Eloise Grills for The Stella Shortlist
Eloise Grills is an award-winning essayist, comics artist and poet, interested in hybrid visual-textual forms.
big beautiful female theory is her first illustrated memoir-in-essays. In addition to being shortlisted for The Stella Prize, the work was shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards and highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
Her first poetry collection, If you’re sexy and you know it slap your hams, was shortlisted for the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award.
ASTRID: Eloise Grills. I am so thrilled to be talking to you today.
ELOISE: Oh, thank you so much, Astrid. I'm really, really, really thrilled to be here.
ASTRID: Now you are in Paris, and I feel like I have to acknowledge that we are recording internationally, but also you are there on an artist writer's residency. Can you tell me what you are doing in Paris because I am jealous.
ELOISE: Well, I'm staying at The Keesing Studio, which is at the Cité Internationale des Arts in the Marais in Paris, and I actually applied to do this through the Australia Council in 2020, and it's been delayed till now. At the moment I'm just developing work. I'm going to museums, I'm going to galleries. I'm eating lots of croissants and I'm doing lots of painting and drawing at the same time.
ASTRID: That sounds just delightful. Now I'm completely distracted because I would also like to be in Paris, but I am going to bring us back to the present, which is where I get to say hearty congratulations. Many, many congratulations, Eloise on your shortlisting for the Stella Prize for Big, Beautiful Female Theory.
ELOISE: Thank you so much. It's absolutely such an honour. I am always obsessed with the Stella each year and the books that are shortlisted. So yeah, I was so thrilled to be longlisted. I did not expect to be shortlisted. It's incredible, and it was such a great list as well.
ASTRID: big beautiful female theory. It's a graphic work. It is a series of essays. And I realised as I was preparing my questions for you, Eloise, do we call them graphic essays? Is there a term for what you've done?
ELOISE: I tend to describe the book as a memoir in illustrated essays.
ASTRID: That is good. Memoir in illustrated essays. For those who haven't either read Big Beautiful Female Theory or even seen it in a bookstore, can you describe this gorgeous work of literary art?
ELOISE: I will try. So big beautiful female theory, it's a memoir, it's a graphic novel, it's part poetry, and it basically explores what it's like to be in a fat woman's body and explores that from many different angles. There's an example of an essay about hypothetical museum that I created called ‘The Museum of Fat Bitches Art’. There's essay about high school and bullying and being both the perpetrator and the victim of that.
So yeah, it basically goes through all these different ways in which I've sort of confronted being in my own body and trying to explore what that means more generally as well, and looking at theory and things like that to sort of deepen my own experiences.
ASTRID: I've now read this work several times, Eloise, and the first time I think I squealed in glee with just what you were doing and seeing, making me feel uncomfortable. I don't know, taking some great, well aimed shots at patriarchy while you were at it. It was a deeply satisfying read and going back and spending more time looking at your art and pondering your words. I don't know who I would not recommend this book for. I mean obviously there's kind of a female audience in mind I guess, but it's kind of for everyone and I just cannot wait to give it to my young niece. She probably needs a year or two more, but I cannot wait to give it to her. But my question I guess is what is your favourite essay in here? Because they all work together, but they stand alone as well.
ELOISE: I think probably my favourite one is the last essay, ‘Huge Sweeping Meaninglessness of Life With Human Body For Scale’. Possibly because it's the last one that I worked on. It actually was the last essay of the collection, and so I'm probably the least sick of it. But I feel like in that sort of essay, I explore what it means to write confessionally and I guess a bit of the social pressure to do that and the way that I've sort of, I don't know, I've sort of come of age or come to writing through this time where there was this extreme pressure, particularly on young women, but on other marginalised communities as well, to sort of tell their story, to tell their trauma and what that means and why that has been so important and what effect that has sort of had on people.
ASTRID: Okay. That's prompted a whole lot of unscripted questions from me. I find what you just said, it rings true for me. I find it engaging, and we could just discuss this. I feel I have participated in that as well. I had an essay in Growing Up Disabled in Australia, and that is a different area of writing and memoir in Australia that sometimes feels like we are required to participate in, even though it's our choice to not participate, if that makes sense. Can you unpack what you mean by confessional writing and that kind of broader trend that you were just referring to in terms of what you feel you have participated in?
ELOISE: Yeah, absolutely. I would say confessional writing to me is writing that explores the self and which aims to be completely unguarded in writing about the self and in about telling your own story. People describe Sylvia Plath as a confessional poet. I think that's actually a... I wouldn't label her work as such. There's a lot of craft to it. But I feel like confessional writing also, it has become very gendered idea. It's this idea of the woman sort of writing about her life and sort of complain about it.
And yeah, it's sort of like this histrionic sort of stereotype of a woman stuck in her trauma or something like that. And yeah, I feel like particularly maybe since the popularisation of the MeToo movement, but probably before that a writer described it, and I sort of borrowed that term in my book as the, I can't remember exactly the terms, but something like the Confessional Writing Industrial Complex. And it was a sort of period on the internet where there were websites like xoJane and Jezebel and in Australia there was a few different ones that I honestly can't remember off the top of my head, but these sort of websites where it was imperative for young women to sort of tell their stories and to write about the worst thing that had ever happened to them for $100 or so.
