Q&A with Joan Becker
Paint us a quick picture of what a productive day of writing, research, or illustration looks like for you. Do you have a certain schedule that keeps you on track or is your creative output more spontaneous? Is there a specific location you like to work in or do you go from place to place? Do you work in small chunks or do you plow through large sections all at once?
On a productive day, I will have two sessions of creative work: one session first thing in the morning, and the other in the hours before I go to bed. I try to methodically complete tasks one after the other, so this usually means spending both sessions working at the same task, whether that is writing and editing text for a book, carving a wooden plate for a print, or inking a hand-drawn illustration.
"I try to methodically complete tasks one after the other, so this usually means spending both sessions
That said, I do sometimes have spontaneous bouts of work in the middle of the day, if I am struck by big-picture idea for a new project, or for the development of a current project; I’ll then stop whatever I’m doing and try to capture the idea before it’s gone. I rely on this kind of spontaneous inspiration in order to form the vision for my projects, but I rely on habit to bring the projects to completion. That habitual work almost always takes place at home—I like to have all my art materials nearby—and in small daily increments.
I have always had a great deal of respect for storytellers who also possess the skill to illustrate that which they see in their imagination. The first illustrator/writer that comes to my mind is Howard Tayler who co-hosts one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses. How do your illustrations affect your storytelling process? Are they typically created after the written narrative or do your visuals inspire the text?
In an online interview with the Nanovic Institute for European Studies you describe a research trip you took to Europe ahead of your senior project. There you delved into the history of printmaking. Of course, the emergence of the printing press gave rise to a chorus of new political, social, and religious voices. Do you think the internet as a means of digital publication has had a similar impact on society or do you view this medium as distinctly different from the printed word?
Yes, I definitely think there is a similar impact! As you say, there are a host of new voices entering into the public sphere, and the shifts towards social disruption and globalization amplified by the printing press also seem to be happening today with the internet. You can even trace similar reactions from the public to this disruption. Multiple people in early modern Europe interpreted the sudden explosion of printed material as a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and you can read similarly dire interpretations of the internet’s effects today: that it’s the end of democracy, of human intimacy, etc. I personally believe that human culture will adapt to the change and continue to grow, just as it did with the printing press.
"Multiple people in early modern Europe interpreted the sudden explosion of printed material as a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and you can read similarly dire interpretations of the internet’s effects today..."
In one aspect, though, I think the internet is having an effect opposite to that of the printing press, in that it is bringing images to the forefront. In medieval Europe, at least, images seemed to hold a great deal of power as vehicles for complex ideas and cultural values, and the introduction of the printing press seemed to gradually demote images to mere decoration, especially when they were combined with text as illustrations. I think the internet is restoring some prominence to the powerful combination of word and image—whether that is through the social communication of Instagram, video essays on YouTube, or the visual humor of memes.
"I think the internet is restoring some prominence to the powerful combination of word and image—whether that is through the social communication of Instagram, video essays on YouTube, or the visual humor of memes."
The Book of the Enchanter is your riveting retelling of the rise and fall of King Arthur as told through the fictional character Bleise who records the tale at Merlin’s request. Complete with wood-block carved illustrations and printed in a style true to the early days of the printing press, it transports the reader to an age long past while remaining accessible to the modern reader. How did you manage to interweave your academic research and creative expression throughout this project as these two are often seen as quite distinct?
I find Arthurian literature especially inspiring in this regard, because of the way that different texts build on each other and innovate over time. For most of the history of the Arthurian legend, audiences responded to Arthurian literature by creating new Arthurian literature of their own; when I see this conversation playing out in the texts that I study, I naturally want to participate in it myself! I’m glad to hear that the book is accessible, because I think that is my biggest challenge when combining research and expression: I wanted to create a version of the Arthurian legend that could speak to people of my own time, just as the Arthurian authors I study were speaking to their cultural context.
As a writer who is inspired by the Norse Myths I often scratch my head at all the time I spend re-reading these stories from over one thousand years ago. However, I am continually drawn back to them and revel in re-interpreting the vivid characters and dramatic imagery. What is it about Arthurian legend that drove you to undertake such an immersive project as The Book of the Enchanter?
Maybe not all of us participate in a story as dramatic as that of Lancelot, but I think most people have experienced relationships with that same tangle of love and conflict. I appreciate Arthurian legends both for the veracity of the emotions that they portray, and the larger-than-life backdrop against which these emotions play out, which to me speaks to the intensity of emotional experience.
Your illustrations in The Book of the Enchanter are done in the style of historical prints from the dawn of the age of print. From an artist’s perspective, what is the value in imitating forms such as wood-block carving in modern work? Is it simply an artistic exercise or is there something to learn from the themes and styles of cultures from the past?
For example, studying highly structured medieval books like the Paupers’ Bible inspired me to incorporate a high degree of symmetry into my illustrations, even though I was also using more contemporary techniques, like the progressive visual narratives found in picture books. I believe that consciously responding to the art of the past in a new form allows me to create something special, a work that is more unique than what I would make if I never learned from artists outside my own period.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Recent updates can be found on my Instagram and more information about me and my work can be found on my website. Thank you for the great conversation!
Read more about Joan Becker's thesis project, The Book of Enchantments, on the University of Notre Dame website!
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.