GWAS Talks: Emma Magenta, author/illustrator

GWAS Talks: Emma Magenta (Part Three!)

"What I find beautiful is actually the mistakes in things or the flaw or the things people have rejected."

The Emma Magenta story goes something like this: art graduate works in Paddington book store; doodles her thoughts and illustrations on brown paper bags; gets noticed by magazine editor (Real Living’s Deborah Bibby) and author/publisher (Bradley Trevor Grieve); scores book deal; creates series of grown-up picture books; saves many women from deep depression. 

It could be the script for its own movie; it's certainly part of Aussie publishing folklore. But Magenta, a self-described hermit, is more comfortable these days having her alter-egos take centre stage.

Her latest protagonist, the unlucky-in-love Phillipa Finch*, found herself in an animated ABC series narrated by Magenta's friend Toni Collette, which is now out on DVD and complimented by a fancy website, stationery (Ask Alice), homewares (Third Drawer Down) and, of course, a book.

There's an authenticity about Magenta's work that makes her at once vulnerable but also a salve to women; she's taken one for the team, saying what we cannot say for fear of being found out. In this sense, there's an empathy in Magenta that could be traced back to her Catholic upbringing, which she railed against, but no doubt influenced her belief system. Coincidentally, her author bio reads: "Her drawing talent was recognised at an early age when she was commended for ‘The Best Depiction of Samson’ in a school art competition." 

With Easter upon us, the brokenness of Phillipa Finch seems to have particular resonance, at least from where I'm sitting. In her home office, with an ice-cream to keep the little person in the room occupied, the mother-of-two talked to me about turning from professional dilettante to publishing phenomenon and the craziness of the female experience…

How autobiographical is Phillipa?
It is completely autobiographical, but then there’s things I’ve observed in women around me when they’re going through emotional crisis – little habits that they have – so it’s not all just me; it’s a fusion of my observations as well. I just started writing about my emotional history, not thinking it was really going to go anywhere. So I gave myself a lot of leeway to be really honest with it.

Do your books make you feel naked and bare?
Definitely. Especially with this one. The people who are in it were actually real people, so I had do deal with their response to seeing themselves in a public space. I can only operate honestly, but this is the first time I’ve really kind of gone, “Shit!” It’s full-on being so naked emotionally. But I’m a bit masculine in that way; I can only know what’s gone on once I’m completely out of it. My writing is a way for me to work out stuff for myself, whether it gets published or not is a bonus.

There’s always a hope element to your work…
There is a silver-lining aspect because that’s what I’m always looking for. No matter how negative a situation, there has to be a redeeming aspect for me, I have to find that thing, so I can move to the next level. I don’t want to go through life holding grudges against anyone or feeling like I have got to run from the past; I’m always trying to make peace with it. I’m not just trying to write a feel-good ending.

I’m married now and I’ve got my own scenario there, [Phillipa Finch] was written about my life before there. My family and my home life is my complete sanctuary where I can feel safe to explore what’s taken place and I’ve made a pretty big shift from that period in my life. I actually am a hermit, in truth, so my family is like a little cave I can go into. 

How do you find time, raising two young children, to illustrate and write?
I have an insatiable need just to do it. I work from home, so I don’t have to go out. I just look at time really differently. If I want to do something, I make time. I get up really early and do three hours’ work over breakfast. Then I feel I’ve done that and can focus on them completely after 10 o’clock. 

Was your own childhood magical?
It was a mixed bag. I’m very close with my family now. But I had very, very strict Catholic parents who had their own suffering in childhood, which they worked out through their own parenting. I had some ups and downs. I actually had a very transformative experience when my dad turned around and thought about how he was when we were growing up, and was beautifully contrite. You know, everyone makes mistakes. We’re all pretty happy now and love each other. 

