‘Art Can Be A Story-Starter’: Eliza Robertson and Lee Henderson in Conversation

The authors discuss the influence of visual art in their writing, working to rap music, and the hypnotic smell of oil paints.

Lee Henderson is the author of the award-winning short story collection The Broken Record Technique. He is a contributing editor to...


In her curatorial statement for virtual gallery space The Looking Glass, Wallflowers author Eliza Robertson writes that her characters “think by the way they see.” The project’s previous curator, Lee Henderson, shares a similar indebtedness to the visual world, made explicit through the inclusion of a comic strip in his latest novel, The Road Narrows As You Go. We brought these two authors together to discuss how visual art interacts with and influences their writing, and the limits of discussing multiple art forms in the same breath.

Eliza: Any idea how to start this, Lee? “Interplay between writing and other art forms.” Is it cheating to say, “tag, you’re it?”

I could also send some kind of leading question. The obvious one being how art and writing interact for you, in reading or writing, question mark. Take it or leave it!

Lee: Yeah they kind of threw us into the deep end, didn’t they? Good question! So I don’t even know how to begin to separate writing from other arts, they are all so essential to me—I love showbiz, I love art and literature. But I do notice there are books of fiction that seem very relatable to art, sympathetic to, or critical of what’s happening in art, and then there are books of fiction that seem completely oblivious, indifferent, or downright hostile to what’s happening in art. And there’s successes and failures on both sides. I’m not always conscious of anything other than the story at-hand when I sit down to write, but I’m aware that a fascination with art informs my decisions on a deeper level, because I spend so much of my spare time staring at art and reading about it.

The same is true of the reverse: that some artworks or artists seem to have no relationship to literature, and that fact’s probably not going to make or break the merits of the work. Would you agree, or do you see the interaction differently, and do you find any really direct relationships between your writing and something in the world of art?

Eliza: Funny thing: when you describe books that appear hostile to art, it sounds like a criticism. But that’s not right, is it? As you say, there are successes and failures on both sides. (Can you think of a hostile success story, by the way? I’d be curious.) I think this gets at something. We consider “art” a benevolent, desirable thing like democracy, or ice cream. No one wants to admit if they dislike it. But it’s okay to dislike it. Democracies suck sometimes, and ice cream drips/ leaves behind a scummy dairy mouth.

How does art interact with my writing? Well: I’m not much of a visual artist. So writing is my art. But I find it interesting that the two mediums can be used to critique or compliment the other. For example, when someone says, “that painting tells a whole novel.” I feel uncomfortable with that. 11So: I say that novel line in my Looking Glass curatorial statement. My criticism is mostly aimed at unthinking borrowed metaphors. I wrote that one mindfully! Also: I don’t always practice what I preach. It attaches primacy to the plot or story and ignores other elements of fiction. I don’t often hear: “that photograph uses too many to-be verbs” or “that collage is a kickass limited third person.” I’m not saying you should. That would be silly. I suppose what I am saying is… maybe the two interact naturally, but when we force connections, the language spreads thin. To conclude: insomuch that writing is my art, I agree with you. I don’t easily separate the two. But sometimes I feel uneasy when we do not stop to think about borrowed metaphors.

All that said, art can be a story-starter for me too. Once I saw a photograph of a woman with Kewpie doll heads on her nipples. That image has been branded into my novel.

Do you use the same thinking cap for visual and writing art? Or do you swap art-helmets? Do you storyboard? Or does art play a role in its own right?

Lee: One could say that what Lydia Davis writes cleaves closer to the concerns of contemporary art than does the short fiction of Ann Beattie (born the same year), but regardless both are amazing writers. I’m not sure if Richard Ford has contributed one whit to the modalities of conceptual art, whereas it is more than likely WG Sebald has made an impact (born the same year), yet they’re both well-regarded writers. The old school naturalists and the sui generis—no matter how they interact with the rest of the arts, all four authors are significant to contemporary literature.

But for me, when I think about how time works in a narrative I don’t just look at how other writers I love have approached this subject. I’m a curious person, so I’m reading theories about time, and looking for art with time as a theme. I wonder how I could respond in my own way to something like The Clock, that epic piece by Christian Marclay, or to the infinitely looping works of Stan Douglas. I’m fascinated by all that stuff. When I first moved to Vancouver in the 90s I was really inspired by Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas and the NE Thing Company and so on—I used to go check out all the photoconceptualists’ shows, really exciting stuff. Then things got more loose and multimedia like Jason McLean and Geoffrey Farmer’s work and I really like what happened to local art in my generation and after—super inspiring.

