Literary Life: an interview with Caroline Magerl

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Caroline Magerl knows a lot about adventure. This October she is on a mini-adventure of sorts, working in Adelaide as a May Gibbs Fellow and anticipating the November release of Nop, her third picture book as writer-illustrator. It’s part of a literary and fine arts career that has taken the Queensland-based artist to London, New York and many places in between.

Travel has been part of her life since she was a young child, both as part of a German migrant family and when she lived for seven years on a boat built by her father. Everything has a flip-side, and Magerl knows plenty about seeking home and belonging too. They’re all themes that find their way into her stories: lost cats and toys, oceans and skies, and in her new book Nop, both ideas come together. A small, threadbare teddy bear fashions himself a patchwork balloon, and it’s his sense of adventure that leads, at last, to belonging.

Magerl doesn’t necessarily see herself as a traveller, despite her peripatetic childhood and her creative career taking her around the world. ‘My father liked books by [adventure novelist] Karl May,’ she says. ‘I think that’s how he saw himself, as an adventurer.’ He had escaped from East Germany in the early days of what became the Wall, in that brief period when the border was still porous in places. He met her mother, an orphan in Nurnberg with a tragic, Dickensian past. When they migrated, they didn’t care where to—her father ticked all possible destinations on the migration forms. In the Sydney suburb where they made their new home, her father began to build a yacht in the back yard. Magerl lived on it with her parents from the ages of seven to fourteen.

Caroline Magerl with her new book Nop in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens

What impact did that experience have on her? ‘It made me naïve about society,’ she says, referring to her isolation from things like pop culture and extended family. ‘There was so much I didn’t understand about expectations, about how things worked.’ Magerl gives the example of an interview at an advertising agency when she was sixteen. She’d done a commercial art course and ‘wanted to grow up’. But at the interview they told her to get a driver’s license and shave her legs. ‘People would say to my mother, “she’s so natural”. I was an odd-bod, I came up with my own ideas.’

Does she still feel the impact of that experience today? ‘As an adult, I can stare into space for literally hours. When we sailed there were days when we saw nobody. I was very inward in many ways, I occupied myself internally. When you are at sea, you are in the elements. It has an impact on your inner dialogue, on your sense of being in a world unto yourself. You’re aware of being on a little floating thing far from anybody and it changes your experience of yourself. The nothingness of the sea and sky is like a green screen for your thoughts. I still have this ability to not have to take in things. I’m not quickly bored.’ Asked if that ability to daydream is a crucial part of her creative toolbox, she replies that she superimposes her imaginary world on everything that she sees. In the botanic gardens, for example, where the interview is taking place on a glorious spring day, ‘the trees become mountainous, I immediately begin to impose characters and narratives on the landscape. I do it everywhere! If someone could pay me to walk around the world and draw the stuff I think of as I go, I’d love it.’

These ideas can turn into children’s stories. But at fifty-five, Magerl feels she can also be more contemplative and reflective: ‘I take my nonsense really seriously.’ What does she mean by that? She answers that there’s an intuitive aspect to storytelling that she has learnt through painting. ‘Art doesn’t pin down an idea. Words represent ideas in a different way. They can be immediately dissected, questioned. Images say things differently.’ She quotes John Berger, famous for Ways of Seeing: ‘He said that when language is used to describe art, both lose precision.’ For Magerl, image is a lightning rod for ideas. When she was younger and started pursuing art, ‘the more I went into art the less coherent I became in words.’ She wishes that more people understood how much we are affected by imagery. ‘You can see the advertising industry at work on us through it. If people gave credibility to the language and power of images, it wouldn’t be so effective. But because we don’t think about them the way we do about words, we’re hit in the heart not the head. We’re blindsided—we get moved and we don’t know why. If we thought more about images we’d understand more about ourselves and the world around us.’ 

