August 23, 2008

One of Britain’s Finest Graphic Novelists, Posy Simmonds Merges Keen Social Observation With Remarkable Artistry. David Robinson Turns the Mirror on a Rare Talent With Unique Working Methods

By David Robinson

I'VE been in Posy Simmonds's study talking to her for about an hour when I suddenly realise that this could be the worst interview I have ever done. Not, I hasten to say, because Britain's finest graphic novelist is in any way rude or unpleasant - she's entirely the opposite. The fault is all mine. As soon as she shows me the notebooks on which she sketched out the preliminary drawings for her bestselling books Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe - both of which were first serialised in the Guardian - I'm entranced. Entranced, and no longer bothering to ask any of the whats, wheres, hows and whys in my list of prepared questions.

Why? Because even though I studied art history at university, I've never seen anything like this. In my time I've handled Rembrandt sketches and Michelangelo cartoons, and have seen countless examples of artists' studies gradually being transformed into finished paintings.

This is different, but no less awe-inducing. For the impossibly neat preliminary sketches in Simmonds's notebooks are not rough studies for a formal painting. What I'm seeing with my own eyes but through hers is not a first stab at a two-dimensional figure but the slow birth of a recognisable four-dimensional character whom we will then see track through the course of a novel.

Take Glen, the narrator of Tamara Drewe, Simmonds's contemporary reworking of Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. "I always knew he was an American staying at this writer's retreat," says Simmonds. "But at first I imagined he would have one of those Boston Irish faces, you know - a large face with a small nose and rather pointed features." She turns a page and there he is, beardless, slightly anxious, overweight, but still not quite the finished article. Another page, and a different face turns towards us, imagined from all angles in yet more studies: bearded, genial, still overweight, and very probably self- conscious about it.

This is the Glen we'll see in the book. Tested, fixed, fully imagined. At this point, Simmonds can see him in her mind, so she can add on the details. The too-large glasses, the earnestness, the thick corduroy trousers and tweed jacket of a New England writer struggling with the fourth draft of a novel about Verlaine. And she'll know that fat men like him will feel apprehensive when sitting on one of those Philippe Starck cantilevered toilets that Beth, who runs the writers' retreat, will have in her downstairs loo, and that there he will overhear an indiscretion and the story can begin ...

As studies, these are more or less perfect. There are no angry scribblings-out, either in the pencil drawings or the notes next to them in Simmonds's fastidiously neat handwriting. Every single character goes through this slow metamorphosis on the page towards recognisability, even the animals they will have as their pets or keep on their farms. The dialogue has the same impeccably precise observation behind it. Glen, for example, is always being asked if he is a professor at London University. "At a London university," he will invariably reply.

Most people probably think that this process of visualisation - or imagining and rejecting variant after variant until precisely the right character emerges - is exactly what happens in novelists' imaginations too. It's not. Most novelists, I tend to find, have only the vaguest sense of what their central characters look like. Some don't even have that. Their game is to offer enough vague clues for readers to be able to construct their own mental image of the character as the story unspools in their minds.

What Simmonds does is entirely the opposite. "I draw and draw expressions until I can see something about them, until there's something that says, 'I know people like that.'" But recognisability isn't enough. Back in 1987, she stopped working on The Silent Three of St Botolph's, the gently satirical cartoon strip about the well- meaning middle-class Weber family she'd drawn in the Guardian for the previous decade, because she wanted to try something more ambitious.

After working on children's books for a while - Lulu and the Flying Babies was a huge favourite in our house - she moved on to Gemma Bovery (2000) and Tamara Drewe (2007). You don't just have to look at the notebooks to realise what a huge amount of work each represents. Tamara Drewe, for which she went to Somerset and Dorset to paint landscapes and draw the kind of farmhouses she'd use in the story, "took two years to draw, two years to plan, and a bit more to turn into a book". Each single episode would take a full week to draw, colour, cut up and paste on a grid with the text neatly aligned with the picture - with only the last part, done with the help of her graphic designer husband, Richard Hollis, involving a computer.

"I get e-mails from students asking 'What programme are you using for your colour?' and they can't understand that it's all watercoloured or coloured in with crayons or marker pens. They ask why on earth I bother, because you can do it all on screen, but I just like seeing it all on paper."

She always did. As a child, growing up on a farm in Berkshire with three sisters and a brother, she drew comics, talking to the characters as she worked.

It was a privileged childhood - boarding school, then a year at the Sorbonne - and it wasn't until she went to London's Central School for Art and Design that she met people from beyond her own class. Before that, the ones she saw - Teddy Boys on buses, fairground workers on her summer holidays in Devon - seemed exotic, and sometimes found their way into her comics. The quality of her work that attracts most admiration today, its attention to detail, seems to be a gift she was born with. "I don't know how or why," she says, "but I always remembered exactly what people were wearing, even when I was three or four."

She's in her early sixties now, petite, attractive, very politely spoken (although her long-time friend Polly Toynbee tells me she's never met any woman with such a good store of rude jokes). But just as she used to deliberately sit behind Teddy Boys on the buses, for Tamara Drewe she would make a point of sitting near teenagers so she could get a fix on the precise way they talked. "It's not a question of eavesdropping," she explains. "On their mobiles they kindly talk loud enough for everyone to hear." One conversation, put verbatim in the book, happened when she heard one teenage girl grill another about a sexual encounter with a boy. "After that," it ended surreally, "it was clothes on, then zips, then he patted the dog through the letterbox."

As the Simmonds eye for social observation is keener than anyone else's I can think of, I test her on what other trends she's noticed. Posh young girls in Knightsbridge are, she says, increasingly confusing: half dressed in Boden catalogue outfits, breathily using the endearments their parents would have used, the other half only comfortable with Estuary English.

And we talk about bus queues, and wonder when people on buses started to sit near the aisle leaving an empty space near the window, or when grown-ups started cycling on pavements, and I know I ought to be asking her more about her career but, entranced again, I'm enjoying the conversation too much.

I did find out two things though. Firstly, she's already started work on another graphic novel, but she doesn't want to say which literary classic she'll be drawing on this time. Right now, she says, it's not going well: she might even abandon it and start on another book.

There's a huge mirror in front of her worktable, which she normally blocks with postcards at the bottom so she can't see her reflection. When she's working hard, she stands before it and tests her characters' expressions in the mirror before sitting down again.

And when inspiration won't come? "I just watch the windowpanes go blue. They're white now in the afternoon, then later they'll go a light blue, then darker blue and the light fades completely and they're black."

And that's how I'll think of Posy Simmonds: staring into her mirror, pulling faces, or watching the world grow dark around her. But somehow, between the two, producing the odd miracle.

* Posy Simmonds is at the book festival tomorrow, 4:30pm. Tamara Drewe is published by Jonathan Cape, price GBP 16.99 Liked That...Love This

John Howe (today, 8pm): An illuminating voyage of illustration and design, Howe discusses his book illustration work on Beowulf and his role as lead artist on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Varmints: From Page to Screen (tomorrow, 6:30pm-8:30pm): Helen Ward and Marc Craste have collaborated to create a harrowing tale of ecological doom as both an evocative illustrated book and stunning animated film.

Alexander Stoddart (Monday, 4:30pm): The leading international sculptor discusses the places of statues in modern cities, heroic- realistic sculpture and the challenge of recreating Stevenson's Kidnapped in three dimensions.

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