Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reverse historical fiction


In two earlier posts, I wrote about the APA conference I attended recently, but I wanted to add one more note. In the same session in which I read, a colleague of mine at UCA, Conrad Shumaker, presented a terrific piece that I can only describe as "reverse historical fiction." In many historical fictions people out of real life are rendered anew in the imagined universe of a novel or short story. There are so many examples of this, both in adult and young adult historical fiction, that I don't think I need to prove it to you. But here's the thing about Conrad's piece: he took a very familiar fictional character and moved him into the real world. Sort of. Conrad's story is an epistolary one in which a literature professor describes the troubled history of a (deceased) colleague's doctoral dissertation, one that the colleague was forced to drop. The long and short of it is that while a graduate student, this man discovered that Huckleberry Finn was no fictitious character but a real person who wrote down his life story and gave it to Samuel Clemens, merely hoping for assistance in getting the memoir published. Except Clemens up and stole the manuscript, recreating it--with only minor changes, and no acknowledgement of the real Huck--in his own The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that of course won Clemens considerable critical acclaim and not a little income. The real Huck, as it turned out, didn't quite "light out for the territories," or, rather, he did but only to wind up the owner of a greasy spoon in Missouri. The protagonist of Conrad's story had uncovered and proven Twain's literary theft, but the discovery was so provocative, so potentionally threatening to the American literature canon, that he was forced to give up the project and his (typewritten) manuscript (this was the 1950s) was destroyed.

My brief summary can hardly do justice to Conrad's comic/academic/detective tour de force. It was intoxicating in the way of all great stories but also eyeopening. It reminded me that the door between the fictional and the historical--through which writers of historical fiction so often pull real people kicking and screaming--swings both ways. We can also take fictional characters and push them into our tawdry, duplicitious world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Substituting landscapes


Probably one of the biggest challenges for a writer of historical fiction, or any fiction featuring a setting not intimately familiar to the author herself, is how to establish a palpable, credible texture to a landscape (or cityscape). This is why writers take so many trips! For the sake of this novel, I've traveled three times to France, but for other reasons--and in some cases several years ago--I've also traveled to England, to the Netherlands, and (briefly) to Belgium. All countries featured in the novel. Such feel-for-the-place excursions can be very useful. Many writers, however, whether for personal or economic reasons, cannot make tours of foreign places. So they rely on photographs and written accounts. A couple years ago I heard an interview on NPR with Debra Dean, author of The Madonnas of Leningrad. She said she relied entirely on maps and photographs when writing her novel, and didn't visit the city until after she'd finished! One writer I know likes to tell an anecdote about the reception for one of his published short stories, set in a far eastern country he'd never visited. He received an excited fan letter from a man who said that he especially appreciated the author's descriptions of the countryside. Surprised, the author reexamined his own story and, just as he expected, found that the story contained no real description of landscape at all. What he had done was to look up the names of a few tree indigenous to the region and inserted those names into the story.

Well, that's the minimalist approach, I guess. Not one I care to risk when working on a big, fat historical novel. However, while I've traveled in Holland I've never visited the Brabant province, where Vincent grew up. And Vincent, as you might suspect, was famously an explorer as a child, something of an amateur naturalist. How, I thought as I wrote the Brabant scenes, do I capture the essence of the landscape, especially as it looked in the nineteenth century? I have seen a few old photographs of Brabant and these helped immensely. But what finally carried the day for me is what I can only call "substitution." I grew up in a rural part of southern Maryland. Specifically, Accokeek, Maryland, and, even more specifically, the unique section of Accokeek known as Moyoane Reserve (pictured above), where all the lots are at least five acres and anyone who buys there must agree not to commercially develop that lot. Literally, I grew up in the woods. My "street" was a dirt road; my driveway was gravel. I spent a good deal of time wandering through those woods and walking along routes that led me past farms and fields and ponds. So when I needed to capture the feeling of what it's like for Vincent to be hunting turtles in a creek, or scrambling up a tree to snag a bird's nest, or hiking a dusty road, or watching a farmer sow his field, it was my memories of southern Maryland that fed my imagination, that gave veracity to the landscape and to Vincent's instinct for it. Whether I really captured 19th century Brabant in this strange, alchemical, substituting fashion I can't know. But I hope it has made those scenes physically convincing. At least as convincing as my friend's short story.

Extra note: A big shout of thanks to Erika Dreifus, and her great blog Practicing Writing, for generously giving a little publicity to Creating Van Gogh. For intelligent writing talk and timely updates, check out Practicing Writing.

