It’s 4 o’clock, there’s a nip in the air, and with a little bit of luck there’s a slice of cake nearby. Time then to rejoin Kyp Finnegan and Atticus Weft in their continuing adventures in the fantastical realm of Chimera, the realm of lost things.
I caught up with Dan between his recording sessions for Chimera, largely because I couldn’t wait to find out how he was getting on, and to learn more about his approach to giving voice to the book’s array of fantastical characters.
Some of the highlights of our conversation include, ‘the omelette of acting’, and A Dungeons and Dragons Guide To Characterisation…
Actor and voice artist, Dan Snelgrove at work in his studio performing and recording Chimera Book One
Kyp Finnegan is lost in Chimera after running away from the imposters pretending to be his parents. Chimera is as remarkable as it is dangerous – a fantastical world of lost properties in which bowties evolve into butterflies and abandoned sofas transform into snorting herds of soffalos! With the help of Atticus Weft, a sock-snake with a secret, Kyp must evade the clutches of Madame Chartreuse, who is determined to add him to her collection of lost children and imprison him in Chimera forever…
What started life as a story inspired by – and written for – my nephew, the book series, Chimera took up more and more of my time as a creative writing project. The light bulb moment was small and simple, in so much as, back in early 2002, my nephew was experiencing some anxiety around moving house and moving schools, going through a moment when the circumstances of his parents’ lives were impacting on his own in ways that felt unwelcome, unfair or just plain mysterious. Really that was it – the tension between the world as it is understood by a child and the world of adult decisions.
I wanted to write the sort of story I wanted to read as a child. I remember vividly a book by Dalek-creator, Terry Nation, called Rebecca’s World, which I read many times, loving it for its cast of characters and vividly-described alternate world. I loved being scared too – or rather that ‘cosy’ sense of being imperiled by unseen things and deadly menaces, content in the knowledge you’re really safe and sound in your Spiderman pyjamas. I loved Doctor Who for its cliff-hanger endings (I remember the ending of one episode when my beloved Sarah-Jane had a giant spider unhatch from an egg onto her face – cue credits, and then the long agonising wait until next week to find out if she was okay… She was!). I adored The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, happily oblivious to its Christian teachings, entranced instead by that magical-humdrum portal into that winter wood, and by Mr Tumnus himself, with his parcels and scarf and little kernel of darkness. In all these ways, I was a very typical little boy. Certainly there is nothing ground-breaking about stories in which children find themselves mixed up in extraordinary adventures in strange alternate realities, so why sit down and write ‘another one of those’?
Because I wanted to. Because it was always inside of me to do it. After the light-bulb moment came the whole world of my story, and it came quickly in bright, finely-wrought flashes. There was something fun and addictive about writing something to be snaffled quickly, an episodic, high-peril adventure populated by larger-than-life characters and properly frightening villains. I conceived of the book as something to be read last thing at night under the duvet with a torch, with chapters brisk enough to keep children reading even when they were supposed to be going to sleep. I wanted to write something I could have been reading ‘back then’ under my own duvet.
The story of a little boy lost to an entire universe of lost things soon grew into something more complex and ambitious, and the project of writing it – actually of finishing it – grew too. What began as a creative writing project in the box room of small rural post office in a small village in Lincolnshire went on to become a years-long commitment of writing and re-writing and re-drafting. There was a time when Chimera was always with me, carried on a laptop on long National Express commutes between Lincolnshire and Dalston, and then on trains from Dalston down to Rochester, where I was teaching, and then all the way back again, over and over.
Back in 2008, my good mate, hugely talented artist and fellow-kick-abouter, Phill Hosking, produced some illustrations in response to Chimera‘s characters, worlds and dramatic set-pieces. I loved this process. It was fascinating to watch all my text-based imaginings being realised by another creative – my stuff, but now Phill’s stuff too, two imaginations finding their sweet-spots.
Phill and I collaborated again in 2014, when the time came finally to push the Chimera series of books out into the world as e-books with Troubador. I think I could have fiddled with them forever, but I wanted to know they were finished. I needed them to be finished. I wanted to be done with them and also see what I’d done. Phill produced the cover art used across the three e-editions, featuring Chimera’s villainous trio, The Oblivion Three, headed up by the imperious Madame Chartreuse.
