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Susan Vreeland Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland

An interview with Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland answers questions about her first two books, both about 17th century painters - including whether she plans to continue to write about this specific time period.

Artemisia tells her own story in this novel. Why did you choose a first person narrator?
I felt using the first person would allow me to get closer to Artemisia. With the first person, it's the reader's assumption that all descriptions, observations, feelings are hers rather than the narrator's. Not wanting a sense of a contemporary author looking back to that century, I felt the first person could provide more immediacy. Also, a first person voice would help to distinguish The Passion of Artemisia from a biography.

What are the difficulties involved in writing a fictional story that is based on real facts?
First, one must find the story one wishes to tell buried in the known history. Then, one must be willing to risk criticism when that story requires departure from fact. Writing historically based fiction is first a matter of discovery, then focus, then selectivity.

A person's real life involves a huge number of people, far too many to give focus to a novel. In order to avoid the narrative sprawl that would limit space for development of important characters, I had to eliminate Artemisia's brothers, sons, and many of the people for whom she painted in order to reveal her relationships with her father, husband, and daughter more deeply.

Conversely, archival and published history often don't record the relationships that are significant, so characters have to be invented to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction. For this purpose I invented the two nuns, her models, her neighbor, and Renata, her chambermaid.

Sometimes a fact conflicts with what an author needs a character to do. In truth, Artemisia was illiterate until midlife, her father considering it more important to teach her to paint than to read. In order to keep the nuns in the story while she was in Florence, I had to have her learn to read and write at the convent.

Another challenge is scenic and chronological accuracy. Clothing, food, currency, and transportation must all be researched in historical reference books. Still lifes and figure paintings helped with food and clothing. When dealing with locales as old and well known as Rome and Florence, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures, and paintings were in the same place as they are today. Only a chance reference told me that the Scalinata, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, up to Santa Trinità dei Monti weren't yet built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill. With permission of the Mother Superior of the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Santa Trinità, I moved the time forward that Santa Trinità was a convent of nuns rather than a monastery for brethren.

Sometimes nothing can be depended upon other than being there. I stayed in the convent of Santa Trinità in Rome to understand its layout and feel its calm in a bustling city, and I climbed the bell tower in Florence not just to see the view Artemisia and Pietro would have seen, but to describe the stairwell. Those on-site experiences are the treat of research. In truth, all of the research was enjoyable for me because I felt it directing me and giving the book depth and authority.

A danger of fact-based fiction is the discovery of some detail so delectable that one is tempted to deflect the narrative direction in order to include it. One must resist. Fiction is about character, not research.

In the novel you vividly depict the challenges of life as a painter and as a woman in seventeenth-century Europe. How did you research these details? In what ways did you use your research on the real Artemisia Gentileschi to inform your portrayal of her character?
In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf posits that a hypothetical, gifted sister of Shakespeare, wishing to write but prevented from a broad education by limited reading and restricted interaction in the world of ideas, would have been laughed at and ultimately would have been driven to despair. Woolf concludes: "Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at [sic]." It wasn't difficult to move this imaginary gifted woman from the sixteenth century world of letters and theater to the seventeenth century world of paint and canvas. That process is the purview of the imagination.

Germaine Greer's seminal work, The Obstacle Race: Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, (1979), lays down the difficulties female artists faced: competing obligations of marriage and motherhood; the restrictions against women seeking art training; male willingness to accept women's painting only as a benign drawing-room recreation but not as a professional activity for monetary gain, which might put a woman in the public eye; and perceptions of women's intellectual inability to tackle "serious," large-scale historical, mythical, or biblical subjects. Except for the good fortune of being born to a fine painter anxious to make money off of his talented daughter, these are the same obstacles Artemisia faced. It is a mark of her genius that she turned each one to an advantage.

The actual trial record, as recorded in Mary Garrard's work of art history, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, not only gave me a vivid account of the trial and her own statements, but gave me her voice, as did a letter to Galileo and other letters to her patrons, usually concerning payment. Guided by Garrard's scholarship, I surmised much about her attitudes and struggles directly from studying her paintings in comparison to paintings of the same subjects done by other painters of her time.

