Welcome to EPISODE 15 of the Art In Fiction Podcast.
Fans of Virginia Woolf and art will love Talland House by Maggie Humm. Learn about her inspiration for the novel that is listed in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction, enjoy a reading from Talland House, and discover her advice for new authors.
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Maggie Humm's website: http://www.maggiehumm.net/
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Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of the Art In Fiction podcast. This episode is called Inspired by Virginia Woolf and features my interview with Maggie Humm, author of Talland House.
Maggie Humm is an Emeritus Professor at University of East London in the UK. An international Woolf scholar, she is the author/editor of fourteen books, the last three of which focus on Woolf and the arts. Talland House was shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher Fiction prizes in 2017 and the Retreat West and Eyelands prizes in 2018. She lives in London and is currently writing Rodin’s Mistress, a novel about the tumultuous love affair of the artists Gwen John and Auguste Rodin.
Welcome to the Art In Fiction podcast, Maggie.
Well, thank you for having me. I'm absolutely delighted.
Well, so am I, I've been really enjoying your debut novel Talland House, which of course tells the story of Lily Briscoe, one of the characters in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. I won't say how many years ago I read To The Lighthouse, but it was when I was in university, put it that way so I actually did reread it recently.
Can you give us a short summary of what Talland House is about?
Well, you don't have to read Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Talland House stands completely on its own. It's a bit like Longbourn, you know, about Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants. So it's that kind of novel. So I really tell Lily's life before she meets Mrs. Ramsay from Woolf's novel, as a student in St. Ives, falling in love with her tutor and not reciprocated at that point. And then coming back to St. Ives to paint Mrs. Ramsay's portrait. And later on, of course, in 1919 after she's been a suffragette, a nurse, witnessed the slashing of the Rokeby Venus by a suffragette in the National Gallery, all sorts of exciting things happen to her.
She comes back to St. Ives at the end, as she does in Woolf's novel, to finish Mrs. Ramsay's portrait. And the reason she does it is that she bumps into her old tutor, Louis Grier, the one she fell in love with, at the Royal Academy with her friend Eliza, and Louis tells her something staggeringly awful, which is that Mrs. Ramsay has died and she has to find out how Mrs. Ramsay died.
Yes, so there's a bit of an element of a detective story in there too. I really enjoyed just how you developed Lily's character and particularly how she is almost like an archetype for the time. Was that your intention, like, she was a nurse in the war, she was a little bit involved in the suffragette movement. She was an independent woman. She didn't marry.
It became my intention as I was writing the novel. I mean, you're a major novelist so you've, you've experienced this yourself, but for a debut novel, of course, it's, it's all new to you or to one and it was really surprising how much I was in Lily's life and thinking, what would she be thinking? What would she be doing next?
The reason I chose Lily from all the other characters, I could have chosen a very subsidiary character who's only in it for a minute or two in Woolf's novel, but I chose Lily because she would be the one character who would most want to know how Mrs. Ramsay died. She was deeply in love with Mrs. Ramsay. And Mrs. Ramsay was, in my novel, is a sort of mother surrogate figure. Lily comes to depend on her a great deal.
So it seemed to me pretty obvious that the kind of Lily I would want to write about, and partly the kind of Lily that Woolf describes, would be a suffragette. And then the suffragettes stopped their actions when the war was declared, as you probably know, at least in the UK, I don't know what happened in the US, and so then Lily would become a nurse because she would want to help other people. She wouldn't want to help the war. She was a pacifist. And of course, it's becoming a nurse helps her by the end of the novel to find out how Mrs. Ramsay died.
Yes. It was incredibly clever how you did that. I really enjoyed how you wove all of the strands together. So this is your debut novel and congratulations. It's wonderful. We'll just back up a bit. I know you are a expert in Virginia Woolf, so I guess that's why your first novel relates to Virginia Woolf. So why Virginia Woolf?
Well, yes, it's because I have done, you know, they always say, write about what you know, and of course I know about Virginia Woolf. So that was logical, but I have a very personal connection to To The Lighthouse, Woolf's novel, because I read it first as an adolescent quite soon after my mother died. And I found it deeply moving. I really identified with the mother figure, Mrs. Ramsay. And I was utterly shocked when she dies suddenly and then in parentheses, it's such a shock. No explanation is given.
