Monday, September 10, 2012

Painting by Numbers by Tom Gillespie: Interview & Excerpt



Day after day, Jacob Boyce – faltering academic and failing husband – visits a 17th century allegorical painting which hangs in a Glasgow art gallery. By using a series of measurements and calculations, he attempts to create a mathematical theory that will decipher the code locked into its canvas.

As more of the painting’s hidden secrets are revealed, and he meets a mysterious young woman, Jacob’s life spirals into chaos.

The object of his obsession has begun to move.

Painting by Numbers is a dark, surreal thriller that follows one man’s relentless pursuit into an old truth buried deep within.


In the dark, the painting remains motionless, silent, expectant. But when the morning sun glistens through the skylight windows of the gallery, the surface begins to move, slowly at first, but then with increasing purpose and urgency. The minutiae of the moment gather together and spill out across the canvas. The colours assimilate and align. The geometry calibrates to exact specifications. Objects and players assemble at their marked positions. Every motif and emblem returns to its designated space within the frame. The gilded wooden border creaks as the flow of paint pushes against the joints. Then the cracks and blemishes of age race across the reformed arena, and like the memory of water, the network of predetermined patterns follow hidden and mysterious pathways, scattering, dividing and multiplying as they rush to complete their journey. At last, the painting is one. It sinks back into the wall and settles on the three brass hooks that hold it in place. Soon the attendants will arrive to take up their daylight vigil. The doors will swing open, the ambient air temperature will be checked and regulated, and he will come to sit and look and wonder. 


The Loss of Innocence

Jacob inserted the key in the narrow socket and turned it anti-clockwise until the pendulum started to swing. He carefully reset the hands to exactly twenty-three minutes to nine and when he was sure that the mechanism was willing to maintain its own momentum, he closed the glass casement, buttoned up his coat and left the flat. He caught the number six to Argyle Street and then the underground to Kelvinbank. From there it was a short walk across the river to the city gallery. As he approached the entrance, a uniformed attendant was removing the steel security bar from the front door. He held it open and Jacob squeezed through. Inside, he passed his coat and bag to the cloakroom assistant. She studied his expression.

“Are you alright, Jacob? You don’t look well today.”

“I’m fine.”

She handed him a ticket and he ascended the grand staircase directly opposite. On the second floor, he entered the Baroque Room. He walked to the end and sat down facing the painting. The lights on the ceiling were too bright. They produced an artificial glare and the resultant surface sheen obscured some of the detail. But Jacob had found the perfect spot, exactly three inches from the end of the bench, to sit and contemplate the vast mystery of the canvas. He took out his notebook and flicked the page corners until he located the last entry. He glanced around to see if anyone else had come in but the room was still vacant. He liked this time in the morning. It never lasted very long, but for a brief, tantalizing moment, he was alone with his painting, with no distractions, no other eyes or minds removing ideas from the great work that loomed over him. He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a pencil, licked the end and wrote down the date at the top of a fresh page. Now he was ready to look.


The painting was large, twelve feet by eight, and was hung in a vulgarly elaborate gold frame. An adolescent girl was standing on the left hand side of a mahogany panelled room. She was in formal dress. Cream and gold flowing garments covered pale skin. The cloth was heavily embroidered in an ornate pattern of floral swirls and loops, her face pallid with a slight hint of crimson around the cheek bones. She was leaning against a full-length mirror with a similarly ornate border, the back of her head revealed in the reflection. In her left hand, she was holding what appeared to be a leather-bound book, with the words Poemas de M- inscribed on the cover, her fingers obscuring the rest of the title. There was a small table to her immediate right with a wineglass balanced on the edge. Her right arm was extended and her forefinger was touching the rim. On the far left, a panelled door was slightly ajar. A hand gripped the edge and an indistinct shadowy figure was peering through the gap directly at the girl, the eyeballs painted in an intense brilliant white that stood out against an impenetrable black background. Reflected in the mirror and on the right, a courtier was kneeling on the floor. He was also in formal attire, a crimson sleeveless tunic over a white flannel shirt, puffed up three quarter length breeches and mud-splattered boots. Against the rear wall, a blazing fire illuminated the room. There appeared to be papers burning amongst the flames. The entire scene was shrouded in a creamy yellow haze that gave it a dreamlike quality.

