In Conversation With: Julie Booker on photography and how to frame a story. (cc: @houseofanansi)
I recently met up with Julie Booker, author of the short story collection Up, Up, Up (House of Anansi). After an hour of talking, we realized we'd stumbled upon an interesting topic, how to match the right storytelling tools to the right story. In particular, I was interested in Julie's travel photography. We decided to pick up the chat here, and what begins as a conversation about photography becomes a pleasantly-meandering exploration into how we gather our stories, place ourselves within them, and ultimately decide what to keep and what (and how) to share the rest.
Julie Wilson: A few months ago, I learned that you're an accomplished photographer. When I first saw your photos, I said to your husband, Denis De Klerck (Mansfield Press), "I didn't know Julie's a photographer." He replied, "I don't know that she thinks of herself as one." I thought it was interesting, that artistic talent is not necessarily akin to artistic pursuit. Or, possibly, it's a matter of using the right tools for the right story. So, let's begin there. Is photography a way to document your travels or a frame in which to tell the stories of your travels?
Julie Booker: I began travelling alone in my 20s because I wanted to bust out of my small, safe life. I started with a few summers backpacking in Australia and New Zealand until I was ready for Big Scary Asia. Then I took a year off and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. What a shock that was. I stood at my hotel window overlooking a major square. The steady stream of mopeds, bicycles and honking cars didn't stop for anyone and I realized there were no streetlights. I thought, How the hell am I going to explore if I can't cross the road? I finally got the courage to go down and realized the traffic magically parts to accommodate pedestrians. I hooked up with an "adventure travel" group for the next six weeks, going north to Hanoi, then overland China, camping through Tibet, and left that group being able to imitate each person’s unique mastication traits. Then I went solo in Nepal (hiked to Annapurna Base Camp), Singapore and Thailand where I rented a tin-roof bungalow. Coconuts fell like bombs while I wrote my first novel that no one will ever see. I explored northern India, Egypt, and bushcamped with another crazy group from Kenya down the east coast of Africa to South Africa, then over to Japan.
During that one year, I shot 2000 slides and I knew the moment I’d taken a perfect picture: one that was not only perfectly composed but also captured an important part of the narrative I would later tell. It’s as if the photo solidified the story for me. I didn’t develop any photos till I got home but I knew the photos I’d taken so well that I could tell if one was missing (accidentally not developed), and the ones I thought were perfect were indeed perfect (there were only a dozen). Have you ever not had your camera and you wanted to take a shot and you say, I’ll just take a photo with my eyes? Then you blink like Samantha on Bewitched. The photos I took with my camera (and my eyes) are embossed on my brain. That's how writing works for me. Visualize first, then translate into language. I went to OCAD in my 30s so I could become a better writer. I figured if I trained my eye, my stories would benefit. So, it’s the same when I travel: a training of the eye, using camera and journal. Travelling alone is the only time I do that; it also keeps me company and gives purpose when I’m feeling lonely and asking, Why did I do this again?
JW: I know that feeling of having taken a perfect picture. But, like my writing, I often don't see what worked until months after the fact. In the moment, though, you do feel as if something has clicked, that you have indeed captured something that works best. In my case, it's a slide I took of a young girl in Kenya. She was pushed in front of me so I would take her picture and pay her parents. And on the day, I thought, This girl has been photographed countless times. So, I didn't even think about framing; I just snapped. Yet in the after-moment, I felt the latent development of a story. A month later, there she was again, enlarged on my apartment wall, and it had been lost on me that she was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. There was a large, poorly-healed scar on her forearm, which she rested wearily against her forehead.Without appearing in the frame, my privilege was apparent. Eventually, I gravitated to the pen and page and found myself faced, again, with this question of how we insert ourselves into our creative narratives. I'm curious, do you photograph or journal your "home" life? You have a mountain of material in two young twin toddlers!
JB: When I got home from my year abroad, I started sleeping excessively. After sleeping 22 hours in a row, I went to see my travel doctor and he wrote "sleeping sickness" in my file. The only other person I remembered with sleeping sickness was Fred Flintstone, when they propped his eyeballs open with toothpicks. Then I read Bruce Chatwin's Songlines and he talks about the Australian aboriginal theory that if you fly somewhere, your soul has to play catch-up for the amount of time it would take to walk that same distance. That's what my sleeping was, my body trying to assimilate everything I'd seen. Luckily, I was at OCAD, making sculptures and films about my trip. I was hyper-aware that I lead a privileged existence in the West and I was determined to live differently. I felt fundamentally changed. When my soul finally caught up (it took a few years), I hadn't changed as much as I thought. But, as it happens, that's when I was finally able to write.
How does photography relate to writing for me? The visual image holds layers that don't need to be articulated. We feel the multiple references in our body because we're so used to visual text. You can definitely do that in short stories, using tight language and metaphors that insert the image into the reader's mind in the most direct way. But I'm trying to write a novel now and I'm realizing that attention to quick, clever, sentences and metaphors might not be able to be maintained. I think it will exhaust me and maybe the reader. Time to digest; that's what a novel offers as it unfolds. A short story, I think, gets digested after reading. Much like my trip.
How do we process our "at home" life? I ended up having a document of my twins' first year, not because I intended to write a journal, but because every time someone asked me in an email how they were doing, I wrote it in a way that would be entertaining. Then I cut and paste those emails into a Word document that resulted in a journal of sorts. But if I'd set out to write a journal, it would have been a predictable, boring account. Having an audience immediately raised the bar.
When we met the other day, you talked about how you're drawn right now to using Facebook posts. I wonder, is it the flash fiction-style constraints that appeal to you or the public forum? I'd also like to hear more about your own travels.