And it was only when I became a Woolf scholar years later that I discovered that Woolf's mother was 49 when she died and Woolf was 13. And those are the exact ages of my mother when she died. She was 49. I was 13. So obviously that's why I felt very, very close to Woolf's To The Lighthouse and to the characters because it's Woolf's most autobiographical novel. And Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are her father and mother.
Yes. I, that's interesting that, you know, sort of the 'life imitates art' kind of thing, that, you know, you had this deep connection to To The Lighthouse and to Virginia Woolf. And then many years later you write a novel. And I just love how the creative process works.
I'm always surprised where the ideas come from and what is, what I think readers will really enjoy about your novel is how visual it is, the way you described the world constantly as Lily sees it. And of course, Lily's a painter. Do you have a background yourself in visual art?
Well, it's very kind of you to say so because actually, as you know, you know, writing about art is incredibly difficult, particularly fine art, particularly fine art or sculpture. I mean, to write from the point of view of an artist, if you're not an artist, and I'm not and I'm not trained in art history at all. I've always had a deep, deep love of the arts. I constantly go, well, before lockdown, constantly go to exhibitions and so on and I did.
I just read a tremendous amount, but it's actually, I think, very difficult to write about art. And surprisingly, artists are really bad about writing about art themselves. If you read catalogs, when artists are asked to say what they were painting, it's usually dense and theoretical and not very good.
So I did come across quite a few little things which helped. One surprising was Jackson Pollock's little book, a completely different painter from Lily who was a post-Impressionist. But actually Jackson Pollock writes very movingly about what it feels like, you know, to be an artist. I just took lots of these ideas from, you know, various accounts of art and also that thing that I'm sure you do all the time. You have to put yourself in the mind of the character.
You have to walk with her up the hill in St. Ives. So you have to think what's she looking at, you know, what's the weather like? What, what time of day is it? And what did she feel about that? And that's, you just inhabit the character. Your main character, certainly, and others all the time. It's quite alarming, really.
It is. It's quite fun. I like what you're saying about how artists often don't write well about their art. My husband is a painter.
Oh, dear, I'm very sorry. He probably writes brilliantly.
Ah, no, I was going to say, actually, it's funny. I tend to write some of his descriptions for him because he'll write something and it's like, ah, you know, no, I mean, the work is fabulous, but I'm the writer in the family. So it's interesting.
I haven't read Jackson Pollock's, I'm sure my husband has. He's a huge Jackson Pollock fan, but anyway, that's interesting, but yes, you're right. As the character is walking, but the way you describe what she sees is the way a painter may not describe it in words, because as you said, you know, painters don't tend to describe things in words, but if they did, you've sort of captured how they might capture it in words and then go on to do it on canvas because yes, I found that I wrote, my first novel was about an artist and to describe art is, is, yeah, it's very challenging indeed, but you did it.
First of all, because a lot of my academic work is on photography and Woolf because I had written, well, I'd written the first piece about Woolf's photography because there's over a thousand photographs in Harvard that she took in her photo albums. And so my first idea was to have Lily looking at Mrs. Ramsay's photo albums with Mrs. Ramsay and noticing that one photograph, in, in one photograph, all the people are looking at the camera, but one person isn't, he's looking at Mrs. Ramsay in a particularly sinister way. And so then he would be the murderer.
And there's a favorite Argentinian film of mine called The Secret in Their Eyes, which does this, which is the way that detective finds, finds the murderer. But then I realized, well, a photographer sees life, sees landscapes, everything, completely differently to a painter. And so I dropped that idea.
Well, I'm glad you did, because I think that one of the great things about what you did with Lily's character and her descriptions is the color. And in, you know, if it was photography, it would have been black and white in those days, I presume.
So this way you are able to get into the depth of the color in St. Ives in Cornwall. So I presume you went to St. Ives.
Yes. I haven't been as often as I'd like to, in fact, I was there this year because I was doing an interview for Cornwall Life about my novel, but I have actually stayed in Talland House itself, in St. Ives, When—it's many years ago— and it was when the house was self-catering apartments. Now it's apartments, but they're owned. You know, they have owners, but I did stay in Talland House and that was utterly wonderful. I went back to, I always go back to visit it at least from the road, which is what you can see, when I go to St. Ives.
