Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Q&A with Hettie Judah




Hettie Judah is the author of the new book Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones. Her other books include How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents). She is the chief art critic for the British paper The i


Q: What inspired you to write Lapidarium, and how did you choose the stones to discuss?


A: I am lucky enough to spend a lot of my time talking with artists – a group of people I find to be ahead of the curve when it comes to cultural concerns and fresh ideas. Artists often notice things some years before they enter mainstream discourse.


I’ve seen a flourishing of interest in matters geological within the artworld, in the concept of “deep time,” in ideas around animism, and the innate power of materials.


While Lapidarium is not an art book per se, many of the stories have been inspired by artists’ work, and their roving curiosity. That could be the blurry distinction between what we’d consider an artwork and what we’d consider a geological specimen, interest in a Victorian forger, or how a dictator’s aspirations to royalty are expressed through the accumulation of “crown jewels.”


In selecting the stones, I started off by reading very broadly around the theme of stone, and made notes whenever I happened on the germ of a compelling story. There were many, many dead ends (particularly in the realm of jewellery, much that is recounted as fact turns out to be wishful thinking) as well as startling discoveries.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Judah elegantly mixes archaeology, mythology, literature, and philosophy...” Did you have a particular balance of those fields of study in mind when you started writing it?


A: It was important that the essays were distinct and diverse, so I was led by the stories rather than the stones. The range of subjects follows my own interests and life experiences.


There are references to beloved works of literature throughout the book - Emily Brontë, Primo Levi, Anne Carson, C.P. Cavafy, Italo Calvino, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott and others.


I have been lucky enough to travel widely, including years spent in the US, Scotland, Turkey, and Continental Europe. Many of the stories are located in landscapes and structures I know.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I’ve ended up reading on subjects as diverse as equine dentistry and the international gravel trade. The research process was a constant series of surprises – I was variously entertained, horrified, bewitched, and startled – my understanding of the world has been shaken. I hope that excitement translates onto the page.  


Q: You divided the book into six themes--how did you decide on the book's structure?


A: The structure – and the categories of power, magic and the sacred, storytelling, technology, shapeliness, and liveliness – emerged from the essays themselves. While most of the stories could have found a place in two or more thematic categories, the structure of the book should carry you through an exciting journey that challenges your understanding of the material world and our relationship to it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book and Hayward Gallery touring exhibition On Art and Motherhood which will launch in 2024. The show will tour within the UK for 18 months.


This is a subject I have been working on in parallel with researching and writing Lapidarium for the past few years: I have just arrived back from a European speaking tour for my book – How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents).


This weekend I’m travelling to NY for the US launch of Lapidarium (March 7!). If anyone would like a personalised copy, I’ll be touring bookstores on Tuesday doing signings. There’s also a talk at NYU on Thursday evening, March 9. You can find all details in my Instagram bio - @hettiejudah.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This might still be a secret (promise not to tell anyone?) Following the great reception Lapidarium has had in the UK, we’ve started discussing a children’s version of the book. If it goes ahead, I’ll be writing that later this year. Fingers crossed! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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