A Conversation with Judith Key

          This month the conversation is with Judith Key, the writer and artist.

          She contacted me recently because she’d seen, on my website, that my original agent was Osyth Leeston – and Osyth was also Judith’s first agent. So we got talking…


          Judith: I was interested in what you said about 'the daemon' and 'the editor.' (Previous ‘In Conversation’ blog with Jenny Alexander.) We all have daemons to a greater or lesser degree. It's that part of us we learn to suppress as we are growing up. As adults we control our emotions, and 'edit' our behaviour. On the whole it's a good thing. But that process of control can lead to all kinds of negative inhibitions too -- it can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to artistic expression,young children show a natural creativity, while adults are hampered by all sorts of hang-ups.

           When I was teaching art to adults, I saw how students were often afraid to make a mark, in case they 'got it wrong.'  Each had an editor on her shoulder with an iron grip on the paintbrush.
           For a long time I was like that with writing. I couldn't get the stories out. I didn't know why. I kept hitting a wall. For years I stopped writing altogether. It was an amorous tramp who freed me from it.


    Sue Price: Oh, yes? Tell us about the amorous tramp!

           Judith:  It happened one February morning, when I was sketching in a nearby village.  It was bitterly cold, but I was well wrapped up with woolly cap pulled down, scarf pulled up, fingerless mitts and old painting jacket, frayed at the cuffs and splattered with paint. I had my back to the village pump, looking towards the ruins of an old abbey.

          A figure appeared, weaving up the hill, evidently the worse for drink. He paused at the point where the road forked either side of the pump, and stood swaying, uncertain of which way to go.
         To my dismay, I saw we were dressed almost alike - old jacket, woolly cap, scarf and fingerless mitts. If anything he looked the smarter as his jacket wasn't spattered with paint.
          He must have misread my expression, because in the next moment I was buttonholed against the pump, and staring into his bloodshot eyes.
          Then came the chat up line every girl dreads: 'Hello, Darling, going my way?'

           Fortunately, the abbey grounds were open for the annual snowdrop walk. I managed to leg it and spent 3 hours wandering the grounds alone, mentally picking the petals off the snowdrops, thinking, 'He loves me, he loves me not, he's smitten. Help.'
           With the light failing, I had to take a risk. I stood at the exit and checked up and down the lane. No sign of him. But the car was half a mile away, and between here and there were any number of bushes behind which an amorous tramp could be waiting to leap out on his lady love...


          But that day marked a turning point in my life. Our love remained unrequited, but a few weeks later I found myself standing in front of an audience that had paid good money for a painting demo that was going wrong. The paint wouldn't dry and I ran out of chat.  It must have been the repeat of that 'rabbit-in-the-headlights' moment, when I was accosted by the tramp, that triggered what came next. I said, 'A bizarre thing happened when I went to sketch this abbey...' and out spilled the story.


          It was unplanned, natural and spontaneous.  I drew an off-the-cuff caricature by way of illustration. The story and the drawing just seemed to do it themselves, without any help or hindrance from me.


          I'll always be grateful to that tramp, as his unwanted attention had the effect of shifting my chronic case of writer's block, and unleashed a second career as a performance storyteller.


            It was a turning point. From that day, stories were back in my life. Storytelling and caricature went hand in hand. Each informed the other.


          But when I turned from oral to written work again, I had trouble. I was right back to where I was before.  I'd get so far and hit that wall. Maybe I wasn't a writer...


           Then I twigged that what I was doing was trying to edit the thing before I'd written it. Instead of allowing myself to be a conduit for the story, I'd turned myself into a dam.
           I had to get the story out, however bad, fractured, uncontrolled. Then I'd have something to work with. To do that I had to forget the 'self', just as I had that day during the painting demo. Whatever was compelling me to write this story, I had to stand aside and give it free rein.
          Letting the daemon take over can be scary -- where is it going to take you? You can find yourself in a headlong gallop over some hair-raising territory in a direction you hadn't planned. Helen Cresswell once said to me, 'If you don't know where your story is going, it will sure as Hell get you there!' I didn't know what she meant at the time, but now I think I do.


          Sue Price: I know what you mean -– and I often find myself writing about things I know nothing about, or scenes I find disturbing, because the ‘daemon’ has dragged me there. But if anything, I’m more scared of the daemon leaving me to find my own way! I know that, without it, my writing is mechanical. The ‘editor’ can’t do it alone!

