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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For July that debut is big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press)—part feminist manifesto, part comic book, in which the author turns her life, her body and her mind into art, confronting what it means to grow up in an increasingly unfathomable world. Ellen Cregan spoke to Eloise in an Instagram Live conversation earlier this month.  

Ellen Cregan: Have you got an elevator pitch for your book, for those who haven’t read it yet?

Eloise Grills: Oh gosh, elevator pitch, I actually never managed to have one of those—but I guess it’s an illustrated collection of essays, and they’re all memoir in some way, about existing in a fat body and what that means. So looking at it through a bunch of different prisms, like through pop culture and through society, and through my autobiography as well, and thinking about beauty culture and beauty standards, and the idea of writing memoir at all.

How did this book come to be published? As you said, there’s quite a lot of different essays in there that engage with a lot of different ideas. Did you always know you wanted it to be a book?

It started its life as an essay that I was writing in 2017, because I’ve always been interested in the body and wanted to write about that, but I had some trepidation about writing about my own relationship to my body—it was something that was always in my mind, but that I had never really addressed. So I went from there to writing the essay, which won the Lifted Brow Experimental Non-fiction Prize, and from there I started working on a book. At first I thought it might be a more straightforward memoir, but then I decided that I wanted it to be a collection of essays, and a collection of experimental essays—so some of them are prose poetry, some of them are illustrated, some of them are comics. I’m particularly drawn to comics, as a medium, so I definitely wanted to have quite a lot of that.

I’ve always been interested in the body and wanted to write about that, but I had some trepidation about writing about my own relationship to my body.

What comes first when you’re writing? Is it the words or the illustrations, or a single artwork?

I think often it’s the written part. I’ll have phrases and ideas going around in my head, I’ll have little notes that I’ll take on my phone or what have you, and then that will develop. I might write the ‘script’, which is often quite fragmented. And then I often go into a visual way of working, and then I might go back and forward between the two. I have a tendency to get quite bored, so I like to alternate, I like to spend a bit of time drawing and a bit of time writing.

Do you find between the two mediums that things develop at a different pace?

The writing takes longer, for me—particularly the research heavy stuff, that takes me a really long time, and I don’t think of myself as being a particularly fast writer. I feel like a good day might be 200 words—sometimes it’s much faster than that if I get in a flow. With the paintings, I think particularly when I get in that flow state, there’s quite a lot of joy and often quite a lot of humour in the work that I’m doing, so it’s almost like the treat I give myself after I’ve done the writing for a while. Which means sometimes the paintings get left until last, which is a bit annoying because it’s my favourite part.

The book, in both the written and illustrated aspects, is concerned with really big topics—there’s a lot about feminism and mental health, diet culture, and fatness—but you are really humorous and witty and cheeky. Can you speak a bit about using humour in your work, especially when you’re broaching serious topics?

I think I’ve always had a pretty dark sense of humour. I love telling a joke, I love making people laugh, I’m not very serious—sometimes I might come off a little serious with my writing, but I never feel that way internally.

I think the first time I really engaged with funny writing was when I read Hera Lindsay Bird’s collection Hera Lindsay Bird, and I think that just completely changed the way that I approached humour in my work. There’s a bunch of New Zealand poets that I found really inspiring, like Freya Daly-Sadgrove and Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. I think the idea of taking humour and putting it into my work—I’ve always been tweeting stupid puns and things like that, and I really enjoy doing that—and I’m like, well, why don’t I put some of that into my writing? Why don’t I use some of that silly word play? The only reason was because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to, but I feel like reading some of that work gave me permission.

The other thing you do a lot in this book, and generally in your art practice, is you do a lot of self portraiture. Why do you like to use yourself as a subject?

I think because it’s the most accessible thing that I have. I try to work in different ways and take myself out of myself, but so much of my practice is about that experience of being within a body and then having other people observe that body, and being in these really hyper-observed spaces, like on social media. And I think there’s an element there as well of playing with this uncanniness of it—like I’m creating this weird doppelgänger of myself, that is partially me and partially not.

So much of my practice is about that experience of being within a body and then having other people observe that body—like I’m creating this weird doppelgänger of myself, that is partially me and partially not.

And I think I’m really interested in just examining my way of being in the world, and examining my thoughts and feelings, and transforming that into art in some way. I really enjoy reading really personal work because I find that the hyper-personal and the really specific can often be the themes that I relate to most in a piece of work. Even if it’s not something that I have experienced, I can say, ‘oh, that person has used a really specific memory, or a particular embarrassment or something like that’, and I connect with it more and it feels more visceral in that sort of way.

There’s a lot of nudity in the self portrait as well. Do you think the nudity relates to how introspective the writing has to be?

I think so—I mean, I’m not naked that much compared to how naked I seem in the work!

