Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: art

Seeing cover art take shape.

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

The wonderful thing about having cover art by Millie Ho is that it feels like a collaboration, it feels as though we are making something together, that the book and the cover artwork are a seamless whole. Hers is not the work of a hack cover-artist, but of someone who has read the book and understands what it’s driving at. This is one reason why I’m rather sorry that we had to abandon our attempt to turn From My Cold, Undead Hand into a graphic novel – but we both had other work to which we needed to give priority.

white thumb

© Millie Ho

Anyhow, here Millie has given us an insight into how the cover illustration evolved from a sketch to a finished piece of ‘noir’ artwork; it is fascinating to watch the video of the hand-drawn and computer-finished picture being executed. Exceptionally, Millie produced two completed works, one with a white background and one with a black. The black one fitted my vision for the cover perfectly. However, my publisher might go with other design, because of thumbnail issues, and put it on a coloured background – maybe red. We’ll have to see. Whatever is the case, I am grateful beyond words to Millie for her work, and I hope I have the opportunity to produce more writing that she will be able to illustrate in the future. By the way, as we did with The Everywhen Angels, after publication I hope to offer some free wallpapers based on the book cover. Wait and see what turns up!

Vampires lurk in a future NY, murderers lurk in the Bayous…

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

I hesitated to share some of Millie Ho’s preliminary work on the graphic version of From My Cold, Undead Hand, featuring teenage vampire-hunter Chevonne Kusnetsov, because this is as far as we got with the project. It would be doable if we both had unlimited time and no other projects on the go. However, I agreed with Millie when she said that she should concentrate on her own immediate work, and I promptly took my cue from that and dived back into my own. Nevertheless, you’ll all be pleased to know that she has agreed to produce the cover for the text and e-versions of the novel.

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

Meanwhile the editing process has begun. The manuscript is with my publisher’s editor, and his eagle eye has already found an obvious typo on the first page! Chevonne is surprised at that, as you can see, but it shows that the process works. I can recommend it to any fellow authors who are thinking of submitting a manuscript, by the way. It might be costly without a publishing deal, but your submission will be more polished.

Another ‘meanwhile’ – I am busy writing the sequel, provisionally titled KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE, upper case deliberate. I know where it starts – it starts with a 1960s-style beach party for vampire surfers. I know where it ends – in a devastated DC in the depths of a dark nuclear winter. I know a lot of the middle – blood is drunk, flesh is eaten, there is madness, there is a death cult, there is good, clean fun. How the story weaves from place to place is up to my characters. I allow them to live. Well, apart from the vampires who aren’t really ‘alive’ as such, but you know what I mean.

Watch this space, then, for more vampiric newsgrabs. It’ll be totally swagger!

Yet another ‘meanwhile’. Watch out for Hagridden, a novel set at the periphery of the American Civil War – a dangerous and murderous place to be, where escape from the battle does not necessarily mean an escape from the killing. It’s written by Sam Snoek-Brown, whom regular visitors to this web site will know is a contemporary American author whose writing I admire. There’s not long to wait for this novel, as it is due for launch in August of this year. Reminders here and here.

‘Photography on wings’

Final Flyer

Photography on wings is the title of an exhibition, to be staged in Nottingham from 7th June to 31st July, of the photographs of Harminder Nagi. The photographs, all of winged creatures, will be accompanied by poetry by twenty international poets including myself. The exhibition is an extension of the book Continents Connect: poetry on wings which was published in 2012. If you’re anywhere near Nottingham between the dates mentioned above, please do make a point of going along to visit the exhibition. For those of you who can’t make it, here’s the poem I wrote for the book; it’s called ‘Eros and Psyche’, and I wrote it as though for Emily Dickinson.

I have your beauty safe in a box, ever since
I scotched my shoulder with a half-nocked arrow.
Sometimes I let it out to sit amongst the flowers
and drink; it settles until I shade it from the sun.

Things like this are made to delight us, I muse.
The cynic at my side shakes his head, quotes
a priori laws, says that the world is not about us.

