Looking at the Overlooked
When people talk about research the mind conjures up images of libraries, index cards, bibliographies and citations. But for a fiction writer, as well as delving into books and browsing the Internet, there are many other routes of discovery. And often these other ways cause them to stumble on something new and unexpected, while they are looking for something else.
The Eavesdroppers is a story of a group of people brought together to listen to private conversations in public places, with a view to hearing something that hadn’t been heard before. So, notebook and pen in my pocket I eavesdropped; I sipped coffee in cafes, I folded clothes in the launderette, I sat patiently in the dentist’s waiting room and I sorted the sounds in the air as I sat on Tube trains roaring through tunnels a hundred feet beneath London. I listened to other people’s conversations, and I got good at it. I got good at remembering the most evocative lines, the rise and fall of intonation, the glottal stops and glides of London voices, the slivers of poetry, the interruptions, the ‘oh’s, the ‘ah’s, the silences, the ellipses and the mistakes - some forgotten, some forgiven. And from all these anonymous fragments, severed from their owners, I built a database of utterances, ready to be drawn upon and put into the mouths of my fictional characters.
But, although my antenna was constantly up and my notebook bulged, I wanted more, so I commissioned a wider set of ears. I emailed family and friends in several countries and made a request – send me anything that you remember, anything that shocked you, surprised you – the odder the better. The overheards came in quickly. First the classics, the never forgotten snipe of a childhood classmate, the mutterings of a drunken uncle, and then as they sharpened their ears, fresh snippets began to drop into my inbox: That Elgin Marbles is shit
. And as I wrote the novel these pieces of conversation, vibrating eardrums on three continents, fed the book and anonymous morsels of real life evolved into fictional conversations. Characters spoke and the structure took shape and I became part of lives beyond my actual location, so much so that in the latter stages of the book empty places opened up in the text, wired to the story but waiting, waiting for the right words to be thrown into the air.
Now I’m writing a book about a painter. And not only about a painter, but told from the point of view of a painter. But, I’m not a painter. I can sketch a rough likeness of a flower, I can scale a plan, but I have never squeezed paint from a tube, never squinted at a bowl of fruit, and never depicted the curve of a forehead with layers of paint. So, as with every character I create, I had to find a way to transform my way of seeing, of listening, of touching, of feeling, of tasting. I had to learn how to observe the world in a painterly way. I needed an artist to help me.
Allan Ramsay is a brilliant portrait and landscape painter, and friend, and on a windy April day in 2017 I met him at the door to his Brighton studio and followed him into his room, where the floor was flicked with paint and the walls as densely packed as a submarine’s. We’d hardly had time to put on the kettle before I was standing beside him at the sink watching him rub his paintbrush into a bar of soap – Marseilles, it reminds me of happiness
– and listening to stories of mongoose and badger, and pigs being chased with sticks. Then, notebook open on my lap, I observed the composition, not of the painting, but of his space: the half-finished portrait hung on a nail, the brushes laid out in mythological order, the blobs of paint squeezed onto the palette, light to dark, until – a sip of tea, a bite of a tomato - he was ready to begin.
He chatted at first, and then he forgot me. Free to take notes, I recorded everything: the sounds, the smells: linseed and turpentine, the feel of the room. I recorded the subconscious gestures, the rub of the forehead, the bounce on the toes. I recorded his posture, noting the way he stood away from the portrait and stretched out his arm and stretched out the paintbrush, his centre of gravity poised to shift. I recorded the dialogue, the asides directed at me – a brush has its own life; brushes never die – and then as I became increasingly omniscient I was the eavesdropper, scribbling down the expletives and the sighs of frustration as he entered the private world of painter and painting.
Finally, I became aware of the rhythms of the scene before me, the bite of the biscuit, the sip of the tea, the dab of ochre on lips, a scrape of ochre off lips, the dab of cadmium on lips. And throughout the sighing and tiny shifts of position, the face on the canvas changed. The portrait itself began to tell a story of its own.
I left Allan’s studio with photographs of a forensic nature, pages of notes and a sense of how I might start to write my character’s story: what type of light she might notice as she walked to work, what adjectives she might use to describe her supper, what syntax might form in her mouth as she arranged objects on a table.
But it didn’t end there; a thread was forming. I moved my attention from portraiture to still life painting and I casually asked my husband Nat if he knew of any interesting writing on the subject. Within seconds Norman Bryson’s book of essays was placed into my hands and as I pored over the photographs of Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and Cortan’s Still Life of Vegetables and read of ‘attacks on three dimensional space’ and ‘pictorial planes of collapsing scenes’ I realized I had a new lead to follow. But it wasn’t until I closed the book, looked at the cover and read the title that I realized.
I had, by observing a painter at work and looking at a meticulous assemblage of quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber hanging on strings, stumbled on the core idea of my novel. Looking at the Overlooked. I was ready to write some more.
Rosie Chard's first novel, Seal Intestine Raincoat, was published in 2009 by NeWest Press, winning the 2010 Trade Fiction Book Award at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards, and receiving an honourable mention for the Sunburst Fiction Award. She was also shortlisted in 2010 for the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer.
Her second novel, The Insistent Garden, was published by NeWest Press in September 2013. In April 2014 it was the recipient of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction in Canada.
Her third novel, The Eavesdroppers, was published by NeWest Press in September 2018.
The painting above: a portrait in progress by Allan Ramsay