JW: The above trip, during which I took the photo of the young girl, took me around Kenya and Tanzania. One of my strongest memories remains at the base of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. We pulled up beside a small pond, a few large boulders spread throughout. It started to rain. The boulders started to move. Upward of thirty hippos appeared, mouths gaped open. I wasted a whole roll in under a minute. I say "wasted" because it felt like I was emptying a magazine, shooting to kill rather than to compose. There's a similar adrenalin in writing, but the execution is different. I just remember being overwhelmed by emotion: awe, joy, fear, envy. And I wanted to be sure that I got off just one shot as evidence so I could begin to tell the story. As it happens, there are a few truly lovely images from the roll but none of the story, which, as evidenced here, requires another kind of performance.
You know? I don't shoot the same way I used to. An iPhone doesn't offer the clunk of a roll of film as it advances through the chamber, that time-out between frames, the camera reminding you to breathe. I suspect that Facebook status messages and Twitter tweets are not dissimilar to photography. They satisfy an impulse to react, to pounce (and publish) and hold tight to a fleeting connection. So, yes, I would guess that the forum of Facebook and Twitter satisfies me on that level. The story begins as fast as you can hit Send. Further to that, the public forum offers a snapshot of what the potential appeal is for an extended collection of tiny, impactful fictions. Novel writing, entirely new to me, is a more inward-looking conversation, one out of which self-doubt often tries to take the lead.
Do you have plans for the twins journal?
JB: First, I have an Ngorongoro story. We sat in the jeep, about to descend into the crater, staring at an incredible fog and the guide said, "I don't think we'll see anything today." As you know, you spend a lot of money for your one-day safari in Tanzania. There's an incredible pressure to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, black rhino, elephant, cape buffalo). We felt disappointed before we'd even begun. The day in the crater was long. By midmorning, I was dreaming of the fat sandwich in my pack. We stopped for lunch beside a watering hole and sat on the rocks. Other groups were eating in their jeeps, which seemed strange because the pond was such a sweet picnic place. I think it even had a sign: Sweet Picnic Place. But within microseconds of having taken out my sandwich, I felt like I'd been smacked on the back of the head. I looked down at the crust in my hand then up at the sky where a huge bird flew dangling my sandwich from its beak. But then the fog cleared and we saw not only the Big Five, but also a cheetah, which is rare. Even now, when I'm facing an event that fills me with anxiety, I say, it's going to be a Ngorongoro Day, meaning there'll be a Before and an After, which I can't even predict.
As for a twins journal, I can't NOT record their life in some way. I feel like it's the most important job of my writing life, but not for anyone else's consumption. The fiction editor at Anansi asked if I was writing a memoir and I thought, No way, because one day the boys will inevitably read it and I can't afford three lawyers. And mother blogging can be boring. (There's a great blog that touches on this with Kerry Clare in conversation with Marita Dachsel: "Talking In Circles and Coming Full Circle: Talking About Talking About Motherhood.")
But I hear you saying you've kind of parcelled out your writing life. The Facebook posts serve a 'This just in" urge and the novel is for what? Maybe I'm thinking about novel writing all wrong; maybe it's not a progression from the short story to the novel. Maybe they draw from two different wells, serving separate purposes for the writer's needs. And what about the spaces in which to breathe that you get from a 33 mm camera? On Facebook or Twitter, are they occupied by feedback?
JW: I think maybe the pounce I describe is, in part, about wanting to gift something. I treat them as exercises in reading as well as writing. They aren't insignificant, just as spare change is not insignificant to its recipient. A tiny gesture can lead to any number of outcomes, and that's how I see my tiny fictions. With this novel-in-progress, I can pounce for 5-10 pages—if I'm lucky. But I know there's a lengthy conversation there that I want to have with myself, and once I find the proper structure, I'm sure the pounce will lengthen its stride.
Let's take a look at some of your photos. You were an elementary school teacher. So, you went abroad, came back armed with thousands of stories. What came next?
JB: The kids in these photos are Vietnamese and the man picking his toes is in India. The other two are Tibetan: a butcher shop and the courtyard of a theological college. The monks took turns practicing their oral exams for their classmates, who sat on the grass looking completely indifferent. You can see one of the speakers winding up like a major league pitcher before slapping his hand into his palm to emphasize his point. Tourists sat along the periphery of the courtyard listening to the slapping palms and the monotone Tibetan murmuring.
When I got home, I returned to my job as a grade seven teacher and the last half hour of each day I'd turn out the lights and show them another country. They said they loved it but I think they loved not having to do math. It helped me winnow the trip to a handful of tellable stories. While I was gone the school created a 'Where in the world is Miss Booker?' bulletin board. I wrote postcards from every city with child-friendly versions of the historical or cultural significance of each place and anecdotes that I knew would be read over the morning announcements. And on each postcard I sent to friends I scribbled in the bottom corner: please save this for me. It's the same concept as the twins' 'email' journal. I knew that the cards were written differently than my actual journal and I'd want to see them when I got home. Postcard writing, photography; it's all a way of deciding, Is this the story?
JW: I think we're also on about the fine divide between make-work projects—turning everything we do into content—and making a life's work out of our encounters with the world-at-large. Postcards. Status updates. Short stories. Novels. Journals. The recipients of these efforts become fluent in a language of sorts. How to consider an image, how to consider a tiny story = how to position yourself comfortably in stories wherever you may find them, however they may be presented. As the "future of the book" conversation continues to evolve, where and when we find such stories will surprise and enlighten us. Graffiti. Jenny Holzer. The Love Lettering Project. Animal Effigy. On and on.
Thanks for your time, Julie! I suspect there will be a Part Two to this conversation.
Julie Booker is five feet tall; she sees the world in short, pithy arcs. She's also the author of the short story collection Up, Up, Up (House of Anansi Press).