So I was really interested in that idea of the exploitative nature of that and the idea that it was all about getting clicks onto websites, which is, I don't think necessarily speaks to the quality of that work. And sometimes that work would have great quality, but yeah, it's sort of this pressurised way of writing. Sorry, I'm rambling now.
ASTRID: You aren't rambling and I think you gave a really good idea of what it is. The pressurised and commodified nature of it can feel uncomfortable, particularly when a writer looks back years later. Who is your first reader? And by reader I also mean who views your art and looks at your creations.
ELOISE: I don't have them anymore, but I used to have a writing group that would be the first audience for my work, and that included some really great writers like Mira Schlossberg and Holland Singleton, Aaron Billings, Nick Robinson, Rachel Ang, and so they were some of the first readers of this book and they would sort of pour over it and look at it, and they were really, really, really great audience. I found actually quite, for a writing group, quite a tough audience.
Like when we had these sessions we would never let anyone get away with anything. And so I think I showed them big beautiful female theory, the first essay first, and it was before I submitted it for Lifted Brow Prize a few years ago, and they read it and they were like, ‘Eloise, this is great, but this is the most depressing thing I've ever read. You need to have some lightness in there’. So, when I first wrote it was strictly confessional. It had lots of black and white illustrations, didn't have any of the colour, and so I had to go back and I had to find those moments of joy to lighten things up a bit, which I think is where the voice of the book really came from.
ASTRID: What is your process? And by that I mean do the words come first? Does the art come first? Do you work on both together? Because quite often there is text in the art as well as also being printed on the page.
ELOISE: Yeah, I definitely think in writing. I love visual stuff, but I certainly don't have visual ideas first. So usually I'll write and then it'll be a case of writing for a while and then perhaps feeling a bit stuck and a bit unmotivated and then moving into the art and sort of doing that side of things. And I find it's a way of holding my own attention in a way that's really helpful to my process, but also a way of being more playful as well and taking some of the ideas from my writing and putting them into art and making them into cartoony sort of jokes can also be quite helpful because yeah, it adds to a reverence that I'm always trying to have in my work. I don't want anything to be too serious, even if I am dealing with serious issues.
ASTRID: So forgive my ignorance, I am not an artist. Do you keep all of your work? How big are they? I've spoken to Maxine Beneba Clarke before, and some of the works can be quite big. Is there an exhibition in your future?
ELOISE: Yeah, no, I already did have an exhibition of my work in Hepburn a few months ago, and I sort of did a group exhibition with a couple of artists because that was sort of in the character of the book, but I would like to do another exhibition for sure. But yeah, in terms of the sizes, I really do vary. Some of them are tiny, little A5 sort of size. And some of them are more sort of A3. And then I've got a few canvases in there as well. And I think it's probably better to be a bit more consistent in the size that you're working at.
But I try to be quite free with my process, so that often means I'm just really taken with, oh, I want to do a giant oil painting, or I want to do a much bigger watercolour or that sort of thing. So putting it all together and I've got heaps and heaps of stuff if you are wondering. I've got drawers and drawers and drawers full of artworks. But yeah, hoping I can do something with them soon.
ASTRID: So you now find yourself in Paris, and I know that you applied to this residency years ago and the pandemic happened, but you are now in Paris. You are wandering around some of the most impressive galleries in the world. Where do you go with that? You're shortlisted for the Stella Prize, you're at a residency in Paris. Aside from eating croissants, what are you working on?
ELOISE: I knew you were going to ask that. I'm really just researching ideas at the moment. I don't have anything solid. I love the idea of doing something in the horror genre. I'm thinking about possibly something for younger readers, like a graphic novel for younger readers or something like that. But yeah, because this project I really enjoyed, but parts of it were really hard and quite a slog and quite difficult emotionally. So I'm hoping that my next project can be majority joy and fun and happiness.
ASTRID: For the record as you were saying that, and I stare at you over Zoom, you were smiling then. So whatever you are working on next, I do hope it brings you joy. I am going to be the interviewer though who does ask you about memoir. You just mentioned that some of it was a bit of a slog. Memoir is a specific art form and it does require you to give of yourself and to share of yourself now. That there are copies of big beautiful female theory everywhere, hopefully including in Paris, what's it like to have that part of you out there?
ELOISE: It's pretty confronting. I actually wrote a comic about this not that long ago. It was in The Guardian about the sort of feeling of having a book out there in the world and that vulnerability of it. And I feel like a lot of authors I've talked to talk about this experience, but not necessarily publicly. So I wanted to sort of talk about it more publicly, but it's very vulnerable. You feel skinless, and you feel a lot even if you aren't being observed, that panopticon feeling of being on Instagram all the time because people are out there looking at your book.
So yeah, I think it's been tricky for me because I like to have a lot of freedom in my creative process. And the moment that you think about anyone else looking at or reading your work is the moment for me that creative process stops or is... you start to self-censor or you start to... thinking too much about other people, I think, is not... Particularly at the beginnings of a work is really important not to do, to me. Yeah, it's a been a learning process of being able to take that space for myself and to feel like I can sort of protect my inner world a little bit more.