(Photo credits: David Cremer and Elaine McVinney)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Twisting History


During a session at the recent APA conference I attended (see an earlier post), an audience member asked me and the other presenters if we felt guilty for "twisting history" to our own ends. (The other two readers were also presenting fictionalized versions of real people.) I suspect that the question came in part as a response to my depicting Eugene Boch and Dodge MacKnight--real painters who lived together in Fontvielle when Van Gogh lived in Arles--as a homosexual couple. Very little is known about the two men; in fact, almost all we do know about them are the impressions Van Gogh records in his letters. The question actually surprised me, because in writing those scenes I felt completely committed to my conception of the two men. I felt that, based on the available evidence, they could have been exactly as I depicted them. They seemed so real to me I almost forgot I was rendering an interpretation.

And maybe that's the heart of the issue. An intepretation is decidedly different from a "twisting." "Twisting" implies self-conscious deception, a deliberate, cynical manipulation of known facts. Indeed, a subversion of them. But there are so few facts known about Boch and MacKnight that I not only felt free to imagine them, but I had to do so if I wanted to include them in the book. What is clear from Van Gogh's letters is that he did not like MacKnight and did not respect him as an artist, while he adored Boch. When MacKnight left the area, apparently for good, Vincent was clearly gratified. He reports in one letter that Boch visited him at his studio and, with MacKnight not around, they could talk at length. He eventually painted a now famous portrait of Boch (that's it above) and described the picture in rather overheated terms to Theo, emphasizing that the painting expressed "my love for this man." Shortly after the missive to Theo, Boch and MacKnight disappear from the letters.

It does not seem any great leap of fantasy to see a real if muted drama of jealousy going on between the three men. In my rendering, Vincent isn't aware of the nature of his emotions toward Boch, but he certainly does feel them. And he sends a rather clumsy note to Boch pleading with him to come to Arles to see the finished painting. It's a similar move to his clumsy actions toward the women with whom he was obsessed; the only difference is that the emotions this time are directed to a man. Boch, who realizes Vincent implicit feelings and the potential disaster they pose to his relationship with MacKnight, discards the note, effectively ending his friendship with Vincent (and explaining, in my mind, his elimination as a subjecct from Vincent's letters). As I indicated in an earlier post, one must be careful not to immediately interpret 19th century male-to-male expressions of affection as proof of homosexuality. Such expressions were more conventional then than now. But, even so, this does not mean that one can't make such an interpretation if--based on the evidence--it seems reasonable, or at least possible. After all, in the murky world of historical fiction, capturing what is possible is really the best you can hope for. Who knows, from a distance of a 100 or 1000 or 2000 years, what's actual. And given the main duty of any writer--i.e., to make the reader believe--intepretations are crucial to engender concreteness to your drama. That's not "twisting" history but creating an alternative history. And just as in current theoretical physics it's possible to posit numerous, simultaneously existing universes, each as real as any other, any of these alternative histories can be--in fact, must be--as real to the writer as biographical truth, which is often too shadowy to comprehend.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mas Ballot


One of the pleasures of researching and writing a novel, historical or not, is getting to know other places and people. In writing my first novel, set in a Trappist monastery, I developed a relationship with a specific Trappist community in South Carolina. I ended up visiting the monastery four times, and for several Christmas's running sent them a donation. My Van Gogh novel has taken me even farther afield: all the way across the ocean. Since I've started working on this project, I've visited Paris twice and Provence three times. (My longest stay, five weeks, came last summer.) I've walked the streets of Montmartre, shuffled around the Louvre, and strolled the Boulevard Montmartre--where Theo Van Gogh's gallery was located. In Provence, I've spent many hours in the city of Arles and other parts of the Camargue; I've driven out to the Abbaye de Montmajour, where Van Gogh often went to paint for its views of Arles and La Crau; I've taken a day trip to Montpellier, scene of an uncomfortable visit by Van Gogh and Gauguin to the Musée Fabre (see an earlier post); and three times I've visted the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy where Vincent voluntarily committed himself for over a year. These were wonderful, memorable, and extremely useful tours. But the single greatest benefit of my trips to France has been finding and experiencing Mas Ballot.

