In Conversation: Paul Neale

British contemporary artist Paul Neale was born when the Cold War was hot. JJ Marsh asks him about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies. 
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Image courtesy: Paul Neale

What do ‘Borders’ mean to you?

 A defunct chain of bookshops, quite good I thought.

The imperial response, redivisioning other people’s territory for mostly financial gain and resource acquisition.

Nationalism. Brexit. The Mason Dixon Line, The Maginot Line, The Great Wall of China.

Borders are entities to cross without permission, should you consider you need any. The current crop of wars are redefining so many borders at the moment: physical, ideological, religious, political, media but mostly by the point of a gun, the drop of a bomb, the amputation of a child’s limb. The break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia is another example.

Borderline, something to be crossed or not.

Borderline psychotic borderline insane borderline schizophrenic borderline nuts live or die pass or fail do or don’t do

Borderlands ill defined unpoliced anarchic, rusting coils of barbed wire, radioactive and risky.

The Thin Red Line.

pgn1, Paul Neale

That’s curious. The concept of a ‘red line’ in German is the central argument, the core that holds the whole together. But perhaps that’s what a border is. It’s a theme I wanted to explore with such an artist. You frame or reframe subjects in your work to create an unusual angle of observation. How did such a style develop?

First, I do not think I have a style, at least I didn’t set out to create one. A few years ago after making a whole bunch of drawings for a show, I discovered that my eyes had gone funny and nothing was in focus anymore, so I got glasses and started buying second hand cameras.

Although I purposely set out to work with a predefined set of imagery and transform it into something new, I was not sure how anything would turn out. It was terra incognita for me. Later on I started to work with certain ‘looks’, visual tropes.

I worked by instinct to begin with. Working with pre-existing imagery, changing, using the strategies of collage and appropriation, chance, control, choice, no choice, and so on seemed to be the way. Plus you cut out all judgements of craft/technique. The viewer is, as you say, complicit. It was and remains a way to think about the coded visual environment.

It does seem to me, however, that I am sharing something rather than hitting people over the head with statement imagery.

pgn5, Paul Neale

Agreed. It’s very subtle and yet some of your pieces evoke Picasso’s fractured figures or Bacon’s distorted bodies, immediately striking and visceral, even if the viewer can’t say why. How far is this an attempt to crack open the façade of what beauty actually means?

I sort of use a fixed vocabulary of images. Models on covers, the fit, the bronzed and airbrushed, the post-produced and ready for printing and distribution. Luxury items. Heavy metal. Kind of identikit really, I just move the elements around.

There is a sense of a lens. Sometimes scratched, sometimes out-of-focus but always a reminder that one is a watcher. Much like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, you make the observer complicit and aware of that complicity/responsibility. Would you agree?

It is because I often use an image from a magazine of some kind. We all know how they must have got there, right? So that sense is already part of the viewer’s expectation. What the complicity you mention may be is a sense of the viewer as witness after the event. Any complicity is due to iconographic familiarity. (I can’t believe I just said that.)

pgn2, Paul Neale

I can. How far is your art influenced by where you live? Or do other factors dominate the creative process?

Yes. And. No. Certainly I could use material from say French or Japanese mass-market publications. Having said that, where I live has great museums and libraries. The region has some great arts organisations. There are groups of artists who have set up their own thing, like Aid and Abet or Art Language Location. There is Kettle’s Yard. They continue to do great shows of emerging and established artists.

When your well of inspiration is empty, where do you go, what do you read, whose work do you study? How do you replenish your resources?

Well I am flattered that you think I even have a well to dip into, let alone run dry.

I keep notebooks religiously. I keep a diary. I draw a lot and take photos every single day, I am pretty obsessive. I am not too worried if I am not inundated by mind-blowing ideas twenty-four hours a day. I can’t pretend that my work makes that much difference to anyone except myself. I write as a way of sorting my ideas out.

pgn3, Paul Neale

That sounds familiar. So many artists, authors and creatives I’ve interviewed have endless scraps of ideas knocking about which ‘might come in handy one day’. Who, in your view, are the most exciting artists on the scene today?

Interesting word, exciting …

The Art Market has brought to the fore a whole bunch of fantastic artists and also an even bigger bunch of crap ones. So let’s ignore that. Transition Gallery and Workplace Gallery are good. Galleries pop up all the time.

My favourite artist at the moment is Corinna Spencer, also David Kefford. Paul Muse had a good visual diary. Of the big fish Nan Golding and Steve McQueen, an Oscar and Turner winner. Anybody working in expanded drawing or painting has my vote. Andrew Cross and David Cotterrell are both independent visual thinkers with international reputations. Once I find an artist I can relate to in some way, I tend to keep tabs on them. I am a bit of a fan really. William Kentridge!

In Switzerland you have Fischli and Weiss, and Pipilotti Rist, but I do not know any of anyone in the emergent scene there.

I hesitate to say who has influenced me, German artists mainly. When I was doing my M.A., I was all about the Vietnam War, Robert Mapplethorpe and Oliviero Toscani the Benetton guy, who did the AIDS and starving kids. Powerful. These days I’m hard pressed to say IF I am directly influenced by anyone or not. I look at a lot of art but I am pretty detached really.

lungs, Paul Neale

Why do you make art?

A way of communicating through my shyness and lack of confidence in activities that others find easy. I find as I get older that it is easier to focus on the work itself, but the rest of how I cope is sometimes a bit iffy. Recently, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I have had quite a bit of ‘therapy’ as the Americans say. I feel better now.

Lately I have been working with reflective surfaces, steel and aluminium. There is a certain type of phone box, K 100 I think, which has a blank metal or aluminium back. It reflects just enough of the local area to make things interesting. There are not many of these phone boxes so when I find one it is quite an event. Anyhow I have got better things to do with my time than hunt down mystery phone boxes so I ordered some aluminium sheets and I’ll be using them to make landscapes and self-portraits. I spend a lot of time, it seems, just trudging around shooting stuff.

And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?

I would say that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one that I can read and reread and always find something new to laugh at or admire.

“Get away from me you deranged trollop!” is a typical utterance from Ignatius, and one I have used on many occasions whenever strange girls have made a grab for me or even offered to buy me a drink. I like the character because he is comical, but if you have any idea about mental illness you soon realise the story is rather tragic, dealing as it does with failure and breakdown. He is also surrounded by some of the greatest comic creations to have had a supporting role in a book. Ignatius J. Reilly is also hard to act and hard to illustrate. It is fantastically written with a sublime feeling for New Orleans voices, vernacular and cadences. Unfortunately, the author killed himself. It was his only book. I believe it was published after his death. It is a classic. An epic.

Paul is launching Airburst magazine mid-2016.


In Conversation: Padraig Rooney

Padraig Rooney spent the best part of 40 years outside his native Ireland and lives in Switzerland. He has published three collections of poetry and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award. His work is anthologised in Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking), Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha), and his short stories appear in Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek). 

padraig rooney

Image courtesy: Padraig Rooney

I’ve read The Gilded Chalet was inspired by a visit to Basel’s Paper Mill and Literary Museum. How did the Earls of Ulster’s journey kick off the idea to explore the relationship between Switzerland and writers?

Clio, muse of history, presides over The Gilded Chalet. In March 2008 there were a number of commemorations in Switzerland and elsewhere, marking the passage of the Earls of Ulster from the Low Countries to Rome in March 1708. They passed through Basel and along the road to Liestal and most likely through the St. Alban Gate, nearby the present Basel Paper Museum. I’m a poet, and I like the way images cohere unexpectedly, bringing together disparate times and events. I’m also an Ulsterman and the sad romance of the end of the old Gaelic order is touching in its political and linguistic ramifications, which the passage of the Earls represents in Irish history. I was brought up a mile from the border during the Troubles, my father was an Irish speaker, and so there was a certain allegiance to a now rather old-fashioned Gaelicism.

You’ve a passion for writers and their locations in a wider sense. What’s at the heart of your interest? The influence of location on their work, their perceptions of the place or is it driven by your own exploratory nature?

I think because I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, I tend to assume place is central to the experience of exile. It may not be. Many of the writers in The Gilded Chalet were exiled in one way or another, and in search of a home. In Irish literature the fashionable term for exiled writers is the diaspora. For Russians at the beginning of the last century, it was the émigré life of Berlin and Paris. Switzerland still seems to me to be a very multicultural place, where people from all over the world congregate and communicate in several languages. It’s not just one homogenous culture, which island nations tend to veer towards.

I left Ireland after graduating in 1976 and haven’t much lived there since. I’ve always been attracted to travel, the details of place, to negotiating the world in several languages—second nature to me now. I do like a good, detailed, particularised setting in fiction, rendered in a painterly way. When there’s a description of a meal, as a reader I want to know what’s on the menu. I like the particulars.

You cover a huge time period in The Gilded Chalet and provide insights into the writers’ private lives as much as their writing. How far was your intention to add a human level to some of our literary icons?

Gossip is an underrated activity. The danger with this kind of book is to make it overly academic—there are enough of those—so some ‘human level’ as you put it, alleviates the tedium of academe. Maybe even a low human level. Byron with his boys and Rousseau with his kids farmed off to the workhouse, present interesting opportunities to showcase canonical writers, warts and all. Nabokov couldn’t have afforded to spend 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel without the cash from the sales of Lolita and from Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The fact that John le Carré was recruited as a spy in Switzerland and is the son of a con man, is no minor matter as regards the direction his fiction has taken him. There are certain dangers in keeping literature in the province of academia, with its critical-reverential approach.

Humour, too, tends to pull down icons: that is a good thing. I wish more people would use humour against the pervasive business culture, executive culture, celebrity culture of our time. These are our new vulgarians for Mammon.

gilded chalet, Padraig Rooney cover image

Cover: The Gilded Chalet Padraig Rooney

When we met in Geneva, I’d just had a lively debate on the subject of academia and the dangers of educators getting stuck in ‘transmit’ mode. Yet you, as a head of an English Department, seem to actively seek the experience of learning, be it travel or researching other authors’ work. Do you make a conscious effort to keep ‘curious’?

Much of education these days is in ‘deliverology’ mode—to borrow a term recently used in the London Review of Books—a mode patented by Tony Blair. The ideology of business has in the past 40 years moved into areas traditionally regarded as hands-off—water, education, health, patenting seeds. The wonderful Noam Chomsky has been writing about this recently too with regard to the use of non-tenured faculty in American universities: the culture of temps. I give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. Caesar is going to steal from you anyway, so you can short-change him now and again! I have to fight for my time and I’m curious by nature.

Much of The Gilded Chalet got written between six and eight in the morning, and then I went into homeroom. It used to be that academia or teaching were favourable occupations for writers but I think that’s no longer the case, and hasn’t been the case for several decades. There’s a lot of fluff talked about fostering creativity in schools. It’s the bottom line which increasingly rules; fluff comes cheap.

A poet, journalist, author and photographer have different constraints/freedoms. Can you hop easily between roles or are they strictly separate? Where do they blend?