The heart seeks pleasure first, I tell him firmly,
and I fall so deep in love with the phrase that
I etch it on my next arrow, drive that one deep
into the ambushed back of a poet, to her surprise.

There is no such thing as ‘modern literature’

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Imagine a world where Paul Klee’s ‘Senecio’ (that’s the painting a detail of which currently heads my web site – look above) doesn’t exist. Imagine a world with no Mark Rothko, or no Salvador Dali, no Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, or Robert Rauschenberg to look at. Imagine a world without Györgi Ligeti’s music, or Igor Stravinsky’s, or Steve Reich’s. Imagine there’s no jazz, no John Coltrane, no Miles Davis. Imagine a world where music had been halted before Debussy and Satie, and art before the impressionists. You don’t have to, that world exists.

It’s the world of literature.

Effectively, literature operates to an Edwardian, male pattern. It’s driven by the absolute imperative of plot resolution, the cart valiantly and obstinately pulling the horse along. I’m looking at the list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, all bloody fine books, and a quick scan of the last – say – ten reveals none without a plot that resolves, and thus none that hasn’t been written with the plot driving it along, arse-about-face. We can all probably name a handful of authors who broke out of the comfort zone of writing – James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and of course dramatist Samuel Beckett who famously wrote a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ – but they’re long gone. Even Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, an uncomfortably brilliantly novel in dialogue form, interrupted by long footnotes and official reports, is almost forty years old.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

I see startled looks already. “Surely,” people are saying, “a novel must have a beginning, a middle, and an end? What is it otherwise? What is it if it doesn’t ‘tell a story’?” But look at the vibrant colours of a Mark Rothko painting, or the vigorous action of a Jackson Pollock, ask the question “What is this if it doesn’t show me anything visually recognizable?” Listen to the ‘Kyrie’ from Ligeti’s Requiem, or to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or to the jazz of Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, or Ornette Coleman, and say “What is this if it doesn’t have a tune?” You will instantly feel silly for having asked the question. Just because there is no recognizable image, no tune, doesn’t mean the work doesn’t engage your senses and your emotions, doesn’t mean that it has no aesthetic, doesn’t mean that it’s no longer painting or music.

So why not literature? Why has this particular art form stood resolutely still?

“Well feel free to experiment all you like, but you won’t sell any books!”

Is that it, then? Is literature not an art form at all, but rather nothing – nothing! – but a commercial product? Of course the argument about ‘canonical’ literature versus ‘popular’ literature is old, stale, and defunct. But seriously, when a rich patron can stage a new opera, or buy a single painting for a hundred thousand pounds, why can’t a rich patron buy a hundred thousand copies of a book to distribute to friends, family, the needy, anyone, or buy the manuscript to keep exclusively for his own?

I can’t be the first writer to ask this question. Why should literature effectively stand still? Why shouldn’t it change its face and figure and still engage us? Discuss.


Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ terms.

Introducing Evangeline*

Detail from 'The Derby Day' by William Powell Frith

Detail from ‘The Derby Day’ by William Powell Frith

Imagine Epsom a huge tray of type rolling, popping, reversing at it is shaken, and there you have this field of hats and heads, toppers, skimmers, brimmers, bowlers, billycocks, and caps, all peppered with ladies’ bonnets, twirlers, birders, and fascinators as though someone had tossed cloured comfits into the jiggling type. The men of course are the blacks and greys of the inky letters, apart from a handful of jays and mandrakes. In all this steps Evangeline, as though she is treading from tussock to tussock in a wind-disturbed swamp or from boat to boat in a bobbing harbour, although her paces have all the precision of a prima ballerina’s. She only appears to be pushing through the press, which in fact parts, imperceptibly, for her. She sees all, sees the punters, tic-tac men, bookies, buzzers, down-and-outs, up-and-comings, lordings out on the slum like so many drunken second-sons. Evangeline’s back is straight, the face she shows to each person she slides by is what they want to see; she is their equal whether they expect a whore or a lady, oh my, oh my, she can counterfeit all, especially that which she genuinely is.

