The Georgia Straight talks with London, England–based author and artist Graham Rawle about his one-of-a-kind novel Woman’s World.
For an idea of how the verbal collage of Woman’s World looks on the page, check out this excerpt. And for an excellent visual description of how Rawle turned a thousand old magazines and 40,000 bits of paper into a novel, see this section of his Web site.
Georgia Straight: What got you started on this project?
Graham Rawle: I’d been experimenting with found text in a previous book, Diary of an Amateur Photographer. The narrator uses words clipped from books and magazines to supplement his journal entries. I liked the way he was able to take on the voice of the found material to create a different persona, one that he could hide behind and make responsible for his actions.
GS: Is there something in particular about that early-1960s aesthetic or voice that attracted you?
GR: Yes, particularly women’s magazines from that period, which have a very specific moral tone: full of handy hints and breathless platitudes about being the perfect woman and running the perfect home. The content of the story—once I’d figured it out—absolutely dictated that the central character, Norma, should adopt this voice; her entire personality is constructed from this assemblage of words from her beloved magazines.
GS: Anyone who even glances at Woman’s World wonders how it was put together—how you tracked and controlled all of the possibilities and permutations. What was the hardest part of the process?
GR: It was incredibly labour-intensive. First I wrote the book as a regular word document. At the same time, I was collecting words and phrases from magazines that seemed relevant to my story, or anything that struck me as funny or interesting. These pieces were catalogued, filed, and then transcribed to form a kind of word bank that I could draw from. Little by little, I replaced my own words with the found text: “That’s nonsense!” became “That’s all tosh and table margarine!”—but the sense of the idea remains. Eventually, every word of my original writing was replaced until the entire book was constructed from these found scraps. At this stage, it was still a word document, because it now had to go through another editing process before I could start relocating the cut text and pasting it all down as artwork. There was still a lot more fiddling to correct inconsistencies with line breaks, tenses, pronouns, punctuation etc. Nevertheless, 18 months and 440 pages later, it was complete.
GS: How does the difficulty of collaging text in this way compare with the challenges of collaging images? Language just seems far more slippery in this context.
GR: The thing about collage, or the way I use collage, is that you have to make do with what is available, but instead of settling for an unhappy compromise, I find the constraints force me to become far more inventive. This proved even truer with words. I found myself writing much more interesting sentences, and I stopped relying on well-worn similes and metaphors, creating my own instead: “Her stare was as cold and as still as a dead man’s bathwater.” A particularly silly sentence might contain a dozen different components: “Red rage rose within her like the mercury in a toffee thermometer and she knew she should leave before she reached the boiling point for fudge.”
GS: Authors who use more mundane approaches (e.g. pens and word processors) often talk about how a story can hijack their initial idea and dictate its own terms. Did anything like that happen with Woman’s World?
GR: It did, initially. My first attempts led me quickly off course because I was letting the found material determine the direction of the narrative. I knew that to construct an entire novel in this way, the story had to be carefully structured and work as a proper piece of fiction. Once I had the story under control, the main thing I had to watch were the words themselves, as they would sometimes became too bonkers and have to be restrained. It was important to choose text that was appropriate for the mood, particularly in dark or sad scenes, where the words have to be manipulated in a different way to create the right pathos.
GS: Do you have plans for other books of this kind?
GR: I’m writing another book now, but it won’t be with collaged text. I’ve done that and it took me five years. Anyway, it would be crazy to construct a book in this way if the process wasn’t absolutely relevant to the story. Maybe it would be crazy even if it was.