I’ve been profoundly affected by the works of Susan Vreeland, and had many questions for her on process, theme, and subject. Ms. Vreeland was kind enough to answer some of my questions. If you’ve never read her books, I hope, after reading this, you’ll venture into the worlds she creates with her writing.
1. From painters to glass designers, the subjects of your historical fiction are artists. Do you have a background in art as well as in literature, and how did you decide to devote your writing to those subjects?
No, I don’t have any formal training in art, though I have a deep love for many works of art and for the artists who created them. As a child, I loved to visit my grandfather’s painting studio, and was entranced one day when he took my little hand in his large, gnarled one, and together we painted a calla lily. I loved how the colors blended together instead of being sharply defined as they were with my crayons. My mother and grandmother were china painters and my mother referred to colors by their flower and fruit names–violet, hyacinth, tangerine, peach.
Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion. Never had history been more vibrant, its voices more resonating, its images more gripping. In a fashion I couldn’t imagine then, I have been true to this pledge.
2. How long do you typically take to research and write a novel? Are the two processes separate or woven together?
Usually it takes me three years, the first six months of which is research, although that continues during the writing of the first and second drafts as I discover more that I need to know.
For me, the process of writing historically-based fiction falls into four steps.
a. Discovery. Finding the story one wishes to tell burind in known history is as exhilarating as discovering hidden treasure. The moment a novel idea presents itself, I must ask, Is this my story to tell? Does it allow me to express my sensibilities and offer something that reaches us in our contemporary world?
b. Focus. I have to decide upon a premise, conflict, themes, and I have to find a yearning of the main character. The sooner I am conscious of the themes and moral questions, the clearer the work ahead becomes. Research continues in these first two steps.
c. Select and Eliminate. In order to avoid narrative sprawl, I must select only those people, events, and aspects of a figure’s life which contribute to the themes and focus, and I must eliminate those who don’t.
d. Invention. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, barred from the library as a woman, notes that women’s history cannot be studied since the books are written by, for and about men. Instead women’s history “will have to be read into the scene of its own exclusion. It has to be invented–both discovered and made up.” Ah, made up, she says. Therein lies the historical novelist’s permission.
Archival and published history don’t always record personal relationships so characters must be invented to allow the subject to reveal the interior realm through intimate interaction. Scenes must also be invented to develop plot and themes, but I take care not to change known history or the character of a historical figure.
Typically, I write twelve drafts, and that’s why it takes me three years.
3. Are you often able to visit the places and works of art that are the subjects of your novels?
Often, yes, but that has not always been so. Sometimes I’ve been to a place many years before I conceived on a novel in that place, as happened with Girl in Hyacinth Blue and the Netherlands. Sometimes my time is extremely limited in those places–one week in Italy during the last stages of writing The Passion of Artemisia, but three trips to British Columbia wilderness for The Forest Lover, two trips to Paris of ten days and two weeks for Luncheon of the Boating Party. I must admit that as I consider various subjects, I ask myself if the setting is a place I would like to visit.
4. What is the most challenging part of writing historical fiction?
Many challenges. One thing I try to avoid is including delectable bits of research that are not organic to the plot. Good historical fiction can make us feel, as the protagonist does, what would otherwise be dry facts, dates, numbers, place names, with people and feelings completely left out. In avoiding this, I try to present a truth broader than what the history books present, and more human–a truth of the heart. To do this, I must have interiority of the characters as vibrant and appealing as the exterior story.
The most rewarding?
Making the past alive with sensory detail is an exquisite delight. For example, “Milk-white oxen wearing flowered wreaths and hauling carts of olives blocked the road, but Pietro didn’t seem to mind. ‘I like that wooden chuk-chuk-chuk sounds of the olive pickers, the way it echoes through the orchards.”
–from The Passion of Artemisia
I must admit that beyond the rewarding moments in the process of writing, I am profounding affected by letters from readers that validate my efforts. For example, these one line letters from around the world:
After reading your Passion of Artemisia, Florence and Rome are, for me, more beautiful. Thank you.
“Still Life” from Girl in Hyacinth Blue is the greatest meditation on art ever written.
Charlo in Malta
Portions of your book approached Dostoyevsky. Thank you.
5. You once said that historical novels can teach us so much. Did you mean the writing of them or the reading of them?
Both, but I must answer from my perspective as a writer. Louis Comfort Tiffany wrote, “Beauty is what Nature has lavished upon us as a Supreme Gift.” Here I believe that he was speaking of visual beauty, and certainly Clara Driscoll loved the sensual beauties of the eye and ear. However, she, or rather the act of rendering her story, taught me that there are more types of beauty than just the sensual beauties. There is the beauty of instinctive acts of generosity and caring, as evidenced by Edwin, her one-time fiancé, leaping off the streetcar to tell the Russian woman of the job he found for her son. There is the beauty of Clara’s compassion for the immigrant Tiffany Girls Julia and Olga who would both lead limited, hard-scrabble lives. There is the beauty of non-judgmental acceptance, as evidenced in her deep and genuine friendships with four gay men. In the last analysis, these beauties may be more profoundly important than the beauties of the visible world.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers.
For more on Susan Vreeland, visit her website at www.svreeland.com.