No, there's no direct Van Gogh connection (although the owner has an abiding interest in Van Gogh's rendering of constellations). Mas Ballot is a beautifully maintained house in the quiet village of Raphele-les-Arles, and it's where I've stayed during each of my three visits to Provence. I happened to find it on the internet five years ago, and boy was I lucky. Not only is the house surberly decorated in French country style--which my wife appreciates--with a sweet back garden, but it's large enough for a family to spread out in it, and it's a comfortable distance from Arles: close enough to drive to quickly, and far enough away that it can act as an oasis of countrified silence. You can sit on the upper balcony at night with a glass of wine and take in a huge sky of stars with only the sounds of an occasional car passing on the road nearby to disturb your communion. My wife and I have enjoyed many many glasses of wine on that balcony as our two sons slept in the bedroom just inside. (In fact, my profile photo--click on the Sidebar--was taken on balcony at Mas Ballot.)

I don't know if Van Gogh ever passed through Raphele-les-Arles, but he was famously a walker, and when I stay at Mas Ballot--whether enjoying the broad night sky, or running the next morning along a country road, passing farm houses and fields of crops--I sense that I am taking in the provencal landscape much as Vincent did, a landscape that has changed remarkably little in the last 100 years. And when I'm overheated from a day of exploring I can always jump in the pool, a luxury--I admit--not available to Vincent.

I love my home in Arkansas and my friends here, but I really can't think of any other place I'd rather be than Mas Ballot, especially in the summer: walking to the bakery, listening to the cicadas, reading and sunning myself on the patio, attempting a watercolor portrait of my sons, cooking up a dinner from the groceries we just bought from the Geant store up the road. Enjoying that glass of wine. I can't know if when I finally finish my novel I will have occasion to experience Mas Ballot, or Provence, again. But I'm certainly hoping so. And I keep trying to improve my French.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An essay you need to read


I hadn't planned on posting today, but in catching up with the blogs I follow I was directed by Celeste Ng (who blogs for Fiction Writers Review) to a wonderful essay by Junot Diaz (pictured above). The essay appears in O magazine and is just the thing for any novelist--historical or otherwise--struggling to finish, or simply believe in, his or her project. As most of you probably know, Diaz's book The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, is simply brilliant. It's powerfully told, huge in scope, and yet intensely personal. It just a killer. Read it, if you haven't already. If you have read it, re-read it. And try to tell me that the narrator's voice isn't one of the most gripping in all of literature. Thing is, as his essay explains, he nearly gave up on the novel and, not only that, his whole writing career. After five years of work, that's how downhearted he was. When he decided not to give up on the book, it took him another five years to realize the novel he'd wanted to write all along. Ten years of work in total. Diaz ends his essay with some sentences that I might start putting on my creative writing syllabi: "You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway." If you're slogging through a book project, as so many of us are, check out Diaz's essay.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Going back to Dad


My wife and I drove to Kansas City late last week. Our university was on Fall Break so we took the opportunity to explore what may soon become one of our favorite cities. More on that some other time. (And, by the way, a thanks to my brother and his wife for the boysitting help.) On the drive up and back, my wife finally was provided access to the manuscript of my novel-in-progress. She read to herself while I drove and I read aloud to her while she drove. While she cetainly did not finish the whole thing, there were some important first impressions. First--thankfully--she liked it. Quite a lot. (I allow myself to take her praise seriously because she teaches creative writing--and is a novelist herself.) Second, she had some concerns about the scenes that feature a point-of-view character other than Vincent himself. As I explained in an earlier post, various scenes throughout the book, although in third person, emphasize the perspective of other individuals. While the book, as I've presently assembled it, is mostly in chronological order, I did not write it that way. I wrote The Hague scenes for a while, then some St. Remy scenes, then childhood scenes, and so on. On putting them altogether I'm discovering that there are long stretches from Vincent's perspective only and also stretches in which many different perspectives are highlighted. We went through the latter on our way back from K.C. Stephanie's concern is that too many of these other people have condescending views of Vincent, sometimes quite negative views. And she worries this might give the reader the wrong idea of my main character. "It distracts from the story you're trying to tell," she says.

Basically, I think she's right. And I'm grateful for the criticism because it makes it easier for me to cut scenes. Cutting is the name of the game from here on out. (I've got to reduce this behemoth by at least a third.) On the other hand, some of these other viewpoints are critical to the point my book makes about Vincent. While we revere his art, the image many of us have of Van Gogh is "the crazy guy who cut his ear off." And ''the crazy guy" is certainly the view that too many people had of him while he was alive--without revering his art. My point in juxtaposing these different points of view with Vincent's is to show how thoroughly misperceived he was, sometimes by those who were supposed to know him best.

Like, for instance, his father. (Pictured above.) The Reverend Theodorus Van Gogh certainly demonstrated concern and love for his son, but he never "got" him. (An old old story, I realize.) Yet while Vincent's relationship with his brother Theo has been well-documented, even theatrically dramatized, I think Vincent's relationship with his father, both the good and the bad, was actually more important, was at the center of his life--and it's at the center of my book. I feature a number of scenes from Theodorus's point of view, and I suspect/hope these will be saved from the cutting room floor. For instance, just a little while ago, I was revising two successive scenes: one from Vincent's POV in which he engages in political agitation on the behalf of Belgian miners, and a second, from Theodorus's POV, in which the reverend reproves Vincent for doing this and for losing his position as a lay missionary to the miners. The contrast in ethos between the two scenes couldn't be greater. In the first, the desperate need of the miners for better protections is highlighted, with the point being that Vincent's agitation can be read as Christian activism. Whereas what we get from Theodorus's viewpoint is that Vincent violated the "rules" of his position and is to blame for the fallout. This dual vision gets to the heart of Vincent's conflict with his father and, more broadly, to much of the trouble he suffered through in his life. I think I can trust my reader to get the point. At least that's what I'm saying now. (Check in later for updates.) But many many thanks to my wife for showing me several scenes in a very different light.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Vincent's wife, Part Two


By the time the summer of 2006 rolled around, I'd been planning on writing this book for five years and working actively on it (i.e., reading about my subject) for close to two. I'd even taken a three week trip to Paris and Provence in the summer of 2005 to get a boots-on-the-ground feeling for those places. (I would return twice more.) But I still wasn't sure exactly when I would start writing the thing. In order to get a summer stipend from my university for the 2005 trip I practically had to claim the novel was all but finished. Truth was, it hadn't even started. What I wanted to accomplish with the novel, that I knew. I knew how I wanted to organize it. I knew too some stylistic motifs I wanted to pursue. And I knew, of course, the outline of Van Gogh's life story. And I think I probably knew how I wanted it to end. (More about that in a later post.) But when I would actually start writing it, I didn't know. How much reading did I have to do before I was ready? Another issue is that I was busy revising my novel Burnt Norway, but that's another subject.

By the next summer, 2006, I had read a great deal more, taken extensive notes, and at least in a cursory way imagined a number of specific scenes. There was an amount of undeniable energy pushing up from the center of my mind, telling me to go. I decided that a good time to start would be at summer's end, that transitional period for those of us who, because of our academic jobs, still run our lives according to the school calendar. Until then, I had stories to work on, and besides, we had a long East Coast road trip planned during which writing would be next to impossible. Wait until you get back, I said; wait until summer ends. Well, funny how things go. I found myself, at some point in late July or August, at my father-in-law's house in Troy, New York, near the end of what had been a laborious, multi-city, multi-family excursion. (If you're married, you know the routine.) I had brought books with me on the trip, more than I could ever finish of course, and also a few notebooks. Just in case. In case of what, you say? Well, I wasn't sure myself. All I knew is that on a previous summer trip, completely unexpectedly, I started a cycle of stories about Nantucket Island. Feeling like I was on to something, I ripped through the openings of about eight different stories in the course of a few days. I brought all that back with me, and over the following months I finished every single one of those stories. Many have since been published. So you never know.

During that stay at my father-in-law's in 2006, I found myself one morning, the only one awake, notebook open, coffee mug and pen in hand. I may have been reading letters recently about his Hague period, but for some reason I had been thinking a lot about Vincent's "wife" Sien, especially about the corrosive influence of Sien's mother: her insistent interference, her determination (as Vincent portrayed it)--no her need--to keep control over her daughter's life, even if such control was not in the daughter's best interest. A number of scenes were already floating around my mind, scenes to demonstrate the mother's meddling. And that morning, I simply couldn't not write it anymore. I had to get started. And so I did. The scene was not the first scene of the book but rather one which I knew stemmed from the novel's middle: Vincent comes home from a long day painting to find Sien and her mother drinking and gossiping in a corner, keeping their conversation from him, regarding him as an enemy. A mere two paragraphs or three on a single sheet of lined notebook paper--maybe a page, a page and a half at most. Not a whole scene, just the beginning of one. That's what I wrote before the crowd began to wake and the day began. But I still recall the morning like a revelation. I had started. I had put something down. Having done that, I couldn't stop. There was nothing to do but press on. And so I did. And now, here I am, more than three years later, with a revised draft of the entire (very long) mansucript on my computer. Yes, I have a lot more shaping and cutting and editing to do. There are a lot more decisions to be made. That's what this blog is about. But whatever decisions I have already or will make; whatever comes of this project; indeed, the very possibility that something might come of it at all, stems back to that morning in 2006 when I finally stopped dawdling and got started.

