I've only been on this project for four+ years. I guess it's about time I tell somebody about it. I'm writing a historical novel and mine happens to feature as its subject the infamous--and I think misunderstood--Vincent Van Gogh. Historical fiction comes with its own set of problems and challenges, in addition to all the usual problems and challenges of writing fiction, and so I thought it would be good--especially as I'm moving into the phase of some serious decision making about the book--to share these challenges with anyone who is interested. And, of course, hopefully, to hear back from others who have sallied forth into historical terrains of their own. Maybe we can all learn from each other.
Why Van Gogh, you ask? I suppose he is a rather familiar--overly familiar?--figure. Everybody knows he cut off his own ear. Everybody's seen Starry Night. Novels have featured him already, to say nothing of feature films, educational videos, children's books, neckties, baby bowls, t-shirts, and postcards. Everybody thinks they know about Vincent. But do they? The truth is, when I chose this subject I didn't care if Van Gogh was familiar or not. I chose this subject because I couldn't not choose it. It chose me. I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam one summer, several years ago, and was stunned by what I saw. I simply could not get enough. Let's just say that all those reproductions you see of Van Gogh's paintings don't begin to do justice to the real thing, live in the flesh. The light coming from his paintings was--and is--simply brimming. I'm a fiction writer, so how do I respond to something that moves me? Right. It took a while, believe me. The idea didn't coalesce immediately. But I remember mentioning it to someone a few months after I came back from that trip. And then some years went by while I worked on another book. And then a few more years reading up on the man himself, learning the very much that I did not know about him, and that most people still don't. And after living with, next to, nearby, and inside Vincent Van Gogh for over four years now I can tell you that the Van Gogh that comes to mind when you hear his name probably isn't the Van Gogh in my novel, because it's not the man either. At least not in my book. (Excuse the pun.) But, then again, I find myself constantly asking each day: So who is the Vincent I want in my book? And how do I make him happen? Nagging but imporant questions--and finally my inspiration for this blog.
I can only assume that various others out there are similarly struggling, trying to bring alive other historical figures. Some famous, some unknown. I remember William Styron writing, in regards to Nat Turner, that he was grateful that so little was known about Turner, because it freed him to create a Nat Turner of his imagination. I'm in the opposite position: there's a lot known about my character. In fact, he filled whole volumes with his correspondence. Yet, finally, my daily struggle is the same as Styron's: to create a Vincent in my imagination that feels right and who interests me. Does that make me a hypocrite when I proudfully announce, as I just did, that the Vincent of my novel is closer to the truth? Is there a Truth about someone? Do I really just mean that my Vincent is closer to how I want to perceive him? Does it mean that all I'm doing is frantically writing against type? I don't think so. Maybe. Hell no. Or yes, I guess so. How do I answer these questions? That's the point of this blog. They ARE questions. And I'm smack dab in the middle of trying to figure answers to them, along with what seems like a million other questions that leap up everyday. (Some of those being downright teensy-weensy.) I'll use this space to share some of those questions--big and small--with you. Whether we get answers, I can't promise. But I can promise a finished novel someday.