Carrie Callaghan is the author of the new novel A Light of Her Own, which focuses on two women artists in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Amsterdam Quarterly and Silk Road Review. She is a senior editor with the Washington Independent Review of Books, and she lives in Maryland.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on the 17th century artist Judith Leyster in your novel, and what did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical?
A: When I saw Judith's self-portrait, I was moved by what I assumed must have been her bravery and daring. Who was this woman who had painted at the time of Rembrandt? I wanted to know her story, and my writing is my vehicle for diving into a topic and learning about it.
Once I began learning about Judith, the line between historical fact and fiction was quite clear. We know relatively little about her life (though I crammed in almost every relevant fact that I could find, including the legal proceeding she goes through), and the rest I had to guess.
Of course, I tried to come up with a way that would illuminate the character and challenges I was trying to portray. What sacrifices does ambition demand of us? How do we choose to pursue our dreams and still give of ourselves to those who love us? Within the outlines of history, I tried to paint a believable and interesting fictional story.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: The exhibition catalog compiled on the occasion of Judith's 400th birthday (the same exhibit that first introduced me to her work) contains a marvelous collection of scholarly essays about Judith's life and times.
The essays plus the catalog's paintings by Judith and her contemporaries served as an excellent launching point for my research. From there I read multiple books, ranging from 17th century philosophy to the Thirty Years War to the tulip financial bubble and beyond. I picked up little details from all of those books.
In addition, one of the delights of researching this novel was the paintings I had as resources. The gorgeous paintings gave me details about Haarlem in the 17th century, Dutch interiors, and of course Judith's character.
There were many small details about the way of life 400 years ago that were so different from our own, from birth notifications on doors to funeral rites.
I expected to find differences, but the details themselves are always a little surprising, and, as such, delightful. Like, for example, how the Dutch at the time mostly slept in sleeping alcoves, often covered by wooden doors to hold in the heat, since houses were generally cold.
I love how our common humanity endures no matter the unique life patterns provided by our era's homes, habits, and passions.
Q: What do Judith's and Maria's experiences say about the role of women artists in the Netherlands during that time period?
A: As much as I enjoyed researching the 17th century Dutch art scene, I'm not a historian, and the actual scholars will have the best answer for that question.
I will say that I learned, from looking at Judith's and Maria's lives, that women had far more options than I imagined -- but that's only because my imagination was constrained. If we know more about what women have achieved in the past, we'll have higher expectations for what we can do today.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: I love the fierce and tender realism of Hilary Mantel, the gentle wisdom of James McBride, the fearless scope of Linnea Hartsuyker, and the complete mastery and profound humanity of Kazuo Ishiguro. There are so many writers I imagine, it's hard to pick just a few.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another historical fiction about a woman forgotten by history! This one a much more obscure woman -- an early 20th century journalist. I won't say more than that, though. I'm still on the first draft, which is always a painful place to be.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love books profoundly. I'm so grateful other people do too, and grateful for readers and lovers of the written word. It's my biased view that we book-lovers represent some of the best in humanity, with our endless curiosity and willingness to slow down enough to absorb a story.
Thank you, Deborah, for building another space for book-lovers to congregate!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb