Friday, January 4, 2013

Q&A with novelist Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland

Q: You have just completed a new novel. What can you tell us about it?

A: The new novel, Lisette's List, takes place in the south of France, the village of Roussillon in Provence, as well as in Paris during the five years before World War II, the war and occupation years, and five years thereafter. Roussillon is a center for mining ocher, which was used in the pigments for all the warm colors of the color wheel. A former miner, then pigment salesman, who has made frames for Pizarro and Cézanne and traded them for paintings, recounts his interactions with these painters to his grandson's wife, Lisette, hungry to learn more about the art world. During the war, the paintings had to be hidden from Nazi “collectors.” 

The novel deals with the difficulties of recovering the paintings after they have been stolen and rehidden. It's a novel about love, war, forgiveness, endurance, the motives and lives of Pissarro, Cézanne, and Chagall, who hid from the Nazis near Roussillon, and the power of art to enrich and heal.

Q: Your previous novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, focuses on the artist Clara Driscoll, who designed many of the famous Tiffany lamps. How much research did you need to do for this book, and how much of Clara's story did you invent?

A: Clara and Mr. Tiffany was heavily researched, not only the making of glass, of leaded glass windows and lamps, of the workings of Tiffany Studios and Clara's department of women artisans, but also New York at the turn of the 19th century, its changes both technical and attitudinal, its flood of immigrants into the Lower East Side, the coming of electrical street lighting, subways, skyscrapers, and boarding house life. 

While conversations and interactions were imagined, they were in accord with this research as well as with Clara's extensive correspondence with her family. I did nothing but research for six months prior to beginning to write, and did more research during the three years of writing and revising. I invented scenes according to the nature and personality of the people in her boarding house and at Tiffany Studios, basing them on comments in her letters. 

The making of the lamps, the pricing, the process, the contention about the expense of producing her lamps, the men's strike against the women workers, Clara's bronze medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle, the nature of Tiffany, his history and that of his father--all this is based on research. Only minor narrative moments and no additional characters needed to be invented. 

However, I must caution readers: The worth of a work of historical fiction is not to be based on “how much” was true. Rather, it should be based on how skillfully historical truth emerges organically from a narrative shaped and fashioned by the author, and how fresh and immediate the scenes are.

Q: Many of your main characters are female artists. How did that focus develop throughout your writing career?

A: My intention never was to be a writer of only women artists. I call your attention to my novel about Vermeer, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and to Luncheon of the Boating Party, about Renoir. My collection of stories, Life Studies, contains stories dealing with  van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Modigliani, Cézanne, Renoir, and only one of a woman, Berthe Morisot. 

This is not to say that I haven't become interested in the lives and work of women artists, notably the Italian baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (The Passion of Artemisia, 2002), the British Columbia painter Emily Carr (The Forest Lover, 2004), and Clara Driscoll, the glass artist and leader of a women's department of artisans (Clara and Mr. Tiffany, 2011). How they have negotiated the male art world of their times and have achieved success therein is to be lauded and made more generally known. To a certain extent, that has been my motive in these works, but as you see now, I don't limit my work to women artists. In some cases, women characters who knew male painters have fascinated me, and I like to bring them to fullness alongside their male protagonists.

Q: Do you have a favorite time period or country to write about?

A: I love France and Italy and the Netherlands, so it's natural that I set my novels and stories in those places. I love the late nineteenth century in France, the period of the Impressionists. Regretfully, since I poured all my love into this time and place in a novel, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and a story collection, Life Studies, I don't feel I should return to it again for another major work. I fear I would only be repeating myself. My choices of time and place and subject are governed also by what that milieu allows me to express of themes broader than art.

Q: Do you know what you’ll be working on next?

A: I have no writing plans after Lisette's List.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Perhaps your readers would like to know my motivations for writing historical fiction relating to art. Exploring the world of art enables me to see, to be more responsive to and appreciative of the appearance, color, shape and texture of things around me. It's my way of participating in the art world.

More importantly, art's effect on the imagination is crucial to the way I think. Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own, we see it multiplied and can see into other times, other worlds which offer a window to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race. 

When there is no imagination of others' lives, there is no human connection. When there is no human connection, compassion does not develop. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving kindness, human understanding and peace shrivel. Individuals become isolated, fearful, resentful, marginalized, and these states of mind can develop into cruelty, where the tragic hovers in forms of domestic, civil, international violence. Art, and its concomitant, literature, are antidotes to that. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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