Monday, November 30, 2009

The Langlois bridge?--Part One


One of the interesting if also offputting aspects of traveling around Arles is the amount of Van Gogh related siteseeing. In the summer months especially, individuals, walking tours, and even tour buses hurry from place to place inside and outside the city, looking for the exact spot where Van Gogh painted this or that painting, catching amused sneers from the natives who--probably rightly--are sure there are lots better ways to spend a day in southern France. I have to admit that in conducting research for my novel I too have been just such an individual and even a member of such tour groups. One of the first places I sought out when I arrived in Arles for the first time in 2005 was the "Langlois bridge,"designated clearly on all the tourist maps as the place where Van Gogh created his first important Arles painting. In fact, nowadays it's also referred to as the "Pont Van Gogh" (the Van Gogh bridge).

The bridge is outside of the city, a ten minute drive at most. It's a curious combination of bustling tourist spot and hushed artistic retreat. It sits peacefully on a thin canal with little in the way of modernity nearby, except for the paved road that drops you off there. A modest stretch of roadside gravel exists for parking. It's a homely but enormously quiet, even reverent, spot, with this small and antiquated and inoperative bridge sitting in a permanently raised position, a dilapidated house beside it, and a nearby cover of trees that once passed through puts you out on a foot-worn path that runs alongside the canal. You can walk as far as you want northward or southward, with nary an interruption or distraction. When I visit the bridge I immediately want to stay. I want to sit. I want to absorb. Each time I go, I stay longer. Not just photographing, but sketching and journaling, soaking in the quiet, the greenery. I know I'm not alone in this feeling. Usually I see at least one other person there--always alone--lounging on a stretch of earth, with book or picnic basket or sketchbook in hand. You should not be surprised, however, if while you visit a enormous coach pulls up for ten minutes to let out a gaggle of Japanese tourists, who take a flurry of pictures and then get back on in search of the next Van Gogh destination. The tourists come and go in a cycle. The place takes them in, absorbs them, and then sends them on their way. You stay, getting the longer, richer experience; and quickly you stop noticing them.

The place has a feeling of genineness and subdued beauty that has in fact little to do with Van Gogh and his painting, though that it is his painting that brings all the visitors. You see, this bridge, proudly proclaimed on the nearby sign as subject of Van Gogh's Langlois Bridge, actually isn't. If you read a little deeper into Arles information you find out that a string of fourteen or so identical small bridges once spanned the canal. At some point in the 20th century they were removed for being useless vestiges of an outworn technology. And, sad but true, one of the bridges removed was the actual bridge Van Gogh painted. In the name of historical preservation, however, a single bridge was left standing. Since this bridge is identical to Van Gogh's bridge it is proudly (and self-servingly) proclaimed by the tourist industry as his bridge, which in some sense it is. For the working novelist trying to soak up atmosphere, it's certainly accurate enough. And a pleasant place to vist. Things get even murkier though. Later in my 2005 visit I was told by a tour guide in Arles--a white-haired American woman who moved between a kind of noisy and nasal, northern accented English to a fluid, deeper-toned French within which you couldn't hear a trace of the American midwest--that everyone had the name of the bridge wrong. It's true name in Van Gogh's time was not the "Langlois" bridge but the "L'Anglais," or the "English," bridge, because the man who tended the bridge was known to be an Englishman. I've not heard that story from any other source--and Van Gogh's painting always goes (and always has) by the title The Langlois Bridge--but nevertheless I immediately jumped on the story. It captivated my imagination, and it ended up affecting what happens in the Arles section of my novel. More on that next time.

(Photos: Van Gogh's The Langlois Bridge with Women Washing, and the still extent "L'Anglais" bridge on a peaceful if cloudy day last May.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My turn at thanks


American readers of this blog are well aware that in the United States we are enjoying what is known as Thanksgiving weekend. Lots of food, lots of time with extended family, lots of American football on television, and--for some zealous folk of a type I cannot understand--lots of early Christmas shopping. It also common at this time of year for Americans to state publically all that they are thankful for; one of the more charming aspects of the holiday, I think. In regards to Yellow, my Van Gogh novel, I have quite a lot to be thankful for and I think it's time to say so.

