As a child I was utterly possessed by the past which came to me in books; it seemed somehow a better, more orderly place where I could be myself and live a fuller life. "....to come back to where we started and know the place for the first time," says the great poet T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets. Is it that time is an illusion, that in some way outside of our small sphere people float freely between ages?
Some historical writers feel they are called by the past; some feel they actually lived there. Do we re-imagine former lives, or somehow, deep inside us, do we remember them? While researching my latest novel on Monet, I got teary finding a street in Paris where he lived when twenty-five, when no one wanted his paintings and when he first fell in love. I sensed his hope and despair.
Historical novelist Karen Essex has written: "You have to figure out how to tell a story with a narrative out of a life that didn't really unfold as one." And here comes the craft, or the very beginning of it. I had chosen to write a novel which covers some twenty years of Monet's life, and it had to appear as if it just happened that way, utterly seamless.
I came to the writing of Claude and Camille: a novel of Claude Monet by heritage. My parents were both artists. I grew up in the shadow of the easel, passing carefully by marmalade jars full of brushes. My parents took me to museums and art exhibitions since my earliest memories. Artists came to the house. The air always smelled of oil paint and linseed oil. One day my father dressed me in a smock and lent me his brushes and let me try to paint. I was perhaps six years old. I found that I could do nothing at all. Years later when I discovered that novel writing was my real gift, I remembered the easel, the marmalade jars, the struggle with brush and canvas.
So how do you combine something from the past which you feel called to, which you love deeply, with the craft to make it live for others? I traveled and studied; I read fifty books. I haunted museums. I walked over the Japanese bridge in Giverny and felt Monet as an old man with his water lilies, but more, I felt the young man he had been. I sat mesmerized before a grainy photograph of him in his early twenties. I lay on the sofa slowly leafing through a book with his portraits of this mysterious upper-class girl, Camille he so loved. I spent hours by the river near my apartment, studying the changing light.
It takes both mysticism and craft and time to write an historical novel. It can take less than a year or many years. We study ... and then we invent. At a recent book signing, Tracy Chevalier told us that when she has a question her research can't answer then she knows it is time to invent.
And if you stay with your mystical dream, your deep call to the past, your studies and your always-expanding craft, you may write a story which will be printed so that others may live in your world, as I lived in books as a child, and find their own place there.
Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest; The Physician of London (American Book Award 1996) and The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare. She is the also the author of Marrying Mozart, which was translated into seven languages and has been optioned for a movie. Her latest novel, Claude and Camille, will publish on April 6. Visit her at www.stephaniecowell.com