"From the Hill," Hilary Paynter

On Time Travel, Stories Without Plots, and What’s Hidden in the Undergrowth

A conversation with Max Porter and Hilary Paynter on their book 'The Hill'

IT BEGAN AS A JUMBLE of words and images sprawled out on a kitchen table. Over the coming year, it would be meticulously assembled into a book. A collaboration between writer Max Porter and engraver Hilary Paynter, The Hill wanders through history, memory, and deep time, all the while “joyously liberated from plot.” It is set on a hill—any hill, overlooking any town—and explores how time (quite literally) shapes place. Here, Max and Hilary talk to us about how The Hill came together. 

“Boars in Undergrowth,” Hilary Paynter

There’s so much cool experimentation in this book with font sizes, bold and italic text, and unconventional storytelling and bookmaking methods—like when the text sometimes runs through the gutter. Hilary and Max, what was it like bringing the words and engravings together in an actual book? What was it like to imagine and experiment with what this book could look like? 

HILARY: I had just moved to the area and met Max and James [who runs the Beaufort Bookshop in Bath] in the bookshop. Next thing I knew, we were up on Solsbury Hill. Two gorgeous men taking a granny for a hike. Max went bounding down into the undergrowth, and I stayed at the top, partly because I wasn’t sure that I was fit enough to keep up with him. But I imagined his struggling through the thickets and wondering what was hidden there. I stayed at the top and made a quick sketch of the view across the valley. This was the first engraving. It was the first time I had begun a project without a text. We started writing and engraving alone, then met to show ideas so far. There was a genuine interplay of suggestive marks and words which set us off on the next stage. 

I had worked before with Pat Randall, who was a brilliant printer of wood engravings and inquired about the possibility of his printing our book. When I mentioned Max to him, he got very excited and said that Max was his favorite author. And so, he became the fourth partner in the project. 

MAX: I have a fairly visual and musical relationship with language; I see, feel, and hear the shape and impact of words as I write, or try to listen to the potential energy that might be created when different elements are juxtaposed. My previous books have been playful with the text on the page, but also with images removed or alluded to, trying to get the relationship between image and text, or word and sound, to be a generative and collaborative aspect of the reader’s experience. 

For The Hill, Hilary and I shared our work in progress and intuitively responded to each other as we went along. When we had a chunk of text and a few engravings we spread out the images on my kitchen table, then I cut up my text into smaller fragments and we played with where they might go, what kind of movement we might achieve between different registers, how the images might become places for a reader to stop and rest among the voices. 

Credit for the look of the book goes to Pat Randle who set it and printed it. He is a master printer using the old ways, and he gets the best from Hilary’s blocks, as well as from the lead-formed letters he uses in his press. The book has to be held (and smelt and stroked) to be believed. It’s a long way from a digitally mass-produced paperback. 

“Skeletons,” Hilary Paynter

Max, I’m so interested in the word “believed” here. Can you talk more about what you mean by this and what makes a book believable? 

MAX: I mainly meant the physical book has to be seen to be appreciated as a total entity, rather than its constituent parts reproduced or encountered separately. The ink smells, the type sits in the bespoke gulley where it has been pressed in the grain of the paper, the different papers have a range of textures and thicknesses so Pat is revealing and concealing images, and so on. These deeply tactile aspects of the book can’t be conveyed unless a person meets it, physically, and spends time with it. 

I guess, in turn, that impacts the believability of the hill. A place that isn’t translated into poetry, or prose, or a vehicle for fact or historical record, but something stranger and less formal. A place where real conversations occur, slippages, leaps, real impressions on flesh, grass, stone, but also a palpable atmospheric blending of past and present, geology and gossip, flora and fauna. I hope it has a holistic handmade groundedness to it as an object, which means it can convey itself, speak truthfully of itself, just be in its materiality, but perhaps I’m projecting luddite fantasies onto the book because I’m a printed matter fetishist, haha. 

Hilary, there’s such a magical, almost fairytale-like quality to your illustrations in The Hill. Can you talk more about what the engraving process was like for this book and what it was like seeing them come together with the words? 

HILARY: I make wood engravings because that is how I can best express my ideas. I have sometimes spent whole winters on one block, but they don’t always take an age. Sometimes the tool races around the block. There were two engravings that started with a clear drawing. The View from the Hill as one, and even that was a fairly rudimentary, ten-minute sketch. I added the twisty path going down into the undergrowth because that was where I had seen Max disappear. The other was James and the Maze, which I only found out about much later when James took me up there. I spent a long time trying to get that right before I started the engraving. 

The other engravings were worked out directly on the blocks with ideas in my head. It is often risky, but the results are usually livelier. I usually have several blocks in progress at any time. When I am stuck with one, I simply move on to another one and return later when I have resolved the problem. 

I have to be completely committed to what I am engraving because it is such a lengthy process. But there is nothing like it which has those qualities and the range of tones and textures. The writing gets absorbed and feeds the mind almost unconsciously and moves one like music. 

“Honeysuckle,” Hilary Paynter

Max, what inspired you to write The Hill in this form? I’ve noticed, in my own writing, that some stories can only be told—or are better told—through poetry rather than straight prose. There’s such a wistfulness to your words, and I’m wondering if it was just as emotional for you to write the book as it was for us to read it. 

MAX: You’re very kind to identify this. I am wistful! I find the juxtaposition of human lived experience with deep time or geological fact profoundly moving, especially in the context of our deepening planetary crisis. It’s magnificent, and terrifying. 

I find Hilary’s engravings very emotional to behold, because of the exactitude of her line, and the way the physical fact (a series of cuts into wood) magically generate space, depth, mood, fear, desire, shadow, wit. She’s a special artist. I feel like Max in Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are when I peer at her engravings. Being watched, seeing things that are hidden, the knowledge that in Hilary’s world my room could become a forest overnight…

[The form is] a continuation of the approach form my novels, but joyously liberated from plot. The Hill is the thing. I wanted a sort of strata of language and feeling to exist in an ahistorical but hopefully emotionally resonant way. I like—for example—a deep animist reverence to sit cheerfully up against the dry scientific language of an archaeological dig, or the confessional intimacy of someone using the hill to enact a deeply personal ritual up against the colorful global kitsch of branding become litter. Plastic crap and sacred pathways all tangled together, and that needs a form somewhere in between poetry and prose and collage with found elements. 

“Dog Shaped Hole,” Hilary Paynter

Max, can you talk about the relationship between book and story? How do you imagine the words/engravings and the book itself to be interacting and communicating with one another? I always hear that a good book should transport us out of the book and into another world. It seems like the goal of The Hill, though, is to do both, to transport us into the book, which is a world in itself. 

MAX: Yes, I think it invites you in to be a part of the polyphonic tapestry, to tune in, overhear, and ponder the relationship between things. It also encourages you to plot a completely individual path through it. We aren’t in control; you are. It’s like a collage in that respect. You fire up the connections by letting your eye, or mind, wander, and the (psychic, political, aesthetic) hinges or ley lines between elements will be entirely yours. Maybe people should write all over it!

I hope [this book] can be wandered in. It’s a plotless, polyphonic, time travelling stroll. It can be read in any order, glanced at, stared at, each to their own. I hope it might haunt a reader pleasantly for a little while. 

Purchase your copy of The Hill from Nomad Letterpress here

Max Porter is the author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for a British Book Award in 2016. Hilary Paynter is a wood engraver and printmaker. She was recently awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the arts. Hardbound copies of The Hill are available at Nomad Letterpress.