Interview with George A. Walker on the upcoming Book of Hours

Caleigh Minshall

You might remember that in my last blog about the Toronto Small Press Fair, I promised to post my interviews with George A. Walker and Kildare Dobbs within a week or two. Well, better late than never, right?

What follows is my interview with George A. Walker about his upcoming wordless novel,The Book of Hours. Walker is an award-winning wood engraver and PQL has published a number of other titles with him (most recently A Is for Alice, but also Images from the Neocerebellum and The Inverted Line). The Book of Hours in particular is ‘‘a wordless novel told in 99 wood engravings,’’ and each engraving depicts an everyday moment in the lives of many different victims during the hours before 9/11. Originally I intended this interview to provide me with information for The Book of Hour’s promotional tipsheet (you don’t need to know exactly what that means right now, but I’ll write about it later), so the questions do not, unfortunately, provide as much of an introduction to the novel as I would typically like. Still, I hope that learning about Walker’s intentions and methods will pique your interest in the book and also shed a little light on a lesser-known genre.

9/11 is an event that some artists would hesitate to tackle. What drove you in particular to address this topic?

I was most interested in the cultural paradigm shift, the divide that 9/11 created in our world. There are cultural events that change the course of our history, and this is one of them. It globally changed how we understand and relate to each other, how we perceive the Other. We’ve immersed ourselves in fear.

And where were you when 9/11 happened?

I was at work, at Firefly Books. I watched the first plane hit Tower I on the television, and we thought it was just a plane that got off course. Where were you?

I was pretty young when it happened; I only remember that I was in class and the teacher left the room for a bit. What does a wordless novel or narrative offer to this topic that a written narrative cannot?

Imagery, the wordless novel, allows for those spaces that words convolute. I always turn back to Derrida: sometimes words and written narratives, when dealing with the complexities of the world, risk over-simplifying or being prejudiced or paranoid. The imagery in The Book of Hours doesn’t offer contexts or solutions; it’s merely a historical document, a record of what happened. I don’t want to give answers. Of course, its meaning — all meaning — will change with time.

You depict the normal routines of work and play in The Book of Hours. There seems to be at least two ways of viewing the role of routine in our lives: routine can anchor and reassure us in uncertain times, or routine prevents us from spending our time on more meaningful, fulfilling activities. How do you reconcile these two views? What is your opinion on routine? Does The Book fo Hours argue for one or the other?

The Book of Hours points to the problem, not the solution or reconciliation. I’ve tried to draw attention to how we in the West construct the idea of personal freedom within the imposed structures of scheduled work and routine. The hours in The Book of Hours, the 24-hour day — all of those measurements are social constructs. We construct these systems to constrain us while at the same time we declare ourselves to be free. By understanding this dichotomy, I think we can work our way through it. It’s important to recognize that you’re in a routine and also that your routine is not the reality of who you are. I’ve always been interested in whether, perhaps, our dream lives are richer than our waking lives. Maybe that explains why videogames and television are so popular. We need to be aware of the routines and constraints placed on us in order to live fully, and one of my aims with The Book of Hours is to help people see that.

What kind of preparation and research did you undertake for this work?

The research was very thorough. For example, I checked the weather in New York on those days and studied it hour by hour, so you’ll see that in some of the images it’s raining because at that time in New York, that’s what the weather was. As a Canadian, weather is the kind of thing we talk about! The book is really about the everyday, the things in our lives we take for granted and don’t even realize are important until the unexpected happens.

Could you explain to me your process of wood engraving? How did you come up with the narrative for this book?

Wood engraving is a sequence-based art. It has some relation to silent films. Our imaginations love to construct sequences of events — like a dream, since the dream itself actually happens all at once and it’s only after you wake up that your brain sets the dream into a sequence to understand. It’s human nature to organize ideas into coherent order so that we can understand and process their meaning. It gives us comfort to believe we understand something. But on the other side, there’s the narcotizing effect of knowing, that knowing something about an event makes us feel that we’ve done something about it. Wood engraving, and other imagery of course, is informed by this human tendency to impose order and meaning on sequences.

Wood engraving is a very old art form, at least compared to recent technologies like the computer. Many of your images in The Book of Hours focus on a single individual alone with a computer. Did you intend to comment on the effect of modern technology on people’s lives? For example, it may lead to isolation or lack of real communication.

Yes, I did, and yes, it does! Think about social networking — the public sphere of the internet — it’s actually a whole lot of individuals interacting with technology. The act of being in the presence of another individual is sadly disappearing. The fact that I can move my hands, change my tone of voice — those textualities make this interview unique. Much of our communication in this time period is tainted by our use of technology. Just look at the use of emoticons — emotions tainted by technology. Imagine all of the people in the Twin Towers emailing and using their cellphones to tell their loved ones that something has gone wrong. Imagine if the last communication you had from aloved one was email. What do you do with that? In the time when the Titanic sank, there was no way to communicate instantly like we have today — and yet, despite our ability to instantly communicate at the time of 9/11, we were still helpless to prevent the tragedy.

Who did you write The Book of Hours for?

I want The Book of Hours to extend beyond my own time. I imagine someone reading it 100 years from now, and that’s why the Porcupine’s Quill’s high-quality production standards are so important to me. I hope the book will be a tool for future historians to understand past cultures. There’s an impermanence in the digital world: ink, wood and paper might be all that’s left a few hundred years from now. The digital world will only be a theory. The internet in its very nature is mutable. Fixity exists in print. We have books from 400 years ago; books are proven to last, while digital technology is still unproven. Floppy disks don’t last more than twenty years. I still love technology though!

Any last comments?

Yes — that the everyday people who bear the burdens of political systems and decisions don’t have the power to change them. Those people with no power in society are the victims of political maneuvering. Even though we can vote, we still feel weak. It’s an illusion in the West that we can have individual impact. This book is my little way of changing our understanding of how an individual creates social change. The genre of image as text is evolving, from Japanese manga to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and I hope this piece contributes to that.

Hope Walker whetted your appetite for The Book of Hours, available in Fall 2010. In the meantime you can check back here in the next few days for an interview with Kildare Dobbs on his upcoming Casanova in Venice — plus the porcupette’s guide to author interviews (tongue, as always, firmly in cheek).

— Caleigh Minshall

About Caleigh

Intern at the Porcupine's Quill.
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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.