Life and art on Lipari: a conversation with Janet Little
Yesterday I introduced you to my dear old friend, Hecate the Bandicoot, and my dear new friend, artist/poet Janet Little. Twenty years after “Hecate the feculent” came yawling and crawling into my children’s lives, my now 19-year-old daughter Jerusha came upon the book while I was cleaning the dark reaches of my office closet. I Googled the author up and found this self-portrait and bio on her website:
Janet Little grew up in Ogdensburg, New York. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and attended their European Honors Program in Rome. The following year her “droll, lavishly illustrated morality verse,” Hecate the Bandicoot, was published by Dodd, Mead. She also illustrated the book The Impossumble Summer, published by Walker and Co. She has done theater posters, sculpture, puppetry, and written a screenplay, and a great deal of poetry. She lives on the island of Lipari, where she is writing and illustrating a book based in the Aeolian Islands called The Mermaid’s Tales. She has a small gallery in her house on the corner of Venus and Mars streets called La Casa Immaginaria (The Imaginary House). There she sells prints of her drawings, and paintings on glass in the Sicilian ex-voto style.
More intrigued than ever, I emailed Janet, a spirited conversation ensued, and she’s kindly allowing me to share a bit of that exchange here.
So where did this extraordinary book come from?
I was about Jerusha's age when these poems started popping into my head, and I was always announcing "I just wrote another poem, wanna hear it?" which usually resulted in baleful glances, so that actually by the time I found an interested editor and pulled Hecate out of my sheaf, he was the first person to read it. Publishing it was like "flinging rose petals into a canyon and waiting to hear the sound of them landing," I'm not sure who said that about poetry, but anyway it's most gratifying to find that someone has indeed enjoyed reading it.
Dodd, Mead & Co did a lot of poetry (including launching the careers of Robert W. Service and Paul Laurence Dunbar) but they didn’t typically do children’s books. Wasn’t this quite a departure for them?
As I recall, Hecate the Bandicoot was published with an adult audience in mind, although I was always trying to convince editors that I thought children would like my poems. They usually said my work was too sophisticated, so it was very gratifying to hear that your children enjoyed it. Later on times changed and telling an editor I wrote poetry garnered the same expression as saying I had leprosy. So right now I'm trying to find ways to sneak it into the book I'm writing. As a day job I'm doing large paintings, which are fun.
You must know that you're living every artist's fantasy there in the Aeolian Islands (a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily). What's it like and how did you end up there?
Most Americans have never heard of them. They have a life of their own. Last night there was a loud earthquake with almost no movement of the earth, but the bang it made woke up almost everyone in town, so at 3:30 a.m. everyone was milling around in their pyjamas, acting rather blasè about the whole thing, I must say. I tend to go the writer's route on these things, so I was speculating about aliens or military experiments, and felt somewhat letdown to find out that it was just gas escaping from the earth's crust, a sort of giant fart I suppose one could term it.
Anyway, I had never heard of this place myself until the day I first came here almost 30 years ago. I was taking a trip through Sicily after my last year of art school, which was in Rome, and some Englishmen who had just been here came into my train compartment, saying what a beautiful place this was. So off I went on a ship towards these islands, and noticed as I neared them how much they resembled the drawings I was doing at the time. As the ship docked I saw a sailing boat backlit to the right of me, with young people moving gracefully about on it, and it was the first time that it occurred to me that one could live one's life with enjoying it as a primary goal. As I set foot on Lipari, I thought "I want this life."