First, I am thankful for Van Gogh himself: his commitment to his craft, his dogged determination, his willingness to listen and watch and learn and experiment. Also his willingess to be stubborn and follow his own convictions when he had to. I am more thankful than I can say for the brillantly bright paintings he created. If not for them it would never have occurred to me to write my novel in the first place. I am thankful that my university in 2001 was able to send me to teach a summer course in Maastricht, Holland, the only reason I visited Amsterdam and the Van Gogh museum in the first place. I am thankful for the funding I received in 2005 and my wife received in 2006, making travel to Europe, and research for my book, possible. I'm thankful for all the many resources out there regarding Van Gogh. On one hand, it's a real challenge to write imaginatively about someone whose life has been so well documented and exhaustively analyzed. On the other hand, for almost every question I need answered an answer can be found. And for that I'm grateful. I'm thankful for the sabbatical I am enjoying, for I can assure you I would never be as far along on the novel as I am without this time away from classroom teaching. I'm thankful I am married to a fellow fiction writer who can provide me with seasoned guidance, a sharp editorial eye, and, more than anything, informed encouragement. I'm thankful for computers, even though I also hate them.

Most of all, I'm just thankful to have the life I have. That I can write and produce. That I can work on finishing this book and dream of writing others. I wanted to be a writer from the first time I ever thought seriously about making a career for myself. And here I am, years later, having worked myself into the life I wished for. No life or career is perfect. My life and my career provide me as many headaches as anyone else's does. But on this day and in this post I need to stop and admit I could have done a lot worse. And for that I am very very thankful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beard-No Beard


When I was a senior in collge, I walked out of my bathroom one day having just shaved off a beard. One of my roommates--a wizened, mid-20s, perennial student/non-student type who was supposedly a history major but didn't take classes --gave me a scrutinizing stare and said, "You're working on a paper, aren't you?" Indeed I was and told him so. How did he know? "I can't tell you how many beards I lost to papers in my career." He then went on to explain to me his theory: Growing or removing a beard was not a mere matter of altering one's "look" but represented a reaction to some external stress; more specifically, a decision to address that stress with concrete action. In other words, it represented a change in your inner person; perhaps even your outlook.

I thought of my roommate this week as I removed a beard I've owned since December of 2008, a record length for my beard keeping. In my life, I've grown and removed perhaps a half-dozen beards, keeping them for little more than a few months, always reverting to a bare face. This one lasted nearly a year, and shows up in several identification pictures: my driver's license, my international driver's license, my university ID, the "Profile" section of this blog, the back of my novel Burnt Norway, and the web site of the UCA Writing Department, where I work. Though I've been bare faced for probably 90% of my adult life, in every significant official record I am presently identified as bearded.

Blame it on Van Gogh. I did not grow my beard with him in mind, but as I composed the Paris scenes last spring (the section I wrote last), began significant revisions on the entire book last May while I stayed near Arles, and continued those revisions last summer and this fall in Arkansas while on sabbatical, the idea of shaving off the beard occurred to me several times. "Usually, it would be gone by now," I said to myself over and over. And yet I resisted shaving it off. I didn't want to, and it had nothing to do with how I looked. I just wanted to have it. Recently, I reached a point with the novel where I don't think anything more of substance needs to be added, I have removed as much as I feel comfortable removing, and I've line edited the entire manuscript. In other words, I might actually be done. At the very least I am at a major pause point in which I now need to wait for feedback from my wife and others before I can move forward into the next stage of revision--whatever that is. Having reached this point, however, I suddenly became comfortable with the idea of removing my beard. I thought of doing so one morning, and it was gone that afternoon. No fretting, no debating, no hesitating.

Only after shaving it off did I fully realize my reason for keeping the beard all these months. Being so involved with Van Gogh and his life, I think I counted it as a psychological aid to wear a short, clipped beard like he did. While my beard was salt and pepper and his was reddish brown it felt to me, especially as the months drew out, as an immediate and intimate way of drawing close to him. I didn't want to sever that bond, out of an almost superstitious fear for what it might do to my novel in progress. But the novel, as I said, may be done or has at least reached a significant point in the history of its making. While I wait for feedback, I've actually started writing other things! I finished a 20 page short story yesterday morning and began another story yesterday afternoon. I can't tell you how long it's been since I wrote a shortstory--or anything that had nothing to do with Vincent Van Gogh. I can now safely begin to put space between myself and my manuscript and Vincent. I've made the decision. And, just as my old roommate would have predicted, I finally did something about that beard.

(Above: Me with and me without, as photographed by my son. No, I never did look like Van Gogh. But that wasn't really the point.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past geographies, or Where are you Lotte C. van der Pol?