So I do know St. Ives, but what really helps was reading Cornish newspapers for the time that Lily would have been in St. Ives, to, you know, 1900, 1909, to just get a feel of the place. You know, what was the weather like? Was it cataclysmic weather in that year because if I didn't mention that, that would look really bad, you know, what was the atmosphere like? What was happening, little events, scenes?
And actually I discovered that Julius Olsson who was the sort of bad cop to the very nice to, you know, to Lily, falls for Louis Grier. Julius Olsson was a magistrate. So that worked out really well. So I thought, oh, well, if he's the magistrate, he could be quite a severe person, I decided, not all magistrates obviously are, but it was really, really helpful.
And it was very helpful to look at postcards of the time to see what street scenes looked like, you know, and, um, whether animals were in the center of St. Ives, all of that kind of thing. I really think as long as you cannot put it into the novel too much, I had to keep it as an underpinning, but I think research does help in that way.
Oh yes. I think it's, it's always a good idea to go to where you are writing about. I certainly enjoy that, which is hard now, because we can't do that.
Well, I was able to go to Lily's hospital where she, you know, quite a bit of the novel is set because that is now an art school.
Ironically, it's Chelsea College of Arts. And so that was quite good, except it looks nothing like a hospital now, but it's in the same location.
Oh, that's, that's convenient. I was surprised and pleased to find Emily Carr featured in your novel, at the beginning, when Lily goes to St Ives to study as a young woman. I've never seen Emily Carr in a novel. For our listeners who don't know, Emily Carr is one of the greatest artists in British Columbia. She's incredibly well known here and very famous, her work is wonderful. So, why Emily Carr, why did you put her into the novel? Do you, are you familiar with her work?
A little, not as much as you, probably. But Emily Carr did visit St. Ives for eight months, she stayed there and she studied with Julius Olsson. Unfortunately it was the year after I put her there, I mean, you just have to play around with time to get things right for your novel, for the narrative, you know, rather than real life.
So she was there for eight months and she wrote about it in her book Growing Pains, her autobiography. She was very happy in St. Ives, and so a lot of the vocabulary of Emily in my novel is actually straight from Emily.
Oh, isn't that wonderful!
She loved Walt Whitman. And so that kind of figured into everything. She then did go to Paris, but much later than I have her. I had to kind of get rid of her so that they could move on. And so it was very neat to make her go to Paris, you know, to get her out of the way, as it were.
Emily Carr went to Paris in 1911 and, and also London before then, and Emily Carr didn't really like cities. She said Canadians aren't really happy in cities. She said it's like putting a pine tree into a pot.
Oh, that's wonderful.
I think, you know, I think she would have liked St. Ives, and I've got lots of detail in my novel. For example, Emily Carr the painter stayed with the Curnows who had a curio shop. I have a little mention of that, and she also paid fisherfolk to pose for her, for sketching. And I have a scene where Lily and Emily pay the fisherfolk to pose for them.
Yes, I remember that.
And then something more exciting and dramatic happens so they stopped painting.
Well, I'm really glad you included Emily Carr because, you know, she's a painter that's probably not as well known outside Canada as she should be. And how wonderful as a novelist for you to find her journal like that, that would be a great prime resource. It's what we're always looking for as novelists, right?
Well, yes. And also why I thought she was good, it's not just 'cause she'd been to St. Ives and there was a lot of material, but also she's almost kind of the diametric opposite of Lily and you've always got to have these balanced characters.
And so Emily Carr is much more kind of sure of herself, quite determined. She's already decided not to be a Christian. And and so, you know, she, it was really good to have these two characters very, very different from one another. So she worked, I thought, really well.
Yes, she did, and I was going to say that that not only from, you know, the artistic perspective, but from a personality perspective, she, she would probably have been the first kind of so-called liberated woman that Lily would have ever met. Right? Because she was very young.
Yes. And she's, she's a good role model for Lily as well. It strengthens Lily.
As I mentioned earlier, you're an expert in Virginia Woolf. So I'm intrigued by making this switch from academia to fiction. So how did your academic background help or hinder you in, in writing your novel?
