Music, Magic and Synesthesia in Painting Ruby Tuesday:

An interview with author Jane Yardley
The author is interviewed by Patricia Lynne Duffy

“Talking about my own synaesthetic experiences felt liberating, and to do so in New York City… well, that was marvelous! I fell in love with the idea of New York at the age of eight, which was two decades before I first set foot there, and I used that sense of magic in Painting Ruby Tuesday”—Jane Yardley

PLD:  Your novel, Painting Ruby Tuesday is, by turns, both delightful and intriguing. It features two off-beat main characters who experience synesthesia.  Yours is one of the few novels with synesthete characters — whose author is also a synesthete!   Do you share the same types of synesthesia (music-color, scent-color, word-color, emotion-color, day-of-the-week color) as your main characters, Annie Cradock and Jenny Clitheroe?

JY: This was my first novel. People always say your first novel is your most closely autobiographical, so I suppose it is not a surprise that I share very similar synaesthetic characteristics with my created people. Like Annie, my strongest synaesthetic association is with music, and that was the driving force behind Painting Ruby Tuesday. I went a step further, and used my own actual colour associations for Annie (I really do see Tuesdays as ruby red, and this inspired the title

PLD:  I love the scene where then-10-year-old Annie and her older neighbor, Mrs. Clitheroe — both synesthetes — are in an exhilarating state of “flow”, playing their colored music on the piano—until the “mundane” intrudes and interrupts. This intrusion comes in the form of a knock on the door. As you write, “It was Horace and Doris Frobisher for Sunday School” –making Annie want to scream, ‘Get out! Leave us alone!’ “

It seems much of the exhilaration Annie and Jenny feel is not just from each having synesthesia–but from sharing their synesthetic visions of music.  Have you ever had the experience of sharing a synesthetic perception with another synesthete?  If so, what was that like for you?

JY: When I was at college, my roommate was another synaesthete. We were both crazy about Beethoven, and used to wallow in the colours of the symphonies. Mine were different colours from Barbara’s, but that didn’t stop the wallowing – and didn’t stop us from driving friends crazy when they knocked on the door on the middle of such a session, to find themselves subjected to an incomprehensible synaesthete fest!

PLD:  In the story, the placid surface of the town of Muningstock is thrown into tumult as a series of mysterious murders rocks the community.  One of the book’s most loved characters is among the murder victims. A traumatized Annie, with her unusual way of seeing,  finds herself at odds with the police investigation. 

      In the novel, synesthesia, as a perceptual phenomenon, is linked with other unusual perceptions, such as pre-cognition. As Annie reflects, “If you’re someone who thinks that Wednesday is green, and threes are red and hostile, you might also be prone to thinking you’ve heard Rolling Stones songs that haven’t been written yet.”

  Do you think there might be a possible link between synesthesia and other anomalous perceptual states?

JY: To be honest, I don’t think that. Synaesthesia is an unusual sense, but one that resides in the real world of real boundaries and real limitations.  The line you quoted (and thank you for that; I’d forgotten the line) was intended as self-deprecating, and might even plant a vague doubt: had Annie’s memory been mistaken? In addition to her synaesthetic perceptions, she is an emotional individual, and was an emotional child. Can we ever decide with one hundred percent certainty whether Annie’s memory played tricks with her? Or something paranormal happened? Perhaps readers can decide.

PLD: The character Annie identifies Mrs Clitheroe’s spirit with that of New York City (though, ironically, perhaps, Mrs Clitheroe was never in NYC).  In Painting Ruby Tuesday, New York City also represents a kind of liberating force for its characters.  

       You and I first met in New York City at Rockefeller University which hosted a conference of the American Synesthesia Association. It was the year Painting Ruby Tuesday was first published and I remember the great presentation you gave on the book at the conference. What was it like to present your book about the synesthetic experience—while in New York City?