The late writer W. G. Sebald pioneered a blend between those formerly distinct modes or genres, and good travel writing that partakes of journalism and a poetic sense. I find that I didn’t write much, if any, poetry while working on The Gilded Chalet. I just didn’t have enough energy. Poetry requires pressure from the poem—you can’t will it into being. Many bad poems come from merely being exercises of the intellect. Poetry is also about waiting, whereas prose can be got on with, a thousand words a day, until you have a draft. So, personally, I wasn’t able to hop easily between them.

padraig pic

You’re a border man. Growing up just on the border of Northern Ireland and now living in Basel, right on the hub of three countries, what effect does that have on a sense of identity?

The fashionable lit-crit jargon for that is liminality, but “a border man” sounds great to my ear. I love moving between the butter people and the olive people, from north to south, and back again. One of my uncles was a small-time smuggler across the Northern Ireland border, and my mother smuggled butter into the South all the time—it was considerably cheaper in the North, and she had five children. So the world of smuggling has a certain appeal in borderland, even in Switzerland.

The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan: “Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I’m writing this in the week the Panama Papers have revealed how the rich and famous smuggle, steal and launder. It’s an imaginative terrain—John le Carré wrote a novel called The Tailor of Panama and Graham Greene tackled Panama somewhat in Getting to Know the General. The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

I sometimes miss, too, the particular language of the border counties, the accent and diction of my parents, surrounded as I am by Anglo-Americanism or globlish. I miss the linguistic pattering of my childhood: bits of Ulster Scots, Gaelic inflections in the English, countrified pronunciation. I sometimes hear the clichés and ready-made phrases of mid-Atlantic English as a vulgar tide, swamping everything.

If you could bring back three characters from The Gilded Chalet for a round-the-table discussion with yourself, who would you choose?

 I’m not sure all three would work round the same table together, so perhaps individually. I’d like to have a coffee with Annemarie Schwarzenbach because I’m translating some of her journalism about 1937-8 New Deal America at the moment. She travelled to the American South at a time of labour unrest and segregation. We might talk about the death of the left, about the current state of American politics. I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov would be very chatty, with nothing off the cuff, but I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and would like to hear his rolling, preening accent in English. Finally, if I sat down with Anthony Burgess I could thank him for a kind review he gave of one of my short stories back in 1976. Late, but better late than never.


Edmund White described The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland”.

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In Conversation: Liam Klenk  

Tumbling into this world prematurely and in a girl’s body, Liam Klenk has travelled a long and tumultuous road to gender reassignment and a sense of identity. Susan Platt asks him about the process of penning his autobiography, the use of crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and a search for home.

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Image courtesy: Liam Klenk

Welcome, Liam. When I read your autobiography, Paralian, I couldn’t help noticing how many borders you crossed on your journey—both mental and physical. What do borders mean to you?

For me, borders have multiple meanings. Through being half Italian, a quarter German, a quarter French—and also because of my intensive years abroad—political and geographical borders ceased holding any meaning for me years ago. I don’t let them stop me. If I find employment across one of those fictional lines, I’ll go and seize the experience. I am a world citizen, not just a citizen of any one country.

Then there are the borders as in life challenges, limits, gender assignments, societal constructs, etc. They’re there to be overcome. So we can be our true selves.

I firmly believe in equality, freedom and the rights of the individual. I believe in not judging people and more than anything I believe in valuing people exactly as who they are. We erect too many walls and borders that don’t need to be there in the first place. Diversity, change and fluidity are a gift, a privilege, not a threat.

You were born in Germany and moved all over the globe during the last few years, in your search for identity. Recently you returned to live in Zürich for the time being. What is your connection to Switzerland and Zürich in particular?

In 1991, when I came here to study at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, I was a mess. I felt homeless, lonely, uprooted—it had nothing to do with my move to Zürich and all to do with my internal state. Getting away from my rather difficult family situation, making a positive new start (as positive as I could), leaving everything I knew and seeing the world around me with fresh eyes was like being born again.

The discussions at college, my artwork, friends who became a surrogate family—all of it helped me to find myself and overcome. Zürich was my first real home. It was here as well where I finally understood that I am transgender. When I left 10 years ago, Zürich stayed in my heart. So when we left Asia in 2014, it felt only natural for my wife and me to see Zürich as a potential destination where we could make a home. We went to Germany and then to Malta for a while, but all we endeavoured there failed. On the other hand, whatever we applied for in Zürich—job, apartment, my wife’s job—all worked out immediately. So here we are.

Did you have a special writing spot during the creation of Paralian? Are you a writer who needs a quiet spot or do you prefer a stimulating environment, such as a café?

I’m getting better at writing in noisy places like cafés as well but, at heart, I’m a writer who needs solitude and ideally nature all around me to be at peak performance. For the creation of Paralian I found the perfect spot. I quit my day job and dedicated an entire year to writing eight to ten hours, five days a week. My wife and I moved to Lamma Island, half an hour by ferry from Hong Kong Central. In the little village of Yung Shue Wan cars and motorbikes aren’t allowed. All you hear are crickets, millions of frogs, birds and quadrillions of greedy mosquitoes. We found an apartment at the edge of the jungle with a little pond in front of our door. I spent all day sitting at my laptop behind a large window, gazing out at myriad shades of green and bustling fauna. Unfortunately, sitting outside wasn’t an option since the flying vampires would’ve eaten me alive, but what I had was the next best thing. In my breaks I walked to the beach or into the forest, both only minutes away from our house. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect and inspiring.

When did you first get the idea to put your life’s story into a book? Do you remember the exact moment or was it an idea that slowly evolved over a certain amount of time? What was the catalyst that made you sit down and put pen to paper?

It was an idea that slowly evolved, but I do remember the exact moment when I vowed to make it happen one day: I was around 17, still living at home with my dad, utterly unhappy, yet holding on tenaciously. One evening I sat in my little room, listening to Peter Gabriel at full volume, and wrote a short 5-point bucket list. No. 1 was “be happy“ (doing the very best I can at all times). No. 2 was “live abroad” (done and far from finished). No. 3 was “learn to scuba dive” (done extensively). No. 4 was “write a book” (done and ready for more). No. 5 was “learn to fly a plane” (I seriously aim to get around to that rather sooner than later).

To sit down and actually begin writing my first book was an instantaneous decision. I’d been writing paragraphs in my head for many years but had never seemed to find the time to actually get started in all seriousness. Then I sat in the office on the 21st floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper, doing a job I hated and thought, “You don’t need to put yourself through this Liam. For once, don’t endure. You don’t need to prove anything. Just let it be and move on.” Right after that I thought, “Ha, this is it. It’s time to finally write my book!” I resigned the next day and began writing a week later.

The working title of the book was The Fortunate Nomad until it got its definite Paralian title. How did the change of title come about, and does it imply that your nomadic days are coming to an end?  

They’re definitely not coming to an end. We arrived one year ago and I can’t deny already thinking of faraway places and new adventures. Being a nomad is in my blood, and thankfully it seems it’s in my wife’s blood as well. Still, we’ll make a home here for quite a few years before moving on. You never know of course, but there’s no need to rush.

The first working title came to me one day and seemed the perfect fit: I am a nomad and I do feel quite fortunate despite or rather because of all the difficulties I have encountered and survived so far. However, writing draft after draft, I developed a concept of naming my chapters after the bodies of water that had been most important to me. My life follows a blue thread so to speak, water being an ever-present, powerful force.

The longer I thought about it, the more it occurred to me how most people (myself included) would associate ‘nomad’ with dry deserts. I needed something more fitting to the water theme that flowed through the pages of my story. My wife was the one who suggested ‘Paralian’ (from ancient Greek, meaning ‘one who lives by the sea’). I instantly loved the idea and the title was set.

All of the chapters in your book carry the name of a body of water in one form or another. Why does this element resonate so strongly with you?  

Let me quote a paragraph from my book:

I finally reached the shore, out of breath and delighted, longing for more and feeling intensely alive. I had glimpsed boundless strength and passion within myself. For just an instant out there, in the arms of the Atlantic Ocean, I had felt beautiful.

Water has always been a source of strength as well as a soothing presence. Whenever I felt truly lost, I instinctively went towards the waves, gently lapping, or wildly surging.

Especially gliding weightlessly underwater, I feel in tune with this blue symphony.

Clumsy on land, stumbling, unsure of myself, and perpetually awkward within my own body, I transform as soon as I am in the powerful arms of my blue home. Underwater I am graceful. I feel self-assured, handsome, completely at ease with the world and with my entire self. I’m at one with myself. And it’s the best ‘place’ to be.

As a first-time author you took some unusual measures and launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds and help cover costs for the launch of the book. The campaign raised a respectable USD 10,000. What do you think is the secret of that success?

Transparency, tenacity, reliability and honesty.

I must add that no strangers donated to my campaign. All-in-all about 100 people donated in exchange for a signed copy of my book once it was published. They were all friends, family, buddies, acquaintances and former work mates.

No matter what circumstances they knew me from, they knew I keep my promises. Being true to my word at all times is very important to me.

In my proposal on Indiegogo, I outlined clearly what I was going to write about and how I was planning to go about it. I added photographs and some video footage. Then I proceeded to inform people about the campaign every few weeks via all my social media pages. I was stunned how many people donated. Even work mates I had totally forgotten about. Everyone sent supportive messages. Some people even donated up to three times. I kept my promise a month ago and sent them their books. It felt fantastic and I am eternally grateful to them all! The collaborative nature of my book project has made it an odyssey unto itself. Utterly unforgettable. 

Following up on the Indiegogo campaign: On top of being a first-time writer and learning the ropes, how much extra work went into preparing and then tending to all the extras of that campaign? Would you consider another crowdfunding campaign for other projects, and what would you do differently?

Depending on how much people donated, I had promised homemade postcards, bookmarks and of course the signed book. My wife put a lot of work into creating those postcards and bookmarks, and finally my dad, my wife and I spent weeks organising to send those parcels to addresses all over the world. But you know what, in the greater scheme of things it wasn’t much work at all and it was a pleasure. I’d do another campaign any day. And I can’t think of anything different I’d do.

Paralian just celebrated its worldwide release on 28th May. What is next for the book? Will there be an audio version of your tale?

My PR manager and I have talked about a possible audio version. I must admit that I’d rather wait until, hopefully, the book has had enough success so I can have my pick of who will read it on the recording. One of my absolute favourites would be Stephen Fry!

One thing I am hoping for next is translation into other languages, foremost German. Since my publishing company doesn’t offer translation services I am thinking of finding someone brilliant who’ll translate the book for me. I could do it myself but I’d rather direct my creative energy into moving on. I am also dreaming about the book (or at least part of it) being made into a movie. No idea if that’ll ever happen, but I am surely going to stick my feelers out and pitch it to producers.

What’s next for you? Are you going to keep writing? 

I’ve got five concrete book ideas in my head at this very moment, and more ideas floating around that could lead to even more tales to be told. So yes, I will definitely keep writing. The challenge is to make and find time to do so.

Over time, there could be entirely different genres. At the moment I am mostly fascinated by human-interest stories. For example, many of the professional acrobats I’ve met over the years have inspired me with their passion and dedication. I’d love to write a book of short stories about their lives.

Another person I’d love to write about is my grandmother. She was born in 1909 and grew up labouring on her dad’s farm. She survived two world wars. Her first husband was run over by a train, leaving her to fend for herself with her little daughter. Later she found love again, had another child (my dad), but lost her daughter due to a medical error. Her difficulties in life didn’t end there … Still, Grandma was a fighter and she was always positive. Whenever she entered the room, the sun began blazing and people’s lives improved instantly.