Afterword: The scene which finally got me rolling I actually cut from the book--with some nostalgic disappointment--about a month ago. A good lesson there: If it gets you started, it's done its job. It doesn't have to go all the way.

Vincent's wife, Part One


As successful as he eventually became as a painter, Van Gogh demonstrated scarce success in other facets of his life. Certainly his love life was disastrous. The only two women in his life whom he became urgently and passionately (let's say obsessively) drawn to--an Englishwoman named Ursula Loyer and his cousin Kee Stricker--wanted nothing to do with him. The latter seemed terrified by him. These were intense, white-hot infatuations that ended with Vincent hopelessly proposing and then falling into black depression when the inevitable answers came. Meanwhile, the only woman who ever claimed to be in love with him--Margot Begemann, the daugther of his father's neighbor--was something of a psychological basket case, a woman for whom Van Gogh felt pity rather than love, and who eventually was hospitalized after trying to poison herself. Their "affair" ended the friendship between the Van Goghs and the Begemann's.

Ironically, the most successful relationship Vincent had with a woman was in The Hague, where he met a pregnant prostitute who was very ill and offered to let her live in his apartment so she could get out of the "business" and recover her health. Vincent called her "Sien"--no one is really sure why--although her actual name was Classina. In the English-language edition of Vincent's Collected Letters, however, she is referred to, as Christine. (I decided to use that name for my book.) His relationship with Sien, who modeled for some of his drawings (like his famous "Sorrow," pictured above) was an utter scandal within the family. It strained his relationship with his father nearly to the breaking point, lost him the respect of the painter Anton Mauve (married to Vincent's cousin) and his former Goupil's boss Tersteeg, and even threatened to undercut his all-important relationship with Theo. All these men pronounced him crazy, not just for taking the woman in but also declaring (as he quickly did) that he would marry her. Clearly, it satisifed Vincent on a deep and instinctual level to be the provider for a "wife" and family. (Sien already had a daughter, to go along with the new baby boy.) Even if those provisions basically came in the form of handouts from Theo, it gratified him to be a man with a family at home. He always conceived of this as the most natural situation for a painter. And he grew close to the baby boy.

Ironically, Sien's family, instead of feeling grateful for Vincent having saved her from the streets, quickly turned on him. Her mother pressed Sien to leave Vincent. Why they changed their attitude toward him is not clear, but it's possible that they were disapponted to learn that Sien's "savior" was perfectly indigent. It's possible that they suspected he was merely trying to keep her around for free sex. Whatever the reason, they became an issue between Vincent and Sien, and the relationship over the period of a year and a half steadily deteriorated. In his letters to Theo, Vincent's proud sermons on love eventually became little more than gripes about Sien, about her courseness, and especially about her family's meddling. More or less by mutual agreement, they went their separate ways in September, 1882. Believe it or not, this was Vincent's longest and truest romantic relationship. Perhaps the only relationship in his life that deserves the name, even if in the final analysis there was very little romance involved at all.

(In Part 2: Why this relationship mattered so much to my book.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The First Unveiling


I took my novel on the road this weekend when I attended, and read at, the annual conference of the Arkansas Philological Association. This group puts on a comfortable and very welcoming get together every year in some lovely regional locations. This year the gathering was held in the grand old Ozarks mountain town of Eureka Springs, and given that my novel is just begging to be heard, even if it's still in progress, I jumped on the invitation from Conference Director Chuck Bane to participate in a creative writing session. I did read a tiny bit of the novel to a class of mine about a year ago, but the APA conference was the very first time I'd revealed it in anything approximating a public forum. And it also happened to be the very first time my wife heard it--something I'm a little chagrined to admit, but only a little, because I'm about to dump the entire, and too long, manuscript on her.

As you can imagine, I was rather tense. I've talk about what I'm doing to many people--family, colleagues, students, friends, readers of this blog--but never actually exposed it. But, honestly, what really frazzled me was deciding which scenes to read. This, I've learned, is a whole other level of difficulty from deciding which of one's short stories to read. After all, the novel scenes must effectively represent an entire book. The story needs only be itself. And in my case, it was the first time "out of the house" for this book. Ahhhh! I figured I had time enough (20 mins.) to read two scenes. But which? Good gosh, there are scores of scenes in this book, at least in its current form. How would I decide which two are absolute right two? The day before I left I ran off about ten different scenes and started rehearsing them over and over, trying to figure which two would best strike an audience as well as best fit the time limit and best present the range of characters and perspectives that are in the book. I finally chose to read the scene about the party in Paris attended by Suzanne Valadon (see a previous post) and a scene in which Vincent paints the well known portrait of his Belgian friend Boch. I guess it was a fine enough choice, because I received many compliments afterwards, but what interested me most about the whole experience was realizing once again how much you learn about your own writing by reading it aloud. I know, I know, this is a very old and boring truth. It doesn't sound like a revelation. In fact, I tell it to my own students all the time, but this weekend I learned that I can afford to be reminded of it myself. After all, I thought these scenes were fairly polished already, and yet I found myself--as I practiced reading them--slashing through them with pen: cutting words, cutting more words, cutting more words, changing words, inserting other words, changing names, attacking whole paragraphs. Whew! I put those suckers through the wringer. How could I have not realized before how much additional editing they needed?

