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Author Spotlight: Joy McCullough talks Blood Water Paint

I'm honored to be taking part in Penguin's official blog tour for Joy McCullough's bold debut, BLOOD WATER PAINT! This novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia's heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia's most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman's timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

"When I finished this novel, I knew I would be haunted and empowered by Artemisia Gentileschi's story for the rest of my life." -- Amanda Lovelace, award-winning author of the princess saves herself in this one

About the Book:

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father's paint. She chose paint. By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome's most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost. He will not consume my every thought. I am a painter. I will paint.

About the Author:

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint is her debut novel.

And now, here's my chat with Joy!


Hi, Joy! Welcome and congrats on your debut, Blood Water Paint. Can you tell us a little about the book and the true story that inspired it?

Thank you! Blood Water Paint is a young adult historical novel, written mostly in verse. It’s about Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century painter who lived in Rome and was taught to paint by her father.

I read that you wrote Blood Water Paint as a play first. What were the biggest challenges you faced while converting it into a verse novel??

I spent a lot of years working on Blood/Water/Paint, the play. So I knew the story and characters inside and out. I thought. But a play is all dialogue and action. It’s extremely external. The internal is up to the actors. And verse is extremely internal, and usually has minimal dialogue. So that was a huge shift for me. In a way it was wonderful. I thought I knew all there was to know about Artemisia. And suddenly I was looking at the story from inside her head in a very different way than I ever had before. But it was also a challenge, for sure.

Art plays a starring role in Blood Water Paint. Without giving anything away, can you talk a little about the importance of creativity and what art means to Artemisia?

Art is how Artemisia communicates her voice to the world. It was her only option, living as a woman in the 1600’s. She had so much to say, especially as a young woman in a house full of men, no mother, no real relationships with other women to speak of. She saw the stories everyone else painted in a different way, because she had a completely different point of view on them. And paint and canvas gave her a voice.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writers something new, so what did writing Blood Water Paint teach you?

Oh, so many things. For one thing, I learned a ton about the publication process, as this is my debut novel. But in terms of the writing this story, even before I’d gotten a book deal for it, I think I learned something I already knew on some level, but perhaps have to keep learning: I do my best work when I let go of the anxiety of whether something will fit into the market or other people will like it, etc etc. When I simply write because I’ve found a story that’s grabbed me by the throat, with no thought to whether it will “succeed”, I’ve not only written the things I’m proudest of, but also as it happens, achieved some conventional measures of success with them.

What do you like best about writing in verse?

Verse cuts right to the emotional core of a story. I also think the verse format makes this really difficult story more accessible for readers. It’s common for people to have a perception that verse is poetry and poetry is hard. But I think those people are mentally stuck analyzing dead white guy poetry in boring English classes. The rhythm, the economy of language, and the emotional core are all aspects of verse that I believe really appeal to young readers, especially.

What are you reading, or otherwise currently infatuated with?

I am currently re-reading Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins series, in preparation for the fourth book to come in the fall. (And also because assassin nuns are kind of a perpetual mood.)

And I’m currently infatuated with a bunch of my fellow debut authors’ books!! Some of them are already out and some of them are still to come, but I have read and LOVED You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon, American Panda by Gloria Chao, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, and Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry. I’m so excited for these books to be out in the world!

And finally, what’s one lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing journey?

Find your people! It can be overwhelming at first if you’re brand new, but if a mega-introvert like me can do it, you can too. Reach out to people at the same stage of the journey as you are. Find them wherever you are most comfortable, be a good friend and critique partner to them, and you will find a support system that will sustain you through the ups and downs!

So many thanks go out to Joy for taking the time to tell us more about Blood Water Paint, writing in verse, and importance of harnessing the courage to write the stories that call to you. Be sure to add Joy's unflinchingly feminist debut to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore.

Follow Joy on Twitter at @JMCwrites. For more information, see her full author website at

And, as always,


For more on Joy McCullough and BLOOD WATER PAINT, be sure to check out the other blogs taking part in Penguin's Official Blog Tour!

March 8 – Megan Write Now – Q&A

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