Cath Barton discusses her new short story in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd.
I often take an image as a starting point for a story. The title of this one is that of a drawing by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, dating from about 1500. It shows an owl in the hollow of a tree. Two large (human) ears stand amongst other trees behind. On the ground in front are seven eyes. It has a surreal quality, centuries before surrealism. The story it inspired me to write is about something untoward happening in a small, remote museum somewhere in Wales.
The genesis of this goes back to a trip I took to the Netherlands in April 2016. A couple of months before I had read a review in The Guardian of an exhibition of Bosch’s work in his home town, part of celebrations there of the 500th anniversary of his death. The review described this as being “one of the most important exhibitions of our century”. Never before had a review inspired me to take a journey abroad to see an exhibition. I don’t go to many art exhibitions. I didn’t know very much about Bosch. Neither of the friends I asked to go with me was able to do so. The exhibition was so heavily booked that I could only get in to see it at 9pm. I booked that slot. I found an Airbnb, booked a flight and off I went on my own for three nights to the little city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, a place I’d never even heard of before I’d read that review.
The weather was balmy. The city was beautiful, its centre compact and safe to walk around. I took a trip on the canal. The commentary was in Dutch and I didn’t understand a word, but images from Bosch’s paintings were everywhere. I climbed to the roof of St John’s Cathedral to see gargoyles originally fashioned by contemporaries of Bosch. And then I went to the exhibition. The famous Garden of Earthly Delights was not there but nearly every other painting by Bosch had been lent from museums around the world. They were displayed wonderfully. And there were his drawings, many of them never before publicly displayed. I was entranced.
There was not a copy of the English catalogue to be had anywhere in Den Bosch, but when I came home I bought it online, and, unusually for me, sat down and read it, all the way through.
I didn’t go on that trip with the idea that I would draw stories from it. Not at all. The idea didn’t even occur to me until about 14 months later. I’d been writing, mostly very short stories, things that I can do quickly, not stretching myself. But I had also written a novella and it won a competition! People asked what I was going to write next. Mm, I thought, good question. And there was Bosch and all his images, looking at me, inviting me, compelling me.
There was my next project. I went on a writing week at Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre in North Wales. I took with me the catalogue from the Bosch exhibition, and all rich memories of the time I had spent in the place where Bosch did his work. During that week I began drafts of two stories, got useful feedback, felt encouraged to continue. And, because I entertain the hope that one day these might be published as a collection, and because I know that it is not easy (understatement) to get a collection of short stories published, I decided that there would be a common element to all my Bosch stories. There is/will be, in all these stories, an owl. If you look at Bosch’s paintings and drawings, you will find an owl in nearly all of them, sitting in a hole or on a branch or peeking out of a window.
There are owls in stories old and new. They are fascinating creatures, laden with potential for symbolism. Think of Blodeuwedd in The Mabinogion, turned into an owl for her transgressions. Think of Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig, for him the bridge between the world of Muggles and the magical world. In my story ‘The Wood has Ears, The Field has Eyes’, an owl appears suddenly and is transmuted. Bosch’s drawing also appears. The strange events lead the main character in the story to a life-changing decision.
The setting for my story was inspired by a museum I visited once, remote and somewhat old-fashioned, like this one. Into this I dropped a character – again inspired by someone I’d seen, fleetingly – the Bosch drawing and my intention to include an owl in the action, somehow. Then I observed my character in the setting, watched what he did and saw the story spooling out like a film. How the owl appeared as s/he did just happened – that’s the mysterious part of the creative process, the unconscious doing its job.
Cath Barton is an English writer and photographer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, which will be published in 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She was awarded 2nd place in the Dorset Fiction Award, October 2017 and has another Bosch-inspired story forthcoming in an anthology due to be published by Wonderbox Publishing in Spring 2018.
Words & Photograph © Cath Barton, 2017.