Garry Craig Powell, a great writer and a good friend of mine in the Writing Department at UCA, told me last spring that the most valuable thing he did when revising his own novel was to read a chapter of it aloud every night to his girlfriend. Not only because she is his best critic but because by reading aloud he learned so well what worked in the sentences and what simply didn't. At the time I told him that I understood what he meant--because I did--but now I really understand. And now my wife has not only a mammoth manuscript to wade through but will be forced to listen to it every night as I start a new phase of revision: reading the entire thing aloud. Thanks Garry, thanks APA, and thanks Chuck Bane. You've already made my book a lot better.

Quick note: I received a lovely note from the poet Anne Whitehouse, who has published a poem called "Van Gogh in Arles." Click on the title to get to the poem. As I told Anne, she's really captured well the physicality of Van Gogh's attraction to the landscape of the region. Anne's poem reminds us too how this once utterly unknown painter has so captivated the imaginations of myriad literary artists. I know he did mine. That's something of a miracle, as are his paintings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The power of pictures


Since I've been so busy these last months shaping my novel--pulling in scenes, writing a few new ones, cutting others, revising everything--I've been thinking a lot about the book's arc. What exactly is the story I'm telling? Yes, I'm showing Van Gogh's life, but--as I keep telling people--this is a novel not a biography. What's my plot? (We won't get into it now, but I happen to be of the opinion that the best biographies--the only ones worth reading--also demonstrate a clear plot. They treat their subjects as characters and try to tell the stories of those characters. It's the only way to a.) draw a reader in and b.) give a sense of the inner life/the "real person" of the subject of the biography. Biographies that are so concerned about being objective that they do nothing but hand over recorded, verifiable facts--and these can be long books, believe it or not--are almost not worth reading. Because for all the facts, you don't come away feeling that you actually know the person any better. I remember feeling this acutely after finishing a thick biography of Anne Sexton.) Okay, so that was a long parenthetical detour but it brings me back to my point: Out of the facts of Van Gogh's life, and Van Gogh as I have imagined him for the many scenes and chapters in my book, what story about him am I trying to tell?

Well, for better or worse, I think what I'm finally doing is telling a story of his triumph over the difficult craft of oil painting. More on this in another post, but the last scene of the book is not the last moment of his life. (In fact, I altogether leave out his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he shot himself.) I focus instead on what I see as his supreme artistic breakthrough in the summer of 1888 in Arles. I want this book to be a picture of hard won artistic success. That certainly is a story with a plot and a climax. But what it means is that in many scenes I must capture the inner drama of trying to learn to draw, then trying to learn to paint, then trying to paint better, with Vincent only sometimes succeeding but having to persevere anyway. This means a fair amount of attention to the literal process of painting, as well as description of paintings: either paintings Van Gogh is working on or painting he is observing and learning from. What those paintings (or drawings) are and what he learns from them really must carry those scenes; they must push both my plot and my novel forward. Van Gogh had a mess of a life, for sure. He went to many places, met a lot of people, wasn't always on his best behavior, and took a fair number of personal risks. It's not as if I don't include some/many of these personal trials in my book. How can you not? But if finally my plot is about how Van Gogh broke through as a painter, the personal troubles structurally have to be considered less important. (Although in certain chapters, maybe several, the personal struggles and the artistic struggles are tightly related. This is most obviously true of his time in The Hague when he lived with the woman he called "Sien," and of the months in Arles when he shared the Yellow House with Gauguin.)

