Director’s Commentary: Paula Knight on the Facts of Life
Normally we aim to run our occasional Director’s Commentary features (where we give over the space to the writers and artists to talk about their latest work in their own words, in whatever way they want to) around the publication point of a new graphic novel that we’re especially keen to read, and that we think is the sort of work where readers would really enjoy some more insight into the work, and how and why it came into being.
Paula Knight was keen to do one for the launch of her compelling The Facts of Life from Myriad Editions (reviewed here), but that pesky Real Life kept getting in the way, and as regular comics readers in the UK will know, she has been very, very busy. But she didn’t forget about the idea, and frankly I’m still more than happy to run such a guest piece later on because, well, let’s be honest, we’re geeks, and a lot of geeks love a good process post. There’s just something fascinating about hearing directly from the creator as to how the ideas came about, how they approached and shaped the work. I found Paula’s book very moving and bravely honest, so I’m delighted to be able to share her guest Commentary on the making of it:
Ten years ago, on the 19th December 2007, I posted a strip on Deviant Art called How A Baby Is Made, under the pseudonym ‘Missnibs’. It was to be the very beginnings of my graphic memoir The Facts of Life. In the mid-2000s I was enjoying reading many more comics and graphic novels, and this happened to coincide with a time when myself and my partner were trying for a baby. It wasn’t going too well, and I felt driven to write about our experiences and attitudes towards women who don’t have children. I’d been to a large comics con around that time which left me feeling a bit too old and a bit too female. You have to see yourself reflected in a space or medium to feel as if you belong there, and at first I felt there might not be much of an audience for my subject matter within the comics medium. However, I’d read Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) and found it encouraging that another woman my age was writing autobiographical work. This was further reinforced when I discovered Laydeez do Comics in 2009, and later Graphic Medicine. After attending a Laydeez meeting in 2010, and speaking there in 2011, I was basking in encouragement and the project really took off. In 2012, I was shortlisted in Myriad Editions’ First Graphic Novel Competition, which further buoyed my confidence. I worked on it over six years alongside freelancing, with just over two years full-time helped along by an Arts Council England grant.
The main theme is about pressures and expectations on women to reproduce (pronatalism); ambivalence over the idea of motherhood; and what happens when life doesn’t go to plan. It’s a personal exploration of where those expectations came from: Family, friends, society, culture and politics. It’s also about what it’s like to be a woman who doesn’t have kids in a society where ‘family’ means ‘children’, and an attempt to challenge assumptions of women’s value to society being dependent on their relationship to children. It’s also about the chronic illness ME and how that impacted my life in the above context.
Aesthetically, I wanted to make a fairly traditional looking comic that was easy to read. As well as established comics readers, it was important that I attract readers interested in my subject matter whom might not necessarily be used to reading pictures. I didn’t want to create anything too ‘out there’ that might be off-putting to that readership. I tend to prefer artwork that looks as if a fallible human being made it (mine certainly does), so it’s all hand-rendered with dip-pen and acrylic paint (including panel borders and speech bubbles); then scanned, with some collage elements added digitally. I also made my own font for the text – a steep knuckle-gnawing learning curve that was eventually worth it. The textures that were added digitally are hand-created – lots of fun rolling up card and dry-brushing the creases to make ‘rock’, for example. I also painted my feet black one day, to make a ’carbon footprint’. The majority of any drawing reference is photographic (from hundreds of photos I took myself or that my partner took of me), occasionally venturing into Google street-view (3D now – amazing!) I don’t trace, but often look at photos for figure drawing, and I also draw from memory.
Music and art have always played an important part in my life, so it was inevitable that references to other people’s creative output would be part of my memoir. Their inclusion became an important part of the storytelling. Not having the money to pay for expensive song lyric permissions was tricky, so I had to find creative ways to include songs without encountering copyright issues. Songs that were in the charts during my formative years helped to shape the way I felt about having children or not. The first of these sowed the seeds of a fear of accidental pregnancy long into my twenties: ‘Too Much, Too Young’ by The Specials
This is a rare occasion where I’d use Google images for drawing ref – I have no idea where Terry Hall hangs out to pap him! I’ll let you into a little secret – apparently Top of the Pops didn’t ever broadcast the whole song with the end line: ‘Should have worn a cap instead’. I suppose reference to contraception was clearly too risqué for them, what with people from the 70s not having sex… Or maybe TOTPs had a pronatal broadcast policy at the time – don’t tell them about contraception or they’ll stop having babies and we’ll lose our Playschool audience! So, I must have heard the whole song elsewhere. Alternatively, learning the fact as an adult had somehow attached to the childhood memory in my brain. Such is the way with writing memoir – the author’s truth is the subjective truth.
The music references played an important part in my book on many levels: To help illustrate a particular era; to reflect cultural attitudes towards motherhood and childlessness; and, listening to the music of my youth in the early writing stages helped to access cobwebby memories. I’ve made a Youtube playlist of all the music references in my book, for anyone who cares to delve into the minutiae.
This is rather embarrassing, but I was thirteen years old when Never Been to Me, by Charlene, was in the charts. Looking back, the song contains some of the most pronatal lyrics I’ve ever heard. And I desperately wanted Charlene’s flicky hair. Because I liked the song at such a delicate formative age, it must surely have had some kind of subconscious influence over a fear of ending up childless and lonely. It’s an assumption I wanted to challenge in this book – culture and media are often pervasive in their influence and can infuse the collective consciousness. Soon afterwards, I was heavily into Bob Dylan, so all was well…
I’m interested in the natural world and how human beings think they are somehow apart from nature when, in fact, we are very much a part of nature. My subject matter is personal proof of that. Recurring visual themes in the book include water, tides, wood, trees, and various animal metaphors. I’ve often used nature metaphorically for added poignancy or a more poetic way of communicating something than a simple head-to-head conversation would have.
For example, these swans were trying to build a nest on a tidal river soon after we first suffered a miscarriage: It’s a single incident that reflected many things happening in our lives: living in a damp leaky flat; loss; and being unable to find affordable suitable accommodation etc. Pages of house viewings and ranting over extortionate rents might have been visually boring, and the swans said it all better. And I’m interested in wildlife and environmental concerns – the rubbish they are using to build the nest is indicative of the destructive nature of how humans and wildlife can collide. Taking the focus away from the main characters also opens it up more for readers to identify with. Tides are driven by moon phases, and, in certain traditions and cultures, linked to the menstrual cycle. Tides and water are both destructive and renewing in the book, and this reflects how the forces of nature can affect life beyond our control, such as in pregnancy loss. All in all, this scene was a perfect fit for my book and its subject matter.
The tree/ wood theme in my book is integral to its narrative structure – from climbing trees in childhood to planting them in adulthood; a squirrel hiding an acorn in the part dividers; and a wood grain pattern for the part titles. The main framework of the book is a cycle-of-life structure built around tree-planting, which reflects growth, loss and renewal. (The end of the story time-wise actually forms the prologue).
I was very much influenced in using nature and the elements by having studied The Wasteland by TS Eliot for A-Level English (quite a long time ago)! The elements are necessary to support life, and the story is about being unable to support life in my body: I used them to strengthen the narrative, and to nourish an otherwise commonplace tale. Taking the focus away from the main characters by using easily identifiable metaphor also opens a gateway to allow the reader in to engage and identify more readily with the story – most people are familiar with trees and water and understand that they can represent strength and life.
Although the subject matter is a little gnarly, I’ve tried to use humour as much as possible, especially in part 1, which is all set in childhood. My dad used to call my best friend ‘Peppermint Patty’ because she had poker straight hair and lots of freckles. Peanuts was on TV in the 70s around that time, and we loved it, so this panel was my chance for a subtle nod to Schulz! I definitely had Peppermint Patty in mind when drawing the character April in the childhood pages – but that’s because she actually looked a bit like that.
This book is very much focused on my own experiences. Although the male experience of suffering miscarriage is sorely underrepresented in society, it would never have been appropriate for me to write my husband’s story – this would have been crossing an ethical line. No one asks to be in a very personal memoir, and he’s still coming to terms with there being a panel about sperm samples, and having his face adorn the front of a book! Of course, it is very important for men’s personal childlessness stories to be told, but in this case it wasn’t my place to do so in more depth than I have.
I tend to think that once a creative work is released into the world, it no longer solely belongs to the author – people are free to interpret it howsoever they wish, despite an author’s intentions. However, I hope that outlining some of the themes here might help to enhance the book’s meaning for readers.