People with character traits like compassion, kindness, integrity, honesty, courage, grit, loyalty and open-mindedness are my heroes and idols. They are the ones I want to tell the world about in some form or another.

And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

That’s a difficult one to answer. I am an avid reader and, on average, devour one to two books per week, ever since I learned to read. One of my all-time favourites is The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. I love the eloquent, compassionate style of the author. The life story of 19th-century explorer John Franklin is a stunning ode to individuality and personal strength.

A recent favourite of mine is The Humans by Matt Haig. I laughed and cried my way all the way through (in the process, freaking out people on my morning commute). It truly is a novel with an enormous heart and is the tale of an alien impostor who thinks humans are repulsive. But to follow his orders and gather intelligence about a human breakthrough in science, he needs to go undercover in the most literal sense of the word: inhabit a human body and get close to the people around him. Quite involuntarily at first, then with ever-increasing openness, he learns to love the ambivalent, loveable creatures we are. It’s a heartbreaking book about what it means to be human. I felt lost when I finished it, longing for more.


‘Paralian’ is Liam Klenk’s autobiography



In Conversation: Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell is a writer, editor, musician, book cover designer and the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Vine Leaves Press. She is also an editor/writer for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide.

In addition to her novels, poetry collections and her bestselling pocket writing guides (Writing in a Nutshell Series), she has published a variety of works in online and print literary journals and anthologies, including Australia’s Cordite Review, Writer’s Digest, and the anthologies 100 Stories For Queensland and From Stage Door Shadows, both released through Brisbane, Australia’s eMergent Publishing. Jessica will be teaching a one day workshop on How To Publish A Book as part of WriteCon16 in Zürich on 21/22 May (book your place here).

Untitled-8 Jessica Bell

All images courtesy Jessica Bell

I first encountered you as an author, but I’ve since found other Jessicas popping up all over the place: musician, writing coach, litmag editor, cover designer, poet, workshop organiser. Which came first?

I started writing poetry when I was about twelve, inspired by the Greek landscape, but then I soon dove right into music at around thirteen/fourteen. My parents were (well, still are) musicians, so I was surrounded by music for much of my teen and young adult life.

Untitled-7 Jessica Bell

Zürich has a thriving literary programme in various languages for readers. But ten years ago, the opportunities for English-speaking writers were limited. Thankfully Zürich Writers Workshop changed all that and The Woolf grew from a desire to connect and inform writers. What kind of a writers’ scene do you have in Athens?

A very small and narrow one. There are some English writers here, and I’ve met up with a few on occasion, and though they are absolutely lovely people, I don’t have much in common with them on the writing front. The ones I’ve met are very focused on writing romance books set in Greece, or travel writers writing about Greece to boost tourism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that kind of writer. Yes, my debut was set in Athens, but it’s so far from Shirley Valentine that I very much doubt readers of Greek island romance would desire to pick it up.

Many of our readers are expats or third culture kids. What do you see as the benefits of living in a different country to the one where you grew up?

There are many fabulous reasons, but I think the main one, as a writer, is that I’m able to experience the way a different culture behaves and I can therefore incorporate those differences into my writing. I love to include characters of various cultures in my books. The culture clash between them is great for tension and relationship dynamics. Of course, I think it goes without saying that being so close to everything in Europe is a godsend. I wouldn’t be able to travel to so many wonderful places so often if I still lived in Australia.

Where does the Vine Leaves journal come in? Who are your readers and how does it work?

Vine Leaves started in late 2011 with my co-founder, Dawn Ius, to draw more attention to the vignette. As it says on our website:

“Vignette is a word that originally meant ‘something that may be written on a vine leaf.’ It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, the vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It’s descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere.”

vine leavesI believe our readers are people who really enjoy the manipulation of language in a way that isn’t considered the ‘norm’. This doesn’t mean that everything is ‘poetic’, or so experimental that it would take a room full of professors to encrypt it. What it means is that our readers, and writers alike, understand that every word used in a vignette is a choice. To write an excellent vignette, one needs to only use words that have a great amount of weight and significance to the vignette’s overall purpose.

For the first three years we published a new issue every quarter, but from this year forward we are only publishing biannually because we’ve now also opened Vine Leaves Press to unsolicited submissions. We’ve now ventured into book publishing! However, if you’d like to submit your vignettes to the journal, you can find out how here.

Tell us a bit about why you wrote the Writing in a Nutshell series? Was that driven by a desire to pass on what you’ve learned?

writing nutshellIn Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says a writer needs to focus on short assignments to avoid feeling overwhelmed. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how it reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. If you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. The same applies to learning writing, editing and publishing craft. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting, and piece by piece, it will come together.

With more than eleven years of experience as an editor and writer of English Language Teaching (ELT) materials for various ELT publishers worldwide, I know that “breaking down” language and tasks into smaller focus areas is an effective learning method. After much experimentation on myself, and volunteer aspiring writers, I discovered it is extremely effective with writing, editing and publishing, too. And so the Writing in a Nutshell series was born.

Your novels all have a powerful voice—whether it’s the torn musings of Melody in String Bridge or the range of distinctive characters in White Lady. How far is this talent with voice connected to your ear for music?

I’m really not sure, to be honest. I do suppose I have an ear for how language should sound rhythmically due to my experience with music, but I wouldn’t say it has a direct effect. When I write I just try to sound authentic. I don’t write stories. I write ‘real’ life. So my voice is a natural result, I think, of wanting to make the narrative sound as realistic as possible. And even when I’m being ‘poetic’, I believe that is realistic too. Because I strive to portray the ‘truth.’ It can be literal or symbolic, or through trying to make the reader feel what my characters are feeling by using poetic prose to create an atmosphere.

When you begin a book, do you start with the voice and find a story to fit, or does character development dictate the tone? Or perhaps you’re a rigorous planner?

I’m all over the place and unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll start writing a character, and a story evolves to fit him/her. Sometimes I’ll think of a plot idea and develop characters to fit that. Sometimes I write without a plan, and sometimes I write with strict chapter by chapter summaries. It all depends on my mood and what kind of book I’m writing. If I find that I need to organize my thoughts, I’ll plan. For example, I needed to plan White Lady so that all the plot and sub-plot points would link up together properly and make realistic sense. String Bridge and The Book weren’t planned. I wrote String Bridge completely out of order motivated by what the main character was feeling. I then pieced the excerpts together and filled in the gaps to create a flowing narrative. The 1st draft of The Book was written from beginning to end in three days, without a single scribble on a notepad to guide me. It just goes to show there is no ‘right’ way. Whatever works for you and gets the book written!



What made you self-publish your novels, and was that the right decision for you? Why?

My debut, String Bridge, was actually first published by a small press in America called Lucky Press. I guess they weren’t so lucky after all because they went bust only six months after my book’s release. I was then confronted with a big decision. Do I let the book go out of print only after six months and completely waste all my marketing efforts? (I’d also written and recorded an accompanying soundtrack to go with it.) I decided to take the matter into my own hands. Since then I haven’t looked back. I love having control over the publishing process. And I especially love that I’m able to publish books that aren’t ‘commercial enough’ for the Big 5, and still have the opportunity to build a dedicated readership that enjoy reading books by a writer with a different voice. This way I get to be the real me. Not a product that has been developed with profit as the main motive to sell it. Of course, we all like to make money. But that’s honestly not why I write. I design book covers to make money. I edit and write text books to make money. I organize workshops to make money. I do voiceover acting to make money. But the writing? That’s just my heart and soul finding a vehicle to express themselves. And if the result of that expression is making money, fabulous! If not, then I have everything else to keep me on my feet.

As an experienced cover designer, you must have a strong opinion on what does and doesn’t work. What are your key principles when creating a cover?

white ladySubtle colour combinations. If bold and vibrant, not too many! Space (very important!). Focus on portraying a theme and/or emotion, not specific story elements. People are attracted to visuals because of the way they make them feel. Which is why you often see TV commercials implementing a narrative that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with the product, but has managed to grab your attention because it has pushed the right emotional buttons. For example, while I was in Australia, I saw an advert that captured my attention. The narrative shifted from scenes in various homes with happy and relaxed families and individuals. Cooking, reading, playing with a baby, a writer content at his desk, etc. All the people in this advert were smiling and at complete ease. In a literal sense, it looked like it was an advertisement for either a furniture store, or a real estate agent. There was no text, until the end, when the Bank’s name popped up, along with something about their new easy Internet banking system. What was their message here? Bank with us and you’ll be able to enjoy life completely stress free. This is what I believe a book cover needs to do. It needs to show potential readers how it’s going to make them feel, not by telling them what is inside, but by pushing the right emotional buttons to make them take a look at the blurb and see what’s inside.

And apart from a busy year of speaking engagements–Zürich, Chicago, Dublin–what’s next for you?

I really want to try and get my books into audio format. Which won’t be too hard, because I’m also an experienced voiceover actor, and have my own recording equipment. The problem is finding time. I think I will try to get started on these this year. I also want to write another album. I miss music!

In advance of our May weekend and your session–How To Publish a Book–what are the most common errors writers make when putting their work out there?

Jessica 3They RUSH. And try to learn everything there is to know before they’ve even finished writing. By trying to do everything at once, you lose focus, and miss (or even create) errors. You really do not need to start thinking about retailers, distributors and marketing, etc. until the book is ready. So don’t rush. Get your book ready for publication FIRST. Step by step. Focus on writing the book. Then focus on editing the book. Then focus on cover design, etc. Through each step of the process, make sure the result is as good as it can possibly be. Then you will have the brain space and power for the logistics of getting it out there and for sale.

Finally, if you’d not embraced the world of writing and language, what else would you have become?

Oh, that’s easy. A rock star. (I still dream about it.)

In Conversation: Daniel Pieracci

Daniel Pieracci is a freelance copywriter who is based in Zürich. JJ Marsh talks to him about writing and publishing his debut novel.

Daniel Pieracci

Image courtesy Daniel Pieracci

This issue of The Woolf takes the theme of Down the Rabbit Hole. When I read your book Take Your Shot, I thought of exactly that phrase. All seems calm and innocent on the surface. Then you gradually spin us into a vortex of small compromises, insignificant manipulations and minor deceptions until they stack up into one centrifugal force. Did you begin writing with the intention to take your reader on that journey?

My intention was to reflect life. On the surface, everything seems normal, but underneath it’s complex and messy. They are people who just happen to be gangsters and madmen.

Switzerland is a long way from LA and not just geographically. Tell us about how this book came into being while you’ve been living here.

I lived in America till I was 28, then I went to advertising school which took me to Europe and got my first job in Hamburg. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing—writing. It was copywriting for an ad agency, but it wasn’t writing for me. Then a friend told me about NaNoWriMo. I said, yes, I can do that! Take Your Shot is the result of a NaNoWriMo project. I wrote 50K words and then it went into a drawer.