No real answers in this post, just a lingering concern. Is the power of pictures powerful enough to carry a novel? And do I need to focus the novel even more, cut out more of the purely personal material than I already have? And if I do that, will a reader feel like he/she wants to see more personal drama? Don't get me wrong. There's plenty of drama in the book. It's not just description of paintings. Show Don't Tell is all over the place, and there is a significant amount of dialogue. But I do also include some passages of color-heavy description. (In fact, the chapter headings are names of colors.) And finally the pillars of the book are those moments when Vincent makes crucial steps in his life as an artist: first, toward becoming a painter at all and then, later, mastering the medium. As with any book, the proof is in the doing. Whether my concept of the book's plot works will finally, probably, hopefully, depend on how well I write it. That's the thing about fiction writing--and what I tell my students all the time: You can get away with anything in fiction, as long as you do it well.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An adventure to Montpellier


Sometimes researching a historical novel turns out to be harder even than crossing an ocean and traveling the length of a country. I did all that when I traveled last summer to Paris and then by train down to Arles (where I stayed for a month), but the difficulties didn't end there. Some background: I'm about to start revising a scene in my novel where Van Gogh and Gauguin visit the city of Montpellier, about fifty miles southwest of Arles, and more specifically the Fabre museum. This scene was suggested to me by historical fact. Apparently as a way to break out of a rut, and put aside their increasing differences, the two housemates actually did travel to Montepellier in December, 1888 to visit the Fabre. If the point of the trip was to bring peace to their relationship it didn't work. They fell into a disagreements about various artists and not long after the trip had a kind of blow up at an Arles cafe. At least Gauguin said so. Too, this was not long before Vincent's big and infamous breakdown, the one where he cut off his ear.

Given its apparent importance to the history of the Yellow House meltdown, I knew I wanted to write about the trip to the Fabre. And I wanted to do it while I was staying in Arles. I'd never been to the Fabre before or to Montpellier. But, I figured, I do have a rental car! So off I went one morning after vigorously checking and rechecking Google maps. I thought I knew what I was doing. I got off the highway at the right exit and came to an expected traffic circle (otherwise known as a "roundabout"). At the circle I went in one direction, immediately realized my error, turned around and came back. At the circle again, I took what looked like the only possible correct direction and proceeded. A few minutes later it was clear that the street names and terrain didn't match what I remembered from Google maps. After a few minutes more I was driving dangerously off the beaten track. So I turned around where I could and headed straight back to the original traffic circle. Except coming the other way, the road I was on was a Bus Only lane. Cars could not go in this direction--but it was the only way I knew to get back to that traffic circle! I caught a million strange looks from cars going the other way and expected police sirens at any moment. I imagined some torturesome conversation, trying with my almost non-existent French to explain my actions to an officious, club-toting gendarme.

Finally, as sweaty as I was relieved, I reached the traffic circle and was back on legal territory. I went around the circle again and got off in another direction. This didn't look like it could possibly be the right way, but a sign pointed to "Palavas" and the street I wanted to get on to was called "Avenue de Palavas." Oh, well! Ten minutes later it was blatantly clear that I had left the environs of Montpellier altogether. The drive was a pleasant, even rural one, but lead me to a cute little Mediterranean resort city called Palavas-les-Flots. Not that Palavas! Oh, well, so I turned around again and headed back a fourth time to the d*** traffic circle in Montepellier. When I finally got there I took the only other direction remaining for me, which originally had looked completely wrong. If this one didn't work, I'd just have to give up, drive back to Arles, work on the scene blind, and wonder forever about the veracity of Google maps. What do you know, but a minute later I recognized one street name and then another. I was on the right road! Not long after that I found the Montpellier train station, where I intended to park all along, but when I pulled in I only saw what looked like drop off parking. Just before I pulled in, I thought I'd seen a sign pointing to other parking, but I'd ignored it. Now I would pay for my stubbornness, because I had to find that other parking. Well, easier said then done in a French city you're completely unfamiliar with. I took what turns I had to, crisscrossed my route several times, and a few times almost found myself heading the wrong way on a one way street. But I did at last see a sign for the other train station parking. I pulled in after what felt already like a complete day on the road and took the only parking spot I saw, not even sure I was allowed to park there. Too bad. I wasn't giving up the spot, and I wasn't going out on the road again.

After some hiking around and asking for a map at the tourist office, I did find the Fabre, and going there certainly did help me iron out some details of the scene. (I actually wrote the first draft before I went.) Montepellier is a lovely university town I'd recommend to anyone but even now all I can think of is how hard it was just to get there. Gauguin and Van Gogh had it easy. All they did was hop a train. I had the option too. I just didn't take it.

