Interview: Joy McCullough on Blood Water Paint

McCullough’s debut novel, which garnered critical acclaim and a Morris nomination in 2018 deftly fictionalizes the true story of a young woman named Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi made waves as a 17th century baroque painter, as well as the first woman to try her rapist in court. McCullough’s beautiful novel is told in lyrical verse, framing Antemisia’s difficult story with the greek chorus of two strong biblical woman, who also happened to be her favorite painting subjects.

Where did you first come across Artemisia’s story? Did you immediately know it was a story you wanted to shine light on? I discovered Artemisia many moons ago as a passing reference in a Margaret Atwood novel. I’d never heard of her, so I went searching. When I learned about her story, I was outraged I hadn’t heard of her before. The transcripts from her rapist’s trial still exist, and I read those with horror over how much hasn’t changed in how we treat women and sexual violence. I was immediately obsessed and wanted more people to know her story.

Blood Water Paint started out as a play. What was the process of adapting your play into a young adult novel? Did you know from the beginning it would be a YA novel? A novel in verse? Yes, when the play was in production in 2015, I really wanted teenagers to see it. I wanted them to know Artemisia’s story. And by then I had started writing MG and YA novels. So my realization was that it could be not just any novel, but a YA novel. I quickly dismissed the idea of writing it as a straight prose historical. Blood Water Paint is a historical novel, and a distant historical novel at that, set in 1611. But it’s also extremely relevant to the current day. I think it can be really easy for the details of day-to-day life in a distant historical novel to hold the reader at arm’s length. When those things are stripped away, though, as they are in verse, I think it makes it easier for the reader to relate the story to their own time and life. So that was one reason verse felt like a natural fit.

I spent many years working on Blood/Water/Paint, the play. So I knew the story and characters inside and out. I thought. But a play is all dialogue and action. It’s extremely external. The internal is up to the actors. And verse is extremely internal, and usually has minimal dialogue. So that was a huge shift for me. In a way it was wonderful. I thought I knew all there was to know about Artemisia. And suddenly I was looking at the story from inside her head in a very different way than I ever had before. But it was also a challenge, for sure.

 You tell Artemisia, Judith, and Susanna’s stories with an incredible amount of emotional strength and beauty. Was there an emotional toll to telling such a heavy story? Thank you. Yes, but I had time on my side. If I count the time spent working on this as a play first (which I do), I worked on this story over about fifteen years. So I was really able to take my time, dig a little deeper with each new iteration, peel back layers carefully, rather than gouge straight into my heart.

Talk a little about your research process! Is there anything especially fascinating or surprising you came across? When I researched the play, my focus was on the art history context of her work, as well as the transcripts of the trial. When I began adapting the novel from the play, I needed to do a lot more research on things like the reality of living in Rome and the time, or the ins and outs of the painting process. As a playwright, I can say in a stage direction that Artemisia paints, and it’s up to the actor and the director to figure out what that looks like. But in a novel, I have to be able to actually describe what she’s doing.

In writing historical, sometimes facts come together in magical ways. The Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes plays a big role in Blood Water Paint. As does a form of torture called the sibyl, which was used to ascertain whether or not Artemisia was telling the truth about her rape. Through research, I discovered that the sibyl was named for the Delphic sibyls, female oracles who spoke truth (ironically used to torture women for telling the truth). So it was surprising and magical indeed to discover that in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes is placed right next to his painting of the Delphic Sibyls.

What is your favorite Artemisia Gentileschi painting? A lot of attention has recently been paid to Artemisia’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine, newly acquired by the National Gallery in London, and it’s wonderful, but I am partial to her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Painters of Artemisia’s time followed a text called Iconologia by Cesare Ripa, which prescribed specific symbolism for painting the muses, the virtues, the arts—these were referred to as allegories. All of these figures were women, and for example, the allegory of painting was supposed to have unruly hair, a color-shifting dress, a pendant of a mask on a gold chain, etc. So many painters painted their version of the allegory of painting, putting their own spin on these requirements. But since all of these allegorical figures were women, Artemisia could do something incredible – identify herself with the art form in a way no man ever could. In painting her self-portrait as the allegory of painting, Artemisia essentially proclaimed, “I am painting.” And not only that: she very intentionally left out one required element from her allegory of painting. Traditionally, it also should include a gag over the mouth. But Artemisia was speaking loudly through her art and would not be silenced.

What are you working on right now? I have a second YA with Dutton that I am working on right now. It’s about Marguerite de Bressieux, a possibly legendary lady knight in 15th century France. I also have my debut middle grade coming from Simon & Schuster in 2020. It’s called A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and it’s a realistic contemporary about two kids whose parents are dating each other.