Why Verse? An Interview with Joy McCullough

I’m working on a new novel these days, and I very much want to write it in past tense, but it very much wants to be written in present tense. Nearly every time I get into a good writing zone with this book, my verbs slide right into present tense. Maybe my subconscious knows more than I do about what the book needs.

It’s so interesting to me how different stories come to writers in present tense or past tense, first person or third person, or even in more unusual formats, such as epistolary or verse. That’s why I enjoyed talking to A.B. Rutledge and Jen Petro-Roy last month about writing epistolary novels, and that’s why I’m so excited to talk to my friend and fellow debut author Joy McCullough about her forthcoming YA verse novel. 

Joy writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate.

Her debut novel, Blood Water Paint, is due out from Dutton Books for Young Readers on March 6, 2018. It’s based on the true story of the seventeenth-century painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, and it is a captivating, courageous, completely inspiring novel.

Here’s a bit more about Blood Water Paint, pulled from the publisher’s description:

Artemesia was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

It’s a special, special book. And as I read an advance copy, I was struck by how beautifully the verse format fit the story, especially because I knew Joy had written other books that were not in verse. Here’s what Joy had to say about the format of her stunning novel!

Laurie: Why did you choose to write Blood Water Paint in verse?

Joy: First I should say that I have never written poetry. Several years ago, I worked with Laura Shovan on her MG verse novel in Pitchwars, but when I selected her, I made clear that I knew NOTHING about verse. I was there to critique the story, characters, etc.

And then the next year in Pitchwars I selected Ellie Terry’s MG verse novel Forget Me Not. And a couple years later I picked another gorgeous YA verse novel, which hasn’t yet been published (but should be!). I found I really loved how verse cut right to heart of a story.

Finally, tentatively, I began a manuscript in partial verse. That book didn’t sell, but it got me my agent, and it built my confidence with verse. When I was trying to figure out what to work on next, one of the pitches I gave my agent was the idea to adapt a play I had written about Artemisia Gentileschi into a YA novel. He was super into it.

So—and now I start to actually answer your question—in part I felt like verse would be a good choice, because I was used to thinking of this story as a play. And plays are very bare bones. Everything is stripped away but dialogue.  Economy of language is SO important. There can’t be a single excess word. Verse is the same.

And also, this is an emotionally difficult story. Verse has a way of allowing the writer—and reader—straight into the emotional core. I think writing and reading this story in prose would be brutal. Things would have to be described that, in verse, don’t need to be spelled out. The reader gets there with just a nudge.

Laurie: That’s fascinating that you were so drawn to other writers’ verse novels well before you thought about trying the format yourself. And I see what you mean about verse being well-suited to a story that’s as raw and emotionally difficult as this one.

What do you think the verse format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Joy: As I was saying above, verse allowed me to depict some really brutal things I wouldn’t depict in prose. It would be possible, but it would be a very different sort of novel, one I didn’t want to write.

I think the verse format makes this really difficult story more accessible for readers. It’s common for people to have a perception that verse is poetry and poetry is hard. But I think those people are mentally stuck analyzing dead white guy poetry in boring English classes. The rhythm, the economy of language, and the emotional core are all aspects of verse that I believe really appeal to young readers, especially.

Laurie: That’s a great point. Verse novels were often popular among students I taught for a lot of the reasons you name. What was the biggest challenge in using verse for this book?

Joy: I spent a lot of 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.

That’s so interesting that on the one hand, both plays and verse novels have a “bare bones” quality, as you said, but then they are opposites in some ways, too.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Joy! Fans of verse novels (and/or fans of empowering, inventive, gorgeously written, feminist books) can preorder Blood Water Paint from IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. And I plan to be back later this month with a second “why verse?” interview with Cordelia Jensen!

2 Responses to “Why Verse? An Interview with Joy McCullough”

  1. Linda W.

    Love the new format for your blog, Laurie.
    I really enjoyed this interview. 😀 😃 😄

    Joy, it’s interesting that you were drawn to the same type of novel that you would eventually write. And it’s equally interesting that poetry has enough emotional integrity to allow an author to delve into really difficult subjects.

    • laurielmorrison

      Thanks so much, Linda! I’m glad you like the new look and found Joy’s responses interesting!