(Above: The Fabre Museum on a sunny day last May.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

That darn Gauguin


Well, Monsieur Gauguin has arrived on the scene, and things--as they did in real life--suddenly have gotten very interesting. For those who don't know: At the request of Vincent's brother Theo and of Vincent himself, Gauguin (after considerable dawdling) moved to Arles in October, 1888 to share Vincent's "Yellow House." The two were housemates, in short. And it didn't turn out well. Gauguin is quite the case. And to get it out there: I don't treat him too well in the book. I worry a teensy weensy little bit that I'm being unfair to him, but I don't really worry that much because: a) he's an excellent foil to the more sympathetic Van Gogh, and b) I don't actually think I'm being unfair. Don't get me wrong, one can't simply say that Van Gogh was the saint and Gauguin the devil in their relationship. That's an obsessively Vincent-centric way to look at things, and, besides, it's true that in different quarters Gauguin spoke generously of both Vincent and his paintings. It's also true that Vincent was likely a piece of work to live with, if only for two months.

On the other hand, I think it's perfectly fair to say that Gauguin was always, his entire adult life, concerned with only one thing: Paul Gauguin. This is true to his relationships with people both inside and outside of the art world. He was concerned with establishing a reputation for himself and "making it," even if this meant resorting to personal manipulation, abject dishonesty, and character assasination. After all, this is same man who, upon hearing of Vincent's death, wrote to an artist friend that perhaps "[they] could use this to [their] advantage." This is the man who in his autobiography, Avante et Aprés (follow the link for a relevant snippet), told a story of being attacked by a crazed, knife wielding Van Gogh, a story that today is almost universally regarded as a self-serving fairytale. In the same book, Gauguin presented himself as the master and tutor of Van Gogh during their time together in Arles. Gauguin took credit for the stylistic breakthroughs that allowed Vincent to paint pictures such as Sunflowers. (See above.) The entire Sunflowers series was completed before Gauguin ever moved to Arles! And the pictures that Van Gogh painted under Gauguin's direct influence are generally considered to be among his least successful. That's certainly my opinion, and that's the case I make in my novel.

But, again, both for the sake of the novel and for the sake of fairness, I'm trying to make Gauguin a bit more rounded character than simply a mustached bad guy. After all, given the praise (call it hero worship) that Van Gogh lavished on Gauguin when trying to convince him to move to Arles, given that Van Gogh told Gauguin he would be the "abbot" of their new "Studio of the South," Gauguin can be forgiven for feeling in a superior position to Van Gogh. And likely he was miffed, so soon after Van Gogh's death, to see the meteoric rise of Vincent's reputation, so strong and so fast that it surpassed Gauguin's own reputation. I can see the man thinking Wait a minute. This is Vincent Van Gogh we're talking about. So far I'm loving the contest between the two men. Lots of fascinating psychological currents to play with, not only the ones I discussed in my last entry, but a whole bevy of others too. I can see, as I write, how the blowup between these two odd, complicated, and driven men was inevitable.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ooh la la


Well, things are getting sticky, in more ways than one. I'm trying to suggest the build up of a lot of nervous tension, in both good and bad ways, during Vincent's summer of 1888. In my mind, and as I'm hoping to present it in the novel, it's the time of his ultimate breakthrough artistically. He gets to a place he never got to before and never did again. But at the same time, his personal life gets more and more tricky. I'm blatantly fictionalizing an involuntary (and not quite consumated) "relationship" between him and a young girl who is infatuated with him. I'm using the figure from his famous "Mousmé" painting as one of my points of inspiration. At the same time--and this is very true to life--he was that summer becoming more and more adamant on the question of Gauguin moving to Arles and moving into his house. His admiration for Gauguin both as an artist and a man was tremendous, a kind of hero worship, and some critics have even suggested that his adoration bordered on the homoerotic. If you read Van Gogh's letters there is something to that notion, but it is only a notion. You have to be careful. 19th century male culture was not as hamstrung in regard to expressing affection as 21st century male culture is. I've heard it said, and I believe it, that the necessary political and social assertion by homosexual men of their rights and their simple existence has made straight men terrified to show affection for one another, for fear of being misunderstood. Such fear did not exist in the 19th century. That said, the possibly homoerotic nature of his admiration for Gauguin is something I am playing with while at the same time developing this odd, unwanted "affair" with the girl (the ficitonalized daughter of a man who did actually exist in real life, although we know nothing about him).

Am I building beneficials tensions into my book? Getting my character into hotter and hotter water, as good novels are supposed to? Or am I forcing into the Arles section ahistorical material that really shouldn't be there? I'm not sure yet. Maybe the answer is both. All I can say for sure is that as I looked over one scene with the girl I really had to tone things down. I don't know what I was doing in that earlier draft. It came close to porn. I think my wife, when she finally gets to read the draft of the whole novel, is not going to believe that this scene has been significantly cut. But it has!