“I have the skin of a fish,” she thinks, says under her breath, an arcane choice of phrase by which she takes pride in her ability to sense the movement of the crowd and isolate the ripples and disturbifications that are just a little foreign to it. As now she does, finding the zig-zag of a dipper whom she knows, searching for his titfer amongst the thousand, spotting it with a smile. It’s Ganzy Gil Degarry, called ‘Old Cawhang’ by his pals for his Channel Island cant and patois, though more than half he puts on, having left Guernsey as a young’un, and indeed he’s not that old. She sees him making a mark, lifting his hat in apology to a man whose weskit he has just relieved of a deaner or two, a drackmer, or maybe of his best jerry, or maybe of a long-tailed note. Ganzy Gil’s quite the mobsman, quite the tooler.

“What’s this?” she thinks, says under her breath, as a new counter-eddy makes itself known, paralleling the pick-pocket. Her eyes rake the stylish tiles, settling on a couple of bowlers circulating on the periphery. Two Miltonians (she’ll be bound!), one whose gait she recognizes as he whom she calls ‘my grasshopper’, the other no doubt his sergeant. No doubt either that their courses spiral in towards the progress of Ganzy Gil, whom they have spotted at his business. So she herself cuts a curlicue process towards the thief, prettily, carefully, lifting the skirts of her coat. Despite the deliberate ease with which she penetrates the jostling press, she knows they will have him before she gets to them. From her pocket she slips a small bottle of gin, swigging from it to perfume her breath and to give her an excuse to stagger a little.

Ganzy Gil’s skillful monkey-fingers are about to harvest a pocket-book from a portly cove when the sergeant’s hand rests lightly but obviously on his shoulder. He halts, looking for a way out, but is confronted by the grasshopper who stands before him like Dover cliffs. And so Ganzy Gil is voided of his energy – inevitability has seen to that – and his swagger sags. Inevitability, however, suffers a little reverse, when Evangeline takes a small, tipsy stumble backwards, and the heel of her shoe presses down hard on the grasshopper’s foot. He yells in pain, his colleague is distracted for long enough for the pick-pocket to swing away from under his grasp and dodge into the crowd. The sergeant springs to pursue, but Evangeline staggers in front of him and is knocked to the ground.

“Here! What’s your game?” she cries, not in the least winded. “Stop him! Stop him someone! That brute attacked me!”

A dozen or more bodies bar the sergeant’s way, and if Evangeline had been on her feet more quickly, she would seen a cheeky, over-the-shoulder grin from Degarry serving as his a la perchoine to the peelers. As it is, Evangeline is returned to her feet firmly by the grasshopper, whose grip lingers on her slender arm, strongly enough to be a restraint, gently enough to leave no trace of a bruise. “Blind me and bless me,” she thinks, “but he’s done this before, held a woman suspect immobile.”

“Miss, I think you are well aware that I am an Inspector of the Metropolitan Police,” he says, loudly enough so that the eagerly watching crowd does not turn nasty and instead knows him for the jack he is. “Furthermore I think you were well aware that my colleague whom you impeded so excellently is a sergeant of the same force. I also think you know the criminal whom we had arrested and who escaped thanks to your intervention. To put it simply, Miss, you’re nibbed.”

“Sir,” says Evangeline, brushing mud off her coat with her free hand, “you think a deal to much. And since you are a policeman you will know that your thoughts to not amount to evidence. Are we to miss the races because of your thoughts?”

“I see you are not as tipsy as you first appeared,” says the grasshopper. “That goes a little way towards being evidence. It is at least a suspicion in my mind, and as such is enough to oblige you to come with me and be questioned.”

“Then allow me a little dignity,” says Evangeline. “Allow me to take your arm as fits a lady. Your bulldog can walk behind and make sure I don’t cut and run.”

So Evangeline and ‘her’ jack swap their who-holds-whom, at her insistence and without his resistance. Together, and with the sergeant stalking behind like a zealous duenna, they walk through the once-again parting press as lady and escort. When a gaze meets hers she smiles, slightly inclining her head, and the gazer can’t help but touch the brim of his hat respectfully.


