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Barbara Bourland Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Barbara Bourland

Barbara Bourland

An interview with Barbara Bourland

Barbara Bourland discusses her latest novel, Fake Like Me, and how she came to write such an intimate and vivid description of the New York art scene.

While both of your novels share your incisive wit and flair for vivid detail, Fake Like Me is a very different book from your debut, I'll Eat When I'm Dead. What brought you to this particular story? Are there ways in which you see this as a continued exploration of a certain theme in your work, or are you just following your creative instincts wherever they take you?

The tones are of course quite different, as each book matches [its]tone to the subject material. Personally, I see more similarities than differences: Both books are about women's work; women's bodies; women's selves as self. My work focuses on women as we stand, not in terms of our relationships to others (mother, wife, daughter, etc.). Both novels focus extensively on the costs of our lives. In terms of IEWID, I don't want to know what makes a beautiful woman "feel beautiful"; I want to know how much it costs her. It's the same with Fake Like Me: I don't want to hear some lyrical romantic fairytale about women's artwork. I want to know how hard it was. How much does making a painting as big as Joan Mitchell's or Helen Frankenthaler's cost a person, exactly? What does it cost to be ourselves?

One of the most unforgettably immersive parts of this book is the way the narrator abandons herself to the creative process; the descriptions of oil painting are so real as to put the reader inside the work herself. Do you have a background as a painter? If not, how did you make this part of the artistic process come so alive?

Well, I love painting. I absolutely love painting, though I'm personally not very good at it. I minored in studio art in college and have an ongoing studio practice (drawing and ceramics) that is personally satisfying, although definitively noncommercial. Beyond my own base knowledge, much of the research for this book was conducted by going into artists' studios, often tagging along with my husband, Ian Bourland, for his magazine writing (he teaches art history at Georgetown, and writes extensive history and criticism, though mostly about photography, not painting). I thanked the artists whose techniques and material habits I stole from most egregiously in the acknowledgments. As for how I made it come alive—I think the key is materiality. I tried to avoid compositional description because I don't find it to be imaginatively connective; it's boring and almost surgical to say, "It was a painting of a horse." That's all fine and good for catalogs and wall text, but for a novel I think it's far more evocative to focus on materials. I.e., instead of, "It was a painting of a horse," you write, "It was a painting, two inches thick, made from beeswax and pine sap." With the latter, I think your imagination can really go somewhere.

Your characters operate on a plane beyond simple "likability," where the idea of their needing our approval, as readers, feels beyond the point. Yet these are also very real people who crave acceptance, love, and acclaim. Can you talk a little bit about what your process is for writing such deep humanity into such complex people?

I love this question because it's a compliment, and I really wish I had a better answer for you! To be honest, it's neither choice nor process. All I do, as a writer, is sit down and throw out line and see what comes back. If I catch something real enough, I keep it.

This is a literary novel about the New York art scene that reads like a thriller. Did you start out intending to write one kind of book, or the other? How did the novel come together?

From the beginning, I hoped to follow the creation of a body of work alongside the narrative pursuit of an actual human body, without being too clumsy in one way or the other. The edit process was fairly long, but I think it was for the best—we shaved each chapter down, bit by bit.

Has there ever been a Carey Logan–like figure in your own life?

Nearly. The circumstances surrounding the death of Emma Bee Bernstein, a photographer who committed suicide inside the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice, [have] haunted me since it took place in 2008. Emma was barely an acquaintance—we met only twice, and she was several years younger than I—but the death itself was shocking. I have wondered since it happened if any action so tragic can ever be interpreted or validated as anything other than suicide. In greater contemporary art history, I've always been fascinated by the atmosphere surrounding Francesca Woodman and Ana Mendieta, both of whose postmortem hyperglorification struck me as both hopelessly romantic and wildly unfair. Woodman and Mendieta had, like every other female artist, to die in order to be taken seriously. Lee Lozano, too, who made a commitment to leave the art world and die in an unmarked grave (which she did), is hugely fascinating to me, and I genuinely think her Wave paintings are a window to the divine. They're shockingly, absolutely arrestingly, good. Yet she got pushed out—or pushed herself out—somehow.

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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