Graham Rawle is a London-based writer and collage artist who is responsible for the most exciting, inventive and crazy books published over the last decade. He will also be familiar with broadsheet readers as the artist responsible for the comic collages ‘Lost Consonants’ (‘the door bell rang and the dog started baking’) that ran in the Observer for fifteen years, as well as 'Pardon Mrs Arden' in the Telegraph magazine. He was in Nottingham as a guest of the NTU Creative Writing programme to give an open lecture, ‘Writing with Scissors’.
Rawle discussed his childhood obsession with collecting things such as coins, stamps and bubble gum cards and the horror of witnessing his father burning his collection of bubble gum cards because they were too saucy. He remembered watching them going up in flames and suggested his obsession with collecting things was probably an unconscious attempt to recover his lost childhood.
Rawle took us through a visual history of his publications, all of which share the same obsessive attention to detail while successfully pushing the boundaries of narrative. Woman’s Own exemplifies this process, entirely collaged together from individual fragments of text (around 40,000) found in women’s magazines published in the early 1960s. The idea behind this was ‘to take on the flavour of the original source material which becomes odd when juxtaposed against other things.’ The project took five years to complete and gives a whole new dimension to editing and redrafting. He wrote a draft of the novel first and then ploughed through the magazines to find similar sounding sentences. This inspired rather than drained his creatively as ‘you have to work within the constraints of what you can find which makes you more inventive’.
This was very useful for the students as developing not only your own voice as a writer, but convincing ones for your characters as well, is one of the most difficult and important skills to master. Women’s Own is like an extreme lesson in this process. The magazines of this period had a specific tone and were very prescriptive of how a woman should behave in the home and offer all kinds of trivial advice that would incense modern-minded women, such as, ‘how to get a man, or if you already have one how to keep him. Handy tips on how to knit or polish a light bulb. How to do your legs and hair and what to do when you became exhausted through doing your hair and legs. But if anyone has an unwanted pregnancy or their husband is beating them up, there’s no advice available. The only function of the magazine is to create an ideal.’
The women Rawle grew up with ‘would be out on the street beating mats all day or scrubbing frantically at floors, but none of them looked like the glamorous housewives in the magazines’. It was this that initiated his interest: ‘I was interested in the shortfall between the readers and the expectations of the magazine that you were supposed to live up to. It was clear that if you worked in a factory in Nuneaton and you had lots of kids and your husband was a drunk you weren’t going to be able to achieve this idealistic look about you.’
You sense that in trying to marry the found text up with his own narrative, Rawle must have experienced similar frustrations as a writer as that of the readers of the magazine. This shortfall of not quite being able to find the right sentences after trawling through endless volumes of insipid text is somewhat similar to the image of ordinary looking housewives spending hours trying and failing to imitate celebrities.
As Rawle played around with the text he quickly became aware that it was steering the direction of the narrative. ‘It soon became very erratic and often funny. I realised that the character I was starting to create was really mad and I couldn’t figure out what was really odd about her and then I realised. She was really a cross-dressing woman trying to find a female persona and construct that personality from these fragments of text.’
Rawle is like the bastard child of Roland Barthes and Derren Brown, messing about with signs and delighting in his readers discomfort at how he has managed to pull it off. Roland Barthes, a father-figure for semiotics, was so obsessed with the concept a sign represents (signified) that he ignored the physical form (signifier) it took to his peril, and was struck down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. Rawle, on the other hand, has got the perfect balance between the two, offering a rich tapestry to his narrative. I couldn’t decide if the book was fact or fiction, if it was a piece of art or a historical document, which is ironic given the author’s obsession with ordering.
Rawle is very much a part of the physical world. You picture him as an arty Nick Hornby, obsessively archiving his numerous collections of magazines, cards and images. A pair of scissors are as important to his narrative as a pen. His heir apparent for the digital age would be someone like CassetteBoy, who too displays the same mixture of carry on mischievousness and surrealism.
How great it would be if they were to collaborate. If Rawle could take his scissors into digital space he would transform the ebook and publishing forever. But I suspect as tempting as this might be, Rawle is a man who lives within constraints. He’s a structuralist at heart and would be lost in the infinity of digital space. Where’s the fun when you’ve got everything at your disposal?
Graham Rawle’s latest novel, The Card, will be published by Atlantic Books in April 2012