Saturday, 26 January 2013

In 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 and the tramp
© Judith Key
           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! 

'Evening Light' © Judith Key
          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.

© Judith Key
          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?

A cat Judith liked - © Judith Key

          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!
           Some of Judith's work is available as greetings cards. For those, or if you're interested in her art-work, she can be contacted at

          And here's Blott, ready, willing and able to sort out any psycho cat spectres around here...



julia jones said...

That's a really good interview and I love the drawings as well. North Face of the slushpile - oh groan.

Susan Price said...

Yeah, we all have to climb it...

madwippitt said...

Loved the story of the tramp - so funny! And the image of characters escaping the slushpile and taking over ... Sounds like there is a whole story there waiting to be developed.
As for cats - well, they're all psychotic. Simples. Stick to dogs!

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. I became a teacher for 'special needs' (i.e. difficult) children rather later in life. Although qualified for teaching, I had no real experience and was unsure how to tackle what I saw as a very difficult classroom situation.

The best advice I had, was from our head, who said: "Just remember, our kids have just one major problem in learning", (Yes what is it?) "They're all shit scared of making a mistake!" .

Over 10 years, just this one paradigm have served me well and helped many learners overcome this one basic block to further success and learning.

As for cats, they're not psychotic. They just think that they are in charge! Everybody I've ever met can't understand how the boss thinks!


Susan Price said...

I refute the claim that all cats are psychotic! Biffo was not psychotic at all. He didn't think he was in charge: he knew he was. But he was calm, dignified, and kindly so long as you did as you were told.
And then my aunt had this cat that used to do good works: it would vist the sick. And it formally greeted all visitors, as a gracious hostess should.
I once had a cat that used to kill bees and arrange them in ruler-straight lines. I suppose that WAS a bit psychotic - but the danger was only to bees. Apart from the bee killing, it was a rather dull cat. Cats are individuals! No more psycho than anybody else.
Next week: Cats I Have Known.

Joan Lennon said...

"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."

I'm emailing this to my oh-so-stuck writing son - I've been saying it in so many words to him for weeks - thank you for giving me another arrow to my quiver ... sort of thing.

madwippitt said...

You are absolutely right. It is a mere handful of cats who give the entire feline species an undeserved reputation. It is therefore very wrong of me to make such sweeping and inaccurate statements.
Of course not all cats are psychotic.
Just most of them.


Anonymous said...

Funnily enough, black and white cats seem to be an exception. They are 'loopy'!

I've had two over the years who both seemed to had a screw loose.

I'm not normally an advocate of genetically determined behaviour.


Katherine Roberts said...

What is it about cats?! Great interview, and "afraid of making a mistake" can apply to much more than writing!

I wonder if you think it is harder to access the daemon, the more experienced you get? I think my very first stories were much more natural, certainly they didn't take half as long to write!

Susan Price said...

Interesting point, Kath. I'd say, personally, that I'm quicker to 'hear' the daemon - but I just have less energy in general! And more to do! So everything slows down.
Life is short, Art is long.