Because I didn’t know what else to do. This was 2008 and self-publishing was already a thing, but not my thing. My girlfriend, now my wife, read it and said, “This is great. It needs work, but it feels like a real book!” But I got caught up with the day job which I wasn’t loving as much as I should and time went by until she said, “Go freelance and become a writer. You can, so go for it. So I did.” It took about a year to knock it into shape and build it to 75K. It worked. wrote it about LA, but I’ve never lived in LA or even liked it, but I felt it had to set there. It’s about a Mexican American family, and I’m not from that background. It’s about a guy in the FBI and I know nothing about the organisation.

In that case, I have to ask the obvious question—where did the idea come from?

The idea came from … [Daniel gives away the ending of the book].

You can’t say that! That’s a massive spoiler!

Oh, yeah.

How to say it? The evil mix of ambition and murder was the nugget of an idea which seemed interesting to me. Once I had that character, the story went from there. I always wanted there to be a contrast between the son and his father, free-flowing versus rigid.

Which is counterpointed by your gangster family.

Yes, because I wanted the bad guys to be good guys too. I had the beginning, the middle, and I knew how it had to end …

Hence the title.

Exactly. Then I incorporated things that were going on in my life which is where the juicing came in. I’m still juicing today. Then it was this slog to get to 50K words and I kept at least 40K in the final draft. I had a lot of help from a friend who became my editor. When I met her in advertising school, I thought when I write a book I want her to be my editor, so it felt like serendipity.

Your writing is certainly visual and lends itself to the screen. I compared it to movies and TV shows in my review. What influenced you to write a book instead of a movie script?

I would love to write a script and I will. I have so much respect for that skill. Having worked in advertising, writing scripts and knowing what it takes to make a movie, it just feels impossible. But when I learnt about self-publishing, I thought, “This is magical, I can do this! With help of course.” When I’ve gained more confidence I absolutely will write a script. One day.

Organised crime and the internal workings of the FBI were fascinating to learn about, not to mention the fashion and the fruit juice. Did you have a lot of fun doing the research?

With the FBI, it’s a mix of my experiences in big corporations and basic research and watching how the FBI are portrayed. Because it’s not a book about the FBI, I just had to make it look reasonable to the average reader. The idea of the FBI or CIA being run by a bunch of dimwits is funny to me. I didn’t have anyone to check that side of things but I did have a friend of mine check the Mexican-American detail. I only had to change one thing. Turns out you wouldn’t eat enchilladas for dinner, but more likely albondigas soup. Research is always difficult, as you don’t know how much to add.

It comes across well, interesting titbits but no huge info dumps.

Thank you. Writing about the FBI is like writing about people. On the surface, it looks pretty simple, but when you look inside …

Yes. There are certainly darker elements to the book, such as human trafficking, drugs and torture, which you manage to light in different hues according to the character’s voice. In fact, it’s blackly funny when the torturers just need to get it over with and go shopping. How do you keep authorial opinion from intruding?

The interesting part of a torture scene is not the blood and guts. I’m interested in the ideas and insights in the writing. The torture scene was to show that aspect of these people, that this is what they do. The eyeball thing occurred to me while I was vacuuming one day – is that a spoiler? As you said, the truth of that scene is not what happens but the impatience of the gangsters to get the info and go shop.

There are writers who use their work as a platform for proselytising. I’m not that kind of writer.

As for keeping my opinion out, I don’t know if I did. There are writers who use their work as a platform for proselytising. I’m not that kind of writer. I’d love to see how my book would look with opinions in it. I try to approach things without judgement. The book is not here to convince people human trafficking is wrong. The characters have their own angle and their own trade-offs. I don’t do drugs, run guns or traffic humans but I understand the people who do are dealing with trade-offs.

On the topic of voice, the range of accents, verbal tics and individual speech markers made for a vibrant palette. With such a broad cast, what’s your technique for differentiating characters?

It comes back to life. Look at this restaurant. All these regular people having conversations, but underneath, they have a nervous tic, something they’re terrified of and that will manifest itself somehow. Some characters are there to move the story along, but if they’re central they have to have something interesting about them. Or be so bland, that’s the interesting thing about them. In all of them there’s something weird or funny. Then if I read back over and think a character is not fully fleshed out, I work on that. But everything is a construct. It’s hard to decide what’s realistic and what’s not.

Do you read your work aloud?

A bit but not enough. I started making the audio book as I’ve done voice over work in the past and realised I need to integrate that into my working process for the next book. Do you do it?

More so now. When I started recording the audiobook for my first one, I kept wanting to change things. Plus I found I’d written a whole lot of words I didn’t actually know how to pronounce.

Yes, exactly! Me too!

Will there be a sequel, or even better, a series?

When I wrote Take Your Shot, I thought of it as a single thing. It had closure and it was done, but a lot of people have said they want to read what happens next. The next book I’m writing is a different series; a crime novel taking place in Luzern with a female inspector. But I have come around to the idea that if people want a sequel to Take Your Shot, I’ll write it.

What compels you to write?

A whole bunch of little things including the following: it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. The only class I excelled at and the only one where the teacher handed back my essay and said you can do better. They all said that but he was the only one who was right. Now in my later part of life I feel like I’m crazy for not having done that from high school on.

Another thing is, when I read something, that one sentence that’s so fucking good, in my mind I’m high-fiving the author and he or she and I are sitting on a couch saying, “Oh wow that’s so great what you did there!”, “I know, I love it!”. It happens occasionally when I write something and I can just bask in it. I haven’t done many drugs in my life because that, right there, is the drug for me.

My wife did this incredibly generous thing for me in giving me the space to write so I have to follow through. I don’t need the affirmation, I have enough reasons to get out of bed in the morning. But when someone reads my work and likes it … it’s just not the same as when I make a good omelette.


Take Your Shot is available on Amazon and all good retailers.


In Conversation: Craig Kirkwood

Prior to moving to Wales, photographer Craig Kirkwood was the CEO of high-profile training company, Fearless Media, which he founded in 1999. At the time, Fearless was the largest organisation of its kind in Australia with offices and facilities throughout the country. He was also a regional manager of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and founded the renowned Flickerfest International Film Festival on Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach which continues today in its 25th year.


It’s great to have you join us for this issue, Craig. Your professional experience spans technology, film and digital media sectors. Have you always been a photographer? And how is your expertise in these other areas brought to bear on your current creative projects? 

I was interested in photography from a young age but by no means passionately. In my twenties I back-packed my way around Europe, India and Africa with an old, fully-manual, Olympus OM-1 film camera—something of a classic these days and I still have it. But despite the romance, film is a bit of a bore really. It’s so long between shooting and processing that I never seemed to improve my shots. I could never remember what settings I’d used to achieve a certain look and I always ended up making the same mistakes over and over again. And of course it was expensive!

I didn’t really pick it up again until much later when I bought a tiny Minolta D’image digital camera in the airport on a trip to Vietnam in 2003. I was so impressed with what this little toy could do that I fell in love all over again. And it took video!

A year or two later I bought a Nikon 50D—an ‘entry level’ DSLR but an excellent camera—and from there I was more or less hooked although I didn’t really take it too seriously until relatively recently.

In the mean time I’d taken a professional interest in Photoshop and graphic design. In fact, I spent more than a decade running a training company in Australia, teaching all the Adobe products along with film-making, editing and publishing. Out of necessity, I became a ‘certified expert’ in Photoshop and that was a big influence on how I later approached photography.

I love the diversity of images you have in the book—from landscapes and streetscapes to portraits and action shots—and I guess you’ve had a lot of adventures along the way. What’s one of the most memorable moments you had while you were out and about, shooting images?

As you know, the book is about the town of Aberystwyth in mid Wales, where we lived for three years. ‘Aber’, as it’s known to the locals, is living proof of rising sea levels. Almost every week the wild waves of the Irish Sea can be seen crashing over the town’s pedestrian promenade. On very high tides the little lighthouse at the end of the ‘stone pier’ is almost entirely obscured by spray as the waves tower above it. It’s an incredible sight and the local photographers can’t resist the temptation of getting as close as possible to the roaring surf.

Spectacular wave explodes onto the wharf, by Craig Kirkwood

Not long after we’d arrived, I was photographing the waves in a massive storm and somehow found myself trapped between the small open harbour and the brunt of the rising sea. At the peak of the high tide, a series of waves came in and through the lens I could see them getting closer but I couldn’t get back any further. They dumped right on top of me and both the camera and I were completely drenched. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage to either.

When did you first get the idea to put together the book?

I wanted to do something kind of … lasting, I guess. I’d been working with electronic publishing, websites and ebooks for some time in my professional life, and I still put my work up on any number of websites, but photographs online come and go and we barely notice them. We’re all spoilt by the number of images that are thrown at as every day on Instagram, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. But in such a short time, books—real, paper books—have become almost a romantic legacy, like vinyl records or film cameras! I think in our digital world (and that’s one I’ve been very much a part of), we’ve begun to crave things organic, tangible and hand made. It’s very satisfying.

Station Master by Craid Kirkwood

I very much enjoyed the fact that you’ve included descriptions for some context about the book’s different sections in both English and Welsh. In what ways has living among different cultures and languages (Welsh and English dialects, as opposed to Australian) made a difference to the way you look a the world?

I absolutely love Wales. I think it’s a very special place and relatively unknown as a ‘destination’. I had visited once when I lived in London in the 1980s but I don’t think I would have come back had it not been for my wife’s work at Aberystwyth University. Aber in particular is very much the Welsh heartland and the Welsh language is spoken widely and defended ferociously. In Cardiff, where I now live, it isn’t anywhere near as widely spoken. Cardiff is more connected to Bristol, London and the rest of Britain by the railway and the great corridor of the M4 motorway but Aber is really quite isolated. It’s at the end of the line so there’s no ‘passing through’ and the nearest town big enough for a department store is over two hour’s drive.

As Aber is the main market for the book, it needed to be in both Welsh and English or I would have had little support for it from the local bookshops and community. But that was part of the fun for me. I didn’t even know the Welsh language was still spoken until I got here so it’s been fun discovering that and learning a little (although I’m afraid not much!).

I think as a photographer you have this window of opportunity when everything is new and exciting. The best time to capture a place is with the fresh vision of an outsider, before things become commonplace and you stop really seeing. When I first arrived there I think I had a sense of that and I wasn’t really working so it seemed the perfect time. I also thought it would be a good way to meet people and get to know the place—and indeed it was.

Catch by Craig Kirkwood

And finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve begun to listen to audio books. I now ‘read’ more books than ever before and I’m so delighted to have discovered this medium. I’ve just read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity which I loved—along with his earlier work, The Corrections and Freedom.

But I think my favourite author right now is Ian McEwan. I love everything he’s written but my favourite would be Solar. It didn’t receive as much as attention as his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, or Atonement which was made into a brilliant film, but I loved it more, perhaps because of the subject matter. It’s about a disillusioned, middle-aged academic and I was reading it while we lived on-campus, mixing with people just like that every day!


See a selection of Craig’s images in the Gallery.

Aber, the book:

In Conversation: Jacquette M. Timmons

Jacquette M. Timmons is a Wall Street based financial behaviourist who works with everyone from the middle class to the 1%—helping them ‘blend the emotions of money with the math of money’. Jacquette is also the founder of Sterling Investment Management, Inc. and the author of Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Money and Your Mate. Here, she talks to Libby about the ways we talk about money (or not), about the writing of the book, and about one of the most influential factors in her life. (Hint: it’s a person.)
Jacquette M. Timmons, image by Frederick V. Nielsen, II

Jacquette M. Timmons, image by Frederick V. Nielsen, II

Welcome, Jacquette. Can you start, please, by explaining what a financial behaviourist is, and how one would differ from, say, a financial analyst?

