Laura Waddell is a writer, publisher, critic, and journalist, and has been a prominent figure in Scottish writing for many years. SNACK spoke with her about EXIT, her debut non-fiction book, out now from Bloomsbury.
EXIT is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series of books. Can you tell us a bit about them and how you got involved?
Object Lessons explores the hidden lives of everyday objects – telephone booths, golf balls, remote controls, shipping containers – and I’d been a fan of the series for a while. Writers are given free reign to dive down their rabbit hole, and they are very fun books. Some focus on the history and development of their object, others tend more towards cultural analysis, but they are all weird and wonderful. I was particularly drawn to Hotel by Joanna Walsh, which reflected on both her experience as a hotel reviewer and the surreality of hotels. I’m also very fond of High Heel by Summer Brennan and Burger by Carol J Adams.
I just loved them, their scope for thinking about ordinary things in a different way, so I pitched through the dedicated Object Lessons website, and was delighted to have my idea commissioned.
Why choose EXIT as your topic?
I have always been a fan of Exit signs. That gorgeous glowing green. They’re just cool looking objects. When I started researching their development, it turns out they reveal a lot about social history, particularly the Workers’ Rights movement that spurred on health and safety signage after industrial disasters. In their history is also the evolution of technology, such as how signs are illuminated to withstand chaotic scenarios when once they were just painted signs.
Exit signs are also a great bit of design history. Pictograms such as the ‘running man’ in the exit sign communicate across language barriers. The 1960s were a fascinating time for pictorial language, which was notably used at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. But I soon realised that exits themselves are everywhere.
This political decade is defined by Brexit and the Scottish Independence movement, and immigration as a major area of conflict. But they’re also everywhere in our personal lives, and in evictions and evacuations. Exits reveal a lot about how we move around in our everyday lives. Exits are a class issue.
It’s the only book I have read which brings together artist Jenny Holzer, Brexit, Sesame Street, and the cultural policy of the Nazis. How do you approach writing about such an abstract idea as EXIT? Is it a case of expanding ideas rather than defining them?
Let me tell you, it’s a difficult book to describe for exactly that reason. As I said, once you start to look, exits in a metaphorical and literal sense are everywhere. But my unifying theory of exits is that they reveal how people move around the world; the opportunities that are open, the doors that are closed. I’m grateful that my editors gave me free reign to pursue the idea, and when I was writing I really felt like I was exploring. I didn’t write down rigid, pre-existing ideas; I wrote as a process of discovery.
It’s a wormhole of a book, drawing on highbrow and lowbrow culture, a patchwork of inspiration from books and history to online culture. I went a bit mad while I was writing it, but it was a wonderful experience to head out on the exit trail.
It’s a book that makes you think about the world, and yourself, in new and intriguing ways. Did you feel it changed your view while working on it?
Yes. I had written previously about class barriers, but this was an opportunity to expand that idea.
Brett Easton Ellis ends his novel American Psycho with a sign that reads ‘THIS IS NOT AN EXIT’. Do you have an artistic EXIT which has stayed with you?
It has to be Sesame Street. I wrote about the artist Jenny Holzer’s subversive use of city signage and neon, and Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Imponderabilia, which was an interactive installation where audience members would squeeze through a doorway flanked by two naked people.
But you know how Sesame Street has all the zany A-Z and number songs? They have a surprising number of songs and skits about exits, and while they’re ostensibly to teach kids about safety, they’re totally joyous and trippy. One is illustrated and animated by Keith Haring. Sesame Street is interested in what the experience of everyday life feels like and so am I.
The final chapter, ’Exit This Way’, is one of my favourite bits of writing in recent times. How did you know that this was your, and our, way out of the book?
Thank you so much. That chapter is saying look, here are 30 very short stories about exits, about comings and goings. It’s my way of saying goodbye to the subject, and I felt tender towards it.
You’ve worked in many aspects of the book industry – writer, publisher, critic, journalist. Do you think they all feed into each other in a positive way, or does your knowledge of one or more sometimes impinge on the others?
While I would love to exist only by writing, I have to work. I have to pay my bills. That’s the reality for the majority of writers. As a result, I have a career that I’m dedicated to and proud of, that I work hard at. I think that’s always going to be the case. I am fascinated by publishing, by arts criticism, by words in all forms, and my interest in it is really the same thing I’m writing about – it’s about expression, it’s about getting ideas out there. It’s often about emancipation, whether creative or personal.
This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.