For the last three days Jacob had been working on the area between and immediately surrounding two letters, D and V which were just visible on the neck of a dead pheasant laid out next to the girl’s feet. He drew a line with his eye from the top right hand corner of the letter V to the leg of the table. He then measured the actual distance with a small reel of thread, carefully avoiding any contact with the surface. He calculated a relative distance of three feet, twenty-one point three inches. This matched an earlier reading he had taken from the knuckle of the courtier’s left hand to the outside edge of the girl’s dress. It also corresponded to the distance from the tip of the girl’s extended right index finger to the floor. He entered the data and returned his attention to the small space between the two letters. He was about to extend the spool again when he noticed a tiny blemish on the down stroke of the V. Part of it was missing, as though it had faded or flaked off. He scribbled the observation in his pad and put it down on the bench. By now a few people had come in and were shuffling around. He stretched and looked at his watch; twenty to twelve. Over three hours had passed. He put the cotton reel and ruler in his bag and went downstairs to the café.

Welcome Tom!  Thanks so much for taking time out to be here today.  I've been looking forward to chatting with you and finding out  more about you.  :) How did you start your writing career?


I was a bit of a dreamer at school. I think I must have driven my teachers nuts trying to hold my attention. I was always looking out the window or inhabiting the inner spaces and playing fields of my imagination. I found that writing stuff down gave me a focus for all my random thoughts and bizarre plotlines that rattled around in my head. And then, when I was about ten, I won a local short story competition, and I think it was then I realized that I could put my failings at school to some good use after all, and make some money at the same time.. har har.


Tell us about your latest release.

Painting by Numbers is a psychological drama about an Earth Scientist, Jacob Boyce, who becomes obsessed with a 17th Century allegorical painting. He believes that somewhere inside the composition, there is a mathematical code that will help him to formulate a theory to predict earthquakes. But as he delves further into the painting, strange things start to happen around him, and the object of his obsession begins to move.


When in the day/night do you write? How long per day?


I find that when I’m locked down into writing, I need to follow a strict routine. My favourite time to write is between 5 and 8 in the morning, when it feels like the whole world is still in bed, and I can let my characters run around the house without bumping into anyone. Then I’ll have breakfast and carry on until 12.00. Then I won’t look at anything again until the following morning. 


Where do you research your books.


I work at the University of Bath which is an amazing place to be in terms of access to research material and expertise. Painting by Numbers includes quite a bit of art history and also some weird science, and I was fortunate to enlist the help of a mathematics researcher and an Art Historian, to help me concoct my tall tale. Although my book is a work of complete fiction, I wanted the fabricated facts to feel authentic, and my colleagues provided me with the language and ideas to do that.


Do you have critique partners or beta readers


I have three main beta readers. They provided me with invaluable support and advice throughout my journey to complete my book They each looked at slightly different aspects; one checks the language and looks for clunky, weird or weak expressions, the second is brilliant at checking the structure and how the whole story flows and fits together, and the third critiques my dialogues. Writing dialogue is particularly difficult and needs quite a bit of attention.


I also have a couple of theta or gamma reads who read the finished work and make general comments. And then there is my editor who contradicts everything the beta and gamma readers have said.

How do you describe your writing style?

I love writing that is terse, minimalist, hyper-realistic and ambiguous, where layers of meaning are conveyed using a concise and economical style. I want readers to speculate on what might be going on, and draw their own conclusions.

What do you think makes a good story?

Theme, character, narrative arc, surprise, delight and beautiful language.

 Who should play you in a film?

I would hope for Humphrey Bogart or Jean Gabin, but I would probably end up with Forrest Gump.
LOL!! Somehow I don't think so!  Thanks again!  I've enjoyed chatting and wish you every success with your novel.


Tom Gillespie, also known as Tom Reid was born and grew up in a small town just outside Glasgow. After completing a Masters in English at Glasgow University, he spent the next ten years pursuing a musical career as a singer/songwriter, playing, recording and touring the UK and Europe with his band. He now lives in Bath with his wife, daughter and hyper-neurotic cat, where he works at the University as an academic English lecturer.

Tom writes long and short fiction. A number of his stories are published by . He is also a regular contributor to

Tom’s writing has been described as terse, minimalist, hyper- realistic and ambiguous, where layers of meaning are conveyed using a concise and economical style.

He is currently working on a second novel and a collection of short stories.
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Giveaway ends September 29th 11:59PM Central Time.


Debby said...

I love the premise for the book. I bet it is fascinating to read.

Sarah Aisling said...

This book sounds absolutely fascinating! Looking forward to reading it.


Nancy Jardine said...

Nice interview, Tom! Best wishes. Will get to PBN asap.

Helen said...

Really nice interview Tom. and Laurie! And I can highly recommend PBN it's excellent! ^_^

Anonymous said...

Best wishes for brilliant sales, Tom.