Many thanks for having me!

Behavioral finance is a field of study that seeks to combine psychology-based theories with finance to explain why people make the decisions that they do with their money. A financial behaviorist studies people’s behavior with money, and in my case, I blend the emotions of money with the math of money to help my clients achieve their life and financial goals—to, in essence, create a new financial reality.

A financial analyst is a researcher—someone who studies the macroeconomic, microeconomic and company-specific conditions in order to make investment recommendations. Their scope of work certainly impacts the field of personal finance, but they do not work directly with individual clients.

In your work and your writing, you pay a lot of attention to stories—such as the ones we have grown up with that stay with us into adulthood—but you also pay attention to the absence of stories and discussion, especially around our personal finances. What do you think we gain by talking about our financial situations with others, and which aspects do you think are important to discuss with others?

There are some that say talking about money is still a taboo topic. I push back on that; I say people talk about money all the time. They just aren’t having the right conversations about it. Typically, when people talk about money, the scope of the conversation is often confined to just the numbers, a particular transaction, or celebrating a win. People rarely boast about the stock or deal they lost money on. Rarer still is the conversation that goes beyond the numbers to explore values, beliefs, habits, expectations, fears, desires, and financial philosophy, discipline and character. In part, this is because a lot of people aren’t skillful when it comes to painting the picture of what’s happening in their financial lives while only divulging the details they feel comfortable sharing. So, instead of exercising this muscle, they opt for saying nothing. And when you say nothing, everyone loses. Because one of the best ways we learn about ourselves (and from others) is by sharing experiences.

… people talk about money all the time. They just aren’t having the right conversations …

That said, I also understand it: So much of our identity, sense of self-value and self-worth is tied up with money—how much we have as well as how much we don’t have, yet want. And even though everyone, regardless of where they fall on the income and wealth spectrum, has the same concerns when it comes to money, it never really feels that way. Because money feels both personal and private, you can feel like you’re the only one with your particular questions, challenges, frustrations, goals and aspirations. And if we were more open to talking about our situations and experiences with money—the successes and failures—we (a) wouldn’t feel alone, and (b) might just discover an alternative solution we hadn’t considered previously.

One of my ‘tools’ for reminding myself that I’m not alone and for getting a different perspective (because the path of entrepreneurship is perhaps my biggest money ‘teacher’) is by having an accountability group. It’s a space where I feel safe and secure to share what’s going on, and it helps me address my issues with money so that I can show up fully and be more present for my clients.

This is probably a good time to reference the mythologist, Joseph Campbell. He said, “Everything begins with a story.” At the end of the day, we all have a ‘money story’. If we could embrace the tangled emotions we have toward money as part of the story, and not the entire story of who we are as a person, we’d be better off individually and collectively. The perfect mirror for this is an accountability partner or group.

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 10.06.05

Jacquette M. Timmons in action, screenshots courtesy of

Why did you decide to write your book Financial Intimacy for women particularly?

Financial Intimacy as both a notion and as a book evolved over time for me. It started with a pattern of choices I found perplexing.

The short answer to your question is this: While I wholeheartedly believe men need to be as financially self-aware as women and that financial intimacy starts first with you, I wrote it ‘for’ women because when the intersection of love and money goes awry we (women) tend to suffer the negative consequences thereof to a far greater degree.

But here’s the full story of why I focused my book on the experiences of women, in particular: I’m a single child. My dear friend, Deno, who was like the older brother I didn’t have and who was married to my college roommate, died in 2003, two days after his 41st birthday, of a brain aneurysm. As a result of his death, I saw up close how one’s grief can be interrupted by what you don’t know about your spouse (or significant other’s) personal finances.

In March of the same year, the father of another friend died. That’s when her mother discovered the family was $500,000 in debt—and that was not the mortgage!

In late April/early May, I was working with a coaching client who on paper was the epitome of financial success. Wharton MBA; worked on Wall Street earning a sizable six-figure salary; was smart about how she managed her money; yet fought all the time with her live-in-boyfriend over money. From our work, what we soon discovered was the reason had little to do with him and more to do with her not wanting to end up like her parents (or her brother and sister-in-law) when it came money.

Had these three events occurred with a little more distance between them, I may not have noticed anything. But given the timing, I began to wonder: “What are these smart, highly-educated, professional women, who manage other aspects of their lives well, not discussing during pillow-talk time that they have no clue what’s going on in their households when it comes to money?!”

Yes, their individual circumstances were quite different. But, fundamentally, they all made the same mistake. Once I noticed this in them, I began to expand my scope of vision and realized, wow, a lot of us (myself included) are making the same love and money mistake.

I found this fascinating, and I was curious—I wanted to know more about the ‘why’ and I wanted to see how I could help resolve it.

The book came after I first created a workshop—”Women, Money and Romance.” I realized that no matter how much I tweaked the content, format, length of time, it never seemed enough to address the questions that were being raised. It also became clear that women wanted a platform not just to vent, but also to be heard.

The book also came after I researched other books that were already out there about love and money. I realized there was a gap I could address: there wasn’t a book that (a) took a social critic’s look at the intersection of love and money and examined how/why it changed over the last forty years due to social, economic, cultural and familial shifts—as well as shifts in the personal finance industry; (b) focused on women of all different marital statuses; and (c) in my opinion, honored that there’s more than one way to live a life.

I wanted to write a book that explored the sweet spot of where the relationship you have with yourself, your money and your mate converged.

I wanted to write a book that would enable a woman to see herself—at some point in her life – in some of the stories of the women I profiled. And, hopefully, give her ideas of takeaways she could apply to her life to make navigating this vulnerable terrain a bit easier.

I also wrote it because I am hopeful. I am hopeful that money doesn’t have to be why so many couples break up. I want money to become the unlikeliest of communication tools that enables us to connect with each other more deeply—that allows us to learn more about each other and grow together.

When reading your book, I appreciated being able to see snapshots of other women’s financial pictures with their partner or spouse, but what also came through in the telling of these stories was your deep care and respect for the fact that all manner of relationships on the love and racial and gender identity spectrums exist. And, furthermore, that with a bit of investigation and work, a proactive financial plan can be found for any set of parameters or context. Where do you think this loving and respectful pragmatism, or ‘spirit’, comes from in your own life? 

Oh, without question, it comes from my mother.

Growing up, I didn’t appreciate what was different about our family. We left New York City when I was seven years old for a small college town in the Western part of New York State. A town that wasn’t very diverse; I was one of two black students in my entire grade school! My mother was separated, at a time when separation and divorce were not as prevalent (or socially accepted) as they are now. My mother was a professional musician and had toured and traveled across the country on the coffee-house circuit; even when she ‘retired’ from singing and started working for the Social Security Administration, she still sang locally. She was an anomaly of a working, single mother who didn’t entirely give up her life as an artist, but also made choices to ensure our financial security and stability. She also held the title of being the only female umpire in all of Western NY for many years (I inherited my love of the Yankees from her). And, although private about her sexuality, she was a gay woman. There weren’t many other students in my school or children in my neighborhood with a mother the likes of mine.

I think all that shaped my mother, her choices and how she approached the world—being accepting of people without judgment; being kind to everyone regardless of their station in life; always looking for the best in people (but not taking sh*t from folks, either)—I think that grace and tenderness trickled down to me.

So thank you, by the way, for noticing. I was well aware of the privilege I had in terms of bearing witness to the stories of the women I profiled—some of whom shared things with me they hadn’t with those closest to them. I was also keenly aware of the responsibility that came with that and it was my intent to honor that as best I could.

This idea of looking behind our own behaviours to understand what drives us is likely to be a familiar concept for those readers of The Woolf who are fiction or screen writers (and there are quite a few out there!), because it’s vital for any writer to learn the skills to dive deep—to understand how a character’s ‘backstory’, their cultural and geographic ‘storyworlds’, fears and desires inform their actions. But this is a far easier process when we, as author, can play God, and the mirror isn’t being held up to ourselves! To quote ‘Kim’, one of the interviewees in your book: “knowing our baggage is one thing; being able to shake the residual effect of it is quite another.” What would be your recommendations for those who want to take the next step, once they have reached an awareness that their own history and stories—and emotions—are driving their relationship with money?

I’d recommend two things: First, don’t judge your newfound insight as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You could reach this stage of awareness and discover you actually have a healthy relationship with money, which of course is fantastic. But not if it causes you to operate as if there’s never room for improvement. The hard part here is not to become complacent; because when you do you overlook financial leaks and discount financial opportunities that are staring right at you—but you can’t see!

On the flip side, if you discover your relationship with money isn’t ideal or as you’d want (or need) it to be in order to achieve your goals, don’t get dismayed by the work that needs to be done to close the gap between where you are now and crossing the threshold to the other side. Know what needs to be done, but approach it a little at a time. I’m known for saying you can’t swallow the elephant whole without choking. So, I recommend working in 90-day increments.

…while money is never just about money, the numbers do tell a story…

Second, remember that while money is never just about money, the numbers do tell a story—a story about your choices, priorities, preferences, beliefs, expectations, habits, values and more. However, you can’t see the fullness of that story if it’s in your head and not on paper. Imagine how your relationship with money might change if you thought of it as a character in the story of your life. As a fiction or screen writer, what role would you have money play?

This may sound hokey, but here’s a big problem many people bump up against: they interact with money passively. The way you switch that paradigm and cultivate a more active relationship with money is to document your story on paper! Write down your goals, write down how much you want to save (and why); write down who and what you want to invest in (beyond the usual suspects of investment securities and real estate); write down how you’d spend your money if you had more money than you do currently; write down what you’d earn if you could wave a magic wand; write down your ideas of how you envision closing the gap between what you have and what you want; note what you want money to do for you as well as what you’re willing to do for it.

It absolutely starts with increasing your financial self-awareness about you and your relationship with money. But that is really just a springboard.


Image by Frederick V. Nielsen II, courtesy of

Why do you think it’s so important to continually revisit—and moreover discuss—our financial strategies, rather than opt for a ‘set and forget’ model, which could arguably work as a basic savings method? 

Because nothing about any of our lives is static. Something changes everyday—at times in subtle ways; at other times, quite drastically. Yet, we often fail to apply this awareness to how we approach money—even though it impacts almost every area of our lives.

I agree the ‘set and forget’ model can help with the discipline of saving and protect you from yourself in terms of not relying on the power of will. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t periodically re-confirm the account to which those funds are being deposited remains the best place for them.

The ‘set and forget’ model is particularly dangerous when it comes to electronic statements and investment accounts. With the former, you get the email notification, but never take ten minutes to review your statement. So you don’t notice double charges (I’ve been guilty of this) or subscription charges for services you no longer use.

When it comes to investing, the market naturally goes up and down. This fluctuation has an impact on your investment portfolio. So, let’s say you’ve determined you should have 75% stocks, 15% bonds, 10% cash. The market does what it does and now your allocation is 80% stocks, 10% bonds, 10% cash. Now, you have more exposure to stocks and less to bonds than you want. You won’t notice this if you aren’t paying attention and will, therefore, end up in a situation where you are over-exposed and under-exposed in ways that aren’t in alignment with your goals.