*My previous post was a teaser about ‘Agent Delta’, a fragment of an unwritten novel. Here is one which introduces ‘Evangeline’ – Victorian orphan, sometime mountebank but with true psychic talent, well-born friend of criminals and prostitutes, and destined to be a ‘Woman Searcher’ with the Metropolitan Police – and her ‘Grasshopper’, an unnamed Police Inspector, loosely based on the real-life Jack Whicher (though what an officer of ‘the Met’ is doing at a racecourse in Surrey is in itself a mystery).

I am fascinated by the thought of ‘lost slang’. I know that things I recall from my own lifetime have come and gone, leaving gaps in social history. Nothing appears on the mighty internet about them. They might never have been. For that reason, along with London’s Victorian argot that I have researched, my intention has always been to drop expressions into the mouths of my characters for which there is absolutely no evidence.

One other thing I ought to mention is an additional way that these fragments have been constructed to ‘tease’. All the original text fragments of both my ‘Agent Delta’ and ‘Evangeline’ works-in-progress are written in the first person, the protagonist narrating; however the two pieces I have composed and posted here are written in the third person, though focalized on the protagonist. I like to play. This is all helping me get back into the discipline of writing…

How Millie’s cover art came to be…

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

Over on Millie Ho‘s site she shares a few insights into the process of creating the cover illustration for The Everywhen Angels. Please do visit and show your appreciation.

‘The Everywhen Angels’ wallpaper – free to download!

everywhen-angels-wallpaperHow would you like the cover art of The Everywhen Angels as your computer desktop? Just click on the thumbnail to open the image in your browser, then right-click and save or drag it to your desktop. Then you can set it up as your desktop in the normal manner for your computer operating system. NB: The artwork is the intellectual property of Millie Ho, and no permission is given for its use, reproduction, adaptation, or storage other than as specified here.

How Millie draws a Fresh Cat

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

I really want to share this with you, just so that you can see Millie Ho’s hands at work. Millie (how could you forget?) is the artist who has provided a cover illustration for The Everywhen Angels. She claims all kinds of artistic influences, but at the end of the ol’ cliche day what she produces is all her own work. The ‘cat’ in this video is – kind of – the Fresh Prince of Bel Air of the cat world. I especially love his copter cap – I haven’t seen a cat in one of those since Hanna and Barbera’s Mr Jinks wore one. And yes, those are fish.

Millie and Marie meet some Angels

© Millie Ho

© Millie Ho

The first 'Angela' © Millie Ho

The first ‘Angela’ © Millie Ho

Recently it began to seem like a good idea to find cover art for The Everywhen Angels, my soon-to-be-published novel for older children, in a bit of a hurry. The idea was to publish well in time for Christmas, in order to advertise it for the seasonal market. Well, that might not happen, but in any case the perceived urgency gave me the chance to ask Canadian artist Millie Ho if she could come up with something post-haste. I sent her a copy of the draft manuscript, we discussed an idea I had in mind, and Millie set about constructing it.

Almost every day a sketch would come of one or all of the main characters – Angela, Charlie, and Ashe.

The first 'Ashe' © Millie Ho

The first ‘Ashe’ © Millie Ho

I watched their characters take shape. In the book, we read the same story three times, each version as seen by one of this trio. With each version we get more of the back-story, and maybe more revelations about the underlying mystery. All of it? Hmmm, wait and see. I ask a lot of the young readership; for example, Charlie’s story is told backwards, and one of the first things that happens is that he emphatically contradicts one of the major events of Angela’s story. I touch on ‘difficult’ philosophical matters but, as I learned from my literary hero in the genre of fiction for young readers, Alan Garner, an author should never underestimate the intelligence of his or her readership.