The rest is informed imagination.

Much of Artemisia's story is affected by the mores of her time and yet she is entirely sympathetic to a twentieth-century audience. How did you achieve this balance?
Artemisia achieved our sympathies for herself. Just think of what she did: defied the papal court by refusing to recant her testimony that she'd been raped; rejected the man who, according to seventeenth-century Italian culture, would restore her respectability with a marriage of reparation; made demands upon her father; left her husband for her art, and took her daughter with her; attended court events at the Medici's Pitti Palace without a husband or an escort; used her talent to give feminist interpretations of typical Baroque heroines; and ultimately supported herself by doing what she loved most in life. Any one of these actions would have made her sympathetic to a twentieth-century audience. Her perseverance and self-invention raised her to be a heroine of her own life composition. It's amazing to me that she hasn't been popularized as a feminist model before this.

Your first novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, focused on a Vermeer painting. The Passion of Artemisia is about another seventeenth-century painter. Are you drawn to artists from this century? Do you plan to write more novels that take place during this period?
In the case of Vermeer, his art drew me into his time period and his story. In the case of Artemisia, her story drew me to her art and time period. Both explorations have been rich with discovery of other artpainting, sculpture, architectureand have opened my eyes to the bravery and charms of the Netherlands and the high drama of Italy.

Someday I would like to study the life and work of Judith Leyster, a Dutch painter and contemporary of Artemisia, with an eye to finding a story there. I had great fun in writing a humorous tale of two rustic Tuscans of the seventeenth century riding a donkey named Pellegrina to Rome, and using pecorino cheese to gain entrance to private collections of the world's great art, including the Vatican. It will appear in my next book, a collection of stories on the arts and artists, most of whom are nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painters, Manet to Modigliani, told from the point of view of someone peripheral to their artistic lives: Monet's gardener at Giverny, the wet nurse for Berthe Morisot's baby, the orphaned daughter of Modigliani, the son of Van Gogh's postman in Arles, a boy who threw stones at Cezanne and his painting. I'm also working on a novel, Cedar Spirit, about the early twentieth-century Canadian painter, Emily Carr, a true original, whose work celebrates the British Columbian wilderness and its native populations and cultures. Her story allows me to explore issues of cross-cultural friendship, native spirituality, and the interrelatedness of nature, man, and God.

So, no. Regardless of how much I love the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I won't limit myself to this time period, though most of the writing I see in my immediate future will be art-related. Art enriches my life too much to disregard all the possibilities it offers.

Do you have any favorite books or authors? Which ones have had a particularly powerful or formative effect on you as a writer?
I cherish certain parts of books by many authors and for a variety of reasons:

For the ability to draw me into an unfamiliar world and make me care deeply about its people, for making a bland, socially inept bungler sympathetic and appealing, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

For lush sensuousness of scene under the cedar between innocent youth on the brink of the moral eruption of their heretofore unmarked lives, and for twists of plot, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

For natural and transparent expression of emotion, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

For seemingly effortless, rolling description allowing me to see a moving, peopled landscape, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

For the power to create loveable characters I want to throw my arms around, and honorable ones I want to emulate, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For sophistication and complexity of narrative structure, for subtle connective tissue, and for sheer beauty of sentences, The Hours by Michael Cunningham

For density, language, cumulative imagery, and new discoveries every time I read it, Hamlet

And for the pure joy of storytelling, John Steinbeck.

