“I felt like I had to deal with my own thoughts before I tried to talk to anyone else.”” Lizzy Stewart on why she needed to create Walking Distance
Illustrator and children’s book author Lizzy Stewart returns to her comic roots, with Walking Distance, A highly personal look at modern womanhood and women who walk in movies. Told using a unique mix of dense blocks of text and beautiful images we were keen to find out more about how this wonderful book came into being.
Walking Distance has a really interesting mix of story and personal reflection, can you tell us a bit about your process for writing it? Do you write certain pieces when inspiration hits, or do you just write a stream of consciousness piece and then edit to fit?
Lizzy Stewart: This is going to read like such a cop-out answer but it was sort of ‘all of the above’. I make notes a lot, I’m always trying to pin down the thread of an idea before it gets away so that was, probably the start of it. I had some time at the end of 2018 and I hadn’t done any personal work for a while so I knew I wanted to make something but I struggling to know what that might be. I think the book came out of that struggle quite directly. I thought that, perhaps, exorcising the things that I was thinking about constantly might mean I’d clear up some headspace for better ideas in the future! It was a space-making move more than anything! I think I wrote a draft of the essay and then started the ink drawings after that. The text changed as I drew it, as I realised that some ideas were too loose, or didn’t lead anywhere and sometimes the images changed the way I felt about what I’d said so much that I’d have to re-write it.
I don’t think i ever thought of it as being a comic. The drawings were a necessity. I find it hard to think of myself as a writer so I tend to come at everything with pictures. It makes the process less daunting!
How do you incorporate the artwork? Do you write around images you want to use and how you want to build a page? Or do you just see which direction the words and inspiration take you?
LS: I guess I was usually starting with the text and trying to find an image in my brain that, either helped it along or said something that the words couldn’t. As an illustrator (my day-job) my task is usually to make an image that is explanatory as well as decorative. So with the pictures I was always trying to bring meaning as opposed to a literal translation of the words on the page. I don’t think I managed it every time though!
Sometimes I found that an image would appear that made my point a lot clearer in my own brain. The section where I talk about the fact avoiding looking at problems is a luxury that only a small number of people have (me included) was really hard to make into an image but it was even harder to squash into sentences that I liked. When I came up with the image (the women with hands over one another’s eyes) it helped me find the point that I was trying to make.
These two questions are sort of connected and interchangeable. I think what I am trying to get at, is that the whole thing feels like a very complete concept, so I am interested to know how it all develops and comes together?!
LS: Ah, I’m glad about that. I think the goal was to make the words and pictures necessary to one another. So if they feel interchangeable thats good! I want people to read the images as well as the words, maybe to get to the end and not remember if a certain section was made with sentences or sketches!
You use a really interesting mix of long chunks of text next to pictures, which feels more like a picture book than a traditional comic. Was that intentional style choice or just a reflection of how you wanted to tell your story?
LS: The way that the book works was unavoidable, for me, I think. It was always going to be illustrated yet also text heavy. There are so many things at play in my life that made that decision for me, it was unconscious but inevitable! Primarily I’m a picture book author and illustrator so I think a lot in big images and text chunks. Also the books I love influenced me a lot. Maira Kalman’s illustrated books wed big blocks of handwritten text with her glorious paintings, Leanna Shapton fuses pictures with words to create quite high concept works of fiction and non-fiction. Those books showed me that a book for adults can be illustrated without, necessarily, being a comic. Similarly writing by Lara Pawson, Ali Smith, Maggie Nelson, Jenny Offill (and so many others) really inspired me to be less afraid of unusual forms.
We love your children’s books, why did you feel the need to write something so personal compared to that? And do you approach your more personal comics work in a different way to your kids books?
LS: To be honest I was struggling to write a new picture book when I wrote this book. I really believe in fiction as a way of explaining the world to children but at the moment The World is a quite a difficult place to explain! I felt like my own brain was getting in the way of the stories I wanted to write, telling me that an idea wasn’t useful enough ‘in the current climate’. It was quite paralysing. I felt like I had to deal with my own thoughts before I tried to talk to anyone else, especially a child. I’m not sure if it worked, I’m still a bit stuck to be honest!
Have you developed or tweaked your art style for Walking Distance, or have you just used it as a chance to experiment with your style and create slightly different looks for some of the pages?
LS: I’ve always been quite scattered in my approach to image making. Some people are coherent with their style and some people aren’t. I’m greedy when it comes to trying out different materials and easily bored when I’ve been working in one way for too long. I think any sense of style in my work comes from the choices of subject matter and the sensibility I bring to the work. It might be a painting or an ink drawing or a pencil sketch but, hopefully, my viewpoint makes it identifiably my own.
I had initially thought that the whole thing would be painted with brush ink (paynes grey ink, its lovely) but I drew something that I liked with dip pen (the floral/growth pages) and it seemed a shame to disregard the images because it didn’t fit some rule that I, myself, had made up. So it became more mixed throughout, but balanced-ish I hope!
The opening pages about your love for women walking in movies is a fantastic hook, and we will always be keeping an eye out for them in future movies we watch. Have you discovered any more favourites since you wrote the book?
LS: I’m hoping that I’m in for many months of film recommendations from readers! I don’t know that I’ve had any additions this year, its been a pretty ropey year for new films! There’s a film called ‘Good Posture’ out soon (directed by Dolly Wells) that looks like it might fit my exact requirements though, so I’m hopeful on that.
For those who discover your work through Walking Distance, what other comics work of yours is out there which people should be checking out?
LS: At the moment all my comics are self published (though that will change next year, if I get my word done on time). So you’ll have to buy them direct from me or Gosh Comics but pretty much all of my comics are sort of variations on the same theme. I like writing about women and girls interacting with the world and trying to make sense of that. Most recently I wrote about two schoolgirls in ‘Hannah & Alys at the end of the world’ and two different women in ‘Two Stories’. Both of those feel, in some way, pertinent to Walking Distance.