Susan Vreeland is the author of the much-loved, best-selling historical novels Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemesia. The Forest Lover, about the rebel Canadian painter Emily Carr, is available in paperback and Life Studies, a story collection about Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters and sculptors, has been published.
Meredith Allard: What inspired you to write Girl in Hyacinth Blue? Why do you think Vermeer’s paintings have been the catalyst for several novels?
Susan Vreeland: In 1996, a few weeks after attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. 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, and the serene Dutch women in Johannes Vermeer’s interiors. 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, and perhaps something of the strength of Dutch character. I began to recognize that art can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days free from teaching high school became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
Paintings with people feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? I always wonder. What was their relationship? Did any urge for physical intimacy pass between them or was their coming together at this moment in time merely a business transaction? Was there a deeper aesthetic collaboration? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work?
Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition while I was undergoing my treatment, I found a healing tranquility. His paintings of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, bathed in that lovely honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, reminded me of Wordsworth’s line: “With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”
Vermeer’s work exhibits a reverence for home, for quiet moments. In an age when we live at too frenetic a pace, his paintings invite us to be still a moment, to reflect, to value the life surrounding us. That, together with the paucity of information about him, a circumstance ripe for the imagination of fiction writers, I believe to be the reasons he has inspired novels recently.
Vermeer painted only thirty-five canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived the ravages of time. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used, and added objects of my own imagination—a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl’s new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting—and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had an idea for a story.
Not having fully realized the painting in that first story, I wrote another, this time from the point of view of the painted girl dressed in a blue smock, in my mind, Vermeer’s daughter who longed to paint. That would set the second story in the 1660s. Then I began to fill in the time gap with other stories illuminating the effect of this painting on individual lives.
The imagined painting certainly had a remarkable effect on my life. The more I imagined my way into the characters’ lives associated with the painting, the less I thought about my own dire circumstances. The creative endeavor inspired by his work, I am certain, has been a vital element in my survival and healing.
M.A.: In your novel The Passion of Artemesia, you are once again inspired by an artist, this time Artemesia Gentileschi, the first prominent woman painter. What can people learn from Artemisia’s story?
S.V.: We have in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) a model of womanly strength in a time not friendly to women who desire to achieve. Despite a rape at seventeen by a friend and colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi whom he had hired to teach her perspective, despite her torture in the ensuing rape trial, despite the resulting scandal that accompanied the unresolved case, Artemisia produced paintings of startling invention tinged with a feminist sensibility evident in her strong heroines caught in moments of danger or tension, thinking and acting against the grain. Artemisia was the first woman to paint large scale history paintings executed from life, the first woman to be admitted into the Academia dell’ Arte del Disegno in Florence, and the first woman to make her independent living entirely by her brush, any one of which would be enough to hold her up as a formidible heroine. Anyone who has appreciated the art of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr, ought to stand in reverence before their predecessor and inspirational source, Artemisia Gentileschi.
M.A.: What is the greatest challenge when writing hsitorical fiction about art and artists?
S.V.: No different than other historical fiction about a human subject that one loves: One mustn’t let love and awe for the individual render one blind to faults, failures, shortcomings. We are apt to stand in awe at the great art of the world, and rightly so, but the creators thereof are not gods and goddesses.
M.A.: What is your research process for writing historical fiction?
S.V.: For me, the process of writing historical fiction goes something like this: Study broadly—discover an interest in a time or a person—decide on a focus—select and eliminate—invent where needed—track down needed information—perfect the voices. It involves first discovering the history, then selecting within it the story I wish to tell—in my most recent case, the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life. Once the narrative has focus and a thematic aim, I have to eliminate individuals and events that my research reveals but that does not contribute to my chosen themes. Mine is not the business of a biographer sweeping from birth to death. In a contrary fashion, since archival and published history often doesn’t record the relationships that are significant, I have to invent characters and scenes, trivial and momentous, to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction.
Once I have the basic story, I must work for scenic truth and time period accuracy. For Girl in Hyacinth Blue, for example, I consulted seventy six books, and probably as many paintings for visual references (food, clothing, furniture, townscapes, landscapes, architecture). When dealing with locales as well known as those in Rome and Florence in The Passion of Artemisia, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures and paintings were in the same place in the year in which the action takes place as they are today. For example, only a chance reference alerted me that the Scalinata up to Santa Trinità dei Monti, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, wasn’t built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill. Sometimes nothing can be depended upon other than being there, a privilege I did not have while writingGirl.
In truth, all of the research, both the major character biography as well as the tiniest scenic detail, is enjoyable to me because I feel it directing me and giving the work depth and authority.
M.A.: What is your advice for writers of historical fiction?
S.V.: Love every step of the way, every moment of discovery. Love your characters, your time period, your scenes. If you don’t love a scene, then find out what’s wrong with it. Love the story enough to ferret out details, though don’t include them, no matter how delicious, if they don’t contribute to your narrative arc. Love the revision process whereby your story develops texture, multiple dimensions and deeper thematic reach. Love the work enough to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit and refinement. And read, of course. Read widely and voraciously. Read fiction written at the time period you wish to write about. And read your work to discerning critiquers who have the best interest of the work at heart, as you do too.
M.A.: What projects are you currently working on? Will you continue to use art as an inspiration for your writing?
S.V.: My next three books will continue my exploration of the human stories behind the brush.
Cedar Spirit, a novel, explores the power of place to provide personal identity and fulfillment. Canadian artist Emily Carr seeks to encounter and understand the British Columbian wilderness, and struggles to find a way to express her profound and complex feelings for it. In defying public scorn and hypocrisy by painting native villages and totem poles, she is caught in a dilemma of appropriating the very culture she reverences. Loving those in the margins of society, like herself, she develops deep connections with native friends, particularly the relentlessly tragic Salish basketmaker, Sophie Frank, under whose influence she shapes her individual religion to embrace a native spirituality. Quirky and rebellious and independent, with a compelling urge to find Soul in a personal trinity of art and nature and God, Emily Carr ripens into a true original.
Life Studies is a story collection of imaginary encounters between painters and people in their lives whose own situations and moral choices are wrought out in their interaction with the painters: Monet as seen by his aging gardener at Giverny, troubled by the question of what one leaves after one dies; Cezanne from the point of view of a little boy who throws stones at him and his easel, then must rebuild his garden wall in penance; Van Gogh as an influence in the life of the postman’s son in Arles just before he joins the French Foreign Legion. Eduard Manet’s longsuffering wife tolerates his numerous affairs with models, nurses him in illness, but cannot give over her obsession with discovering which of his models gave him syphilis. Berthe Morisot hires a wet nurse to feed and care for her baby, a symbiotic relationship in which each depends on the other in order to work, until tragedy and the nurse’s discovery of Morisot’s secret tilts the social order.
And now Van Gogh’s haunting painting, “The Potato Eaters,” is speaking its stories to me.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.