In my opinion, it’s all about engagement and being proactive. So, even if you determine no action is required, it’s better to have a review process in place. It helps to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing the way you’re doing it!

Your book came out just after the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent ‘credit crunch’. In the meantime, have you seen any core differences in people’s relationships with money, given the emergence of new technologies? And here I’m talking about the ‘instant’ mobile life, with online banking and online shopping apps, as a start, as well as the evolution of BitCoin and other alternative currencies

Yes, but the differences actually have less to do with technology than simply adopting a new perspective.

Interestingly, the 2008 financial crisis made it easier to spread my message about money not just being about money. When everything is going up and cash is flowing and you can’t seem to make a wrong financial move, it’s easy to discount the non-financial elements of money.

However, the crisis made everyone perk up and begin to pay attention to the behavioral aspects of money—their own, as well as those of other people, companies, and the government. Much more today than pre-September 2008, people are embracing the role of the psychology and emotions of money. They view doing so less as some woo-woo, new-age stuff, and more as a smart and strategic way to manage their money. Now, it’s cool and hip!

With regards to the emerging technologies, here’s an irony: The majority of the personal finance apps we each have access to today came on the market after the financial crisis. In fact, since 2008, US$9 billion dollars have been spent on what’s referred to as fintech—financial technology—for personal use. The challenge is to not confuse quick and easy access to your financial information with actually having insight that will help you make better decisions and choices about your money.

You wrote on your blog that ‘creativity thrives with parameters’. And yet many people would not think of financial planning as an especially creative pastime because—as you yourself have put it—’two plus two will always equal four’. At what point in your career did you start to value the link between creative thinking and financial planning? 

I probably first made the connection when I worked at Bankers Trust (now Deutsche Bank) in the private bank and I had to convince the hiring manager that there was little difference between designing a pair of shoes and creating a financial product.

In case you didn’t know, I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was my goal to be a shoe designer. Before the first semester ended, I knew that wasn’t going to exactly pan out. So I switched my major to marketing. Six years later, armed now also with an MBA in finance from Fordham’s Graduate School of Business, I’m talking about the parallels between getting a pair of shoes into someone’s hands as being the same as getting a derivative into their portfolio. And it all made perfect sense to me.

Here’s why: Creative thinking and financial planning are both tools for achieving a result.

They both require you to pay attention to patterns; they both require you to connect dots (that may or may not be noticeable to others); they both require an imagination in order to see something other than the reality in front of you at the moment; they both require discipline; they both require you to produce an end result; they are both reiterative—creative thinking and financial planning are skills you must practice.

I’d also like to ask you about the book-writing process. Your authorial voice is very conversational, and I found it engaging to read, and yet many of us know that an incredible amount of hard work and re-writing goes into producing a book. Had you tried your hand at writing before you decided to write the book? And how easy was it to feel that you’d found your voice on the page, so to speak?

Financial Intimacy by Jacquette M. Timmons

Financial Intimacy cover image, courtesy of Chicago Review Press

I had a newsletter for several years before I had a blog, which preceded my book writing endeavor. So, I had about seven years behind me to practice finding my voice ‘on the page’ as you say. But, honestly, it took others to point out my voice to me. I didn’t set out saying this is my voice and let me make certain I’m writing in that voice. For me, it was very organic.

That said, I’m so grateful my voice is conversational. Yes, I have a very particular perspective about money. However, I never want to come across as the know-it-all expert who doesn’t value what someone else has to say or contribute. Nor do I want to be the person that doesn’t appreciate a perspective that may differ (or challenge) mine.

Plus, I think my day-to-day work adds to my conversational voice. Thanks to the one-to-one coaching I do with individuals and couples and the workshops I present, I’m given ample opportunities to practice talking about the emotions and math of money in a grounded and accessible manner.

What was one of the more challenging aspects of writing the book? And one of the joys? 

For me, the biggest challenge to writing my book was time. I got an advance, but not a large enough one that I could spend my time researching and writing, exclusively. In fact, I took on more work; in addition to continuing to run my business, I got a supplemental 9-5 job with a lot of flexibility.

For ten months, I had a fairly non-existent social life. When I wasn’t traveling to do a workshop or give a keynote, I split my days between my business and ‘daylighting’ job and from 6pm-11pm each weeknight I was either doing research, conducting an interview or writing. I treated Saturdays and Sundays as full work days and wrote those entire days. Friday evenings were the only nights I gave myself permission to ‘play’. And as the submission deadline neared, playtime became null and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays became full writing days. (The one thing I didn’t give up, though, was my running schedule.)

While I wouldn’t want to write my next book with the same time challenge, I truly had fun writing Financial Intimacy. The joys were many, but if I must choose one it would be the privilege of going inside the lives of the women I profiled regarding a topic that is deeply personal and private.

And, finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why? 

Octavia E. Butler is one of my favorite authors, and I absolutely loved her fantasy novel, Kindred. For those unfamiliar, it is about a young, modern-day black woman who involuntarily, and without warning, gets ‘transported’ back in time to antebellum slavery—where she is a slave. Her ‘travels’ last only minutes or hours in current-day time, but they span months in the past.

The way Ms. Butler juxtaposes Dana’s (the main character’s) 20th-century life with her 19th-century life as a slave girl to address questions of identify, power, how we define (and redefine) history, family, ancestry, relationships, the notion of home, the definition of time, race, culture, love, hate, empathy and forgiveness is uncomfortable, artful and thought-provoking. Her writing is so completely riveting, as she beautifully and unflinchingly tells a story of the human condition.


Read: Financial Intimacy available on Amazon.

Listen: Jacquette talks, on the Productive Flourishing Podcast.

In Conversation: Kaye Llewelyn

Kaye Llewelyn is a Zürich-based artist whose recently released children’s picture book, Pocket Money, conveys a playfulness and a world of serendipitous possibility through images without words. Here, she talks about the process of hand-publishing the book in Zürich, and about her extensive professional experience, including the First-Step Method for children’s development.

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Welcome, Kaye, can you start by telling us a bit about how the idea for the book Pocket Money came to be?

You know, after I started drawing one day, a couple of characters arrived and just stood there. There was one little guy there with his hands in his pockets. I must have wondered what his story was. Then one thing, in deed, led to the next …

The book is literally a picture book, with no words—why did you decide to stick to just the paintings?

I get tangled in words. I love them, but they play tricks with me. I’d been trying to write a children’s book for a while. This one though, started in pictures, and when I went looking for words for it, there weren’t really any. Then out of that, opened a whole new story of not having words, maybe not having a language, or just being shy. Now I think, without words it opens up conversation in all kinds of things like the value of awareness, of noticing, slowing down, caring, or simply the communication of ‘kind’.

Tell us what it was like putting the book together yourself by hand. Not many authors get a chance to do that! 

Oh, it’s a story. When I was new in Zürich I was out on an adventure exploring the city on my bike and I came across this amazing place full of paper and materials and old presses. I met Christa and her Buchbekleidung and I was mesmerised. I promised her I’d be back one day to make something. Ha, so I did. It was a few years later, I came and I made an edition of 50 books.

I felt like the bookbinder’s apprentice. I loved going in there each day gluing, pressing, cutting and smoothing my hands over the paper. You have to have the process all lined up perfectly and in order because once you get going you’re like a soft machine yourself.

'Pocket Money', p.9, image courtesy Kaye Llewelyn

Pocket Money, p.9, image courtesy Kaye Llewelyn

It took weeks. I had my own table at the back where I could also meet all the others coming in with their projects, designers, students, photographers and personal passions. My favourite was the most beautiful 80th birthday present to her Japanese friend from one young woman—80 four-leaf clovers collected and pressed and mounted, leporello on cream paper, bound with green linen, a treasure. So for me it was all about the atmosphere.

I became a part of the family such that at the last minute I was sent off, when she couldn’t make it, with my book to represent her at the Art Book Fair in Frauenfeld. And, wow, another fascinating world was opened. You can see I could go on. I guess I love books, so getting behind the scenes and intimate, making them by hand was just, special.

… my art seems to illustrate the story I’m in.

You have an interesting professional history—having been a professional surfer, for example—but you’re also a certified coach, and are trained in the Feldenkrais First-Step physical therapy method for babies and young children. How does your painting and art intersect with all this? 

Good question and, like putting those pesky words in a good line, I’m not great at one track. But my art seems to illustrate the story I’m in. Like when I was studying and reading tarot I painted my way through the whole 78-card story. It became a ‘pathworking’, a way to sink into a direct knowing of the meanings within them.

'Pocket Money', p.22, image courtesy Kaye Llewelyn

Pocket Money, p.22, image courtesy Kaye Llewelyn

Pocket Money was really about moving countries and having to find out who I am now and what I want to do. Some wise person said about starting a blog, just keep doing it for six months and look back and see what you seem to write (or draw or paint) about. Pocket Money became the illustration of what I found.

In the art classes I lead now, be they adults or children I set a space for them to explore where they are and see where the painting leads them.

In my coaching I find it’s people having to make a transition that are my clients. It might seem a bit left field to have recently added ‘First Step Instructor’ to my tool kit, but I reckon becoming-a-parent and just-entering-the-world are two of the biggest transitions you can get.

First Step is a hands-on help, and sometimes that’s what you really need. Its roots are in the Feldenkrais Method (and here’s where the surfing comes in). Back then, as a professional surfer, it was the Feldenkrais practice of awareness through movement and functional integration that had the most profound effect on my development. I believe it still does. As we bring ease into our movements and loosen up our ideas of who we are supposed to be the flow and the magic come in.

You’ve just made Pocket Money available on other platforms like Amazon via Ingram Spark. How did you find the process of getting it from the hand-made edition to a more widely available publication?

That was quite a different challenge. Now I’ve learned the computer programs and how to do it all myself … remind me next time to have someone else do it for me! It probably took as much time, but the digital mistakes aren’t nearly as fun. My first run of handmade-backwards books at least got their own nick-name and a laugh— ‘the Israeli Edition’ … All my computer glitches just ended up ‘Der’ and ‘Grrr’!

Still, now I’m done I am so excited to think I can ship one off, a surprise present to anyone anywhere. That can only be cool.

What’s the next art project for you?

For Pocket Money I had the dining room table, now I have a studio … hmm, I think it will be something bigger. I’m not sure exactly but there’s something floating around calling itself Free Spirits …

And The Woolf special question: What’s one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Oh my, how many? Okay … The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy transported me through all her knowing, deep, vivid and delicate descriptions. There is one image that still lives in my memory. Where Velutha makes the swim across the river naked and, “The moonlit river fell from his swimming arms like sleeves of silver.” I wish I could catch that in paint.


Kaye Llewelyn is an artist, coach, emboldener … you can find her throwing paint, rolling with babies, or looking for adventures on her bike with the red spotted seat.

See more images from Pocket Money in this issue’s Gallery.

Pocket Money is available on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Pocket Money cover Kaye LLewelyn.JPG

Pocket Money, image courtesy Kaye Llewelyn, @kayellewelyn

In Conversation: Juliana Barbassa

Juliana Barbassa is an award-winning journalist currently living in Switzerland. Her book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, based on her years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Brazil, was published by Touchstone/Simon&Schuster in July 2015.

