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Art & Life with Carolyn Purnell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carolyn Purnell.

Carolyn, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
I grew up as an only child on a cattle ranch in rural East Texas, and writing was how I passed the long, lethargic afternoons. The habit stayed with me, and writing became something that I couldn’t do. It was just a part of my daily life, like showering and sleeping.

In college, I made the move from rural Texas to suburban Los Angeles, and during my first semester at Pomona College, I took a history course—only because I thought I hated history, and I wanted to get the credit out of the way. It was taught by an amazing instructor, Gary Kates, who opened my eyes to the wonder, fun, and strangeness of eighteenth-century France, and soon, I found myself taking all his classes and double-majoring in History and English. I was also fortunate enough to take creative writing classes with David Foster Wallace, who was a meticulous reader and a generous mentor.

After college, I went to the University of Chicago for graduate school in history, which, I had discovered, is just fiction with facts. I earned my M.A. and Ph.D. in French history, and along the way, I spent two glorious years researching, teaching, and eating my way through France.

I knew, though, that I didn’t take joy in academic writing. I wanted to write books for a more general audience. In fact, I really wanted to write books that my parents and friends back in Texas could enjoy. During a three-year post-doc, I made the decision to focus on non-academic writing, got an agent, and sold my first book, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses. I left academia, moved to L.A., became a high school teacher, and started a second book. Now, the second book is almost complete, and I’ve moved out of the classroom and into ghostwriting and other freelance writing projects.

Fiction will always be my first love, but I’m a historian through and through. I walk through the world wondering about the backstory of places, people, and objects. The way I think about politics, society and culture is saturated with everything I’ve learned about the past. My world has become a much more complicated (but much richer) place since I reluctantly took that freshman-year history course.

Can you give our readers some background on your art?
Over the years, I’ve spent far too much time thinking about how the color magenta contributed to climate change and why eighteenth-century humanitarians were obsessed with tobacco enemas. Basically, I study the history of things that you probably don’t think to have a history.

My first book, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses (W. W. Norton, 2017), investigated the history of sensation in the eighteenth century. Using a series of test cases, ranging from the cat piano (a piano containing live cats) to funeral feasts, I explore the sensory worlds of the past and show how they inform our world today.

The book that I’m currently finishing, Inventing Color, focuses on the history of color in the nineteenth century. We take color for granted today, but in a world before trains, reliable road networks, automobiles, or the lure of better jobs in an urban setting, most people lived local and rural lives. Color was seasonal and bound by natural light and the local environment. It was only after industrialization and the development of synthetic chemistry that the world exploded with color, and at first, the bright new world was uncomfortable. This book traces the gigantic cultural impact that color had on the modern world.

I study these strange topics for a few reasons. One, history isn’t just about big events and great historical figures. It’s also about daily life. It’s about aches, joys, fears, and feelings. If you were to look back on your life, you would probably remember events of larger historical value (e.g., 9/11) or ideas that changed you in a fundamental way (e.g., religious teachings or political ideologies), but you would also remember the slow burn of a skinned knee, the pleasure of summer tomatoes, and the way you felt when you first saw a shooting star. These quiet moments matter and I think it’s important to bring them back into the historical record.

Secondly, the fact that we don’t think these things have a history is exactly why they need to be explored. The stuff that seems like second nature is where our unconscious biases hide. For example, the way we’re taught about colors is steeped in racist, classist, and capitalist assumptions. Our gut reactions are laden with quick, but deep assessments of people’s worldviews, morals, and values. I write about the past, but I always do so with an eye to what’s going on in the world today.

Artists rarely, if ever pursue art for the money. Nonetheless, we all have bills and responsibilities and many aspiring artists are discouraged from pursuing art due to financial reasons. Any advice or thoughts you’d like to share with prospective artists?
Financial concerns are real, and I definitely can’t claim to have the balance figured out, but I would advise anyone involved in writing or the arts to apply to any and every grant or fellowship that they can. It’s time-consuming, but once you have the formula down, you can adapt and recycle your statements, and the payoff can be big. I was fortunate enough to win a generous fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it paid for me to focus on my second book for an entire year.

Everyone needs a full-time job (or, at least, almost everyone), but over time, I’ve incrementally transitioned to positions that are more in line with the artistic life I want. I came up with my ideal scenario (full-time writing and research on my own projects), and even though it’s not attainable yet, I have kept that goal in sight. Every job switch I’ve made has gotten me a little bit closer. For example, I was a high school teacher, and I loved the students, but teaching sapped me so much that I wasn’t really able to write at the end of the day. I took the skills I learned there and applied for corporate writing positions, and now I’m paid to work remotely. My paid work doesn’t have a lot to do with my own research, but now I lead a life that allows me more time, brain space, and flexibility to work on my writing on the side. Step by step, I feel like I’m getting to a place where I can focus more on the things that matter to me.

What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
My book The Sensational Past is available at most bookshops. Small retailers can order it, and if the convenience of Amazon is still your go-to, it’s available there. For writers, it’s always better if people buy new copies because those stats count toward our sales goals, but honestly, I just want people to read and enjoy the book. So, get a used copy, borrow it from a friend, or check it out from your local library. And then send me a note to let me know what you think! Hearing from readers will never get old. You can reach me through

If you’re interested in the history of color, I have an Instagram account dedicated solely to that topic @inventingcolor. And this fall, I’m giving a TEDx talk on the topic, so when that video comes out, please circulate it to anyone you think may be interested. Sharing my work is the best way to support what I do.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
For cat piano image: Cnum – Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers
For archival document image: Bibliothèque Valentin Haüy

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