|Alyson Richman, photo by Robert Presutti|
Alyson Richman is the author of the new novel The Velvet Hours. Her other novels include The Garden of Letters and The Lost Wife. She is a painter as well as a writer, and she's based on Long Island.
Q: The Velvet Hours was inspired by a true story. Can you describe how much of the novel is historically based, and how you balanced the historical and the fictional as you wrote it?
A: The novel came about after I read a newspaper article about an apartment in Paris that been mysteriously shuttered for over 70 years and had once belonged to an elusive courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian.
When the apartment was opened, it resembled a time capsule. Thick veils of dust covered sumptuous antiques and gilded mirrors. Most striking of all was a magnificent portrait by the 19th century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini of Madame de Florian that hung over the marble fireplace. Adding to the allure, love letters, written by the artist, were found in Marthe’s vanity.
No one knows why Marthe de Florian’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron closed the apartment during World War II, but as a historical novelist I knew I had plenty of rich material to create a novel.
Factually, we know the apartment was located in the ninth arrondisement of Paris on La Square Bruyere, but other than that, the information is rather scarce.
What we do know is that “Marthe de Florian” was born under a different name, Mathilde Beaugiron. Her birth certificate states her to be the daughter of a laundress and a French census cites her as being a seamstress during her early 20s.
She had two children, both named Henri, though the first Henri, died shortly after childbirth. The other Henri we know later became a pharmacist and had one daughter, Solange Beugiron, who many believe became the writer Solange Beldo.
In 1938 Solange Beaugiron claimed that one of her plays had been plagiarized. This is why I create Solange as a budding writer who is fascinated by the story of her grandmother.
Q: How did you research the novel, which takes place in France over several decades?
A: As this book tells the story of a Belle Epoque I steeped myself in books and literature that brought that time period to life. I did extensive research on the life of courtesans during that time, working with both historians and experts in the field of fashion and art history.
As there is a rare Haggadah in the book so I worked with scholars with background in conservation of rare books. I was lucky enough to have three Boldini paintings pulled from storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City so I could study his unique brushwork and accurately bring his artistic style to life.
For the World War II portion of the novel, again I worked with experts in the field to make sure the novel was historically accurate. I also used a lot of photo archives and diaries from that time period so that the contrast between the sumptuous world of the Belle Epoque and the dark tumultuous days of early World War II.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: There is a sentence in The Velvet Hours when Solange ruminates on the time she spends with her grandmother in the apartment, when Marthe reveals much of her past to her granddaughter after they had been estranged for most of Solange’s life: “Those hours were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.”
Both Marthe and Solange reveal their personal stories in the novel, not only the most beautiful parts of their pasts, but also ones that are less flattering. In essence, every life has its own shadow and light.
The texture of velvet is particularly intriguing to me. It can be soft in one direction, yet bristly in another. It can appear dark at times, or iridescent in others. That contrast defines much of The Velvet Hours. Beauty within the shadow. Darkness still threaded with light.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on a novel called The Family Cloud. It’s a very different novel that takes place in modern day and explores the bond between parent and child and teacher and student. Stay tuned.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb