Here at Lydia, there are few things we love more than being inspired by fellow women. And we’re not just talking real women – there are countless motivating, life-affirming, relatable fictional women to be found in all of our favorite books. Taking her cue from these literary ladies, author and artist Samantha Hahn created her new book, Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines. We spoke with Samantha about everything from artistic inspiration to favorite books.
I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a little girl. I grew up in a creative house and my parents worked in creative fields. I went on to study illustration and then went to graduate school for art education. After college I took a few years to teach and paint and explore the illustration market and find my niche.
In your new book, Well-Read Women, you create beautiful artistic depictions of literary heroines. How did you come up with the idea to start sketching and painting women from literature? And how did that eventually develop into a full book-length project?
The idea for the book followed a series of my favorite literary heroines for a solo gallery show. The show featured my illustrations of various incarnations of Helen of Troy. I was fascinated by the idea of her beauty having so much power. This lead me to illustrate a series of vignettes for the show including my favorite literary characters. At the opening I noticed people discussing the portraits and sharing their feelings about their favorite character, and their memories of when they first read her.
The more I thought about it the more I concluded how similar they are to each other and how relatable they are to us, even today. They were girls and women trying to find their voice, find love, and navigate their culture. I started thinking of them as friends.
After the show, I put together a little proposal and Chronicle Books made an offer. They worked with me to develop the project into the book you see today. I learned so much about myself from getting to know each character.
There are so many amazing, fascinating, and frustrating women in literature to choose from! How did you decide which to include in your book?
To choose the characters I portrayed in this book, I cast my net across the Western canon, and a bit beyond. Some of these stories were new to me and some were treasured favorites. Now each of these characters is as familiar to me as a close friend. They come from novels, plays, and poetry, and each is, in her own way, profound. I learned so much about myself from getting to know each of them. It was a pleasure evolving this project into a book.
What traits, for you, comprise the ideal female literary heroine?
Each character is trying to find her voice, find love and navigate the constraints of her culture.
Who’s your favorite literary heroine, if you had to choose just one?
So impossible! But, I think we should all aspire to see the world as Anne Shirley does.
What’s been the most exciting part of creating and promoting your book?
Seeing the way people have responded to the book so positively has been really special. It’s wonderful getting press but I especially like it when a fan, friend or even a stranger at an event comes up to me to tell me how much they loved seeing their favorite character portrayed and how they can’t wait to follow characters that are new to them back to their books.
What was it like having the New York Public Library ask you to create a display of Well-Read Women?
I’m a born New Yorker so to have such an incredible New York institution come to me to celebrate my book in their incredible space is a true honor.
Taking on a long-term creative project of any sort can be a really daunting decision. Do you have any advice for young, creative women thinking about turning a single poem or sketch into a longer series?
I think if you are passionate about developing a project and exploring an idea through your art you have to know it will be both challenging and so rewarding. You will learn so much about yourself and develop as a person and artist from embarking on something that holds so much meaning.
Be patient, be willing to make mistakes, to start over again, to rethink things, to experiment and to push through to fruition.
Nicole Testa was born, reared, and currently resides in New York City. She received a BA in Literature and Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where she was also Co-editor in Chief of the college’s primary literary magazine, the Sarah Lawrence Review. You can often find her reading and writing poetry, trying her hand at a new craft, or seeking out the city’s best doughnut offerings (or sometimes all three at once). Find her elsewhere at her writing and style blog, Coco Maria and check out her prints at Foxhole Print Shop.