One of the many challenges when writing a historical novel, especially one set on a different continent, is making sure you are truthful to the layout of foreign cities. Even if, like me, you have traveled to many of the cities featured in your novel, you're still not off the hook, because while it's extremely important to get a boots-on-the-ground feel for a location, the cityscape you're seeing is a 21st century one. Sometimes that does coordinate passably well with a city's 19th century layout and dimensions, but certainly not always. Neighborhoods grow and change, new neighborhoods arise, new parks are built, new statues are erected, businesses rise and fall. If nothing else, street names change, and you don't want to be caught using an embarrassing anachronism. In writing my Van Gogh novel I have had to do a great deal of meticulous internet searching to make sure I am not including a street name--in Paris, let's say--derived from some 20th century cultural hero. Your pretty safe with Rue St.-Vincent but Rue Cortot? Rue Paul Feval? Even if, as with Feval, the person named is from the 19th century, that doesn't mean the street had that name when Van Gogh lived there. (Almost certainly not with Feval, since he died in 1887.) Arles is an interesting case, in that the layout of the city itself hasn't changed much from Van Gogh's time but the street names have frequently. In some cases, the former ("ancien") name is helpfully posted there on the corner building, next to the new name. I spent some time in my visit last May furiously writing down as many as these older names as I could find.

The best solution is to find good, clear maps that date from the period you are writing about. I have been lucky to find on the internet old maps of The Hague (pictured above) and Antwerp, but even so reading them is at times difficult, as they are time darkened, with the street names in small cursive script. Online, too, I found listed a 19th century postal map of London offered for sale by a dealer in that city, but he wanted $300 for it. More than I felt like paying. (But maybe I should have.) But that's only one aspect of using streets correctly--getting the names right; you also want to be true to the character of those streets, and this can be especially tricky. For instance, it's a fact that Van Gogh, in many of the places he lived, gave business to prostitutes. (Having read a book on the subject for my novel, I can tell you that nearly every other man in the 19th century did as well.) This is assuredly how he met the woman he came to call Sien. (See my earlier posts about Vincent's "wife.") But on which street or streets did the prostitutes hang out in The Hague (Den Haag) of the 19th century? I've examined the old map posted online and I can recognize street names. But which ones constituted the "red light" district? (See the questions you find yourself having to answer when you write a historical novel? I won't get into my struggles regarding underwear.) I've even gone so far as to try to track down one Lotte C. van der Pol, a historian who, among other things, has written an encyclopedia article about prostitution in The Netherlands in the 19th century. I simply want to ask her: On what streets in The Hague did the girls hang out? Surely, these were infamous locations at the time. Even though I've discovered that Dr. van der Pol appears to be on faculty at Utrecht University, I have been unable to find an email address for her or a listing for her on the university's web site. So my question remains unanswered, and my search continues.

One school of thought would ask: Why worry if you get the street names exactly right? Who's going to know if you don't? My answer is: Eventually, somebody will. And if I can avoid it, I don't want to discredit my novel to even a single reader, not over something as fixable as street names. I want my novel to sink or soar in a reader's heart based on what really matters: the characters I develop and the story I tell. But I know very well how much harder a task that becomes if you've slipped up on smaller matters. Once lost, a reader's trust is hard to earn back. And I guess too there's a part of me that thinks that if you are lazy about the little things you're likely to be lazy about the big ones too. True in life, true in novel writing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Return of Ahab


I'm a slow reader, in every sense of the word. Maybe it's my training as a poet, but I read virtually everything carefully and deliberately. Word by word. I like to think this allows for a heightened experience of any work of literature, but it also means that I just don't get to as many books as I would like to. (Well, who doesn't feel that way, no matter how fast they read?) It also means that it may take me many years to finally read a book that others discovered long ago. I mentoned in an earlier post how much I enjoyed and appreciated Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. But the sad truth is I didn't read it until at least 10 years after its release. I find myself in a similar situation with Sena Jeter Naslund's fascinating Ahab's Wife (1999), a work of historical fiction (sort of) that I've only just gotten around to as part of my regimen of literary historical fiction. (Since that's what I'm trying to write.) It's an audacious book, thrilling in how the author is able to curry into the novel's world characters from out of canonical literature (i.e. Melville's Moby Dick), actual history, and her own imagination. I can only compare it to E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime in how determined Naslund is to link together in one narrative just about everything of note that happened at one place in a given historical period (in this case, Nantucket Island in the decades leading up to the Civil War). And then she does Doctorow one better by also incorporating Melville's character's into the mix. It's both historical fiction and metafiction at once. And a whale of a tale, if you'll excuse the bad pun.

