Joy McCullough On Reclaiming the Female Body and "Blood Water Paint"

The playwright talks about her YA debut and novel in verse, which centers on the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Photo by John Ulman

Playwright Joy McCullough wrote a theater piece about the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi and knew that she wanted teens to know the story of the young painter, who often depicted biblical women in her work. Gentileschi's life, her rape by mentor Agostino Tassi, and the trial that later ensued in 1600s Rome, is lyrically presented in McCullough's YA debut. The novel in verse has received multiple starred reviews, including from SLJ, which called it, "a thrilling portrait of a woman who refused to be dismissed." What inspired you to write about Artemisia Gentileschi? I discovered Artemisia many moons ago as a passing reference in a Margaret Atwood novel. I’d never heard of her, so I went searching. When I learned about Artemisia Gentileschi’s story, I was outraged I hadn’t heard of her before. The transcripts from her rapist’s trial still exist, and I read those with horror over how much hasn’t changed in how we treat women and sexual violence. I wrote the story as a play first, which had a long development process, but when the play was produced in 2015, I started thinking about it as a YA novel when I found myself hoping teenagers would come to see the play. Most of the story from Artemisia’s point of view is composed of verse, while snippets of her mother’s bedtime stories, based on women of the Bible, are written in prose. Why did you choose to construct the narrative this way? I really love novels in verse because they cut right to the emotional core of a story. I also think the verse format makes this really painful story more accessible for readers. It’s common for people to have a perception that verse is poetry and poetry is hard. But I think those people are mentally stuck analyzing dead white guy poetry in boring English classes. The rhythm, the economy of language, and the emotional core are all aspects of verse that I believe really appeal to young readers, especially. As far as weaving the verse with the mother’s prose stories, there’s a strong history of weaving forms in theater. Musicals blend singing and dancing and spoken scenes. Shakespeare blends blank verse, rhyming verse, and prose. Even a straight play with a consistent textual style is blending the art forms of the writer, the director, the actors, and the designers into one piece of work. So I think I’ll always be coming from my grounding in theater, and that’s reflected in the blending of the forms. This was originally a play and then you adapted it for the YA audience. Was that super difficult? How did the two mediums differ? I spent a lot of years working on Blood/Water/Paint, the play. So I knew the story and characters inside and out. I thought. But a play is all dialogue and action. It’s extremely external. The internal is up to the actors. And verse is extremely internal and usually has minimal dialogue. So that was a huge shift for me. In a way it was wonderful. I thought I knew all there was to know about Artemisia. And suddenly I was looking at the story from inside her head in a very different way than I ever had before. But it was also a challenge, for sure. But what they have in common is that both plays and verse are extremely sparse; they require a writer to cut away anything extraneous. My full-length plays are [no more than] 15,000 words, for reference. So that economy of language was something I was already used to from writing plays. Can you tell us about your research process? I researched the play so long ago, it’s hard to recall. I know I leaned heavily on a wonderful book called Artemisia Gentileschi by Mary D. Garrard, which includes not only a great deal of art historical context but also the 300-page transcript of Agostino Tassi’s trial for raping Artemisia. As I researched the book, more recently, I did some more research on day-today life—things like what she would have worn, foods she would have bought at the market, the layout of her neighborhood in Rome. As a playwright, I didn’t have to worry about those things! There’s an interesting counterpoint in Blood Water Paint between the male gaze and a woman’s quest to reclaim the female body. Did you set out to do this in your novel? Yes. Part of what made Artemisia’s art so special, compared to the rest of the art of her day, was her perspective as a woman. The male painters took on the subjects of women like Susanna and Judith and painted them very much through the male gaze. Artemisia had a completely different take on these stories, as a young woman in a world of men. So I was always setting out to tell that story. Interestingly, it took my male editor to point out that while Artemisia was very intent on reclaiming the female body in her work, the character I had created seemed completely disconnected from her own body. I was horrified that I’d denied her that connection! But thank goodness for the revision process. Even though this book takes place in 1610 Rome, there are many “modern” themes woven throughout. How did you balance and work in topics like patriarchy, feminism, and consent within this historical setting? Sadly, I really didn’t have to work them in. They were relevant to Artemisia’s story in the 17th century, and they’re still relevant. Certainly my own modern perspective on patriarchy, feminism, and consent come into play, but I wasn’t consciously weaving them in. I was only telling Artemisia’s story, from my point of view. Considering the conversations we’re having about sexual assault, this historical fiction novel is, unfortunately, very relevant. What do you hope today’s teens take away from Artemisia’s tale? I hope readers take away whatever they need. Every reader will come to a book with different needs, different histories, different life circumstances the day they pick up the book. What a reader takes from any book is so personal and so varied that I’m just honored people are reading. As for our current cultural moment, I am grateful for the discourse and aware that every time a story is heard and validated, a survivor is watching. Maybe they haven’t told their story yet, or maybe they weren’t believed. It’s powerful for those survivors to see stories like Artemisia’s brought into the light, and for that I’m so grateful for the timing. What are you working on next? I’ve just opened a new play in Seattle at Macha Theater Works called Smoke & Dust, which runs through April 14. It’s about a 17th-century female composer, but also about vlogs and cyberbullying and the nature of beauty and the complexity of using one’s sexuality to survive. In fiction, I’m working on both YA and middle grade projects, but because publishing is publishing, I can’t tell you much more than that. Hopefully soon, though!
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BJ Neary

Reading the book NOW and loving it!

Posted : Apr 14, 2018 04:24


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