Thursday 21st April 2016 marks the publication of Zillah Bethell’s latest novel by Honno Welsh Women’s Press. Bethell’s Girl in Profile examines the lives of women before children, with children, and after the children have gone. The novel’s focus ranges from a Paris-based artist in the early 1900s (based on the Welsh artist Gwen John), a Swansea mum in the present day, and a Tenby woman struggling against dementia in the not-too-distant future.
Girl in Profile is based on the work of portrait artist Gwen John. When did John’s work first come to your attention? What attracted you to write about it?
I first became aware of Gwen John as the sister of Augustus John and I was fascinated by the way that she exiled herself to Paris from Wales and the UK. I first saw the painting ‘Girl in Profile’ in the National Museum of Wales and after seeing it I became intrigued by her relationship with the sculptor Auguste Rodin and her pared-back lifestyle in Paris. Although outwardly she appeared very shy and retiring, she was in fact very passionate and provocative. Her paintings and personal life (on the surface) seemed to contradict each other and I wanted to probe a little deeper.
Your work deals in part with the difficulty of committing yourself to making art when you have a life to manage, particularly within family life, with children. Could you talk a bit more about this?
The book is something of a cri de coeur as I have experienced this myself. It is extremely challenging to create works of art as well as nurture young children. Especially if you have very little money and very little help. I was surprised living in south Wales how many grandparents take on the role of childcare now, while mothers go back to work. This can be both a good and a bad thing, I feel. I knew one grandmother who feared that because she was deaf the child’s language skills were not developing properly. Another grandmother got a brain tumour!
I had to put my work on hold while my children were very young. It was incredibly frustrating but I felt that that was what I had to do. I wanted to make that sacrifice.
Girl in Profile is set partly in Paris – did you visit when writing it?
Yes, I did visit Paris and read some of Gwen John’s letters to Rodin that are kept at the Musée Rodin. I wanted to get a real feel for the tone of her language, which is strangely childlike at times, and incredibly obsessive.
I’m interested in how the subplot of elderly character Elizabeth writing to someone in the US on death row came about.
Retirement homes and Death Row seem like similar institutions to me! People hanging around waiting to die. Living on memory and regret. The letter-writing gives them both an opportunity to disguise or gloss over their mistakes. It gives them a freedom to reinvent themselves. An outlet from the monotony of their existence.
The three focal women in Girl in Profile are all different ages. Could you talk about the experiences of writing about their lives in tandem? In a broader sense, what do you think of the intergenerational dialogue between women today? Do you think there’s enough of it? What gets missed out?
It was good to go from one character to the other and see parallels and connections between them. Inhabiting the skin of an old woman was particularly confronting.
I don’t think there’s enough intergenerational dialogue – nobody tells you what it’s like to have a baby for example, and nobody tells you what it’s like to grow old. I remember my grandmother saying to me ‘Never get as old as me’ and I thought, well, I might not have much choice about that. In a way we’re all quite isolated – we have to experience these things for ourselves.
Girl in Profile is published 21 April by Honno Welsh Women’s Press
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