Alternate Chimera cover art designs by Phill Hosking (2014)
With Chimera now out there, I soon received my first reviews, most of which you can read, warts and all, at Goodreads. There are nice reviews on there and some much less glowing examples! Note the author himself gives his own books five stars. This is likely the epitome of bad form, but well, you would, wouldn’t you? Anyway, here’s a flavour of the bouquets and brickbats:
“The world Gomm creates is vivid and interesting, and provides some long awaited answers: where the heck are my socks, and that book I swear I put right here on this shelf? The creatures of Chimera are born out of those lost to our world and they dazzle and scare and hunt and grab and suck and talk and fly and cuddle… But beyond the creatures, beyond the quest to escape Chimera (or help the children stuck in Chimera), the book is about loss, both in terms of losing someone or something that is dear, and in terms of being lost. It is also about being missed, being wanted, and belonging. There is a good balance of melancholy and good humor and creative genius of this strange world that keeps the story flying.“
“This was a quite fun little story. It does end without resolution, as the story continues in book two. I think this would be great for school age kids, a younger Harry Potter and Narnia crowd… I think this is a perfect story for a younger audience, It’s written well; dark, but not too creepy, and I thought it was unique and imaginative.”
“I found this story to be a little bit of Toy Story, a little bit of Alice in Wonderland. I loved the different metamorphosis the things and people find themselves in once they’ve been in Chimera long enough. I thought it was fascinating.”
“Hard to stay interested, seems very childish“
“Almost 2.5 stars but not quite.“
I think I’m going to put ‘Almost 2.5 stars but not quite’ on my headstone.
On balance, the readers who enjoyed the Chimera books outweigh those who found it ‘hard to stay interested.’ The decision to put the book out there, when it began so personally and lived in my brain for so long, was a strange and risk-filled one, but when, for example, I was notified of the review which so nailed the emotional landscape of the story – (the book is about loss, both in terms of losing someone or something that is dear, and in terms of being lost. It is also about being missed, being wanted, and belonging) – I was thrilled. To have someone feel your book, as well as read it, was a powerful moment of approval. To have someone hate your book has power too, and is a good lesson in learning to take hard medicine.
Dan Snelgrove, actor and voice artist, recording Chimera Book One in his studio
All of which brings me onto some exciting news. On Sunday afternoon on October 4th, Chimera Book One, the audiobook, will debut on here as a weekly podcast, performed by the actor, Dan Snelgrove. Dan and I have been in cahoots for a while on this project and I am bursting with excitement about it. A few weeks back, Dan sent me a demo of his reading of Chapter One, and I enjoyed it so much, I had the strange experience of forgetting I’d written it in the first place! That will read like hyperbole – but hand-on-heart, it isn’t. I just listened to it, feeling cosied, childlike and Spiderman-pyjamaed. If this sounds rather too much like I was ‘laughing at my own jokes’ or self-aggrandising, I just mean to say Dan took what I’d written (all those years ago) and gave it back to me as something fresh and full-bodied and sparkly! In other news, Berlin-based artist and kick-abouter, Phil Cooper, has very kindly agreed to produce new artwork in response to the new audio recordings of the book, and I’m currently working with a very talented composer, who is working on some musical cues for the episodes.
I hope to be inviting Dan to Red’s Kingdom very soon to talk about his work on bringing Chimera to life as a spoken-word experience. Without getting into spoiler-territory already, there are so many different characters in the book, Dan tells me he’s had to populate a spreadsheet! My anticipation only grows…
“To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.“
Like caffeine, it is to this 1954 radio drama by Dylan Thomas, I turn whenever I feel my own creative mojo flagging. When the good words won’t come, I listen to this, emboldened always by the music of Thomas’s language and the rich meat of his imagery. When a character won’t materialise for me, I go back and spend some time with this fictional village’s ensemble of frustrated, thwarted dreamers, all of them caught, all of them poets, all of them rudely alive and real-seeming. I love the darkness here, and the way the extraordinary images just keep on coming, vignette-after-vignette sequinned with detail.