One certainly sets a great challenge for oneself when one decides to incorporate Frederick Douglass, Maria Mitchell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson into the same narrative that already has introduced us to the infamous Captain Ahab, to Starbuck, to Queequg, to Daggoo, and to so many other characters from the legendary Pequod. Naslund's protagonist, an "immigrant" from the woodlands of Kentucky, even comes to know (quite well) the mysterious Ishmael. It's a dizzying and delightful high wire act. Not everything works, but the reader can only applaud Naslund for trying. And there are even moments when her sonorous writing approaches Melville's. I recommend the book to any enthusiast or admirer of Moby Dick. You won't be offended or disappointed. In fact, I expect you'll be intrigued by how able Naslund is at keeping Ahab's fundamental sternness and aloofness and obsessiveness while at the same time making him seem a real person, someone with whom the narrator can fall in love. Naslund does not alter Ahab out of all recognition in order to make him more palatable. He remains Ahab, after all--and yet we get to know him so much better. I dare say old Herman himself would approve.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More about how


In my last post, I wrote about one foundational decision I made in regards to the book's structure. That decision I owed to another writer's novel. But a different aesthetic decision I can trace back to Van Gogh's paintings themselves. This feature of my book came to mind almost immediately after I conceived of writing it at all: To distinguish each of the separate "eras" in Van Gogh's life with a signature color. After all, his metamorphosis as a colorist is one of the most significant--perhaps the most significant--aspects of his development as an artist. (Not to sound too banal, but what blew me away in my visit to the Van Gogh museum was the intense, literally glowing, brightness of the pictures.) At different times during his career, different colors dominated. And it occurred to me that you could even characterize the years before he became a painter with signature colors; not colors that are found in paintings (because he was composing none) but colors which capture the "shade" of his life and ambitions. I would emphasize these shades by using the respective color words, or synonyms, frequently in the respective chapters. I didn't want this to be over the top, too heavy, too obvious, or too distracting, and so far I think I've succeeded. If anything, as I've revised I've cut back actually on these color words. But the scheme should still apparent to anyone reading carefully. Or even anyone reading loosely, since each chapter carries a color word as its title. In fact, the title of the whole book (have I mentioned it yet on this blog?) is one big fat color word of its own: Yellow.

Choosing the signature colors wasn't very hard. Some are obvious. Yellow, for instance, for Arles, where he famously and deliberately strove for the "high yellow note" that so dominated his paintings from that time. For his time in the hospital at Saint-Rémy I chose aquagreen: a decidedly cooler color than yellow and one, in fact, that does appear in the Saint-Rémy paintings. But his actual use of the color is less important that what the choice indicates: a deliberate effort to scale back from extremes, an overt desire to calm down both his pictures and his life. Nuenen became brown because there is simply so much brown in those very earthy paintings; the Borinage became black because a.) What else can you choose to describe his time among coal miners, and b.) in the Borinage he suffered through the worst depression of his life. His years trying to learn how to become a missionary and lay preacher? White, of course, because it suggests both purity and a white-hot fanaticism. His childhood in rural Brabant? Green. Paris? My first inclination was red. I thought it captured the dynamism of the city and suggested too his foray into intenser colors. But finally I went with orange. Because I see more orange than red in the Paris paintings and because there's something more off-center and sickly about the former color. (Van Gogh always recognized that he learned a great deal in Paris, but he also thought the city almost ruined his health.) There are some other periods and other colors, but you get the idea. Color isn't merely what Van Gogh's paintings were made from, it's embedded in the structure of my text.

[Above on the right is the very brown "Cottage with Peasant Woman Digging" (1885), painted in Nuenen, and, on the left, "Arles: View from the Wheat Fields" (1888).]

