By Jamie Stewart
The latest installment of the Manchester Writing series, chaired by Manchester Metropolitan University Professor of Modern Literature Andrew Biswell, welcomed author Nicholas Royle and artist David Gledhill to discuss and launch their recent collaboration, In Camera.
Manchester Writing is a series of events run by the Manchester Writing School and hosted at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The series is designed to open a dialogue between established writers and lovers of fiction.
In Camera, published by London’s Negative Press, is a collaboration that sees painting and fiction come together, investigating the nature of surveillance and observation. Set in East Germany during the Cold War, the book follows a doctor’s daughter as she eavesdrops on her father’s consultations and spies on him through the lens of a camera.
Speaking about the development of the project, David Gledhill said, “I was given a family photo album as a Christmas present. It was from a flea market in Frankfurt. The album contained photographs of a doctor’s family, with interior and exterior shots of his house and surgery in the former German Democratic Republic.”
Gledhill went on to produce oil paintings of the seemingly ordinary family album from 1950s GDR. This process raised a few concerns for the artist, as he felt that, by painting intimate portraits of the doctor’s domestic and familial life, he was in some way fictionalising the truth.
He said, “The album was intended as a wedding anniversary gift for the doctor’s daughter, Renate, but she moved from East Germany and never got to see it.”
In 2011, however, Gledhill discovered that Renate was still alive and living near Frankfurt. The following year, he decided to travel to Frankfurt to return the album to its rightful owner.
Nicholas Royle, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Writing School, then responded to Gledhill’s paintings by creating a series of short stories to accompany them. One MA Creative Writing student who attended the event said, “I liked the differences in narrative between painting and writing. They really complimented each other.”
While Royle’s written responses to the paintings were short, he condemned their classification as ‘flash fiction’, saying, “I hate the term flash fiction. It suggests the story is temporary and throwaway. These are short stories that are connected.”
Indeed, Royle’s stories, without the author ever having seen the original photographs, seem to successfully tell a story seen through the eyes of a young girl; a story of curiosity in East Berlin, of surveillance in the Cold War, and most importantly, of the relationship between a father and daughter.
James Draper, Manager of the Manchester Writing School said of the event, “It’s been great to have such a strong turn-out for this event, which I think reflects both the fascinating nature of the subject matter and also, of course, the popularity of the evening’s speakers. Nick and David have introduced us to some difficult but captivating material with their characteristic warmth, charm and forensic attention to unusual details.”
Tom Hillsdon, also attending the event, said, “It was really interesting to see how art and writing were used to tell the story of the family. It has made me think about my own creative work in a new way.”
While the aim of the Manchester Writing series is to get established writers and lovers of good writing in conversation, the In Camera collaboration also revealed how closely different art forms are connected. Above all, this event demonstrated how the arts can compliment each other in the process of telling a story.
James Draper added, “It’s been good to see so many of our Creative Writing students in the audience, as this sort of collaborative project is something they have more and more opportunities to get involved in. I’m sure it has been inspiring to hear about how the idea came about, and how fruitful these partnerships can be.”
Jamie is from Manchester and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School. He enjoys reading and baking.