Whenever I listen to Under Milk Wood, I remember writing is nothing short of a magical act, and I scold myself for moping about, wasting time, and just not getting on with it.
Arguably, all previous Kick-Abouts have been a response to this same prompt, courtesy of Francesca Maxwell, with each resulting showcase of work offering a guide to the ways in which different people take unpredictable journeys into new and unexpected terrains. As is attested to by a number of the works in this edition, ‘getting lost’ is never about losing time, but rather gaining experience.
“When I started thinking about this prompt – about how you plan a trip, about what can go wrong, about getting lost – I was reminded of this bit of family lore which is often trotted out at our family’s events: the day mother went to Shrewsbury and got lost.
I have tried to capture something of the same spirit in “The Ballad of Ethel and Hilda” and reflect it in the images used, anachronistic though they may be. Along with Sir Derek Jacobi and Margaret Rutherford, you may also spot Joyce Grenfell, Sid James and Leslie Phillips, as well as a host of extras.
My thanks, as always to my techie, without whom this would not be half as much fun. I tip my hat, too, to my Mum Hilda, and her friend, Ethel. If there is an afterlife, they will be galloping through it, with gusto!”
Castle Road on Capitol Hill, Canada, (summers 1956 to 1961)
“Place holds strong significance, home on the city’s edge, schooling to begin in ‘58, summers beneath anchored clouds with shadows setting root, becoming cool dark pockets for secrets, and across the empty rolling range beneath bright light, daydreams ran wild being played out by shapechangers in search of possession. The house may still stand, the vastness of surrounding space has been lost, yet the place’s invitation, (in memory), to venture out and beyond is very strong.” Oil, canvas on board, 20x20cm.
“I wanted to capture the feeling (in moody black and white photographs, of course) of what it can be like just to go for walk out on a summer day with no particular aim and take in the sights and sounds of the local neighbourhoods here in Japan. Initially the intention was to create a mini photographic book heavily inspired by Tales of Tono by Daido Moyriyama but in the end it became a short film using still photographs in the style of La Jetée.“
“I must say thank you to whoever suggested this book as it was right up my street…loved it, especially “ the Blue of Distance” sections. This is a response to the part on maps…terra incognita.
When I was a child this island out in the Bristol Channel totally captured my imagination…and still does. I don’t ever want to go there or research its history as it’s a place of dreams that could be inhabited by giraffes and goldfinches or camels and weasels or simply exist in its own atmosphere of mists appearing and vanishing at will. A negative Uluru floating in cold northern waters.“
Cyanotypes in notebook.
“This evolved from Thoreau …”not till we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves” and Virginia Woolf ..”to be silent; to be alone”
Three panels, 12” x 12” graphite and watercolour on gesso.
“In A Field Guide To Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit says, “Never to get lost is not to live”. Such was the epic journey of Cabez de Vaca. He was the 2nd in command in a Spanish expedition led by Panfilio de Narvaez, which was commissioned by Charles V to establish colonial settlements and garrisons in The New World. However, after many disasters including hurricanes, shipwrecks, disease, starvation, attacks by hostiles and enslavement, only 4 of the original 600 men survived – including Cabez de Vaca. They spent the next 8 years wandering the S.W part of America and N.Mexico as traders and faith healers to some of the Indian tribes and were the first known Europeans to see the Mississippi River and cross the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. On his eventual return Cabez wrote a full account of the flora, fauna and Indian tribes he had encountered, and intended to conquer, but learnt so much from, including how to survive.
I decided to try something I had always wanted to do and experiment by doing a portrait of Cabeza using my old leftover makeup ie: various eyeshadows, eyeliners, bronzers and face powders.
So what did I discover? Well, yes, makeup is a good substitute drawing material – but Cabeza de Vaca – what a legend!”
“I don’t like the idea of being lost, and especially of being lost at night, so my contribution this week is a little sanctuary, just four walls and a roof, somewhere to keep the lost feeling at bay until the dawn, when the daylight banishes the monsters, real or imagined…”
“Looking at my work over the years, I found all my paintings could be titled “a field guide of getting lost”, whichever style I chose. It all seems to be about finding a path in the chaos. Not that chaos is not one of the most beautiful and creative things there is. Whichever path I take will take me into unknown territory, never again able to retrace my steps and never returning the same as before. And every path will propel me towards new unknown territories and new adventures the more significant when in the spirit of being “lost”.
These four paintings I chose started as concepts for a short animation I had in mind based on a recurrent dream I had as a child and on Dante’s opening sentence of the Divine Comedy “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai in una selva oscura…” They are inks on watercolour paper, cold pressed, 240x680cm.”
“This was a bit of a no-brainer for me, given my many (!) excursions into the meadows and arable crops of my local countryside during the course of the lock-down and beyond. I haven’t quite managed a ‘Field Guide To Getting Lost’, but rather a guide to getting lost in fieldsin three parts.”
“I read a preview of A Field Guide To Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, and I think it couldn’t have come at a better time. Things are really unpredictable at the moment. At times feel like I am levitating in limbo, a bit stuck, a bit stagnant. I am a bit lost.
If you allow it, being lost is to be beckoned by brambles and tripped up; those brambles can cut you deep with its spikes; maybe those spikes are actually fangs embedded in the coil of a boa constrictor – or maybe the bramble is something you could simply skip over and bursting with mouth-watering berries?
I used to love getting lost. I think a lot of it has to do with my childhood, when I was always outside finding and climbing the highest trees, mapping them in my mind as a brilliant structure that would suit a tree house; and finding the highest hills of rural Ireland overlooking the derelict cottages falling to pieces of a life long gone.
I recently moved house; my senses spill into overdrive. I notice familiar sounds that feel completely fresh. I notice the cornice that has a gargoyle on it. I get lost so I can find my bearings. I go on excursions and explorations and scope out the quiet, dainty coffee and book shops, or the solemn parks budding with trees and wildflowers, or the grey cemetery I can have a jog around while listening to bird song.
I still get lost because to really get lost is to eventually find yourself.”
“I was reading ‘The Blue Distance’ chapter in ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’, by Rebecca Solnit. I put it down and picked up a book on Eva Hesse, an artist I am researching. She had discovered this quotation in a Simone de Beauvoir diary of (1926). As soon as I read the quotation something opened up and I could hear the three voices in conversation.”
Darning needle on blue distance, front to back, drawing, oil on paper, 42 x 29cm
‘Lost in the making’, fabric sculpture, 110 x 60 x 26cm
“These are my art responses to this round’s prompt – which was the book by Rebecca Solnit titled “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” I haven’t read the book and wasn’t going to attempt it – so I worked with the title. My initial thoughts really hovered over the “Lost” part. I recently read a Reddit post about the Vietnam draft lotteries and how there appeared to be heavy bias in the initial lottery towards birthdays at the end of the calendar year. No one knows why – presumably the number draws were random – but there are explanations proposed of simple human error. Birthdays at the end of the year were added to the hopper last and then the whole thing was not properly mixed. These men, born at the end of the year in the years 1946-1950, “lost” that lottery.
My father was drafted in a different round, but the outcome was the same. The top picture is a reverse transfer monoprint I made from a photo of him and my mother shortly after he returned from bootcamp – he’s leaning on his beloved car from high school. The lower print was made from the first photo I could find of him after his first deployment to Vietnam. His face is different. He is different. Which is so strange to me, because I was born after he got out of the service and I’ve never known him any other way but after Vietnam. But making these transfer prints, it had never been more clear to me. It was shocking – and full of loss.”
“… but then Kerfe Roig posted her response to the prompt and it was about labyrinths and journeys and paths. I found it very helpful and comforting. So I made one more transfer print for her poem.”
In what I suspect is in part a response to the languor of lock-down, Charly Skilling is offering up Walter Richard Sickert’s painting Ennuias our collective jumping-off point for the seventh Kick-About. You’ll find the painting plus the new submission date below. Have fun, folks, and see you on the other side!