Do you have a personal favorite among the many painters or paintings that you have seen and studied?
Of Johannes Vermeer's paintings, the one I love the most has the most nondescript name, Portrait of a Young Girl, less known than its more flashy cousin, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Against a nearly black backdrop, she looks directly at the viewer over her left shoulder, a graceful drape on her head, a pale dove gray shawl around her shoulder. Such small Dutch portraits in exotic rather than traditional costume were called "tronies." Her wide face glazed in subtle shadings has the smoothness of painted china. One feels that not only the skin is pure, but the young woman herself is pure. Her eyes set widely and her unimpassioned gaze seem to be saying, "It's just me. This is who I am"a simple statement of self-knowledge and contentment. The effect is spare and exquisitea testament to Vermeer's mastery, how he must have had to work to contain his adoration in order to execute his skill.

As soon as I write this, other paintings come to mindMonet's of his first wife, Camille, in a hillside of red poppies or in their garden; Manet's Olympia that shocked Paris and intrigues me far more than Mona Lisa's face; Renoir's Girl with a Watering Can, rather too precious for some tastes, but entirely captivating to me; Gustav Klimt's decorative paintings of The Kiss and The Embrace, which sweep me away with their tendernesshow he tilts her head back....

Yet, if I must choose, I go back to Vermeer's Young Girl, the face I held in my mind when I wrote his daughter's story in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Essay by Susan Vreeland

Here is a little essay, "The Balm of Creative Endeavor," that Penguin asked me to write for their newsletter. I think it expresses who I am better than dry biographical facts.

The Balm of Creative Endeavor

Art, I am convinced, can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days of treatment for lymphoma became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet's garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo's figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, Jan Vermeer's serene Dutch women bathed in gorgeous honey-colored light. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin. My conviction grew that art was stronger than death.

Vermeer painted only 35 canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived neglect, mistreatment, theft, natural catastrophe. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used. Imagining my way into the lives of the people who might have owned the painting through the centuries resulted in imagining my way out of my own dire circumstances. As the stories took shape, I thought less and less of what I was going through, and more and more of the characters, lives, settings and circumstances I was creating. Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal. Mine was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and remember me and be proud of me in some small way.

When I was hospitalized for a month for a bone marrow transplant, I hoped they'd give me a private room because I intended to read my manuscript aloud over and over to polish the sentences, and that would drive any roommate batty. Conscious that one's thinking determines one's experience, and in the spirit of Dag Hammaarskjold's statement, "The only value of a life is its content for others," I gathered uplifting quotes to put on the windowed door of my room, facing outward to benefit family and friends going to visit other seriously ill patients, and so doctors and nurses tending to me would have a positive thought right before they saw me. Quotes like Milton's "The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven," and Shakespeare's "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," vitalized me and readied me for writing.

I took my journal of affirmations, a big dictionary and a thesaurus, beautiful new nightgowns in bright silks and flowered satin, colorful earrings and scarves to wrap my bald head, CD's of classical music, Gregorian chant, and Jessye Norman's Spirituals in Concert including "That Great Gettin' Up Morning" to help me rouse myself, and that moving "There is a Balm in Gilead." And, of course, art books. These composed my "armor of enrichment" as I went to do battle with Goliath.

I put a little sign on my hospital window high above Los Angeles: "Every morning lean thine arms awhile upon the windowsill of heaven and gaze upon the Lord. Then, with the vision in thy heart, turn strong to meet thy day." I wrote a love poem to my husband, and a Haiku series about my doctors and nurses. My Dutch characters became real to me and I loved them too. Nurses were amazed that I wasn't experiencing the horrible side effects predicted. Three times a day they shined a flashlight in my mouth to look for bloody sores. None there, folks! I had filled my mouth with love and beauty instead.

When I came home, I found myself drinking in the simplest things--the blessing of a refreshing breeze, the velvet texture of newly cut grass, a small child's lilting laughter. All the world seemed tender and rooted me in its loveliness. I embraced Henry James's writing advice to be a person upon whom nothing is lost. After recovery, my little book about people who lived their defining moments in the presence of a beautiful painting, as I did, has launched me into a new and healthy life. I am humbled with gratitude.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Susan Vreeland at BookBrowse
Lisette's List jacket Clara and Mr. Tiffany jacket Luncheon of the Boating Party jacket The Passion of Artemisia jacket
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