Thursday, June 22, 2023

Q&A with Stephen P. Kiernan



Stephen P. Kiernan is the author of the new novel The Glass Château. His other books include Universe of Two. Also a journalist, he lives in Vermont.


Q: Why did you decide to write a novel inspired by the life of the artist Marc Chagall?

A: I didn't start with Chagall in mind. I began from the premise of wanting to write a recovery novel, a tale of rebuilding, because I believe that is the sort of story America needs to read right now. 


France right after World War II was full of division and damage, yet the people managed to work together to reconstruct their country. As I read deeply about that time, I kept thinking about Marc Chagall, whose art first found wide acclaim in those same years.


In 2017, the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal (the large city nearest to where I live in northern Vermont) held a retrospective on his life's work, and it was breathtaking. Somehow while writing my first draft, I found myself falling under the spell of Chagall's world, though it does not entirely make sense: cows that fly in the air, fish that offer a bouquet of flowers. His art made me think anything was possible -- especially hope. 


Although The Glass Chateau is entirely realist, there are scenes inspired by Chagall's paintings, there is a fish with some unusual talents, and on one occasion the cows don't exactly fly, but almost.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I read the history of that time deeply, and I traveled widely to see as many of Chagall's stained glass windows as possible: in the US to Chicago, Tarrytown, and New York City, and in France to Reims and the national museum of Chagall's work in Nice. 


The biggest surprise was learning that the money in the Marshall Plan -- America's astonishingly generous funding to European nations to help them rebuild -- did not arrive till years after the war, and was intended primarily to stop the spread of Communism. 


In other words, the people of France had to find their own way, had to rebuild 1.5 million homes and other structures. And they managed to do so despite the polarization of wealth, bitter postwar politics between people as different as Socialists and Nazi sympathizers, even a former president who held rallies and was reluctant to surrender his powers. 


This book is not at all a how-to for nation building, though. It's about people who make stained glass windows, and how, by working together, they begin to heal. 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the novel?

A: It's not a balance. History is a powerful starting point, and must be respected with accuracy. But the human story of the book's characters always takes top priority.


In this novel the love between Asher and Marie matters infinitely more than what became of coal shipments from Russia during a cold winter. I hope the history disappears behind the story of characters trying to survive and recover in a difficult time.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: First, I hope they are transported. That is, I hope they forget they are reading a book, forget the title and author, and instead find themselves in a dream in their own imaginations: what people and places look like, which characters they like and don't like, what they hope happens in the end. I hope this book makes them feel like they are living in France for a while (the food in this book, I promise, is delicious). 


Second, I hope they see the power of art as a force of healing. It is for the characters in this book, and perhaps can be in the world.


I also hope they understand how hard love and faith are to maintain, after the damage of a war. I hope they see characters struggle not to return to violence, and how hard they try to commit themselves to being forces for peace.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a novel that is the most plot-driven I've written yet: It's about three men who survive the crash of a single-engine plane in remote wilderness in winter, and their efforts to survive and return to civilization. I suggest putting on a sweater before opening this one. 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I continue to be blessed and amazed by the generosity of readers -- who send me messages, and come to my  events, and continue to allow me to do the work of my heart's desire. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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