Shaun Levin
May 15, 2024


The Publishing World & Art Galleries: An Interview with Shaun Levin

Valerie Fox: What are some ways, for you, that your drawing and writing interact, are connected?

Shaun Levin: My drawing is an extension of my writing. Maybe because I’ve always written by hand, drawing feels like an expansion of that gesture, the hand making marks on the page. Drawing lets me go big, big gestures, big sheets of paper, and I love that, even if the writer’s tools – pencils, pens, markers – are still what I feel most comfortable with. Drawing allows me more colours to work with. I keep trying to paint, to find my way into painting, but I don’t love using brushes and mixing paints. I don’t like the mess. No matter how messy the imagination is, writing is never messy. In order to paint, you have to be able to deal with mess. It sounds obvious, but I guess that’s why artists need studios. Even though I wrote about painters for many years, I didn’t really grasp that issue of The Mess.

VF: How did you become interested in drawing?

SL: I think I was looking for a more playful form of expression. My writing seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. It was taking me to dark places, which I think writing does, more so than drawing or painting. Writing is so much about the mind, about psychology, about burrowing and withdrawing. So I started making little sketches, first on my iPad, then giving myself license to just draw badly and presenting these bad drawings as if they were a technique. I put them out into the world under a pseudonym, made zines and cards, and people bought them, so I just kept going.

I’d always been interested in visual art, but never saw myself as someone who could make art. When I moved to London in the late 1990s, I spent a lot of time writing in art galleries, the Tate, the National Gallery, coming to art to inspire my writing. Galleries have comfortable sofas and big cafés where you can sit and write for hours, so being around art became integral to my writing practice. Around 2005 I think it was, after I’d published my second book and was looking for a writing project to immerse myself in, something less autobiographical, I chanced upon Mark Gertler’s painting The Pond at Garsington at the main art gallery in Leeds, and was captivated by his work and his story.

Gertler was one of the artists known as The Whitechapel Boys, Jewish artists who’d grown up in the East End of London in the 1890s. Him and David Bomberg and Isaac Rosenberg were the most prominent. I became obsessed with the three of them for many years, mainly going to places they’d been to and writing in situ, writing about their paintings, reading their letters, interviewing people who knew them. Initially, the book was going to be about all three of them, but then they each wanted their own book.

VF: The scenes in Mark, your novel about Mark Gertler, are arranged in a kind of collage, never too tricky to follow (in terms of time, place and the progress of the story). How did you decide on that structure, or how did it come about? Was it always part of your plan?

SL: This might link to the issue of mess, and learning to be comfortable with the mess of putting together a novel out of fragments. At some point I told myself that the book would be like a series of paintings and that fragmentation would be the strategy. I don’t think I have the patience or the elegance to create an extended linear narrative. It felt right, seeing as the book was about a painter, and somehow also mirrored the way you piece together the story of a life, even if that life is your own, the narrative’s a bit all over the place – memories, fantasies, dreams, other people’s stories – but also makes sense. The book is about the last years of his life, so the thread that holds it together is the gradual movement towards his end.

VF: Could you talk a little about the publishing world, which you have been involved with for a long time as both writer and publisher. What are some recent directions you are noticing? What are some publishing models/traditions that you appreciate?

SL: I think the publishing world is part of a bigger world, which is the world of books, and books come in a vaster range of shapes and sizes and functions than what we think of as the books of the publishing world. A book doesn’t have to be just smooth paper and words in ink. To think of ourselves as part of The World of Books is to give ourselves more options as writers and artists. We don’t have to stick to one type of book, one approach to writing and creating books.

VF: What are you working on now? What draws you to it?

SL: A project I’ve been working on for the past six months or so, and which I’m enjoying a lot, is an illustration project called The Book of Exes. It’s a way of revisiting my exes and drawing them from memory and photographs. I only started drawing in my 50s, so a part of me wants to have been one of those cool people who documents their 20s and 30s through drawings, who sits in an armchair with a sketchpad and draws their lovers while they sleep, or perches on the edge of the bathtub and sketches them while they shave.

VF: Thank you Shaun for sharing your insights with NFFR.

Shaun Levin published Mark (a novel) in 2021. In addition to being a writer, he is a visual artist, creating artist’s books and writing maps. His collection of short stories, A Year of Two Summers, was published in 2005. A novella, Seven Sweet Things, was published in 2003 and reissued in 2012. His work on Isaac Rosenberg has appeared in Desperate Remedies and in the monograph, Isaac Rosenberg’s Journey to Arras: A Meditation. He founded and edits the A3 Review and Press. Learn more about him here:
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