Sunday, 5 October 2014

Making it real - models and maps by Kathleen Jones

My favourite childhood books are the Moomintroll series written by Finnish author Tove Jansson. She was an artist and she illustrated her own books.  For me, as the reader, the illustrations were a big part of the magic because they worked so well with the text. Moomin Valley was a very real place, maybe because I was seeing it just as the author had created it.
The Moomin house in Moomin Valley

I was quite grown-up before I realised that Tove Jansson and her partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietila, had also created maps, tableaux and an actual five-story model of the Moomin House which was in the Moomin museum in Finland.   The big surprise was that the house they  made was different to the illustrations - it was square rather than round as it appears in the books and this puzzled me.

The reason seems to be that it was specially made for a biennale of illustrations in Bratislava and was going to be exhibited in a corner.  The only way that Tove could make all the details visible to the public was to make the house square.  But the house is made with great love and dedication and I like to think of the author bringing all her characters and their possessions to life in physical form - even down to Moominpappa's top hat!

Moominpappa writing his memoirs

Orhan Pamuk went even further for one of his novels, The Museum of Innocence.  He bought a house in Istanbul, furnished it and filled it with the objects that featured in the novel.  But, because Pamuk is also, like Tove Jansson, a visual artist, the objects were grouped like still lives or  sculptural installations. This is a very grown-up dolls' house indeed.  It's now a museum - The Museum of Innocence - and you can go and walk around inside the novel.  Being a writer, he also wrote a book about the creation of the house, which I found more interesting than the novel.  It's called the Innocence of Objects and available on Kindle.

 Lots of authors make physical models of the imaginary worlds they are creating.  J R Tolkein drew intricate maps of Middle Earth and The Shire.  Brian Sibley has even written a beautifully illustrated book about them.

One of my creative-writing workshop exercises is to take along reams of paper and coloured pens and sticky bits and pieces and ask writers to make a detailed landscape for their stories.  Somehow making it visual helps the narrative to develop.  Taking the reader for a walk down the streets and pathways of Storyville often produces revelations that wouldn't have happened in plain text.  All sorts of discoveries are possible.  If the author doesn't know the shape of the landscape, if they don't know the small details of their characters' lives, they are never going to be able to bring the story vividly to life for the reader.

Henrik Ibsen had a box of small wooden figures he called The Devil's Orchestra.  When he was stuck with a plot, he would take them out of the box and make them act out scenes, moving them around on his desk.  This sounds like a good creative strategy!  You can see the box on his desk just to the left in this photograph.

The pediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicott had the theory that all forms of art are a kind of play, and wrote about his theories in the fascinating book Playing and Reality.  He believed that play fostered our capacity for 'being' in a very intense way. It was all to do with identifying the 'true self'. He wrote that  'only the true self can be creative and only the true self can feel real'.  So perhaps in playing with dolls' houses and maps and pieces of coloured paper we stimulate our own creativity and make our imaginary worlds more intensely 'real' both for ourselves and for others.

I collect pictures and postcards and bits of wood and shell  - objects that have some relevance to the plot or the characters - when I'm working on a story. What do you play with while you're writing?

Kathleen Jones writes poetry, fiction and biography and divides her life between Cumbria and Italy, though she's currently down-under in New Zealand. She blogs at 'A Writer's Life' and you can find her books at   


madwippitt said...

Wow. What amazing things!
I'm afraid I play with the wippitts if I go a bit blank: and often when I'm not too ...

Catherine Czerkawska said...

What a lovely, lovely post. I've loved Jansson for years but didn't know about the Moominhouse. (Now I want one!) I dramatised The Summer Book for R4 years ago but read the Moomin books many years before that. Think my dad discovered them. Then I worked in Finland for a couple of years and realised how true they are! Our old copy of Finn Family Moomintroll practically fell to bits because my son loved it so much. We have a little wooden bridge in our garden and he used to sit on it pretending to be Moomintroll or Snufkin like the illustration. As a video game designer in the making, he grew up making maps and mini books and all kinds of 'play' things to aid his imagination. I find it fascinating that he still does this as a precursor to the virtual stuff. I certainly do it myself - gathering all kinds of 'things' around me that have relevance to the plot or characters. So glad to know that you do it too!

Carol McGrath said...

A wonderful post. I once met a owner of a gallery in Istanbul who made an intricate box for Pamuk and I loved Museum of Innocence.

Reb MacRath said...

I agree: absolutely wonderful. It got me thinking, oddly, of a wonderful book that came out 15-20 years ago: an innovative story containing maps and letters, etc., that you could actually remove to examine. These illustrations were gorgeous. The author's first name was Nick. Anyone remember this...or any of its companion books by the same author?

Kathleen Jones said...

Thank you everyone for your lovely comments - glad to know I'm not alone in collecting bits and pieces. Catherine - my own son used to pretend to be Snufkin when he was (not so) small. Dramatising Tove's work must have been fantastic!
Carol - I'm so jealous that you've been to Istanbul and visited the Museum. I heard him talk about it in Italy at a litfest and bought the book, but I would love to look at the real thing.
Reb - if you can think of the title or author, let me know. This sounds a fantastic book.
Madwhippett - animals are very therapeutic. My cat Heathcliff has come up with many a plot twist!

Lydia Bennet said...

indeed a lovely post and some lovely stories in it. Interesting that you found the book about the museum better than the novel the museum had been created for - perhaps a better artist than writer? I collect odd objects but not specifically for writing about, however when writing intricately plotted crime thrillers i create 'maps' of relationships between characters and stick them on my study doors and walls.

julia jones said...

Use maps (or rather, charts) and also find it's a good way to help; children get their stories going.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I was at an event a few weeks ago where an artist friend ran a 'deconstructed books' workshop. Students at her campus had produced some extraordinarily beautiful work - using books, plus collage materials of all kinds - including the text. Once I got past my horror of destroying books, I was intrigued by the possibilities as a writer. Especially with the Jean Armour/ Robert Burns project I'm working on right now. I'm currently looking for an edition of Burns's poems or letters so battered that it has lost its value - then I can construct something with it and think about my feelings about Jean at the same time. It sounds a bit crazy, I know, but the people doing the workshop (which I couldn't attend because I had other things to do) were so engaged with it that I envied them.

Sandra Horn said...

Great post! I'm a Moomin fan too. I'm surrounded by pictures and models of hares, a pig reading a book, a penguin floating on the waves...if we can't play, what are we?