Well, it was, it was certainly a help with research, obviously, you know, I'm good at that. That's what academics do, they work in archives and they churn out articles, chapters, and books. And I've been doing that for decades and lately more about Woolf and about art than my first books, which were feminist criticism and so on.
So that bit was quite easy to do, but what wasn't easy at all was writing fiction because it's so astonishingly different. I mean, you know, they say everybody has a novel in them, but I really think that the two are just completely different worlds, different planets, you know. I mean, academic writing is supposed to be fairly linear. It's supposed to be clear, straightforward arguments, supported by evidence. There's lots of, so, and that as you write.
And then fiction is just very, very different. It's, fiction is show, not tell, it's the diametric opposite. Although actually in my academic writing, I did use or have used bits of autobiography in the past. And I have used little stories to try and get across my point of view.
So for example, when I was writing an early piece on feminist criticism, trying to write about women in the Academy, I used the story of Washoe the chimpanzee. She was my favorite chimpanzee because she learned American sign language, ASL. And so she had these two languages. She had the sign language that she used to get what she wanted, like food, drink and things from her management. And then she had this other language which female chimpanzees understood and actually seems to me like women in the Academy, you know, that we use this management speak to get what we need. And then, you know, actually we're completely different. We have a different world, a different language. So I have used little stories before, so it was sort of lurking there in the background and now it's come out.
Yes. Well, what kind of surprised you about writing fiction as opposed to academia? I know show not tell, but what else?
I think what was, what was difficult is that with academic writing, maybe it's just the way I do it, but you can put it down. You can, you know, you've got your little plan of how a particular bit of an essay will go and you know where you're going to and what it has, what has to happen and so on, and you can leave it and you can go cook a meal and you can go and do something for days, even, because you've got a little plan.
But with fiction, I think you really have to just keep going. You're, you're kind of being in these characters and they're beginning to do things you never thought you would think about and they're having feelings that you never thought they would have. And so you really just have to go with them.
I mean, Alice Walker's talked quite a lot about this, about the characters coming into her house and telling her how she should be with her daughter and so on. And that was never true for me, but I've always thought, well, this is a bit silly. How can this happen? But when you do start to write fiction, it does happen.
The characters suddenly are sitting on your sofa!
Well, you've actually created human beings. Even if they're on the page, it is really it's, it's a remarkable sort of alchemical thing that happens when you write fiction. But yeah, it is very different from academia.
Time for a short break.
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Now, could you do a short reading from your novel?
I would love to. Thank you for asking. What I'd like to do, if it's alright, is read from very close to the beginning. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, the novel actually starts at the end, as it were, because it starts in 1919, and then we go backwards.
So it starts at the Royal Academy. Lily is there because she's had a painting accepted for the first time. So it was kind of a big moment for her. She’s there with a friend, Eliza Stillman, who was actually Woolf's friend, although her, the time scale of that doesn't quite fit with my novel. So I just changed it.
They're there at the Royal Academy and then she suddenly bumps into her old tutor, Louis Grier, who she fell in love with in St. Ives, and Hilary Hunt, who is also another real-life person. He was the artist Holman Hunt's son. Hilary was also a friend of Woolf's. In fact, it was Hilary that took Woolf to the lighthouse, starting her whole novel off. So they've bumped into them and Hilary congratulates Lily on her success. And he says, and I'll read:
“How much our dear friend Mrs. Ramsay would have praised your success, Miss Briscoe,” he said. “You must miss her a good deal.”
“I do,” Lily said. “I haven't seen her since before the war.”
In her mind was the final meal at Talland House before the guests all returned to London for the winter. The wine-infused stew, the treble soft birdsong in the garden; Mrs. Ramsay placating her husband at the other end of the table with nods and smiles, her face so familiar Lily could remember every detail when she closed her eyes. With a smile, she turned to Hunt, who was gazing uneasily at Louis.
“I take it you don't know?” Hunt said in a low voice. “Haven't you heard?”
“Heard what?” Lily asked, feeling both men’s gazes on her face.
“Perhaps we might all step into that alcove,” Louis said, almost in a whisper, as he guided them over. “I regret to say, I'm not sure how to tell you.”