The first 'Charlie' © Millie Ho

The first ‘Charlie’ © Millie Ho

The book came about as a result of a heated but amicable argument between myself and some friends. They are all Harry Potter fans, and I was tearing JKR’s literary style to shreds*. They said I should either write a fantasy set in a school and make it as good as one of hers, or shut up. So I wrote one! It doesn’t quite qualify as a ‘fantasy’, but it does feature a group of teenagers with weird powers. An early draft was tried out on the twelve-going-thirteen-year-old daughter of one of these friends. It was read to her one chapter at a time, at bed time, in return for tidying her room and doing her homework. Never had her room been so tidy, and never had her homework been so promptly completed! I think I more than won the challenge. So does my publisher, P’kaboo, who has been enthusiastic about securing and publishing the book. I did try it with Head of Zeus first of all, who asked to see the full manuscript and were impressed by it, but decided it didn’t fit with the portfolio they were building up. P’kaboo then practically tore my hand off to get it.

You will soon be able to read the book, and you will soon be able to see more of Millie Ho’s artwork on the cover. There is a teaser of the final cover illustration at the top of this article. From the sketches here you will be able to see how Angela and Ashe developed from waif-like individuals to young people with great presence. Charlie’s sardonic streak was visible right from the word go.

The Angels take shape. © Millie Ho

The Angels take shape. © Millie Ho

My publisher  was as enthusiastic as I was about Millie’s finished illustration. Millie and I are now talking about further collaboration. There is a possibility of some high-action teen-vampire fiction of mine being turned into graphic novels by Millie’s ink and brush. Millie has already added the word ‘fangirling’ to my vocabulary – it’s what we do with regard to each other’s work. Seems like a good basis on which to continue. I’ll keep you informed.


* Fair’s fair – at the end of the day, JKR can ignore my opinion all the way to the bank, and good luck to her!

Visiting Vettriano


Getting to Glasgow is always a bit of a struggle for me, but today I made the effort. The reason was the offer of a trip to see the retrospective exhibition of paintings by Jack Vettriano at the Kelvingrove Museum.

fig2 - detail from a self portrait

fig2 – detail from a self portrait

There is a problem with writing honestly about Vettriano’s painting, and that is that the pro- lobby has got its retaliation in first. Any criticism of the painter’s style, content, or expertise is instantly greeted with accusations of snobbery. One must not attack ‘The People’s Painter’, or so it appears, as to do so is to betray oneself as insufferably bourgeoise. However, Vettriano suffers from an obvious flaw of the self-taught – a lack of technical power*. Getting up close to original Vettriano paintings, close enough to reach out and touch, in the basement of the Kelvingrove, has to be worth £5, though, just to see what all the fuss is about and to check out the source for the million-million images on mugs, postcards, and tea-towels.

Many of his most famous paintings are on display, including The Billy Boys, The Singing Butler, and the zinging Bluebird at Bonneville, loaned from the collections in which they are hoarded. The whole exhibition must be worth an arm and a leg. That’s a problem; standing there feels like I just paid a fiver to glorify marketing, not to appreciate art. But then in 1988 Vettriano sold his first two canvases accepted for the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual show on the first day, and hasn’t looked back since. Inevitably, in the prevailing private-market-driven culture of art, the question is asked – how many of his paintings now sell because they are appreciated and how many because they are a sound investment? Somebody must like them, reproductions are as common as chips and disappear off the shelves rapidly.

fig.3 - detail from a self-portrait

fig.3 – detail from a self-portrait

Let me deal with what I do like and do appreciate in his work, first of all, and then go on to say what I honestly think lets it down. I shall use paintings that are on display at the Kelvingrove, wherever possible.

Probably my favourite Vettriano painting, leaving aside his self-portraits, is the one of Malcolm Campbell’s ‘Bluebird’ on Pendine Sands in 1924 (fig.1). It is highly stylized, as many of his paintings are, and has his low horizon, distant breakers, and wet beach tropes, along with figures back-lit by watery sunlight. It displays his wonderful knack for painting reflections on surfaces, in this case the wet beach. I love the fragmentation of the reflections. Another Vettriano trope is the frozen attitudes of the figures, each one looking as though it has been caught at an individual moment. The whole painting is like a pause in conversation, with the only sounds being Bluebird’s engine ticking over, and the ‘start’ banner snapping in the breeze. I enjoy looking at it, it has a definite ‘feel’.

