewing for a while that I realised I had also been visiting hotels in order to escape something to do with how I was living, that wasn’t working. Freud’s 1919 essay, Die Unheimlich, he talks about the unpleasantnesses of home. Tracing the meaning of heimlich (‘homely’ but also ‘private’ or ‘secret’), he finds that the word contains its opposite: everything that is, in the English translation, ‘uncanny’. This is a good introduction to his ideas about psychoanalysis in which frightening things are, similarly, hidden inside unexceptional things: repressed desires are converted into symptoms each of which, he says, is a “substitute for an instinctual satisfaction which has remained in abeyance”. My book is an essay on the uncanniness of hotels, and home, and also piece of self-analysis. Visiting hotels was a symptom, perhaps…

What books are on your nightstand?

This week: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, a brilliant and mordantly funny story of sex, drugs and birdwatching. Felicitas Hoppe’s Picnic of the Virtues, a tiny sample of the surreal, playful, disturbing stories by the German author that make me want to see more of her work in English translation. Then there’s a pile of books I’m half-way through, or books I haven’t quite finished: maybe about 30 of them.

What’s the best advice you have ever received?

I like it when people give me bad advice. It makes me stop and think: no, I don’t agree, and then I have to think about what I do think.

What’s next?

I recently finished work on a big illustration project for Shakespeare and Company, and I have a number of projects I can’t really talk about until they’re confirmed. I have a feeling that, early next year, I could be making a decision about what I’ll be doing for the next few years, which is an interesting thought.

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