What could it be? Something about the Ramsays?
The dark recess was silent, the drapes at either side, partly obscuring their group from the crowded gallery.
“It's difficult to give the sad news directly,” Louis said, fumbling his words.
“I worked as a nurse. So did Eliza,” Lily said impatiently. “We've seen everything. We won't faint.”
“It's about Mrs. Ramsay's death,” Louis said hesitantly.
It felt as if the gallery throng were closing in on her as she absorbed his words.
“She died over two years ago,” Louis said.
“No!” Eliza said. “That can't be.” She turned to Lily.
“Dead?” Lily asked, faltering. “How?”
“She was caring for a young man near her Kensington home one week and dead by the end of the next," Hunt said. "Rheumatic fever. So sudden and tragic.”
His mouth was moving. Lily could sense the words in the air, but she felt as though she were outside of time, where nothing seemed to matter, but everything might. She could hear Hunt murmuring to Eliza about Mrs. Ramsay’s children, about Prue dying in some illness connected with childhood.
“Andrew, of course, was killed later in the war,” Hunt continued. “A lethal shell. He expired instantly, they said. Such a gifted young man! Thank goodness their mother died before them and was spared knowing her children perished.”
As Lily stood motionless, the memory of Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the glow of candles at the dinner table turned dim, becoming a palimpsest under the news.
As she watched, Hunt gazed around the room and seemed about to continue, but Louis raised his eyebrows. The two men caught eyes for a moment and Hunt paused.
“I understand,” he said, “Mr. Ramsay stood to inherit all her art. Her portraits by Watts, Burne-Jones and Rothenstein.” He looked at Louis before continuing. “Those albumen prints taken by her aunt are quite valuable now, I believe.”
Louis put a hand on Hunt's arm. Lily stared through Hunt, amazed at how callous and crass he was to talk about the value of Mrs. Ramsay's art; Lily was somewhere above herself with everything tiny and far away. Her cheeks were wet, and she felt a wave of gratitude as Louis held out a handkerchief with an apologetic wince.
“Oh, I do regret our abruptness,” he said. “Her death was so sudden, not the lingering state you expect with a fever. So it was a shock to us all. Please let me escort you both outside into the tea area. There's more air there.”
He offered his arm to Lily and she stumbled forward, thinking of the day Mrs. Ramsay had first invited her to Talland House. There was something not quite right, something troubling about the Ramsays, she'd always tried to fathom, tried to counter with her affection for Mrs. Ramsay and painting her portrait. But as her senses filled with the escallonia scent from the garden high above St. Ives on what had been that last warm day of summer, the sweetness was all she could remember.
Oh, wonderful. Thank you so much. I was completely taken back to that. Yes. You definitely captured Lily's shock to find out that Mrs. Ramsay had died. It's a great way to start the novel because then you go back to when she first meets her, et cetera, right through to the end. So, well done.
Thank you very much.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the writing process itself. One of the goals of the Art In Fiction Podcast is to inspire other authors. So this is your debut novel, as we said. So what advice do you have for other writers, particularly academics who might be interested in morphing into writing fiction?
I think the only advice really is to try and do that research. And then you can put it in a drawer, as Woolf would say, and forget about it until you're writing the novel, but just so that you've got that whole sensual experience of a place, of a potential person, of a historical moment in particular. I mean, you've really got to know what London was like during World War One. I mean, was the bombing relentless, you know, was it, what, what would they be feeling? What would they be thinking? What would they be experiencing? So that's the main thing.
But then I realized that for myself, I was just happy doing the research and it could have gone on for years. I mean, because I'm an academic, so I just had to stop. And then I started writing and I think for me, it was just to keep writing, to make sure that I wrote 2000 words a day. And what kept me going actually was the fact that I can't type. I was very lucky in having a young woman who needed some money. And she was very happy to type my book because she was trying to write a novel herself.
So I had to give her a certain number of words every month, or at least every few weeks, and then she would type it and I would get on with the next bit. So why that was good is it stopped me rereading endlessly the same bit and making it better. I just have to bash on.
And then when I got to 30,000 words, I knew, well, I'm getting there. I can write a novel if I've got to 30,000 words or, you know, I can keep going. So I think that was for me the main thing.