Christian Marclay, The Clock

I make a lot of collages, and when I’m prepping a new project it usually involves a lot of drawing, as much drawing as writing. But the writing I do is focused on something and the drawings aren’t at all. And then eventually I get serious and it all becomes about the writing. I just prefer to write. But lately I have been drawing more seriously and so my drawings are more embarrassingly polished.

Eliza: If your own art is transitioning (even if your drawings are simply becoming “more embarrassingly polished”)—has that influenced your decision to write about cartoonists in The Road Narrows as You Go?

Lee: I wanted to write a novel that would challenge me to improve my drawing skills. The medium of the novel is beautiful in that it can incorporate so much, even images. And I loved trying to draw “in character,” making the drawings as if they were from the hand of my protagonist. Also a lot of really weird stuff happens in this novel, so I hoped the comic strips would lighten up the atmosphere of the story a little. That when things really start to plunge into craziness you can at least look forward to the next strip.

When you say you’ve reacted to artworks, you mean putting something you’ve seen in an image directly into a story, or inspired by the ideas or techniques of a work, or something more indirect about a piece?

Eliza: I think you say something valuable when you describe how you approach a subject from different mediums before (or as!) you attempt any. That seems so instinctive, yet I don’t think I do this consciously. To access a concept (like time), I have consulted poems, but never artwork. More likely, art, or film, or a poem will inspire me to first think about the concept…so the connection is more linear, and not collage-like. But I love collages, and more and more, I find my writing spreads all over the page.

When I say that I react to artworks, I mean all of the above. I have lifted images from photographs and translated them into words. But often, the influence is less direct—perhaps a mood or light. I have been thinking about light, recently. Right now, I am back in the house I grew up in. My dad designed it and called it Longeaves, for the reason you might expect. It has long eaves, and by god: I can’t see a thing! I have five lamps turned on in the dining room right now, and the brightest light emanates from my laptop.

At my home in Norwich I live on the second floor, which I selected for my room’s two windows. Sun fills the room like a warm broth. The contrast between the two spaces has led me to think about light in fiction. Not the description of light… but the mood the light (or shadows) convey… the energy or lethargy or sharpness. In this way, you could say I borrow a technique from photography. But I think that gives me too much credit.

Lee: The Looking Glass virtual gallery is an interesting project for a writer, to let us be the one to choose pictures—I liked the opportunity to try something online with art. Part of my intention with the Looking Glass was to show some of the Canadian artists I’ve admired for years, and my other plan was to try to connect with some international artists whose work I thought was fresh and bold and in the interrogative mood. I wanted to find artworks that suggested a narrative without going so far as to present a literal story in a picture, so that readers visiting the website intending to learn more about books and authors might accidentally fall into the dream of a single image.

Have you done anything like this before, put together a curatorial of art or something else online or in a space? Do you see a theme begin to appear across the pictures you’re choosing for the Looking Glass, or did you have a theme in mind when you began this project? I noticed a photograph by Teju Cole, that’s pretty cool…

The same is true of the reverse: that some artworks or artists seem to have no relationship to literature, and that fact’s probably not going to make or break the merits of the work.

Eliza: I have never curated an art space before. For a few months, I curated a blog for my friend Liam Sarsfield. That involved an assembly of images— mostly eye candy to support the written content. I love Looking Glass so far. I have not planned a theme, but I do see patterns retrospectively. I like how the green in Chih-Chien Wang’s cabbage leaf echoes the pastels in Lila Subramanian’s “Houses.” Also, the shapes of Deborah Stevenson’s “Nature Trek” echo the movement in Teju Cole’s photos from “Occupied.” (Not to mention the themes of journey and displacement…) But these are connections I see retrospectively. There is something human about reaching for connections.

How about you? Did you curate an art space before Looking Glass? As a curator, do you ignore or draw attention to patterns?

Lee: There’s something about a curatorial that can flush out a theme that might not be essential to any of the artists or single pieces of art, but in collecting them, the curator can create a thesis statement. There’s certainly a degree of art or creativity to curatorial, it’s an attempt to communicate something.

Things like Tumblr and Pinterest seem to make everyone into curators, and there are some amazing curators out there. I’ve seen some really messy curatorials over the years (I’m talking big gallery/museum shows), where the art wasn’t the problem, the presentation was ill-considered and the choices made no sense together. I’ve done a bit of curatorial over the years. One time back in 2004 I co-curated a show of Canadian artists for Ziehersmith in NYC, and a few other art shows since then. From about 2008 to 2010 I co-curated with Jeffrey Allport a monthly sound art performance night at Access Gallery in Vancouver, where my duties mainly involved helping the artists set up and serving beer.