ASTRID: So no one can control how a work is received. big beautiful female theory has been received well, but setting aside that, what was your intention? I mean, no one publishes a book without some kind of intent or goal.
ELOISE: Oh, absolutely. Despite having some uncomfortable feelings about it, I definitely wanted to have it out there and I didn't want to avoid that. I feel like... I don't know, I feel like I grew up in this quite specific time and came of age and in the 2000s where diet culture was really, really intense. I think it's sort of has gone the other way a little bit now, which is good. There's sort of more of this body positivity movement and stuff like that, but I'm sort of seeing it via back now where thinness is sort of becoming more of linked with capital and stuff like that again.
But yeah, I just wanted to write really, really honestly about my experiences of being in my body and being in a fat body and how that has affected me and talk really honestly about that because I feel like society at large, we don't really think about it all. It's really acceptable to talk about bodies in this really deprecating way and to make people feel bad about themselves. And so I wanted to write this basically to connect with anyone else who had had that feeling or who felt like their body wasn't enough or who felt like they weren't acceptable, that they were object or that sort of thing. I basically wanted to talk about that honestly, and to be there for someone, maybe a younger person who has had these experiences.
ASTRID: Eloise, I teach, and I know of many students who adore this work and one has gone so far to jokingly threaten to write if this doesn't win. So I really do believe you have certainly touched younger readers than myself. Now I imagine part of this was created during the pandemic. How, if, did that seep in?
ELOISE: The pandemic definitely was a time for me of a lot of reflection. I was one of those people who I was working in disability art workshops at the time and that was not happening, or I was doing one workshop on Zoom a week, so I had a lot of time to think and to reflect, and so that definitely influenced the work. But I also [inaudible 00:16:06] on Jobkeeper, so I was actually making more money than I'd ever made before, which is very sad. But for me it was a lot of money. So it meant I sort of had the freedom to work on my book a bit more concertedly and I don't think I would have finished it as quickly if not for that pandemic. So yeah, I know it's obviously been a really, really difficult time for many people and I definitely had struggles and my mental health did have some bad times in there too, but I'm thankful for having a bit of time to really focus on my work in that way.
ASTRID: Eloise, you're the first person I have ever spoken to who came out with a silver lining from the Pandemic. Thank you.
ELOISE: Thank you so much. And yeah, I don't want to diminish anyone's difficult experiences at all with it.
ASTRID: What was your path to publication like? And I asked that specifically because graphic novels are increasingly being published in Australia, but I don't think it's as easy to get a graphic novel published as perhaps a physical object that is just text.
ELOISE: Very true. I did actually, I was supposed to publish with a now defunct Rowe Books, and then after that was no longer possible, then I worked with an agent to get it out to different places. But yeah, the answer from a lot of them was, ‘We like it, but no, we don't do that’, or, ‘We don't know how to do that’. Then I got into the hands of Coco at a firm, my editor, and yeah, she was just really passionate about it. She really wanted to do it, and I think a firm ended up being a really, really good home. They do a lot of children's books, so they are very familiar with that sort of work. They were very wholehearted about, ‘We want to do it full colour. We want to really embrace that aspect of the work’. They've done such a beautiful job with the cover. It's got this foil on the front and a pink around the edges. That was their idea, not mine, but I love it so much. But yeah, I think they really embraced it and did a really good job of realising it.
ASTRID: So the Stella Prize itself was only open to graphic novels about three years ago, and I went and looked this up so I could get this right for you, Eloise. In 2020, Mandy Ord's When One Person Dies the Whole World Is Over was long listed. And then Lee Lai's Stone Fruit was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, and that makes big beautiful female theory only the third graphic novel to be listed and only the second to be shortlisted. Again, congratulations. But also I'd like to ask you to reflect on this form that has always been around, but it's kind of only now becoming more accessible in Australia.
ELOISE: I obviously loved both of those books, Mandy Ord and Lee Lai, even though Lee Lai is younger than me, they're both sort of my comic's heroes. I read their their work, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I really want to get into this’. Those two were definitely big inspirations for me, so to be in a similar category to them is incredible to me.
But yeah, I think I'm glad that it's sort of becoming more and more prevalent in Australia. And also I think Sam Woolman's book was published this year. There's a few others I can't remember off the top of my head now. But yeah, it's really exciting to see mainstream publishers taking these on. But it's interesting to see how sort of slow it has been in Australia compared to somewhere like France where you walk through the city and every single bookshop has heaps of graphic novels and they're often front and centre, and there's no association with being for children or anything like that. It's just really, really embraced here. And there is also a graphic novel museum that I'm going to go and check out while I'm here. It's not in Paris, it's outside, but I can't remember the name of the town. But it's a very interesting contrast and I think something that the French have done really well to embrace.
ASTRID: Eloise, it has been a delight to talk to you. Congratulations once again and I am looking forward to reading and/or viewing whatever it is that you create next.
ELOISE: Thank you so much, Astrid. It's been so lovely.