JY: Talking about my own synaesthetic experiences felt liberating, and to do so in New York City… well, that was marvellous! I fell in love with the idea of New York at the age of eight, which was two decades before I first set foot there, and I used that sense of magic in Painting Ruby Tuesday. When the sense of magic arises from a childhood dream, it has a particular quality, a pungency, and sometimes this survives into adulthood. It has for me. 

That New York conference was fascinating for many reasons. To hear other synaesthetes describing their experiences provided conflicting sensations: both a connectedness (we shared a particular identity) and some weirdness (He just said that Fridays are purple? How can he say that when Fridays are gold?!).

It was also comforting to meet people who shared not only my cognitive gifts of an extraordinary memory, but also my cognitive deficits. It is common for people with synaesthesia to have a poor sense of direction, in fact a poor sense of space in general, and my own is so poor, it’s laughable. On the first morning of the conference I couldn’t find the lecture theatre, and ran into another woman who couldn’t find it, either. She immediately asked me “Synaesthete?” When I admitted that I was, she ran her hands through her hair and said, “Oh dear. We’re in big trouble.” In fact, we did find a non-synaesthete to direct us, so all ended well. But it was so warming to come across another of my kind who couldn’t find her way down a straight hall without managing to get lost!

PLD: Believe me, I identify! I once heard a neuroscientist say that synesthetes’ navigational sense was affected (i.e., a bit blocked) by all the imagery flowing in their brains. As we know, a number of visual artists have had synesthesia.

In your book, Annie learns from Mrs. Clitheroe how the quest to express synesthetic vision has often moved artists to innovate: such as the painter Kandinsky in his attempts to show sound and movement in painting, to Piet Mondrian who evokes music and rhythm in his painting, “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”. Why do you suppose artists have such a drive toward expressing sensory fusion?

JY: Not all artists who tried to achieve sensory fusion were themselves, synesthetes. Piet Mondrian was not, apparently, a synaesthete — yet his painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie, which Annie and Mrs. Clitheroe turn into music, fizzes and throbs with that music. Richard Wagner was himself a synaesthete, as were some other artists who strove to synthesize the senses, including Kandinsky, as you state above.

Although Richard Wagner wasn’t the first composer to blend music and visual stimuli, he was highly successful at creating a synesthetic experience, in which the audiences for his operas were enveloped by sound, vision, and dramatic action, with the various senses intermingling into a total work of art, his “Gesamtkunstwerk”.

In answer to your question about why artists have a drive to do this, I suspect that once Wagner had let that genie out of the bottle, the result was so intoxicating that many painters, musicians and writers chose to fuse sensory functions in their own work.

PLD: As a synesthete, do you feel especially moved by the works of Wagner, also a synesthete?

JY: For reasons I don’t understand, Wagner’s operas don’t particularly move me. Even so, I understand exactly what musicologists mean when they say that he introduced new colour and texture. The fact that musicologists use those terms — even when they themselves are not synaesthetes — can only mean that the concept of colour and texture in music runs very deep in the human psyche.

PLD: You have written several other novels as well. Do these other works have synesthete characters?

I wrote a novel, Dancing With Dr Kildare, in which the principal character was again a synaesthete—however, with a different synesthete-colour palate from mine. I remember one passage where I mentioned a piece of music, and this was green, and the others I’d mentioned before had also been green, and I decided enough was enough and I changed its colour. For similar reasons, I introduced orange into one paragraph, even though my own synaesthetic palate does not include orange. Strangely, every single time I proofread Dancing With Dr Kildare, these revisions struck me as simple factual mistakes, and stopped my heart. It would always take me a moment to remember that these colours are personal, not factual, and therefore the use of them in a story was perfectly legitimate!

PLD:  Is there anything else you would like to say about your book, Painting Ruby Tuesday?

JY: As I mentioned above, this was my first novel. At first, I didn’t intend to use synaesthesia in the story at all. But Annie and Mrs Clitheroe were talking about New York, and they set it to music, and along came Mondrian’s boogie-woogie, and that was it – of course, both Annie and Mrs Clitheroe have synaesthesia! Of course.

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Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword” is recently out.   Available from Audible She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.

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