Juliana Barbassa profile

Dancing with the Devil in the city of God is a very enticing title! Tell us a bit about how you came up with it.

Thank you! It’s good to hear. The idea of “Dancing with the Devil” was born of this sense that Rio, and Brazil, were engaging in a huge gamble by taking on this series of mega-events (the Pan-American Games of 2007, the World Cup of 2014, and the 2016 Olympics.) The country was going through unprecedented good times, and Brazilians were eager to show this off to the world, but I had the sense that much could go wrong, both with the staging of the games themselves, and with the country as a whole—with the economy, particularly.

Indeed, this great unraveling of Brazil’s promise started to happen even as I was finishing the manuscript, and it has only worsened since.

The City of God part came not from the favela by the same name that exists in Rio—I thought most who don’t live there wouldn’t have heard of it anyway—but from the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that hovers over the city. You can see it from just about anywhere, and as I struggled to come to terms with Rio and its hard edges I found myself looking up at that impassive face: What did he make of this mess? Did he care? Was that blank face even watching?

A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010. Rio's most dangerous slum that was the backbone of the city's biggest drug gang was taken by 2,600 police and soldiers Sunday, an unprecedented accomplishment by authorities in their fight to secure this seaside metropolis that will host the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010. Rio’s most dangerous slum that was the backbone of the city’s biggest drug gang was taken by 2,600 police and soldiers Sunday, an unprecedented accomplishment by authorities in their fight to secure this seaside metropolis that will host the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

As a journalist, you’ve doubtless written hundreds of thousands of words over the years. Did this latest book emerge from those writings?

It certainly started out that way. My first few chapters in particular were drawn directly from my reporting. When you’re out gathering information, you pick up so much more than you can fit into a straight who-what-when-why-where news article—broader questions about what it all means, anecdotes that reveal nuances of a situation or place but are too long for a news piece, connections to a wider context.

In my case, I was also returning to country where I was born. For the first time those I interviewed spoke the language of home, the language that for years I only used with my family. All this added a very personal layer that of course had no room in my reporting. Writing was essentially a way of working out what this moment meant for Rio, for Brazil—and also of processing the clash of reality with my expectations, what I saw as a journalist with what I felt as a Brazilian returned home.

An interesting thing happened along the way: the book went from hewing closer to straight reporting to a more personal perspective. Somewhere along the line—in the book this happens when I talk about the World Cup—I went from referring to Brazilians as ‘them’ to speaking about ‘us.’ It was unintentional. A reader pointed it out to me after it was published. The book takes the reader through a physical journey through the city, but through my personal journey as well.

Students walk to school past military police officers patrollong in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday March 27, 2012. Military police officers are replacing army soldiers patrolling the area at the slum complex. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Students walk to school past military police officers patrollong in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday March 27, 2012. Military police officers are replacing army soldiers patrolling the area at the slum complex. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In some ways it sounds like every travel writer’s dream to encounter gang wars and subsistence life in the run-down apartments of a city undergoing immense change, and yet moving to Rio was clearly a huge challenge, both personally and professionally. Was it the possibility of this kind of experience that drew you to journalism as a career in the first place? 

To a great degree, yes. I believe journalism has an essential role to play in a functioning democracy—holding government accountable, bringing wrongs to light, all that—but it’s also true that for me as for many of us, the job is addictive.

The adrenaline rush that comes with running toward whatever disaster everyone else is running away from, the insane focus of reporting breaking news in real time, being right there to see human beings at their best and at their worst … you feel alive and in the moment and relevant. There’s nothing like it, even when it costs you, as it often cost me to report on Rio. What you learn along the way—about the issue, the place, about people in general and about yourself—is priceless.

The challenge is always to render what we see as factually but also as vividly as possible to readers, so they can share the experience or just have the information to reach their own conclusions.

In this Sunday, July 14, 2013 photo, youth play alongside a polluted river in the Varginha area of the Manguinhos slum complex where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip next week to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one of the key events of his trip, the church’s first Jesuit leader will venture into this rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In this Sunday, July 14, 2013 photo, youth play alongside a polluted river in the Varginha area of the Manguinhos slum complex where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip next week to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one of the key events of his trip, the church’’s first Jesuit leader will venture into this rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

I’ve enjoyed immensely your ability to evoke a sense of place with your words—it’s something many writers of fiction are striving for daily! How much, if at all, do you draw on the craft of fiction-writing, and where do you see the cross-overs?

I have been a keen reader of fiction ever since I was little—I was that kid with thick glasses who’d escape to the library during recess—and I’m sure it’s shaped my writing in more ways that I can relate here. But there are clear cross-overs between fiction and the kind of writing I do: character development, a story arc, the need for tension and resolution. The difference is that with fiction, you start from nothing and you build. With non-fiction, you take the giant amorphous swirl of facts that is ‘reality’ and chisel away all the excess stuff that is getting in the way of your characters, of your story. The work is in identifying the story and the characters that will best tell that story and then bringing them to light.

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2010, Gustavo Nascimento da Silva, 5, flies his kite at the Santa Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2008 police stormed Santa Marta to evict the dealers as the community became the pilot in a program to root out gangs and bring government services to slums long abandoned by the state. The program has since been replicated in a dozen slums, all in a bid to make one of the world's more dangerous cities safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2010, Gustavo Nascimento da Silva, 5, flies his kite at the Santa Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2008 police stormed Santa Marta to evict the dealers as the community became the pilot in a program to root out gangs and bring government services to slums long abandoned by the state. The program has since been replicated in a dozen slums, all in a bid to make one of the world’s more dangerous cities safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

When it comes to deciding which characters are going to be part of the book, for example—you can’t make them up, but you can chose individuals whose lives reveal depths and aspects of whatever issue you want to illustrate. But you don’t really know until you’ve spent a lot of time with them, in their context. You interview them repeatedly, spend time with them in various situations; you get to know their family, find out what moves them, what they fear. The vast majority of that material you never use, but only by knowing the whole can you say which details are most revealing. Once you’ve got those key markers, all you need to do is sketch the outline of that person for the reader. If you’ve got the right details, the person is believable and takes form in the reader’s imagination, much as a fictional character would.

As a journalist yourself, how have you responded to the changing frontier of traditional news publications and aggregators, when almost anyone can now show up and ‘report’ on anything via social media (e.g. the Arab Spring Twitter storm) or by independently publishing their opinions (such as Russell Brand’s Trews News YouTube Channel, which has well over a million followers)? 

I feel like we’re still parsing, as a society, what this means and how to handle all of the information that is made available when the gates of publication are thrown wide open. Much of it is positive, as was the case during the Arab Spring, when social media users were able to transmit information that would not have been available under a tightly controlled media environment.

But I am a journalist, and when speaking about news, I hold in high regard the vetting systems that exist in traditional news outlets, where information is gathered, fact-checked and framed not only by a professional who is held to clearly stated standards of accuracy and fairness but also by layers of editors who have their careers and their names staked on upholding those standards.

If you get something wrong as a journalist, you’re held responsible. If the mistake is serious or intentional, you lose your job or worse, your credibility. In either case, your news outlet will issue a public correction and in some cases, conduct a serious investigation into internal procedures to see what failed.  If you get something wrong on Twitter or on your blog, even if it has drastic consequences—oh well. It’s social media.

All to say, I find it very exciting that individuals have the ability to connect with an audience without the mediation of government, publishing houses, or the mainstream media because of the freedom it brings from censorship, where that exists, and because it allows writers to publish works that, for whatever reason, would not have been welcome within those traditional platforms. This only makes public discourse richer. But I am afraid of a world in which readers don’t see the difference between 140 characters on their Twitter feed and a newspaper headline, and I feel like we’re teetering dangerously over than line.

In this June 17, 2013, file photo, protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a poll last year, more than three quarters of Brazilians said they'’re certain corruption has infused the World Cup. Their anger fueled widespread and often violent anti-government protests last June that sent more than 1 million Brazilians into the street during FIFA’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the warm-up event to the World Cup. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

In this June 17, 2013, file photo, protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a poll last year, more than three quarters of Brazilians said they’’re certain corruption has infused the World Cup. Their anger fueled widespread and often violent anti-government protests last June that sent more than 1 million Brazilians into the street during FIFA’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the warm-up event to the World Cup. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

One of the elements of identity is the passport we hold, but there are many others. You once wrote (in the Boston Globe) of moving to the Middle East, Europe and, eventually, the United States, and of “changing cities more often than most families change cars”. What would you say are the things that, for you as a traveller, comprise a sense of home?

I’d have to say it’s connecting with a community of like-minded people. These may be other life-long travellers, people who have chosen lives and identities that are made, not born into, or they may be people who have never have physically left their home town, but have ranged widely in their interests and become flexible along the way. This connection with people is the single thing that made cities as diverse as Rio, San Francisco, or Chambery, where I lived for a year, feel like home, even if a temporary sort of home. Nothing makes me feel as out of place as being in very homogenous society, where only a narrow range of behaviors, opinions or lifestyles is tolerated.

‘Literary’ journalist Joan Didion has said that she writes entirely to find out what she’s thinking, what she’s looking at, what she sees and what it means. In what way does this resonate for you, as a writer who has lived in so many different places?

It rings very true. For most of my life, I’ve used reading and writing as tools for making sense of the world around me. It is as I write that I think, process information, even make sense of certain feelings or reactions. This was very true as I was writing “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God;” it is essentially a book of reportage, but it was also my way of exploring Rio, and negotiating the boundaries between the physical city and the city I’d carried within, the place I’d hoped to find.

This relationship to writing is so entrenched that I’m having a hard time approaching Zürich as a non-journalist! Not having an excuse to poke around, and not having a designated outlet for my writing feels strange, limiting; it’s as if I couldn’t see as well, or think as clearly.

What’s the next big writing project on the horizon?

I’m juggling a couple of ideas. I’m torn between continuing to write about Brazil, which is a perpetual source inspiration and torment with its extremes and so many untold stories, and focusing on Switzerland, which is still a huge, and intimidating, blank. I would love to focus on what is nearby, what I’m seeing around me—for those Joan Didion reasons—but I don’t know where to start. It’s all so new, including the language! 

And, finally, The Woolf special question: what’s one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Do I have to pick one? Right now I’m enthralled with Ann Patchett’s books: I read Bel Canto, State of Wonder, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and The Patron Saint of Liars, her first—and perfect—novel, all in a row. She has such imagination and control of her craft that she can create very improbable and tightly circumscribed worlds, whether it is a lab in the Amazon, a South American embassy in the grips of kidnappers, or a Kentucky home for pregnant girls, that serve as crucibles for the human experience, wringing depths out of characters that not many other writers achieve. And she does this by telling a whopper of a story that keeps you turning the pages.  I’ve just in awe of what she is able to do.


Read more, or order Dancing with the Devil in the City of God on Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Simon&Schuster.

Take a look at this month’s Gallery for more images of Rio.