           Judith: But at some point the editor has to get involved. When daemon and editor work hand in hand, I see it as a relationship like that between horse and rider, the one all power and energy, the other harnessing that energy and with a guiding hand on the reins. When daemon and editor are at odds, it's more like a wrestling match. The work they are trying to create ends up as a casualty.


          Sue Price: Yes! 



    Judith: I'm inspired by landscape. Wild places. Heath, woodland, marsh. One of my favourite places is the Wash. It's an open, floating world. The editor in me sees structure, shape, tone, this colour set against that. But what excites me is the atmosphere, the shimmering light, the racing cloud shadows. Then I hear the lonely call of an oystercatcher, and I'm taken to a different level again.There is sadness and longing in those marshes. 

          That's when I tell myself I've found the 'soul' of the place. But what am I actually connecting with? Maybe some aspect of myself.


          Sue Price: Whatever it is, I can see it means a lot to you -– your description is beautiful.
           But you said you’d tell me about when you had to paint a portrait of a psychotic cat… Though it’s a bit harsh to call it ‘psychotic’ if it just didn’t want its portrait painted. I hate being photographed myself.


          Judith: Oh, its psychosis went deeper than a simple reluctance to have its portrait painted. It was the most maladjusted creature I have ever met, and what was worse, its owner could see no fault in it. Maybe it sensed that I was a doggy person. It certainly took an instant dislike to me.
           I had to snatch photos of it scowling from the top of a book case, bristling under the coffee table and glaring out of the coal bucket. Then it shot under the settee where it cowered, hissing like a nest of vipers. Its owner was unfazed. 'Oh bless him, he's gone all shy!'
           I ended up with some hurried sketches, a two inch claw mark down the back of my hand, and a whole lot of snarling, spitting cat imagery burnt into my brain.

         Back home, a string of monstrous caricatures flew from my pencil. (Daemon 6, editor 0). They captured the cat's character to a T! I knew it wasn't how the client saw her cat but I had to get them out of my system before tackling the chocolate box image she wanted. I managed it, after bending both my will and my pastels to her doting vision. Commissions can be a nightmare -- (editor 6, daemon 0).
          Animals feature strongly in my stories, but it was only recently that I realised how that cat haunts me. Since 2010 I've written two children's books and a rough draft of a third. Flicking through them to see how I've progressed, I realise that all of them have scenes featuring the same scowling creature. And here it is again -- muscling in and dominating our chat. My daemon is a cat with attitude.        


          Sue Price: Or an amorous tramp! 

          Judith: I shouldn't moan because it has given me much material over the years. Negative situations can yield much fruit. Humour works best if it has something to kick against. And yes, actually, I do like cats. It was just that cat.
           I'm sure you must have had characters that you just can't shake off -- who walk into scenes uninvited and demand to be written about. Sometimes they belong there and that's fine. In fact, they can take you on a journey you hadn't expected, and that is exciting.
          Beware! Your blogspot might end up forever haunted by a glowering feline spectre...

          Sue Price: That’s okay -– I’m sure Blott can cope with even a psychotic cat spectre. What are you working on now?



        Judith: Oh, I'm lugging my latest book, The Goat Boy, up the North Face of the slush pile! I try to deal with it by visualising the slushpile as a parallel universe.
          Lit. agent 1 - 'It's a nightmare -- I came into the office and there was this goat on top of the slush pile.'
          Lit. agent 2 - 'It's that Judith Key again -- she never seals up her submissions properly. Don't put your hand in there -- last time she sent us a psychotic cat -- it had claws like Johnny Scissorhands, and I'm scarred for life.'
          Lit. agent 3'Think yourselves lucky -- A M Heath's had an attack of the Sterkarms -- the whole place has been taken over by battle hardened horsemen and time warps. Poor old Sarah Molloy's in a right state -- her desk's in the 16th Century, the photocopier's in the 21st, and the phones don't work...' 

        Sue Price: Thanks Judith -- for talking and for making me laugh! -- You should set up your own blog, and make us laugh reguarly!


If you want to see more of Judith's work, or get in touch with her, you can find her website here.


And here's the Blott mentioned in the conversation... (Blott is usually an ink-blue cat, a writer's muse, though he isn't in the cartoon below.)



You can find more Blott cartoons here