Joy McCullough first learned of Artemisia Gentileschi, a Baroque painter who specialized in depictions of mythical women and weathered an intense legal trial against her rapist, when she was a few years out of college, as a passing mention in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride.
After further research, McCullough discovered a transcript of Gentileschi’s rape trial. “It’s amazing that it exists and that it was translated into English,” she says. “I remember sitting on the floor of the library, being so angry that her experience is exactly how things still play out today. Nothing had changed. I came to appreciate her art, but it was really her story—and that it’s the same story we keep telling—that pulled me in.”
McCullough was also surprised that, as a pastor’s daughter, she had never heard stories of Susanna and Judith, two apocryphal, strong women from the Bible, whose depictions are some of Gentileschi’s most powerful.
A trained playwright who attended Northwestern University, McCullough wrote Gentileschi’s story as a play back in 2001. At the time, she had written “a bunch of middle grade and one other young adult manuscript.” In 2015, while the play was being produced, McCullough struggled to find a way to bring teens in to hear Gentileschi’s story. It was then that she considered telling her story as a novel for teens: “I loved how [YA] is all about finding how you fit into the world and making your own way.” Gentileschi’s story would become McCullough’s first published novel, Blood Water Paint (Dutton), which portrays a young Gentileschi as she comes into her power as a painter and undergoes the painful process of prosecuting her rapist in 17th-century Italy.
Blood Water Paint was McCullough’s 10th novel. She wrote five novels before landing her first agent, despite querying each one. Her first agent put several books on submission, but after having little luck, they parted ways. McCullough then signed with Jim McCarthy of Dystel, Goderich Bourret. When McCarthy started submitting Blood Water Paint, the response was swift; there was interest after only a week.
“I didn’t expect to work with a man on this book,” McCullough says. “Jim asked if it was okay to submit the manuscript to men. I said yes, but I didn’t think a man would understand it.” To her surprise, she found the perfect partner for Blood Water Paint in Andrew Karre at Dutton. “From our first conversation, it was very clear that he got it. He was incredibly respectful about where I was; this is a very personal story as a survivor [of assault]. He wasn’t going to compromise the story I was trying to tell. Anything that made me uncomfortable was up for discussion; I’ve felt full support.”
McCullough, who has no training in poetry, says she is “still very taken aback” when she sees Blood Water Paint in poetry displays. She feels, however, that her background as a playwright did have an impact on her ability to write in verse, as scripts “tend to be very sparse, require an economy of language and a sense of rhythm.” She had worked on some middle grade verse novels as a Pitch Wars mentor, which planted a seed for her own writing. When faced with how to write Artemisia’s story, she had considered prose, but was daunted by the prospect: “Writing in prose required describing rape and beheading in difficult detail. Verse can depict that trauma with fewer words, while still allowing you to feel it. It felt like the right way to get to the emotional core of the story.”
McCullough still works in theater, even celebrating a world premiere in March, two months after the publication of Blood Water Paint, but books are her priority right now. When pressed for details of upcoming projects, McCullough was clearly excited, but said only that forthcoming middle grade and YA projects would be announced soon. “I’m making a living telling stories, which is the dream. And I get to do it while wearing pajamas, which is also the dream.”