You can follow Juliana on Twitter @jbarbassa or read more of her work at

In Conversation: Samuel Schwarz

Samuel Schwarz is a Swiss film and theatre director, and founder of the 400asa Theatre group in Zürich. Libby O’Loghlin asks him about ‘Polder‘, the largest transmedia storytelling project to come out of Switzerland, of which he is the founder and director. Schwarz is also writer of the feature film, which he co-directed with Julian M. Grünthal

Samuel Schwarz

Samuel Schwarz, film and theatre director, and founder of Theatre group 400asa. Image copyright: Stephan Rappo

The Polder film is being released in 2016, but the film is in fact only one adaptation (or ‘touchpoint’) for the whole Polder project … tell us a bit about what a ‘polder’ is, and where it all began.

At the beginning, there were two projects. We planned a ‘conspiracy’ game to evolve over time, with the 400asa theatre company and, in parallel, I developed the script for the movie with some small funding from SWR (Süddeutscher Rundfunk). Then I pitched both projects to a game start-up we wanted to collaborate with. But the CEO of that start-up (GBANGA), Matthias Sala, said, “Listen, Sam, this is not two projects. Think of Polder as one project.” That was in 2010.

Polder touchpoints. Image courtsy: Samuel Schwarz

Polder touchpoints. Image courtsy: Samuel Schwarz

According to John Clute’s “Encyclopaedia of Fantasy”, polders are:

enclaves of toughened reality demarcated by boundaries (thresholds) from the surrounding world … an active microcosm, armed against the potential wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time. Polders change only when they are being devoured from without.

The classic examples would be Tolkien’s Shire and Oz or Hogwarts, but digital worlds make especially intensive polders possible—with the large global corporations being ideal ‘hosts’.

Our Polder is a hellish trip into the magical psycho narrative of IT corporations, and it tells us about our relationships with those major corporations that administer our fantasies. It is also about our disappearance into these parallel worlds. What will happen when the machines can emulate sentient beings? Will they enjoy human rights … even when these beings can be reproduced by the billions, with quantum computers?

When we posed these questions at the beginning of project development, they were still questions of fantasy. Pure science fiction. But now, they preoccupy the most important scientists, neurologists and jurists. That’s how quickly Moore’s law has brought these questions out of the realm of fantasy into reality. Scientists and computer pioneers like Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Bill Gates have, in the meantime, even founded the Future of Life Institute, in order to warn us of the dangers of artificial intelligence.

“Moore’s law” is the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.
—Wikipedia, Moore’s law

How did you go about orchestrating the Polder Alternate Reality Games (ARG) in 2013, and how many people were involved?

We had different manifestations. In the urban games storyworld, in Zürich and Bern, the effort was gigantic. There were more than 40 actors in the game-zones, and of course an interactive storytelling like that is not possible without the integration of role players who bring themselves in, free of charge. We paid 15 professional actors and crew as though they were in an outside-theatre production.

Professional actor Luc Müller plays an addicted

Professional actor Luc Müller playing an addicted NEUROO-X technology ‘user’, in the Polder Alternate Reality Game in Bern. Image courtesy: Julian M. Grünthal.

On several days—like the Halloween special—we also had some school classes as zombies in the game zone. But things like that just ‘happened’ … we didn’t plan it. Although you could say that because the system was built in this way, it was bound to happen.

At one point, there was a very strange mix of users, and prosumers in the game zones. One night, we had an ‘audience of users’ of about a hundred people.

In Sils Maria, in the countryside—which was our other ARG storyworld—our audience was older, it was the ‘geriatric audience’ version, if you like. For old people who like to be immersed in a wonderful landscapes—and be entertained by good-looking young actors who read Nietzsche for them in a warm comfort zone!

Übermensch on a donkey: Nietzsche's concept of the 'Übermensch' was played out in the Sils Maria Alternate Reality Game

Übermensch on a donkey: Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (super human) is played out with Zürich actress Meret Hottinger, in the Sils Maria Alternate Reality Game, Zarathustra.

Of course, from a commercial point of view, the alternate reality games were PR-campaigns for the later phases of the storytelling. [Because there was going to be a movie, for example.] But because we tell the story across a long timeframe, we and the actors were ultimately immersed deeply in the stage we were at, with no thought that it was a ‘PR character’. There was of course a commercial master plan, but we always forgot about it … in this way, we are no different than the naïve Star Wars fan who knows that the franchise is always pulling his money out of his pocket … because the story is still cool! This is—again—terrible and beautiful at the same time.

At the 2013 XMedia Lab held here in Switzerland, World Building Institute’s Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Fight Club) talked comprehensively about storyworlds, placing the importance of world-building far ahead of plotting or character development. Does this resonate with your experience in developing the Polder film?

We developed the main themes of the plot in in several manifestations of Alternate Reality Games, as I mentioned—in urban landscapes, but also in nature. The ARG in nature became a very important manifestation for us—this was the Alternate Reality Game Polder: Zarathustra that we set in Sils Maria [in the Swiss canton of Graubünden]. In this world, the Game start-up, NEUROO-X, like science and technology, help us to evolve or transcend our own humanity.

Sils Maria was for us the perfect landscape, because Sils Maria as a ‘mindscape’, is very connected with the Idea of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The valley itself looks almost CGI-rendered in its extreme beauty, and it is also where Nietzsche in fact wrote Zarathustra.

Our theatre-audience (‘users’) were immersed with the Polder-App: they were guided with GPS tracked audio walks, and they had to solve mysterious riddles, and then they could meet in the wood wizards, knights and witches from our universe.

Cosplayer in Blutturm, Sils Maria

Cosplayer in Blutturm, Bern. Image courtesy: Julian M. Grünthal.

In Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra there is a passage in which Nietzsche is full of anger against the state. For him, ‘the state’ is a monster. And he reflects on freedom (in opposition to this state). In Sils Maria, we realised the inner core of our project is the struggle of ‘old structures’—countries, parliaments—against the power and intelligence of smart Silicon Valley narratives, which don’t need states and parliaments anymore and who are created by brilliant men and women.

And the characters?

In our story, the brilliant game designer Marcus is a kind of reincarnation of Edward Snowden, who rises against the ‘evil’ IT industry. Then we have fantastical characters like the beautiful witch Kuchisake Onna, who we developed out of a basic warlike conflict—a mixture of Old Testament Lilith, manga demons and Lara Croft. A real nerd fantasy.

Screencap, Polder movie stills, courtesy

Montage, various Polder movie stills, images courtesy: Dschoint Venture/Niama/Kamm(m)acher.

Our Urban Space alternate reality games in Zürich and Bern was made for younger people, for gamers, for fantasy fans and role players [called ‘cosplayers’, from ‘costume players’]. They—like us—like storytelling about ‘evil’ companies, idealistic heroes, rebels, artificial Intelligence, thinking machines, wizards and monsters. They also like level systems … and the participation culture.

Linear storytelling (immersive audio walks) guided these users to the interactive ‘game-zones’. They had to solve riddles within the game-zone, and interact with the actors. And—to your question about characters—at the end of the game, they had to fight against the Boss called Fritz (played by the very charismatic and clever professional actor, Philippe Graber). The users played in Fritz’s subconscious. Fritz was a character influenced strongly by Nietzsche—but that was not essential for the understanding of the story, it was more a joke for the insiders. (Fritz, as a character, is intact without the philosophical background.) But for the game system it was essential that there was a character who had the problems of Fritz, who was lost in a mental labyrinth—like Nietzsche. And it was essential that the users help Fritz ‘kill’ himself in this alternate gaming-dream-world. With this act of humanistic violence they could prevent a massacre in the game’s ‘real world’. Of course it was also a reflection about violence in games.

Some might say true transmedia stories (i.e., stories that are designed to unfold over time using different elements across various media) aren’t for ‘the masses’ because the inherent fragmentation of the narrative requires more commitment or engagement from the consumer—‘context-switching’, if you like—and most people don’t have time for that. Yet others would argue that this fragmentation leaves much more ‘space’ for the viewer/reader/consumer to engage or bring their own experiences to the story. Where do you stand on this?

I don’t think it’s necessary for the user to change platforms all the time to have a good story experience. I think storytelling gets better when the creators use several platforms, though, because they can create deeper worlds, and they have to address several audiences for the same content.

Set, cosplay scene, in which it can be seen that the influence of the Alternate Reality Game experiences flowed directly into the film development.

Set, cosplay scene, in which it can be seen that the influence of the Alternate Reality Game experiences flowed directly into the film development. Image courtesy: Philippe Antonello.

One can’t deny that cross-media projects can be enormous in scope, with a lot of moving parts and ever-changing and evolving technologies. What attracts you personally to working with numerous media, and what’s the most challenging part for you?

For us, the use of the technique is not the most challenging part. It’s more the fascinating new relationships of users to the story. I like to think about the changes the technologies attract with our thinking. But I am still not sure if the high potential of transmedia storytelling is just a very smart simulation of the ‘franchise’. Just look at the example of soccer: every ‘real soccer fan’ thinks he is a real ‘soccer fan’—and he hates FIFA and Sepp Blatter. But in the end the fan is a creature of Sepp Blatter.

Maybe the users just think they can ‘create’ a story and be part of it, and maybe that’s just an illusion the ‘machine’ or the thinking ‘franchise’ creates for him. But how sweet is this illusion! The joy of the user is also a reality. That means: I still don’t know if we live in a nightmare or in a wonderful, colourful dream. And it’s this ambivalence the polder wants to express.

Tell us more about this ‘ambivalence’.

Today users play ‘retro games’ and experience a kind of melancholic longing, and the kids dress up as cosplayers and want to be like their beloved entities. The boundaries have shifted. This has a lot to do with the stronger influence of Japanese storytelling. The moral ambivalence of narrative attitude is also a result of the confrontation with the magic ‘Trickfilms’ of Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away—but also by the Cartoon Heidi), an important example for us. So the parallel worlds and the main world are converging, and when the differentiation between reality and gaming is dissolved, there is no more game, then we are—as one of the Polder characters says—”… in hell”.

We may complain about the exploitation of our most secret longings, about the gamification of our life environment, but we nonetheless like to lose ourselves in the artificial worlds of the machines.

Big Data makes it possible for the corporations, the secret services and their machines, to provide us with the dreams we always wanted to dream. The algorithms know more about us than we do. Polder is a ‘user’ project  that illustrates our ambivalent relationship with these corporations, that can fulfil our most beautiful, but also our most terrible longings. We are bound in an unholy/holy love-hate relationship. We may complain about the exploitation of our most secret longings, about the gamification of our life environment, but we nonetheless like to lose ourselves in the artificial worlds of the machines.

But can we say with certainty that this loss of our sense of reality is only bad? Is perhaps the sweet desire of Friedrich Nietzsche’s last human being fulfilled for us? What will it be like when the machines simply satisfy more of our desires? Will we defend ourselves? Should we defend ourselves? Will we even play anymore when everything has become a game?

Nietzsche and 'users': Image from ARG in Sils Maria

‘Fritz’ Nietzsche and ‘users’: image from the Polder ARG Zarathustra in Sils Maria. Image courtesy: Jules Spinatsch.

Finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

2001: A Space Odyssey is very very high on my list. Why? Because of the line of HAL, the computer: “Will I dream, Dave?”

The Polder film will be released in 2016.

The Polder storyworld, and all its adaptations, can be discovered by diving down the Polder Facebook rabbit-hole:

The Polder feature film teaser: