Working with Pictures: Eloise Grills

Eloise Grills is an award-winning visual essayist, poet, educator and memoir editor for Scum Magazine. She spoke with us about death, get-happy-quick schemes and bad think pieces.

Did you write or draw during your childhood and during your teenage years? 

When I was in prep I had to write a daily textual-visual diary for school. In it I wrote about death, and dying, and more death, and dead things I found in the yard: a dead mouse, a dead shark, a dead possum. We had a border collie called Bonnie that my parents had been given as a wedding gift. One day I asked my mother if I could get a puppy, and she must have explained to me that I could have a puppy when Bonnie passed. I drew in my diary a picture of Bonnie in a kennel, and then a newer, smaller dog next to Bonnie, and wrote the caption 'When bonnie is dead I am getting a puppy'.

When I was a teenager, I was so emo that I sat in a room for a year drawing portraits of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. I also wrote incredibly bad poetry and sentimental, crap fiction about doomed romances which I had never experienced because I was too shy to be romantic with anybody. A blessing in disguise because I learned how to draw and how not to write in the same period.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing/illustrations?

I have worked as a bar person at an arts centre and at an army barracks, as a checkout chick at a supermarket, as a cashier at a bakery and at a Hungry Jacks, as a tutor, as a professional marker, as a primary school receptionist, as a brothel hostess, as an assistant language teacher in Japan, as a waitress and most recently as an engagement worker with a disability arts program. I have drawn pretty heavily on all of this in my work.

A comic featuring Eloise being called by the receptionist at an army recruitment office, eventually sitting in front of a Woolworth's 'Lest We Forget, Fresh in our Memories' advertisement

The bar work at the army barracks became the basis of an auto-fictional comic called Muscle Memory. I wrote and illustrated this story about me trying to join the army, and this fictional narrative was melded together with experiences I had working there, and how weird and dark and sort of fucked-up an environment it was. I’ve recently been writing a lot about bodies, and diet culture – and the ways in which bodies are assessed, commented on, dissected and policed in everyday work environments – greatly informs that. My essay that won the experimental non-fiction prize definitely focuses a lot on the dehumanising effect of body policing in the workplace.

If you weren’t writing and illustrating, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

If I wasn’t writing and illustrating, I would be losing my mind probably (only partly joking). I have tried to do other things and to divert my interests into other pursuits which I feel like I ‘should’ find more worthy. About once every couple of years, I come up with a get-happy-quick scheme that I decide will ultimately change my life, like last year when I decided I would become a massage therapist for about two weeks.

I’m happiest when I am writing and drawing, though, and then doing other work to ensure that I have a stable income that also makes me feel like I’m contributing, somehow. I currently work as a tutor for children in out-of-home care and as a support worker at a disability arts organisation. I think if I wasn’t doing art and writing I would most likely be a teacher, a disability or aged care worker – something that would make me feel like I was helping someone, somewhere, and where I could use my creativity to do so.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing/illustrating?

The best advice I’ve received about working as a freelance writer and illustrator is that you only need to tick two of the three following boxes: punctual, talented and good to work with. If you can hit two of these, then you will continue to be seen as valuable. As someone who is extremely perfectionistic and can find that this inhibits my creativity, focusing on ticking two of the three boxes can help to reassure me. The worst advice is that you should get up at 6am and start your writing then. No-one should be up at 6am.

Comic titled 'Insomnia Tracking App', where a phone tells the user, 'Yes you're still awake bitch'

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

The first time I actually religiously kept a diary was when I was writing and illustrating my Scum Mag column, Diary of a Post-Teenage Girl. I found it very helpful to keep my thoughts in order and to consider my emotional state and how it fluctuated day-to-day and month-to-month, and how much this flux was influenced by events.

Since then, I pretty much always have a diary on the go. I used to have this book where I was like, 'this is my special book, it is only for my extremely rigid idea of what a diary is and nothing more'. Now I have something I call an 'everything book' that I carry everywhere and in it I write my shopping lists, my to-do lists, my reflective diaries, my doodles, drawings, paintings, poems – I think this freedom really helps me not to limit myself before I’ve even started.

Which classic book/play/film/other piece of art do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Oh gosh. There is just so much dry literary fiction that keeps on getting written and praised, and written and praised. I’m not really interested in literary fiction, unless it’s weird, or playful, or experimental – that is unless it is like the best bit of lit fiction ever written, e.g. Elena Ferrante’s work. I don’t really want to name names but basically the whole Australian old guard of fiction writers can be v. v. boring and bad.

I think, even though it’s not exactly underrated (but its writer/illustrator Phoebe Gloeckner still has a day-job, and seriously, if she has to have a day-job, kill me now), Diary of a Teenage Girl has been a huge influence on my work and my approach. I love the way she collapses the distinction between memoir/fiction, comics/prose. And she does it in a way that's not up its own ass about how experimental it is, but just in it for the pure fun of the process.

Illustration of Eloise with text: 'Badly written love interests / we shed our motivations like leaves /  Let them bob to our shallow surfaces – it's like men forgot to pen us souls'

Do you have any strange writing and/or illustrating habits, customs or superstitions?

I don’t think so. Not aside from the fact that I live in filth while I create and throw bits of paper and masking tape and sharpenings on the floor to pick up later. Or is that just a slob habit? 

Have you created anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Once I’m finished with a project, it’s behind me, and then I have to move onto the next thing. Like a shark, if I stop swimming ... something bad happens.

I’m sure if I went through all of my work that I would want to change something in everything. I think a central part of being a published writer, and pursuing publication, and allowing your stuff into the world is that you have to let go a bit of something ever being perfect. And I try not to look back too much. Once I’m finished with a project, it’s behind me, and then I have to move onto the next thing. Like a shark, if I stop swimming ... something bad happens.

Oh, also I used to write really bad think pieces about sex which were really boring and polemical and make me cringe to think back on, so I’m glad that the online magazine they were on went broke and now you can’t read them anymore. Silver linings everywhere, always.

Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? (And what would you talk about?)

I would most love to have dinner with Alison Bechdel, because I think she is amazing and I would love to pick her brain about her process and how she is so damn talented and diligent and how she goes through the absolute hell she does of planning things meticulously instead of just making a weird hodgepodge. I would ask her, why no hodgepodge, Alison? You think you're better than me? And then she would ask me to leave. Even in my fantasies I'm a disappointment.

Portrait of Eloise Grills

Eloise Grills is an award-winning visual essayist, a poet, educator and memoir editor for Scum Magazine. She was recently awarded the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Nonfiction for her Scum Magazine column, Diary of a Post-Teenage Girl, and The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction (2018). She was a finalist for the mid-year Walkleys, and was recently named as a finalist for the 2018 Subbed In Chapbook Prize. 

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