Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 10 December 2010

alea iacta est...

I enter the mundus imaginalis; every thought, word and deed engulfs my very being.

H - Today, let’s talk about how we re-plotted the…
R - Reconstructed.
H - ...reconstructed the book from your first draft, which was a jumble of abstract threads. 
R - First, we established the fundamental plot lines, and found that there were three of them.
H - Which were...?
R - The mission of John Barleycorn, the interventions of the sky-gods, and the story of the inner world.
H - But before that, Rex, we ran through the whole manuscript page by page, with me asking you questions about the story -- about the plot, yes, but also about character motivation, and the tale's chronology. For example, in your original story there was a 'rain of gold' at one point...
R - There was.
Watch carefully...
H - ...which, I remember pointing out, couldn’t have happened chronologically where it was placed in your original fractured narrative.

R - Which reminds me:  A reader of my original draft said, “This doesn’t have a 'fractured' narrative, it doesn’t have a narrative at all!”
H - Who was that?
R - The same person who said it was unadulterated crap.
H - Quite. So, getting back to our discussion of creative process: We started out with me asking you questions, and as I did so it became apparent that we needed to break the book back down into its constituent parts in order to make sure each part was working individually, with the idea of reintroducing the fractured narrative at a later date. 
R - At that time, we pulled out a good third of the plot in order to simplify the overall story.
H - How did you feel about that? Was it hard to have me tear your story apart like that?
R - Actually, no. I was grateful that you were taking it seriously, that someone was giving my book the time of day.
H - And yet I distinctly remember that one day you seemed quite taken aback by what I was doing.
Is it real gold?
R - Hmm. I'm trying to remember what I was feeling then.... Gosh, yes, I remember that I did feel rather despondent on the day that we physically took my pages of art and text apart. It felt as though all my careful construction had been blown up, like you had come into the room in a suicide vest.
H - It’s always hard, I think, to have someone critique your work, or pull stuff out of a story that isn't serving the plot. Inevitably there are scenes and ideas you really like that end up on the cutting room floor. We've been talking about putting some of the deleted scenes up on this blog at some point....
R - Yes.
H - Will that make you feel better, if they at least appear here?
R - Yes!
H - Being able to edit and reject ones own work is an important part of the creative process, I feel. I was talking with another artist in our village, Steve Dooley, about this very subject last night. We agreed that creativity always involves an initial spewing out of ‘stuff,' of raw material...but that the Art is knowing how to work with that mess, throwing bits out even if they are good but don't serve the overall piece.
R - Yes, if they don't serve the greater good, they have to be rejected, however good they may be individually. Once I had come to terms with the notion that my past year's work was simply me going through a cathartic process of ‘spewing out the ideas,’ I felt better about your reconstruction of the book. There was a point where I could either be offended by your critique or, instead, see the silver lining in it, which was to recognise the value of the previous year’s work as a personal journey for me. We spoke last week about how the process of going through the Dark Forest is essential to creation.
H - Oh, yes. I found Christina Cairn's (Memaid in the Attic) comment on last week's post very pertinent to that topic: to art-making as a personal journey. I'm fascinated by how the artistic process is often mirrored in ones own life -- which is a subject that I'd like to discuss in greater depth in future blog posts. But getting back to your feelings about our reconstruction of your manuscript: As an artist, one has to be willing to try things out, accepting the possibility that some of the things you try to do may not succeed. And that this is okay. When you start out as an artist (or writer, or theatre director, etc.), you look at other people’s finished work and wonder how they achieved it, and of course you don’t see all the work behind it: the mistakes and blind alleys, the erasures and failed ideas, that are always part of the process.
R - You don’t see the under-painting that Rembrandt did, for example. His paintings have been x-rayed, and the x-rays show all the changes that he made before a piece was complete.
H - Rex, that makes me think of a song....

R - Umm, right....
H - Rembrandt is a bit of a hero of yours, isn't he?
R - Yes.
H -Do you want to discuss this further...?
R - No, Howard, I don’t think so; I don’t really want to talk about Rembrandt...
H - Okay.
R - ...except to say that he was a bloody good artist and knew how to treat a female impersonator.
H - Okay! So do you feel you share these qualities, Rex?
R - I’d rather get back to talking about the book. 'Sorry to appear defensive.
H - But you are defensive!
R - Yes.
H - Okay then, forget Rembrandt, he was crap.
R - Oi!!
H - Did that hit a nerve? 
R - Move on.
H - Where were we? Yes, right, we were discussing the idea that creativity involves the ability to not get too attached to individual elements of your work. It’s something I had to learn quite early on in my career as a theatre director. You need to be able to be detached from your work -- whilst also, paradoxically, being very intimately involved with it  -- so that you have the ability to jettison aspects of it that just aren’t working.
R -  I don’t think you can do both at once. You have to be totally committed to an idea whilst it is in motion. It is afterwards that you repent, and look at it from 180 degrees.
H -  Yes, you’re right. You do have to believe in what you're doing fully at the time of creation.
R - Otherwise there is no passion.