But the main, the really main advice is to do a creative writing course. I mean, Americans do this much more routinely than is common in the UK, especially with people my age, but I mean, it's an immense help to be with a group of like-minded people, writing novels, to have a tutor to work through your novel again and again, and again, it was just amazing. It was just, it really changed my whole thing. My novel became completely different, also much shorter, which was good.
It was about 125,000 words at the start, so that wasn't good. And it's now, it's gone down to about the same, actually, as Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.
Oh, is it?
And that's my main advice.
So you were working on this novel when you took the creative writing course. So the novel kind of went through that process. That's interesting.
Yes. I mean, I was extremely lucky with the course. It came out of the University of East Anglia, which in the UK is the main prestigious writing course. They founded the first MA and their first student was Ian McEwen. They joined up with The Guardian newspaper. The course doesn't exist now, sadly, but it did then. And we met at The Guardian and I live in London so that was very handy for me, very near King's Cross.
They only took six students. And you had to have written a novel before you went on the course. In fact, actually, after the first week I discovered that not all the others had written a novel at all, but anyway, and so that was incredible to just have six people, three hours a week, you know, they're all very, very different women. One from Trinidad, one from Brazil, one from America, and three of us from the UK. But that was, that was definitely what helped me the most.
Yes, I've been mentioning that with other authors too, is spending as much time as you can learning. Because you, you never stop learning, you know, reading books about writing, taking courses, et cetera.
I know I try to read as much as I can about the craft, about the process of writing. I'm also intrigued that you could write 2000 words a day. That's very impressive. I can't do that.
That's the old academic bit. I just made myself do that, even though, you know, it wasn't very, obviously it wasn't any good, a lot of it, and it will have to be, it all had to be completely rewritten on the course. And then afterwards as well.
Another thing that I find very helpful, it's based in the UK, but I'm sure there must be hundreds of North American versions, which is I did a mentoring course after the diploma with the literary consultancy. And I think you can do it with some without actually physically having to be in the UK and then you get a mentor and you can sign up to whatever package you'd like, but the mentor reads the novel.
And I did that for structure. Because the only thing about a writing course is, you're doing 5,000 words at a time and you lose the structure. People on the course, they don't see the whole novel, so they don't see how badly structured it might be or might not be. They're focusing on individual scenes and my novel wasn't well structured. And the mentor was really good about that, pointing out but you can't have too many times when Lily and Emily walk along the cliff.
I had scene after scene where they're walking along the cliff together talking and I mean, it was just, it was just daft. You have one scene that does all that, you have one visit to an art gallery. I think I must've had three. So, all of that was very, very good to have that advice.
I agree that having a mentor, I know that changed me as well when I wrote my first novel, having someone talk about the structure, talk about the big picture. I'm a big fan of mentorship programs, for sure.
So tell us about what you're working on now. Are you writing another novel?
I have, yes. I have a draft and the very nice thing about my creative writing course is, though it was years ago, we still meet. And so we go through each other's writing. We try and reproduce what our tutor used to do. It's like saying, would Gillian like this or would she not like this?
But I have written a novel called Rodin's Mistress about Gwen John, because there isn't an awful lot about Gwen John, the artist. So I'm sticking to what I like doing, which is writing about art and what I think I'm better at doing than with other things.
And so it's about her tumultuous affair with Auguste Rodin the sculptor and it's very different from Talland House. For starters, it has a lot of sex in it, as you might imagine with Rodin, and it's written in the first person present tense as if it's all happening at the moment at which you're reading, I wanted to make it so much more vivid and alive. So that was a challenge.
But I'm hoping I've pulled it off. And so that's the novel that I am sort of redrafting, rewriting now, among all the other stuff.
Well, I look forward to having that one on Art In Fiction. It's obviously perfect for it.
So thanks so much for chatting with me, Maggie. This has been just delightful to talk about your novel Talland House.
Thank you. Because it's really wonderful to have somebody interested in what you've written. I mean, I can't tell you how delighted I am to talk with you.
Thank you. Have a wonderful day.
I've been speaking with Maggie Humm, author of Talland House listed in the Visual Arts category on Art in Fiction at www.artinfiction.com.
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