Art is certainly a path to understanding of self and world for Magerl. Making picture books is a ‘combing through’ of childhood, a means of processing things that were perhaps not dealt with at the time. But images are also how she explores her responses in the present. ‘I’m passive, I take in a feeling from people around me, and it’s not terribly conscious. It coalesces into an image. Later I will unpack what I’m thinking and feeling.’ This is where the writing comes in, part of a process of investigating the image and gleaning its meaning, putting it into a context or a framework for a story.

But she tends to try to respect the essence of the image. ‘Your immediate response isn’t something you can fake. I can see now that writing comes from the same place, it’s a gut response. I’m not a technical writer. And about my art I’ve heard people say “it’s so wrong but it’s right”. I defend that, because I love that—’ Magerl snaps her fingers, indicating the moment of inspiration. ‘I do work hard and [picture books are] a long process, but I love spontaneity and life.’

Magerl works in watercolours, and has said previously that she has found line and wash the most expressive technique for the kinds of stories she writes. She describes her way of working, developed to preserve that love of spontaneity. ‘The line defines, that’s how you show what’s on the page. The wash is atmospheric. I dovetail the two things together in the process, and I will plan to a degree. I wet the page and use a watercolour pencil to sketch in the details, but it bleeds into the wet paper so the details are still flexible.’ This is important, she says, because at this stage it is just a gentle foray. When she is done with this stage you can hardly see the figures or the lines of buildings. Then, ‘once I’m happy with that sense of playfulness, I let it dry then put in a layer of very light grey, for example, and indicate where the tones are, lights and darks. It’s a responsive way for me to form things. So I’ve found a way to embody the process of change, of responding to what I see as I’m doing it, while moving towards my objective, which is to illustrate a scene. It’s the best way I’ve found for me to maintain until the last possible moment the ability to shift my position.’

Line and wash is a recognisable picture book tradition, and featured in the books Magerl loved as a child. She saw how they contrasted with the very flat illustrations in Little Golden Books, for example. ‘I love the mystery of possibility in the more expressionist style. I have tended to avoid technical virtuosity in favour of spontaneity in everything I do. I like the heart stuff.’ She cites Edward Ardizzone as an influence, and says people recognise a European sensibility in her work.

This sensibility has seen her work picked up by a popular London gallery and helped her to build a career in both illustration and fine art. It’s therefore incredible to learn that Magerl is a self-taught artist. She always liked to draw but wasn’t especially encouraged by parents or teachers. She has learnt entirely through books and practice, making a living in past years by working across areas such as cartooning and commercial rendering. Working to deadline has left her able to dash off a watercolour pretty quickly, something in evidence on her image-rich blog, where she copiously illustrates her own posts.  

Magerl believes that people have a burning desire to make things. She sees evidence of this in her workshops on picture book-making, to which a lot of women over forty, in particular, show up. ‘We come back,’ she explains, ‘at a point in life when we are reclaiming something, reaching for something. At some point we have to put a narrative of our life together, and some people reach back for that time of picture books. We are making ourselves through the art, we make the inside physical. There’s a conversation between the inner life and the outer world through materials and what you can do with your hands, it’s satisfying and healthy. I notice a lot of people hungering for the chance to do this.’

For Magerl, this presents a welcome chance to raise awareness about picture books as an art form. For her, one amazing feature of books is that they are a ‘long-distance form of communication. Things come back to you from books much later, when you need them, maybe years. A quote for example. Picture books are the first point at which we enter that dialogue.’ The pre-verbal world is something Magerl remembers from childhood, and its existence still fascinates her. It was the illustrators of her childhood books that made the biggest impact on her—‘the colours, the sensations of the landscape. Later I realised words could do that.’ This realisation coincided with her discovery of Australian writers like Patricia Wrightson, and ‘relating to place became essential for me. I did want to find home. The boat was the first time I felt it. I kept looking for it for a long time.’

Has she found it now? ‘I learnt over a long time to trust my sense of inner home and not worry so much about finding it.’

Spoken like a true adventurer.

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