Ophaboom theatre in action.
H - There is an element to the work that is subjective, but there must be an objective element too: that moment when you step back from your work and view it from a distance. When I teach theatre, for example, I like students to work physically at first, without allowing their minds to think too much, in order to generate material. It is only after that step that I encourage them to use a retrospective thought process in order to refine the work they've generated. If you attempt to do it the other way 'round, you tend to find that no work gets done at all -- the students just sit around talking for hours on end, and nothing happens. Both approaches are important to creating art, but one has to get them in the right order….
R - Yes, I agree. When drawing too it's important to start out by taking action - even if, in retrospect, it turns out to be the wrong action.  
H - Changing the subject slightly: You enjoy watching DVD extras, don’t you? As a way of looking at the story-telling process?
R - Yes, I do. I like listening to writers and directors discuss their work, and watching scenes that were subsequently deleted in order to see where the stories might have gone. I like to see what the characters were doing when they weren’t in the story as we know it.
H - It can sometimes seem that the film editor actually shapes the story even more than the director.
R - Absolutely. Which is why you shouldn’t give total control to any one person, especially the director. Ridley Scott, for example, who produces what I consider to be self-indulgent shite. Wait a minute, Howard, don’t write that down! We don’t want to upset him. What if he ends up making the film of this book?
H - He probably won't now, Rex, not after what you just said about him! Did you not like Gladiator, then?
R - Elements of it, yes, but it could have done with a proper edit.

H - To relate all this back to our comic: In some ways I came into the John Barleycorn project as an editor.
R - Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before. I am, in fact, a good example of why you shouldn’t give total control of a visual story to one person. Look at the mess I ended up with before you came to help me sort it all out!
Maggie in action!
H - Let's get back to that now, to the book's deconstruction. Once we'd pulled the story into its constituent parts, we realised that it would work better, and would be more comprehensible, without a fractured narrative. At first we considered dividing John Barleycorn into five short comic books, with a sixth book on the way, but we then decided that the story would work best in the form of one long graphic novel.
R - Yes, a three hundred page novel. Although you did like the way each of the shorter books ended on a cliff-hanger, which pulled you from one book to the next.
H - Yes, there were ways in which you'd placed the images and divided up the story that I thought worked rather well, even though the story didn't yet work as a whole. The cliff-hangers, for example, were hard to give up when we agreed to make it one long novel instead.
R - Which completely changed our approach to the story.
H - Can you explain how?
R - God, Howard, do I have to remember everything?! How? It changed our whole perception of the central protagonist, Maggie. She became much more important.
H - I think that once we had the story in a more linear form, it started to write itself in many ways. The ending, for example...
R - I have to give you credit there. The moment you came up with your amazing idea for an ending was life-changing for me. I found I was able to walk again. It was a fucking miracle.
H - Okay, don’t take the piss! I do remember we both felt very ‘buzzy’ when that ending came together. It just seemed to make sense; it was almost as if Maggie was telling me the ending.
R - It is the only possible way the story can end. It is really beautiful.
H - That part of the creative process is a real mystery to me: when the book, or character, or plot takes on a life of its own, and kind of tells you what needs to happen next. My theatre partner, Geoff Beale, who is also a writer, once emailed me to say that a character he was trying to kill off refused to die. And I knew exactly what he meant! ...Okay, on that note shall we end?

R - ………
H - What is it? Is there something more you need to say?
R - Yes. Why didn’t Maggie tell me how the book needed to end? Why did she tell you and not me?
H - Are you jealous?
R - Yes, damn you!
H - Of a fictional character?
R - Yes!
Are you talking about me?

Don't miss next week's post:
We begin our "Around the table with..." interviews with film director Billy O'Brien.


  1. I smiled at your comment regarding characters who seem to *tell* you what their story is going to be about. This definitely happens to me too. Sometimes this is helpful and welcome, and sometimes (when a character balks at doing what you want them to do, like Geoff's character who refused to die) it is simply exasperating!

    I've learned the hard way that the character is always right, not me. If I try to shove them in directions they just don't want to go, it never works.

    This part of your discussion reminded me of an interesting post I read over on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure page, in which N.M. Browne talks about narrative voices:

    "Do you live in narrative?" she asks. "Are you someone who always has a little voice in her head interpreting, describing, novelising your daily life? If you have such a voice are you a) mad? b) possessed? or c) a novelist?"

    The whole post is here:

    I also like what you have to say about the editing process - and the similarities of creative process between making theater and making books. Much food for thought.

  2. I love seeing the workings of other artists, the scribbles and sketches and ideas being born. I sometimes I find that more fascinating than the final 'product', and it frequently enhances it. I wonder about the 'roads not taken', where choices were made and why, what prompted an artist or writer to abandon one path and choose another. I've blogged about this before, that while the work is incomplete, in 'flux', it is still full of possibility, still alive and evolving. All those 'blind alleys' still lead somewhere, even if you know that they may not ultimately serve your purpose, your plot, your narrative, your theme or your characters, as well as the alley you end up choosing. But once you choose one...the others are cut off, and those possibilities don't exist anymore. There is a real magic in having all those possibilities co-existing at once. Seeing that journey, watching those decisions being made, somehow makes the final piece much richer, much more meaningful because it has a history.

    I saw an exhibition on Nick Cave a couple of years ago, and found it fascinating for exactly those reasons. He is an obsessive note taker and collector of weird ephemera, he has 1000s of notebooks filled with all manner of stuff, some profound and some just meaningless junk. But it all feeds into the creative process. I liked a comment he made, that he got himself a computer a few years ago and used it for a while, but found that it was just too easy to use the 'delete' key when he wasn't happy with something, and consign it to oblivion leaving no trace of its existence. And he decided he didn't like producing work in a seeming vacuum, and sometimes those 'stillborn' ideas might feed into future work, but if they've been deleted you can't go back and re-read them and re-think them. So he went back to his notebooks!

    And I've written another comment 'novel' again! I don't normally leave such long rambling comments...honest!

  3. Help! This is Maggie .. I'm lost in the Mundus Imaginalis .. I'm trying to contact my Creator! Is anyone there? ... Anyone?

  4. A mermaid in the attic - we love your novella length comments, keep them coming.

    Maggie - Thank god you've made contact! We're doing all we can to find you, and bring you home for Christmas.