Kelly Smith (Illustrator)
Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories introduces young readers to the lives and works of history’s greatest artists through 68 enthralling short stories. To mark the book’s release, we catch up with author Michael Bird about writing his first art history book for children …
Introduce us to Vincent’s Starry Night.
Vincent’s Starry Night is a series of sixty-eight stories, beginning about 40,000 years ago with a small carving in mammoth ivory known as the Lion Man, and progressing through history to Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seed installation of 2011. Each story features a particular work of art and a certain moment in an artist’s life. I didn’t want to tell these stories in a teacherly narrative voice – ‘Michelangelo was an important artist of the Renaissance’ and so on. I wanted to capture something of the moment of making, the mix of personalities, ideas, materials, ambitions and even crazy accidents that results in art. The stories are all based on historical facts – which of course can be thin on the ground as we go back in time – but I’d like to think they also work as stories in their own right.
You are also the author of a number of books for an adult audience, including 100 Ideas that Changed Art. How does writing for children differ?
What I’ve discovered is that, in most essential respects, it doesn’t differ hugely for me. Writing is always a process of discovery and rediscovery, of trying to strip away the clichés and conventions that accumulate in adult life, including academic art history. I’m not interested in works of intellectual rigour that have lost all freshness and sense of openness and wonder – and it’s also true that, as adults, we can forget how to frame the big questions that children ask all the time. Anyhow, the stories in Vincent’s Starry Night seemed to come very naturally – I never had to think, ‘How should I explain this to children?’
Which Vincent’s Starry Night story stands out for you, and why?
That’s a difficult one! I felt completely immersed in each story as I was writing it – they all have a different atmosphere, a different voice. As a group, I especially enjoyed writing the ‘medieval’ stories – the Islamic scribe Ibn al-Bawwab, the bronze-casters of Ife, the icon-painter Andrei Rublev. This may have something to do with the balance between historical facts that I had to stick to and places where I was free to imagine and invent.
Kate Evans’ illustrations play a big part in the book; what did it feel like to see your stories brought to life in this manner?
One thing I wanted the stories to have was a strong sense of place as well as historical period, and Kate’s pictures, especially her beautifully evocative landscape illustrations, bring this out very vividly. The book also has a huge cast of characters: artists and their families, helpers, friends, patrons and rivals, as well as horses, birds, a cat and an escaped stoat. Kate’s illustrations immediately give the pages an animated, friendly feel, alive with colourful activity, people, objects, art.
There is a long history of stories being used as mediums for learning, particularly for children. What do you feel it is about stories that encourage children to engage with history?
These were the kinds of stories I loved as a child. I’d say that I owe my sense of history – both factual and imaginative – first of all to the little ‘Ladybird’ books on Nelson, Alfred the Great, Henry V, Oliver Cromwell and all those great traditional heroes of British history, and later to the novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Henry Treece and Leon Garfield. I’d reach a kind of pitch of imaginative involvement in these stories where I felt, if only my imagination could run just that bit faster or further it would actually, physically project me back through time. It was almost painful!
What drew you to writing?
There was a point when I must have been eleven or twelve when I realised that I understood how words and writing worked, as some people understand dogs or sailing or medicine – that this was a medium in which I knew instinctively how to move. It was a long time after this when I published my first poems in student magazines, and this in turn was the start of an extremely slow-burning writing career. I knew somehow that I had a lot of everyday living to do first before I could find my way as a writer. About ten years ago the pace of my work changed quite dramatically – I’ve published eight books since then – the inhibitions seem to have disappeared.
Who were the writers you admired when you first started writing? Who influences you now?
The first ‘grown-up’ novelist I read with a sense of wanting to read every single word he’d written was Thomas Hardy, closely followed by D.H. Lawrence. Around the same time, aged fifteen or so, I fell under the spell of T.S. Eliot. All these writers, it now strikes me, have a very visual sensibility – apart from the images in their writing, both Hardy and Lawrence painted and drew, and Eliot used to illustrate his letters. Eliot I also loved for his musical qualities, his astonishing control of rhythm in The Waste Land. ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’, he said – I think that is true of all good writing. I was lucky in my English teachers at secondary school: the poet John Mole introduced us to contemporary poetry, bringing in books by Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney the week they were published, while I owe to Simon Stuart my first encounters with T.S. Eliot, Freud and Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, which I can still recite by heart. Recently I’ve been reading Andrew Miller – Pure is the kind of historical fiction I admire, so imaginatively steeped in the period he’s writing about that you can smell and hear and taste it. Walter Benjamin and T.J. Clark are two of a handful of writers on art that I come back to repeatedly.
Were you interested in art from an early age?
My first memory of an art gallery is being taken by my dad to the National Gallery and, oddly enough, standing in front of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield, with Cypresses. I’d have been six or seven, I think. As a teenager I fancied myself as an artist – I carried a sketchbook everywhere and painted terrible greasy oil paintings. My taste in painting was pretty conservative and historical – Turner, Claude, Rembrandt, Titian, Monet. My real art education began when I met my wife, Felicity (we were seventeen at the time), who went on to study fine art at Camberwell and become an artist. She introduced me to Matisse, Bonnard and the American abstract expressionists. I realised that I definitely wasn’t cut out to be a painter, but I feel at home in artists’ studios – so much more interesting than writers’ rooms.
Tell us about your writing process, do you write on a computer? Can you describe your writing room/study?
I don’t much like my handwriting so I usually write on an old laptop, print out each successive draft and then revise it by hand. My writing room is in the attic – I like being at the top of the house, under the slope of the roof. There’s a view across St Ives Bay, but I hardly ever look out of the window while I’m working. My room is a mess – two desks, several bookcases, archive boxes, books, photos and papers on every surface – but it works for me. Occasionally I’m able to borrow Felicity’s studio for a day’s writing. These are my most productive days – the sound of the sea outside the studio window filters out every extraneous thought.
Who gets to see your first drafts?
No one. I always rewrite first drafts heavily – by the time I get to draft two or three, I’m ready to show Felicity, who is always able to spot the weak points and the parts that are starting to work. When I feel that a book is approaching its final state, I’ll give it to my editor. I go on rewriting, though, up until the last minute.
Alongside writing books you’re also an art historian, what other projects are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished a book on the sculptor George Fullard, a fascinating artist who died quite young in 1973. Fullard was certainly in touch with his childhood self – his ideas often came, he said, from 'infant recognitions of things seen before one even knew their names'. This year I have a research fellowship at the British Library, which involves listening to hours and hours of interviews with British artists that have been recorded since 1990 in the Artists’ Lives project. I will be co-curating an exhibition and writing a book based on this research. I’m also hoping to make a radio programme about the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo in the near future. And then there’s the novel – top of my wish list at the moment is three or four months’ clear writing time to get the final draft done.
Vincent's Starry Night and Other Stories by Michael Bird and illustrated by Kate Evans is out now - pick up your copy here.