Does your faith play a part in your life now?
Actually, because my background was so intensely Catholic, it’s hard to extinguish that out of you. But I did what a lot of people do and explored everything that had nothing to do with Catholicism and ended up studying alternative religion by accident. But then I felt like I had to give my psyche a break and think about, what do I believe? I’m going through that stage now where...actually, my next lot of work is about reconnecting your own belief system. Spirituality is a huge part of my life but not in that fundamentalist way.

Are you surprised by your success? Do you wake up and pinch yourself?
I’m pretty lucky. I was just doing my work. Obviously, when you go to art school, you’re hoping something will happen so you can be a full-time artist. But I didn’t particularly like the gallery path: I found it quite alienating. I just want to communicate with people; I don’t particularly care about having street cred. So it was a nice surprise to have someone come in and open up a door for me to communicate with people through a medium that I loved – which is books – and I do wake up and go, 'Wow!'. I was working with a lot of really serious writers at the time [I was discovered], and I was sort of a professional dilettante, so I felt a bit guilty, actually.

The female experience is something your deft at tapping into…
Lots of women I know, and maybe in just the community of women I know, where we’re given so much choice and we just want to do everything well, so there’s this pressure on us for perfection. You don’t want to do anything by halves. Our minds think of multiple things all the time. When our emotional world is in chaos, it does affect our productivity in the world.

I see a lot of women just using coping mechanisms – like, if I don’t go to yoga I’m going to kill myself – they put this pressure on themselves to be perfect in body and mind. And what they can’t control is, at times, their emotions. I see it around a lot. I’m not judging, because I do it myself, I just thing it’s a phenomenon and it’s kind of crazy. 

That’s why I’m a hermit a little bit. I’ve learnt to be very protective of certain environments I go into. I’m not a sort of socialphobe but you’ve got to protect yourself and not get into a dynamic that’s going to have a negative impact. 

Do women tell you that they connect with the authenticity in your work?
The art that I love is where someone says something other people were too afraid to say and yet it resonates with you, and to find some poetic way of putting it across. That’s the only methodology that I have: be honest. 

What feeds your creativity? Has it changed since having children?
Before I had kids I was all about spontaneity and being in the moment and having fun and being like a child. Having children was overwhelming at first, but once you acquiesce to the situation, you can reconnect with genuine childlike vision of the world, rather than that manic chasing of spontaneous experiences. Kids have slowed me down enough to appreciate what’s out there and engage with it at the time. 

Do you ever feel the urge to get outside of your aesthetic/style?
I’m always trying to broaden what I do. You don’t want to go off on a completely different tangent, because people like what you’re doing, but you can’t also work for other people; you’ve got to do what inspires you. The next project that I’m doing is going to be the biggest leap from what I’ve done before. It’s going to be another animation concept that involves live action and I’ve not done that before. The animation will be more collage based. I’m starting to be a little bit seduced by technology but I don’t like technology just for the sake of it – I don’t like really rendered 3D animation. I like old-school technology used in a new way. 

I’m attracted to beauty. What I find beautiful is actually the mistakes in things or the flaw or the things people have rejected. Say, for instance, my favourite music of late has been Cocorosie where they bring disparate concepts together to create different sound, and I really like to do that visually. 

Your advice to young women?
Concentrate on the work you’re doing – try not to get to preoccupied with the hows and wherefores of going out in the world. Do stuff that’s intuitive but be more focused on what you’re trying to create and people will come to you; you don’t have to chase down things if you’re coming from the right place. Things won’t happen over night but you’ll feel secure in what you’re creating. You’re not going to be blown about by the wind of what’s in fashion. Ignore that and just trust yourself. If people like your work, it’s going to happen for you. So just make your work as good as possible in your eyes.

*A note on Phillipa Finch: this was the non de plume Magenta invented while working at Berkelouw Books in Paddington so she could put more books on hold than the ones she'd already squirreled away under her own name. Phillipa evolved into an a sub-personality whose obsessive compulsive cleaning became known amongst staff as "finching".

See also:
The Gradual Demise of Phillipa Finch (Part One)
The Gradual Demise of Phillipa Finch (Part Two: Book Review)

Girl With a Satchel