A Flaming Chair Surrounded by Mirrors: Anna Iltnere quizzes Tom de Freston and Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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I received the following in emails sent to me from Australia and Hawaii. The British artist Tom de Freston and writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who live in Oxford, are a talented couple who have been together for over a decade. They were married two years ago in Goa, but spent their honeymoon in the Seychelles. By the time this interview appears online, they will be back in Oxford, having also been in New York. They always have their plate full with beautiful projects – books, and journeys. And sometimes, as in this case, they are not physically together while they happen.

The London-born Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a poet, playwright and novelist. Her debut book for children Girl With Ink & Stars (2016), published when she was 26, brought her international fame. This September her first young adult novel, The Deathless Girls, appeared, and in February 2020 her first adult novel (and sixth book) The Mercies is due to be published in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Kiran’s books are filled with myths, magic, islands and sea. “I’m fairly convinced I’m a selkie,” she admits in our interview, going on to describe the terrible storm that preceded the Vardø witch trial in Norway in 1621 – and inspired to write The Mercies.

In October the London-born artist Tom de Freston’s upcoming nonfiction book Wreck: The Art of Being Lost at Sea is – to appear in autumn 2021 – was announced. Tom’s practice involves the construction of multimedia worlds – combining paintings, film and performance into immersive visceral narratives – and this book is an exploration of the painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by the French artist Theodore Géricault and how it impacted his life, The story is also a personal one. “For over a decade, it became a leitmotif in my work as an artist,” Tom reveals in the interview. “But when my father died, the engagement developed into something more all-consuming and troubling: I became obsessed.”

Kiran and Tom collaborated more than once before, blending their imagination and skills to create unique universes. Even now they are working on a joint book, which is still secret but will feature a lighthouse and a Greenland shark. I interviewed them together, although each was on a different continent when I received their answers.

Book cover of “Orpheus and Eurydice: A Graphic-Poetic Exploration”, 2017

How often do you collaborate?

Tom: We met nearly eleven years ago, through a collaboration. A friend at Cambridge had written a play called Sodom. Kiran was acting in it and I had made these bestial caricatures of horse-headed characters fornicating, which were projected at various points as cinematic backdrops. The whole thing descended into a kind of staged chaos, and we found each other in the midst of that, and a game of spin the bottle.

Since then we have collaborated continuously. It’s often fraught, but always worth it. About ten years ago we did Scavengers, a collection of poems and paintings in response to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Most recently we did the Orpheus and Eurydice project, a multimedia reimagining of the myth which includes a poetic graphic novel (Bloomsbury, 2016), a collection of paintings, a short film, a performance and immersive exhibitions. We are currently working on a joint book to be published by Hachette, which I don’t think we are allowed to say too much about yet, but it features a lighthouse and a Greenland shark.


What do you think “cosmopolitan” means in the contemporary world?

Tom: I think it’s a complicated term, particularly in the way it has been co-opted in all kinds of potentially problematic ways. But if we are talking about it in a literal sense, of a society made up of people from multiple countries, then I think any answer has to be specific to each place.

I think in Britain we are in the midst of an ideological battle. The world is getting smaller, and we should be embracing the benefits of being cosmopolitan. We should be erasing boundaries, thinking collectively not just as a single race but as inhabitants of a singular ecosystem. Instead at present there seems to be a shift, driven by fear, lies and scaremongering, towards being more insular. If we want to survive and flourish, if we want to fight back, then the only hope is to drive collectively towards a more open society. With every breath we need to fight binaries and absolute values, to doubt the powerful who offer scapegoats and easy solutions to complex problems. We live in a country stained by the blood of its past and if we want to repair the wounds the answer can’t be to look back with nostalgia to a whitewashed view of the past. But if we want this to happen we have to win the argument, to shape the emotional narratives, not let them be shaped by the bigots.

We have to map our pasts and futures more accurately, more truthfully. Britain is being run by narcissists, disaster capitalists, right-wing loonies who emptily spout patriotism but set fire to the few things we should feel proud of, the fact we are a country built on cosmopolitan values. Our government have managed to make the EU and immigration scapegoats for the suffering that their austerity policies have caused. They have systemically and irreparably wounded this country. It’s a war, and the benefits of a cosmopolitan society have been weaponized to cause division and hatred. On December 12 I fear we will become that bit smaller, that bit more inward looking.


Can you tell me a little about upcoming book Wreck: The Art of Being Lost at Sea was recently announced? Why does a painter chose to write about a certain painting?

Tom: I didn’t really choose to write about Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, it chose me. From the moment of my first encounter with it, the pain in the painting caught my attention. For over a decade, it became a leitmotif in my work as an artist, but when my father died, the engagement developed into something more all-consuming and troubling: I became obsessed. With Géricault’s life, his masterpiece, and with making work that sought to grapple with it. Over the following few years I would learn what painting, both the looking at and the making of, can teach us about suffering: how it can lead us into, and out of, its depths. The book is an attempt to map that journey.



Your first adult novel The Mercies will come out in February. Why did the 1621 Vardø witch trial in Norway and the prelude to it, the massive storm, capture your imagination?

Kiran: My stories always begin with images: girls walking through butterfly swarms, floating islands, house built of bone. The first image I encountered for The Mercies was of Louise Bourgeois’ memorial to the victims of the witch trials on Arctic Circle island of Vardø: a flaming chair surrounded by mirrors. I was instantly intrigued, and discovered there was very little information about these trials, and certainly no novels about these vicious hunts. Once I’d learnt about the 1617 storm that killed most of the men on the island, leading to the 1621 trials to prosecute the women who supposedly conjured it, I knew I wanted to fill in what happened in those interim years. I’m always intrigued by the gaps in history, especially around women’s stories, and this was a gift of a tale.


What does the sea mean to you?

Tom: Growing up in Devon, we lived in a numerous houses. The one constant was the sea – which, of course, is entirely inconstant. Its permanence and transience has always permeated my painting – as a child I drew wild creatures stranded on rafts, lost on stormy oceans, and Ive never really stopped since. I see each painting I make as an island in an expanding archipelago, a growing world populated by an evolving cast of characters. The sea is everywhere in my work, pouring in through windows and flooding surfaces.

The sea, or the threshold space between land and sea, always feels like a point of connection, to my wife, my sisters, my mum. To self. It’s a homecoming.

Kiran: I’m fairly convinced I’m a selkie. There is nowhere I feel more soothed, more myself than by or in the sea. I grew up in landlocked Surrey, and now we live in land-locked Oxford, but we escape to the sea as often as possible. My favourite coast is North Norfolk, perfect for swimming, and I go in no matter the time of year, or the weather. The sea means peace, connection, and calm.


What was the last exotic adventure you went on?

Kiran: We’re lucky enough to travel a lot, and recent adventures include a honeymoon in the Seychelles (that included an encounter with a tiger shark!), cultural gluts in New York, and an Epicurian adventure in the mountains of Snowdonia, Wales. Next we are off to Hawaii. Tom will have been away for a month, working with indigenous artists in Australia, and we are meeting in Oahu for a week of snorkelling and walking, before moving on to New York for meetings.

Tom: Despite loving the sea I am not a great swimmer. Kiran is, she is a seal in human form. We learnt to scuba dive in the Seychelles, and as amazing as it was we both still prefer snorkelling. Theres something about the immediacy of it, of exploring the underwater world with a single breath, of not being reliant on kit or other people. I used to spend hours as a child searching beaches for single pebbles, each feeling like a little world, and snorkelling feels like that on speed, alien worlds, almost infinite possibilities.