Hettie Judah – Q&A

Hettie Judah
Hettie Judah
Hettie Judah is chief art critic on the British daily paper The i, a regular contributor to The Guardian’s arts pages, and a columnist for Apollo magazine. She writes for Frieze, Art Quarterly, Art Monthly, ArtReview and other publications with ‘art’ in the title, and is a contributing editor to The Plant magazine. Following publication of her 2020 study on the impact of motherhood on artists’ careers, in 2021 she worked with a group of artists to draw up the manifesto How Not To Exclude Artist Parents, now available in 15 languages. She regularly talks about art and with artists for museum and gallery events. A supporter of Arts Emergency she has mentored artists and students through a variety of different schemes. She is currently working on an exhibition and book on art and motherhood, among other things.

Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones is published in the UK by John Murray and comes out in the US with Penguin on March 7th

How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) is published by Lund Humphries, and will be available in the US on January 13th

Hettie can be found at:
Website: www.hettiejudah.co.uk
Twitter: @hettiejudah
Instagram: @hettiejudah

Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) book? 

I write about art. Inevitably I pinch all my best ideas from conversations with artists. The two books that came out late last year – How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) and Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones – are no exception. The first asks why artist mothers (and art about motherhood) still make the art world uncomfortable. The second is a book of stories exploring how stone has formed human culture, and how human culture has formed stone. It plunges through geological deep time, mythology, the occult, storytelling, land art, poetry, alchemy, jewels of power and protection. Contemporary art turns up in unexpected places in Lapidarium –in the story of a Victorian forger, for example, or of Imelda Marcos’s ill-gotten sapphires.

My ‘debut’ book was a little different – though that, too, came out of conversations with artists (or, more accurately, art students.) Studying in Glasgow in the early 1990s I self-published a cookery book called Black Coffee & Cigarettes. Many of my friends could only cook toast. They’d pass out at bus-stops – very picturesque in all their art student finery, but not a sustainable strategy in the long term. I don’t think anyone had done a student cookery book at the time. Mine was very basic, only text, no pictures, but the recipes worked. I laid it out (very, very, badly) on one of the blocky grey Apple Macs in the library. It was sold for £1.50 at student unions and local bookshops.

How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?

I turned 50 last year and have been a professional writer half my life – I have written for most British broadsheets, and international papers such as the New York Times. I also write for arts publications, and lifestyle magazine. Nevertheless, it took me until last year to get a book proposal accepted by a publisher – How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents), which came out with Lund Humphries in September. The books I authored up to that point were all brought to me by commissioning editors. I had proposed plenty of books before then, but none were picked up.

How long did it take to write?

Most of Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones was written over a very intense nine month stretch. It is a complex, research-hungry book. I worked on it seven days a week, for about eleven hours a day. Not a healthy way to write. I felt unhinged. Nevertheless, I think Lapidarium came out well – I’m very proud of it.

Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?

I can’t write or read with any kind of sound in the background.

How many publishers turned you down?

Too many to count…. (…and I still don’t have an agent.)

What kind of reactions have you had to your book?

The readers of How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) have become a kind of club. So many artists have taken it warmly into their hearts – I have been very touched. Watching Lapidarium go out into the world has been intriguing. It appeals to such a range of readers: artists, hobby geologists, jewellery makers, creative people looking for inspiration, anyone who enjoys a good story. It constantly surprises me to see who’s reading it.

What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?

A lot of sharing and public reading of How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) happens on Instagram. Artist mothers can feel very isolated – I love the idea that the book helps them connect to one another and share experiences. I’ve been approached to do a children’s version of Lapidarium, which would be very exciting.

What can you tell us about your next book?

My writing task for this year is On Art and Motherhood – a reader-friendly and approachable art history. I hope readers will want to carry it with them and read it on the train. On Art and Motherhood looks at motherhood as a subject for art from pre-history to the present day, and in particular at motherhood as a state experienced by artists. Along the way it will explore themes including infertility, identity, sexuality and the mother body as a vessel for culture. The figure of the mother is one of the most familiar subjects in art – whether the Madonna, or the angelic bourgeois matriarch – but making art about motherhood based on direct experience has been somewhat taboo.

Do you take notice of online reviews?

Oh, I wish I was suave enough not to take notice of reviews! Of course I do, though. Does anyone still discriminate between print and online?

Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?

Absolutely. The art world is ripe for satire.

What did you do before you became a writer?

I was involved in experimental performance when I was a student and moved from that into organising a small arts festival in Glasgow in the 1990s. From there I moved into journalism and art criticism.

Which author(s) inspire you?

I am in awe of Marina Warner. I read Alone of All Her Sex last summer and still think about it. Her intellect is formidable. Brian Dillon’s essays are so invigorating that I once leapt out of the bath mid paragraph. Thoughts of Dillon pull me up when I relax into lazy habits. Maggie Nelson has inspired many imitators: none yet come close to the philosophical gymnastics and linguistic clarity of The Argonauts. Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table – with its intimate symbiosis of the mineral and human – was on my mind while writing Lapidarium.

Which genres do you read yourself?

Art books, artist biographies, books of ideas – most in the stacks surrounding me were bought for research. On holiday I read sci fi – China Miéville, Stanislav Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin.

What is your biggest motivator?

In conceiving books: to fill in historic gaps and make the overlooked visible. In writing books: deadlines!

What will always distract you?

Once in the zone I’m very focused. If I’m not in the zone anything will come between me and writing (or, worse, edits) – social media, chores, food, the dog. No random and unrelated email will ever be answered so swiftly as when I have edits waiting.

How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?

How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) is part of a series with a fixed template – I suggested the colours (red and pink) and the publisher was happy to go with those. The cover for Lapidarium was designed by Holly Ovenden for the US edition (published by Penguin in March) – I’m really pleased that the UK publisher (John Murray) decided to use it too. I was asked if I liked it, which I did. I’m not sure it would have changed much if I hadn’t, though.

Were you a big reader as a child?

Yes. Whenever I was slow to respond (which is to say, any time I was called,) I was told off for having my nose in a book.

What were your favourite childhood books?

Small me loved wordplay and jokes. I remember different Russell Hoban books at different reading stages. Very young – the Frances books. Later – the adventures of Tom, Captain Najork and Aunt Fidget Wonkham Strong. Tween me felt the immersive pull of fantasy: C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner.

Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?

My local, Queen’s Park Books in London. They are geniuses on books for children. They are a proper community bookshop that supports local authors – I held the launch party for Lapidarium there. Further afield, the ICA bookshop is a danger zone for art books, poetry and philosophy – I can never walk through without buying something.

How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?

It stretches to many metres – I spend years accumulating books for projects I want to work on in the future. Each project starts with a couple of shelves of foundational research.

What is your current or latest read?

I’m just finishing Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch – I can really see her ideas percolating through certain sectors of the art world. To my shame I haven’t read Annie Ernaux. A friend gave me The Years for Christmas, so that’s the next journey.

Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?

Jennifer Higgie’s book on women, art and the occult – The Other Side. Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art. Brian Dillon’s Affinities.

Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?

My planned book On Art and Motherhood has partially morphed in a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition which opens early in 2024 and will travel to four different venues in the UK. Details coming soon.

Any events in the near future?

In February I packed my Interrail card for a speaking tour in Europe – dates in Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. I read from my books, and lead talks and workshops.

and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?

To write about art and artists is to constantly engage with other minds and challenging ideas. It’s an invitation to see the world afresh, over and over again. What could be more exciting?

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