(At Asylum this weekend, Tom told a story that he had promised to share when the time was right – one about the origins of Salamandra. I’m re-posting it here for the various people who didn’t catch the panel, and because I feel this is a good sort of story and that there is a lot of power in sharing it. The panel was about the relationship between creativity and madness, this was Tom’s bit.)
After The Asylum, by Tom Brown
A while ago, I made a promise on Facebook that if Hopeless Maine were to become successful, I would tell you all a story. Well… I’m here, at this event with all of you present, sharing a stage with Professor Elemental. People from Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and other exotic, far off places have been kind enough to tell us that they have enjoyed their stay. Finally, we share a publisher with the creations of Jim Henson (A personal hero of mine. A man who embraced his quirks and ran with them) Jeremy Bastion, creator of Cursed Pirate Girl, and Chandra Free of The God Machine. I think we can at least declare a qualified success. So… here we go…
Salamandra, our young Experimental Occultist, the heart and soul of our story, was born in a transitional homeless shelter. At the age of forty, I went mad. I had what is commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly a very common event (especially amongst creative types) I became unable to work and lost my home and many other things I had taken for granted for my entire life up to that time. I simply had not seen this coming and there was no way I could have been prepared for it or what was to follow.
So, after spending some time in a crisis centre, I was delivered to the shelter. I will always be grateful to the staff there who treated me with care, and, the thing I most desperately needed at that time, respect.
I am… an odd sort of person. Those who know me might well protest that this would be an understatement. Therefore, I became focussed on the question ‘what would be a good thing right now?’ Well, as Neil Gaiman said recently (I paraphrase) No matter what happens, make good art. That’s what I set out to do. I had an old project that I thought had unrealised potential. I was called New England Gothic: A dark story with a Victorian setting, on the island of Hopeless, Maine. I started writing and drawing pages, sat at the common table at the shelter. A wonderful thing happened, actually, several. Salamandra came to me. (At that point, her middle name was Weaselgrease. Remember, please, I had just had a breakdown.) I say she came to me because it did not seem to me that I had invented her at all. She was much too real for that. I was just the lucky creator she chose. The other good thing that happened was that other people in the shelter took interest and sat and talked to me, and watched me work. Their mood visibly brightened. There was not much to be excited about in that place. Sal was already tuning out to be a good thing.
The road back from being broken was long and not without complication. I did travel tht road though, and I brought Sal with me. The most important step in that journey, for me, and for Sal was when I was assigned a cover job for a book by Nimue. I fell in love with the writing (firt) and I knew this was the person I wanted to write a short origin story for Sal. It was clear to me immediately that Nimue understood Salamandra better and more deeply than I did. As you may have gathered she did agree to write Hopeless Maine, and then later, to marry me.
Why a I telling you all this? I think it’s important for people to know that it’s possible to fall and find your way back up again. It’s even possible to find something that shines and has worth, at the darkest times.
(Nimue again… writing about Salamandra always felt like writing about someone I had met. It’s been an epic journey for all three of us. Sal has grown up in the stories, and developed a family tree of considerable complication. I fell in love with the art, and rapidly with the man behind the art. I also got to watch about two thirds of the journey, knowing from early on in our working partnership that Tom had walked through hell and survived. He’s done a lot more than just survive though. Out of a harrowing experience, he’s built something magical and profound, his work, and his attitude to life continue to inspire me. The decision to talk publically about such deeply personal things, was a big one to take, but one of the things we have both found is that sharing makes a difference. So many people go through times of intense pain and crisis. In Tom’s case, it was precipitated by horrendous pressures and a very dodgy prescription for ADHD. No two stories are ever quite the same, but knowing it is possible to come back makes a world of difference. I took a long, dark walk in recent years, and knowledge that it could be endured, that it did not mean the end of my creativity, my usefulness as a human being, helped me enormously. And so we share.
Much love to Professor Elemental, who shared in this public exploration of the relationship between madness and creativity, bringing some much needed lighter notes to a hard topic. Living through madness is hell. Playing with madness is wild, and being creative is always a bit insane. )