A similar capturing of reflection can be seen in the picture of the woman in slacks and a headscarf, leaning against a car (fig.4).



The whole picture is very stylized of course, but apart from the familiar device of the fragmented reflections on the wet ground, there is the clearer view of a building and trees in the car window, and a more indistinct, angled reflection in the misted rear quarter-light (or are we supposed to be looking through it? It’s debatable, and sometimes Vettriano does pull our leg and trick our eye). There is also a subtle difference in surfaces on the car, where an imperfection in the bodywork appears, just below the door handle. Things like this convince me that Vettriano can paint.

fig.5 - detail from a self portrait

fig.5 – detail from a self portrait

He’s weak on faces, about which weakness more later. The one face he does seem to have the measure of is his own; it is almost the only one that he tackles from straight on, that is not obscured by a fedora or something. I can look at his self portraits and feel engaged with the person depicted there. I would happily hang one on my wall. I like the one where he is shown absorbed by a book (fig.2). Behind him on the wall is an empty frame; it seems to imply that the artist-subject’s face, on which we might pretend to read his character, is as important to appreciation of the painting as is the whole, larger composition. At the same time it reminds the onlooker that the painting’s subject is an artist.

The more full-length self-portrait below (fig.6) shows him posed almost like one of his 1940s-kitsch male figures. However, there is more relaxation, less striking of an attitude. Once again the subject is caught in a suspended moment. This painting also shows Vettriano’s knack with light. He often paints light from a window in this way, sometimes filtering it through thin curtains, and more often than not he nails it.

self-portrait 4

fig.6 – self portrait

I mentioned that he is weak on faces. I believe this to be demonstrated by his hiding them. Very few faces in his paintings are shown anything more than sideways on. Many that are, are shaded by a hat, or suggested rather than depicted. Meanwhile other details in the same painting – the fold and hang of clothes, for example – may be sharp and well-executed. He has made a virtue of this, seeming to suggest that his subjects are anonymous, mysterious rather than open, menacing, furtive, sometimes ashamed of themselves or of the decadent world they inhabit – the bars, the dives, the back rooms, the cheap hotels. On some occasions a painting is embarrassingly bad. In The Direct Approach (fig.7), the young woman’s head, neck, and right shoulder are anatomically impossible.

fig.7 - detail from 'The Direct Approach'

fig.7 – detail from ‘The Direct Approach’

I look at some faces – hands as well – in a Vettriano painting and think that I’ve seen better in the end-of-term display at the local high school. It seems to be a matter of hit-and-miss; stepping from one painting to the next in this exhibition can often be a matter of stepping from a good one to an awful one, and there are too many that leave me shaking my head to convince me that Jack Vettriano is all he’s cracked up to be. His obsession with creating a kind of soft-porn, 1940s, high kitsch with mobster overtones has been flogged to death. He has painted himself into a corner as a one-trick pony; no matter that it is a highly successful, highly commercial trick (and good luck to him on that score, as he can ignore my opinion all the way to the bank), a whole room full of them soon starts to grate. I often wish that his application to study fine art at Edinburgh University had not been turned down, that he had gone there and acquired some of the technical power he lacks. His painting doesn’t seem to have been going anywhere, and I have the feeling that it ought to have done. He is very talented, and ironically had he been less so he would have been lauded as a primitive. The trouble is that he has too much technique for that, but not enough to rise above the mugs and postcards.

I wish he would. If I could paint as badly as he does (if you see what I mean) I would want to paint better.

* I am all too aware that I am expressing this opinion as a self-taught author and poet; ours seems to be the only formal genre, however, where the necessity of ‘learning’ the art is considered irrelevant by most critics.

Artworks reproduced are acknowledged to be the painter’s copyright, but are displayed in this essay for illustration purposes and as examples for legitimate criticism and comment.