A short interview with john southworth by david ouimet


Ouimet: When I was approached by simply read books about illustrating your stories the first thing I did was to listen to as much of your music as possible.  It is astonishing how well you are able to capture the spirit of so many different styles and eras of music with each song.  They are like rare bottles that once opened let out a time and place that could have easily been forgotten. I was completely intrigued, and was very curious about your writing. Once I read a bit, as you know, I was pretty stunned at how similar the very strange world that you conjured was to the sort of imagery I had been making for years.  Anyways, there are certain threads that run through your writing whether it is to be listened to or to be read. I’m curious how each is hatched. Do you have a different approach when you write your stories as opposed to writing a song?

Southworth: Not really.  For me, stories are songs and songs, stories. They are born and harvested the same, slow-motion improvisational way.

Slow-motion in what sense?

If a soloist is able to improvise in real time, then when I write a story or a song everything comes through like a slow-motion solo - it's a free flow that takes a little longer, that's all.

Your stories, much like your music, have a very strong sense of place. You must have had a fairly formed sense of your settings with each of the stories when you unleashed them to me. When you saw my interpretations did it feel strange?

Yes, and no.  When I first saw your illustrations, it was one of the greatest days.Though they propelled the stories into a completely realized and unique phantasmagorical sphere, there were enough hints and remnants left from my initial imaginings that it all felt right and wonderfully strange. 

It was a very different experience than any other books that I have worked on.  In previous books I have illustrated I always had that fear, you know, that it wasn’t quite the right approach or that it was a bit too dark, or too obscured. I approached these drawings knowing precisely where I needed to go.  In that sense it was wonderfully strange for me too.  I think I mentioned to you that the first few stories I read seemed like descriptions of my own dreams.

There is an element in Daydreams that is somewhat idyllic.  I’m curious what sort of place that you grew up.

My first eight years were spent in various small villages and country locales in Kent and Sussex in England. I suppose I feel safest with one foot in the town and the other in the pasture.  That's generally hard to find here in North America,where city and nature is so divided.

With the exception of parks, which tend to show up in your work. While we're on the subject of your imagery, water is very much a reoccurring element in your writing.  Why is that?

I was not consciously aware of this occurrence.

It's certainly not a nautical collection, but..pardon the pun, water flows through the whole book. The Magic Box with the Elephant, Night In the Aquarium, The Boy with the Grey Hair, The Secret Lawn Bowling Society,Fingus the Fisherman and the First Watermelon, and The Adventure of Big Lou and Little Louise all contain water.

I suppose if the writing has any medicinal value, then water can be ladylike and healing. 

For sure. How did these stories come about? Did you have a structure in mind beforestarting to write?

The stories were written very freely, as is my preference.  For a few months I tried to write one every morning.

Were you successful in producing one every morning?

It was an exercise of sorts, almost like having to get yourself to the gym everyday.  By the end, the necessary synapses were well honed and things were flowing pretty good.

Did you end up feeling that you had some sort of formula or did it become intuitive?

There is something veering on the formulaic to this style of miniature short story.  It has a particular bounce and rhythm, like a haiku. Internally I've been making stories like this since I was a boy, just saying them to myself, not even writing them down.  So I'd say it's an intuitive formula. 

I think all children do that. It's a sad fact that as we grow older we stop doingthat unless we justify it in the act of being “creative”.

I was surprised recently to learn that you studied film, as I did. I’m interested how that that influenced you in a creative sense with your work.

Everything I create - be it song, story or video, I see as a film.  But films are really dreams, and so it's the ambiguous, magical nature of dreams that I'm most indebted to.