Sunday, March 10, 2024

Q&A with Jeanne Mackin




Jeanne Mackin is the author of the new novel Picasso's Lovers. Her other novels include The Last Collection. She lives in upstate New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Picasso’s Lovers, and how did you create your character Alana?


A: Picasso’s art and his career have been an endless source of fascination for me. His reputation as a womanizer added to the fascination because, let’s be honest, sinners are often more interesting than saints. He had a bad boy appeal that I wanted to explore. 


But even more importantly, I wanted to spend a lot of time looking at his art and wondering:  is he as great as his reputation says is? My conclusion? Oh yes. Based on the brilliance and innovation of his work I do believe he was a visual genius, the greatest artist of the 20th century.


I know there is some work that does not appeal to many viewers, but I would invite them to look at the neoclassical works he painted as one of his many styles, especially the painting referenced in the book’s title: The Lovers. It is one of the loveliest, most tender paintings of a couple in love that you will ever see.


Alana I created to be a woman of her times, responding to the difficulties and hopes of those times: she wants a professional career at a time when many professions discourage or simply do not allow women. She wants love and family, but on her terms, and that is proving difficult as well. 


She has a social conscience and suffers because of the segregation still allowed in the country at that time, an injustice she demonstrates against. 


And, she wants to discover her mother’s story, all those important secrets she was never told. Alana goes on a journey that is both physical and emotional to achieve her desires.


Q: In our previous Q&A, you said, “The balance between fact and fiction is so important in historical novels.” What did you see as the right balance with this novel?


A: The information about Pablo Picasso sticks closely to the facts of his life. The historical people in the novel, Picasso, the Murphys, Irene Lagut, are all fact-based.


The fiction, that what-if that creates a novel, begins with Alana and her mother, the invented characters. I put them all in relationship to each other, factual and fictional, and the story proceeds from there.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Most of the novel was written during COVID and lockdown, so the research was done from my home, online, and the libraries that were open. 


This actually wasn’t a problem for me, since I have traveled quite a bit in the south of France and already knew the landscape, the fragrance of the wild herbs and lavender field, the texture of cobbled streets and the sound of that warm, turquoise ocean, the tastes of the cuisine, the fish soups and cold salads, the walnut cakes.


I had to do considerable reading to develop my fictional character of Pablo Picasso and was sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer number of biographies written about him.  


What surprised me was how many biographies have a friendly, almost tender attitude towards the artist, even those written by his ex-lovers. Picasso was not the villain I had assumed he would turn out to be, the love-them-and-leave-them scoundrel who broke women’s hearts. In fact, a few of the women left him! 

He did take many lovers, but among his artistic circles in France, at that time just after The Great War, people were perhaps less inhibited than they were in other times and places. Women, as well as men, sought and found pleasure and excitement. It was, after all, the roaring 20s, the Lost Generation.


Sometimes for research I just sat and looked at the paintings, trying to imagine the man who had painted them, what he might have been thinking, feeling, at that time. His work is so amazing. The more you look, the more you see.


I also did considerable reading on Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the way they pursued and tried to ruin Americans with more liberal attitudes. Label someone a Communist at that time and you can destroy their life.


Our country was going through a painful transformation where we had to redefine our values and thankfully, eventually, we arrived at a point where we agreed that segregation of the races was wrong, child labor was wrong, violence against immigrants, gays, and Jews was wrong.


We got to a better place, a more enlightened place, but there were a couple of years when McCarthy and his men tipped this country into a place of fear and hatred.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Picasso?


A: Much of the work that people think of when they think of Picasso is the brutal, difficult cubism work of his early career. That work actually occupied a very short span of his working life, but it is frequently reproduced because it was so very innovative, so new and energetic. 


Much of his other work is figurative. He loved to paint women and he did so with great psychological acuity…and often tenderness. He was a great draughtsman and colorist. The paintings he created as a child, his earliest realistic period, are incredible, especially one of his fragile sister, whom he loved very much.


His personal life is also not what many people would think, would expect, of a famous artist. Yes, there were the women, the many lovers. Monogamy was not his specialty, to put it mildly. Yet that behavior was, in his circle, the norm, not the exception. 


But he also had touches of an almost gentlemanly behavior. He could be very generous, giving away his already valuable works, and he was not brutish in his behavior.


He did not drink heavily or use drugs. He avoided the dissolute lifestyle often associated with being an artist because it would have interfered with his ability to work as hard as he wanted to work. For Picasso, the work, the creation, was everything. His life revolved around it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve moved to a different century. My past few books, Picasso’s Lovers, The Last Collection, and The Beautiful American, were set in this fabulous, incredibly creative era in France between the wars. But now I need to travel somewhere else, sometime else. It’s Italian and it’s about art, but until I have the first draft that’s all I can say.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks for the questions and the interest! I’m having fun promoting this book and if any books clubs want to zoom with me I’d be delighted to join the discussion. I’m always up for a chat about Pablo and his lovers and his art.  


You can find book club information about Picasso’s Lovers at and information about my other novels at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jeanne Mackin.

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