It can be a bit of a stand-in for vulnerability. I used to be really self conscious about my body and really afraid of showing it. So it was almost a challenge to myself, like, ‘how much of yourself can you put into your work? Can you actually embrace your body and put it in your work in this way?’ And I found it not necessarily liberating, but definitely it’s made it less scary. I think a lot of my favourite writers, even if they’re not necessarily working with their own nudity, I really relate to that unguardedness in a lot of work.

Vulnerability and confession are two really important themes in a few of the essays of the book. There’s a quote in the essay ‘Huge sweeping meaninglessness of life with human body, for scale’: ‘Write what makes you want to die, but then don’t die and write some more’—how do you harness that shame and embarrassment in your writing practice?

I think I’ve always had a really strong sense of embarrassment and shame about things—it’s almost been a backing track to my life. And I think for writing, I’ve tuned into it a bit more, and thought a bit more about: why do I have these feelings of shame and embarrassment about these particular things? Why has it obsessed me, and what is that doing to me? And so I think just laying those things bare and being honest about them—it hasn’t been healing necessarily, but I think it’s put things into perspective.

Often the things that embarrass us most, if you write them down and come back to them a few days later, they won’t be so embarrassing anymore. Not getting stuck in that reaction, or neutralising it in some way can be really helpful.

Often the things that embarrass us most, if you write them down and come back to them a few days later, they won’t be so embarrassing anymore.

So in a few of the essays something that I really love is that you actually illustrate other writers when you’re quoting them. And sometimes you just draw them as they are, but other times you kind of depict them in a way that relates to what you’re writing about. Why did you want to show your readers the faces of the people that you quote and imagine them in that way?

I just wanted to have some sort of visual aspect to it. I teach creative writing in a theory subject at RMIT, and I’m always talking about, how can you put theory into your work in a way that’s actually interesting or enjoyable, or that adds something, rather than it just being jargon? I did originally have footnotes, but whenever anyone puts footnotes in something that I’m reading, particularly creative writing, unless they actually speak back to the text in some way, or they’re used in a more creative way, then I won’t bother looking at them. So I think by having the little talking heads, or illustrating some aspect of what they’re saying, that hopefully makes the ideas a bit more communicable.

I’m also really interested in rhythm and the rhythm of reading, and how often the images are a moment to pause or to stop for a second. So I’m really conscious of that in my work.

There’s an essay in the book that you talk a lot about your teenage experiences and growing up and into your early 20s. What was it like to revisit that very tumultuous time from an adult perspective?

It was very confronting. I had a lot of difficulty myself, but then I think I was also not the loveliest a lot of the time, with a lot of my friends. And reflecting on that, and reflecting on this set of dynamics that I went through, I thought was really important.

I’m really interested in rhythm and the rhythm of reading, and how often the images are a moment to pause.

I can picture really clearly what was happening, and the dramas that were going on—who was pushed out of the group that week, who weren’t we talking to that week. In that stage of life everyone is just in so much turmoil and pain of their own, but I think things feel particularly desperate when you’re a teenager and everything feels like the end of the world. So to avoid being rejected, you’ll basically do anything to fit in. I went back and interviewed a couple of people from my high school, and it was quite interesting to hear other people’s perspectives about what was going on. And the things that I was so concerned about and obsessed about and frightened about, they didn’t even know that they were going on—they had their own dramas and struggles.

What are some memoirs and pop culture that heavily informed your writing for this project?

Obviously Mean Girls was a very big influence! In terms of pop culture, I’m very inspired by Kanye West and his lyricism, Lana Del Rey, Courtney Love. There’s also a book from the 80s called Working Hot by Mary Fallon—it’s about sex workers in Sydney and it’s filled with puns and poeticism and it changes forms every chapter, and it’s quite experimental. I think that work was really pivotal—I was like, ‘oh wow, this is this person that was doing this ages ago and doing this really interesting hybrid work’. And definitely the work of Ellena Savage and Maria Tumarkin as well, who wrote my lovely blurbs, and who were a huge inspiration for me.

Did your writing or your art change much during the editing process?

A few of the essays were published along the way, so it was really about paring things down and making things fit within the context of a book. My first draft was around 450 A4 pages, so it was a lot of trimming down. And my editor Coco McGrath also worked with me on the sentence level, and on which sections to take out and how to fit things together.

So much of it is about rhythm and timing—with my writing, I often record myself reading and then I listen back and then I make edits based on that. And it’s a bit inspired by spoken word, where I’m really thinking about the pacing and how it sounds. So it was probably less of a heavy handed edit than other kinds of books, just because I have such an idiosyncratic way of writing, and Coco really respected that.

What has it been like for you to be so nude and revealed in a public forum with this book?

It is pretty weird—a lot of the time before when I was writing for small journals or zines I sort of assumed that no one was reading my work. And now it’s obvious that people are reading it.

But I think it’s a good thing for me, because I have to let go a bit of how people perceive me. I think this is the point at which the book really is no longer mine, so I’m letting it be in the hands of the readers and people, who will have their own reactions to it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. To watch the full conversation, visit KYD‘s Instagram profile.

big beautiful female theory is available now from your local independent bookseller.