Meanwhile, I was also organizing monthly art shows in my portable not-for-profit commercial art gallery in a briefcase, The Attaché Gallery. The Attaché Gallery is an old hardshell briefcase I bought at a flea market that I started to carry artworks around in, art by local and international artists (not my own art). I’d bring the Attaché to the bar and pass the artwork around to friends. I showed about five or six artists a year that way. I also kept a guest book, with not a few famous signatures in it of people who’d seen the art, including that bro who played Green Lantern.

I’m interested, because I know how important language itself is to your writing, what informs your narrative decisions—how you develop a world of your own based on what you choose to depict of our world and what you refuse to depict?

Eliza: You’re so cool, Lee. The Green Lantern signed the art gallery in your briefcase. Every element of that sentence is cool.

I like the Everyman curator phenomenon encouraged by social media, though I am not on Tumblr or Pinterest myself. I do pick through blogs for images, especially when I’m stuck. But I haven’t really sustained my own. And you’re right—the curator is like a film editor that way…. Gathering images in a mindful sequence to convey a mood or theme or narrative. Like Kuleshov’s hungry man/male gaze/soup/sexy babe experiment. That is: follow a shot of a man staring with a shot of a bowl of soup, and we think he is hungry. Follow the same shot of a man staring with a sexy babe, and we think he’s a lech.

Kuleshov Effect / Effetto Kuleshov

Half my undergrad was politics, but I can’t say I consciously invoke them in my writing. That said, political themes still creep in. In Wallflowers you will find gender issues, class issues, the tar sands, etc. But I’m not toeing any party lines. I’d like to see a good story that toes a party line. I suppose the nearest bet is satire, but maybe that’s the anti-line.

All that said, given the carnage in Gaza, it was a political decision to include two photos from Teju’s Occupied series— specifically, images of two Palestinian women in Jerusalem. A curator can be sneaky like that.

You’re right— language is important to me in fiction. Whether I’m writing or reading it. It can be important at the expense of other elements, sometimes. Like plot. Not to force the theme here, but when you ask what I choose to depict, are you asking how I curate my fiction? The honest answer: I’m not sure. The details I choose are not thoughtless… but nor are they mindful. I suppose it’s intuitive. The other day, we went for tea at some old friends of my father’s—all of whom worked in a design capacity at the Royal BC Museum. One friend, Georgina, said she did not have a clue how to improve the exhibits… But she intuited they needed more smell. So she brewed a vat of fish manure to slosh over the Cannery display. (This tactic eventually vetoed by the security guards.)

I suppose that describes my own process too. In general, I don’t have a clue. I just take a whiff and start concocting.

Lee: I’m not sure fish manure was the least provocative choice! I like the smells in art galleries, very specific to each show, each space, room, not at all like the smells outside. Not that you’re supposed to go around sniffing it, but oil paints smell amazing, like on a still-wet canvas, wow, that’s a hypnotic smell. Also a lot of different woods, stones, and metals have distinctive blood-like smells that probably add in some subtle way to the atmosphere around them in a gallery. On my ever-growing mental list of why I’m not interested in reading more than social media on an e-book device is that I like all the different ways books smell.

Hey, is it true your father designs exhibitions? I’m not sure if I heard right, but if so has he been doing that your whole life? Did you grow up going to art galleries and museums and hanging out with artists?

Eliza: Yup—my dad was chief of design at the RBC Museum. I have fond memories of attending openings with miniature hot dogs and stilts walkers. (The circus exhibit.) Also: the Christmas parties were cracking. Many of his good friends were artists, and I grew up with their work on our walls or bookshelves. Perhaps some of that has seeped in by osmosis. I hope so.

Last question from me. You’re a big hip hop fan. Do you listen to rap when you write and/or draw?

Lee: Yeah, for sure, I love rap. I used to only be able to listen to instrumental music when I wrote. I understand this is common. But then one day, I think it was in 2003 or 2004, I could write and listen to rap at the same time. What a breakthrough! I look for what’s good and new. Since Outkast, I mostly go for the sounds of the South and right now, what’s happening in Atlanta. Gucci Mane and artists like Migos, Rich Homie Quan, Ola Playa, Hoodrich Pablo Juan, Young Scooter, MPA Shitro…Young Thug might be the hottest thing since Future, but PeeWee Longway has my vote for best rap alias of 2014.


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