In The Facts of Life, Bristol-based author, illustrator, comic creator and musician Paula Knight has produced a very moving, funny and powerful graphic memoir about childlessness, the nature of family, and living with chronic illness.
Joe Melia finds out more about the book and the experiences that fed into it.
What influence has Bristol had on your work?
A huge influence. I’ve lived here since 1988 when I arrived from the north-east to study Graphic Design/ Illustration at Bristol Poly (now UWE). At college, the importance of keeping a sketchbook to hand was engraved on my consciousness for life, and I rarely go anywhere without one now for fear of losing ideas.
Over the years, I’ve been involved in Bristol’s cultural life one way or another. My first voluntary job after art college was curating an exhibition for Bristol Community Festival (Ashton Court). This led to attending a Marketing the Arts course, which proved valuable experience for my freelance work as an illustrator. Later, I became involved in Bristol’s indie music scene, and being in bands became my first outlet for creative writing.
Many of my art college contemporaries still live in the area, and seeing their various successes over the years has provided inspiration and impetus to keep going. Walking has always helped me with creative problem solving, and some of Bristol’s many beautiful green spaces and wildlife have certainly influenced my work. For example, two Bristol Swans in the Avon Cut feature in my book. It would have been remiss to exclude Bristol from my memoir when I’ve lived here for over half of my life!
What comes first: the image or the words?
The chicken and the egg have nothing on this one! Comics tends to work best when words and pictures operate in symbiosis. Initially, I kept a card file of memories, in words, as they occurred to me. However, memories are incredibly visual and present themselves in the mind’s eye before words arrive to describe them. When I started to draw thumbnail sketches for the book, many words I’d already written were no longer required as the visual storytelling took over. You can write with words and pictures, either individually or together, and the process seems to be a tumble between the two. You could posit that writing starts visually in the imagination before you’ve ever committed anything to paper.
The Facts of Life is very personal; how hard was it to write and draw the traumatic experiences you have been through?
Working on the book kept tough times from the past in the present, and this might not have been emotionally healthy. Shortly after finishing the book, I realised that the creative process had been a conduit for grief and a means of processing emotions and memories. I don’t think it was ultimately cathartic, though, because when I no longer had that outlet, the grief became sharper for a little while.
I use all of my own photographic reference, so at times it felt like re-enacting certain events that probably should have been filed away long ago! Also, when you write a memoir, it invariably includes personal material about other people and their interactions with you – people who have not asked to be written about. This demands an element of respect and an ethical approach that can sometimes be at odds with remaining authentic to one’s own experience.
The book has had a great reception. What are your hopes for it?
I’ve already had some feedback from readers who have had similar experiences, thanking me for expressing what they feel unable to, so that satisfies one of my aims for the book. Miscarriage and childlessness are somewhat taboo subjects, so I hope the book will help to rustle the shroud of silence surrounding them and add to the growing conversation. I hope it will be some comfort to those unable to have children – but also that it might help people struggling over the decision to procreate or not, and encourage them to try to extricate their authentic selves from society’s expectations (although it is by no means a self-help book). I’d like to think that it will challenge assumptions about women who don’t have children, and about their roles in society.
Do you think attitudes towards women have progressed much in the last 100 years?
Over the last 100 years, many things have changed for the better: the Vote; the Pill; the Equal Pay Act (albeit complete with gender pay gap); the criminalisation of marital rape and coercive control, etcetera. However, how society values women is still very much focused on their connection to children and stereotypical gender roles, even though child-rearing remains a huge barrier to financial equality for many women.
Celebrity magazines obsess over baby bumps and boyfriends – rather than how hard-working, financially independent and successful those women are. It feels as if the current global political climate is sending us back to the dark ages with funding for services such as Planned Parenthood being cut in the USA and the recent decriminalisation of domestic violence in Russia.
The political is personal, and these decisions are sending the message loud and clear that women are second-class citizens undeserving of autonomy over their own bodies. Disrespect for women has never disappeared – it just seems to manifest in different ways depending on the social and political environment at the time. Despite this, I feel encouraged that fourth-wave feminism is thriving and galvanised by intelligent young women who refuse to remain silent over sexism, misogyny, revenge porn, reproductive rights etcetera. I also know men who consider themselves feminists, which feels like a positive step forward.
For as long as we have situations where young girls are mutilated and struggle to access education, and women are tricked into slavery and sex-trafficked, we still need feminism to demand respect for women as equal citizens of the world.
What are you working on right now?
If I told you I would have to kill you! I’m tentatively laying the foundations for new creative projects, and I’ve been invited to events for which I’m preparing talks and presentations about my book.