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beginnings of How


In the very first post I wrote for this blog (just click on "About" to see it), I explained how I received the idea to write a novel about Van Gogh in the first place. But that's just one aspect of the origins of this project, the "What." Equally pressing, and this is of course true anytime you write anything, was: "How?" That is, how did I want to approach my subject after I realized that Van Gogh must be my subject? How should I structure the novel? What motifs would I press? I guess you could broadly call these issues of style rather than subject. One very important stylistic decision I made stemmed from having reading Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy not long before the idea for the novel came to me. If you haven't read Hansen's delicious little book, you must. With exquisite delicacy and much quiet poetry, he details the life of a cloistered nun in upstate New York in the early 20th century. I know, that doesn't sound especially thrilling but, Hansen's book is a wonder and rightly earned considerable acclaim when it appeared in 1991. When I got around to reading it, what I marveled at most was how beautifully contained are each of the chapters. Every chapter, even if it details only single minute in his protagonist's life, is a universe unto itself. Hansen's narrative develops in moment-by moment-by-moment thrusts; there are virtually no bridging sections. This seemed a fascinating and atypical way to structure a novel, but it also felt just "right" for the subject. Since at the time I was exploring the world of monasteries in order to write a novel of my own, I knew how the lives of cloistered nuns and monks are purposefully kept the same--at the surface level--from day to day. They attend services on a fixed schedule, keep to regular work details, and engage in regularly scheduled meals, private prayers, and bible reading. On the surface, it's none too exciting and doesn't seem to ever vary. But that's the point and the purpose. Where the action is--where it's supposed to be--is on the level of the soul: those moments of profound confrontation with yourself or with God, wrapped by external quiet. The structure of Hansen's novel cannily emphasized this philosophy of living.

When I conceived of my Van Gogh novel, I immediately thought of Mariette and wanted to adopt Hansen's structure as my own. For some reason I felt it would be "right" for my subject too. My book would be a small book, composed of a series of wildly divergent but significant moments in the painter's life. Even more so than in a conventional novel, my book would proceed scene by scene, rather than chapter by chapter or year by year. Like Hansen, I would create very few bridges. Well, I've actually stuck to that plan during the four years I've worked on the book. Except the novel, in its present incarnation, is not in the least short. Scenes, after all, require pages to effectively be dramatized, and if you write enough scenes you end up with a heck of a lot of pages. And since, unlike Hansen, I am more or less covering the entire life of my protagonist, brevity is virtually impossible. That said, it's important to recognize that this commitment to scene over summary can sometimes be the most efficient way to cover a broad span of years. I think of some of Jo Ann Beard's essays in her brilliant The Boys of My Youth. She'll present a scene from one year in her life, then jump to another year, and then another, allowing that one scene to represent all the fundamental tensions of the speaker during that period. In this way, she can suggest her whole life in 30 or 40 pages, whereas as a more overtly inclusive narrative would have taken many more pages and perhaps not achieved any greater payoff. As I said: efficient. I guess with my novel so far I've not been courgeous enough to let a single scene represent Vincent in each of his various life "periods." (He had several such periods.) Some of these periods--notably Paris and Arles--I've rendered in several scenes. At this point, I've written so many scenes I have a hefty--too hefty?--novel, even after doing quite a lot of cutting. But the thing is, I can honestly say that each of the scenes contributes something important and unique to my picture of Van Gogh. I'm glad I developed the novel in this manner and can't really imagine doing it any other way. I only hope my book can do justice to the influence of Hansen's beautiful and exotic Mariette.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lessons in perseverance


While composing my previous post, a few other thoughts about novelist Peter Carey and his visit to UCA came to mind. I need to return to him one more time. Here's why: I'm always telling my students that being a writer is as much about having a thick skin as it is about having genius. There is a lot of talent in the gene pool, but also a lot of obstacles and too many distractions just begging to become excuses. The world gives us so many reasons not to write, not the least of which are the inevitable rejections along the way. Enduring those--and keeping on--is a real and absolutely vital talent. That talent has a lot more to do with how far you go than whether you can or did dazzle your Intro. to Creative Writing classmates. The ones who finally "make it," as an old teacher of mine was fond of saying, are the ones who keep getting the work done. Finally, it's all about perseverance.

The truth of this adage came home to me during Carey's visit. He told a few whopper anecdotes about getting slammed and having to pick himself up again. The first story came from his early years, when he was a young, college-aged guy working at an advertising agency and, on his own time, writing fiction. His first novel--the very first book he'd ever written--was quickly accepted for publication by a house in Australia. He received this news in a glowing letter from the publisher: a heck of a thrill for a young man! But during a later meeting with editors from this house it gradually became clear to him that they weren't nearly as excited about the book as their letter had indicated. In fact, they weren't going to publish it at all. Talk about a change of heart! But they weren't exactly straight with Carey, even then. They gave him the runaround, made proscrastinating excuses, and finally "kicked the book upstairs" by sending it the to an editor in London. Carey waited a while and then took off on his own personal, self-financed tour of Europe, ending up, of course, at the office of this London editor. He introduced himself to the man's secretary and explained that he'd like to meet the editor because the man might be publishing his novel. The secretary went in to check with her boss. When she came out moments later she was carrying his manuscript. No need to see him, the secretary explained. He won't be publishing you. That experience rocked Carey, and certainly made him question himself, but the end result was that he redoubled his writing efforts.

Some years later, when his novel Oscar and Lucinda came out, Carey was slammed again. First, his publisher refused to pay for a book tour. So on his own initiative, with logistical difficulty--he was still working in the ad business then--and at his own expense, Carey traveled to California to attend the important American Booksellers Association convention. The good news was that his novel had just received a glowing, front page review in the New York Times Book Review. The bad news was that the just released first edition was so rife with errors that it had to be pulled immediately. All copies were ordered to be destroyed. So he traveled to America to promote his big breakout book only to see it become completely unavailable! He returned home understandably embittered. (To make it worse, despite the great review in the New York Times he felt like just a number in the madhouse of the ABA convention.) "That's the kind of thing that might make somebody give up," I said to him. He looked at me quizzically and then replied that the thought of giving up never went through his head. There was nothing else to do, he said, except to get back to writing. Indeed. (Btw, after this initial bump in the road it all came out good for Oscar and Lucinda, which won the Booker prize in 1988.)

I was only half-serious with my "giving up" remark. But it's true: Some people faced with those turn of events would have given up. But writers--real writers? Never. Real writers remain committed to the art form, and that commitment demands action. Commitment demands patience. Most of all, commitment demands that you work. Real writers don't worry about which cafes they should hang out at or which movies they're supposed to see or which political party they belong to or whether they need to update their Facebook status. Real writers don't let rejections and setbacks stand for anything more than the low level hurdles they are. Real writers work. No matter what. That's the definition of "making it."

Peter Carey live


I thought I should get around to posting a followup to my earlier post about Australian novelist Peter Carey and his book True History of the Kelly Gang. Carey visited my university late last month, and as is customary with these things, he gave a public reading one night and then held a small group discussion with students the next day. As it turned out, he read from Kelly Gang, after providing a substantial--and much needed, given his Arkansan audience--introduction to his native country, to Ned Kelly himself, and to the book. In my earlier post, I marveled at the half-illiterate, half-eloquent first person voice Carey had developed for his novel. As impressed as I was by that voice when I read the book at home, I was even more impressed in the public reading. Kelly's voice carries commandingly when spoken aloud. It seems real and true and compelling--at least when performed by the author himself. Carey reads with confidence and with experience; also with a useful touch of the showman. I thought he and Ned Kelly were both tremendous.

As I suspected, that voice, Carey told us, was an invention, as was most of the action in the novel. According to Carey, very few personal details about Kelly are established in the historical record, necessitating that Carey's biographical novel be just that: fictional. More interesting, though, was something else he told us: A couple dozen or so pages of writing by Kelly actually do exist. Carey's first approach to the novel was to try to exactly imitate the voice that appears in those extant pages. He tried it but wasn't satisfied. In the end he invented his own Ned Kelly voice, which holds up remarkably well over hundreds of pages, in which there is very little punctuation. What occurred to me, however, as I listened to him comment about the book is how fictional any character in a novel must be, whether real worldy or not, whether a lot or a little is known about him. I hope the Van Gogh of my novel comes across as believable and interesting, but no doubt he's my Van Gogh. Not a couple dozen but thousands of pages of his writing are available as well as numerous anecdotes and memories by people who knew or met him. And then there are all the paintings! His life is about as well documented as a person's can be from the 19th century, yet the entire time I was drafting my novel I felt I was making him up.

Personally, Carey proved a friendly, gracious, open visitor. He seemed genuinely curious about the writing lives of his UCA hosts and about UCA itself. Impressed by our (quite lovely) Writing Department building he took pictures of it to take back to show to his students in New York. He showed a complete lack of pretension and could not have been more direct, more honest with his answers to questions. Best of all, he demonstrated for our students--through his reading, through his comments, through his anecdotes, through his honesty--what a commitment to the writing craft and the writing life means. He's a pro, in only the best sense of the word, and a writer who deserves far more attention from U.S. readers than he's received heretofore. In England, I am told, he is held in the same esteem as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. How ironic that his adopted home country has yet to truly embrace him. Carey, I must say, seems unphased by this. He's got his life in New York--and he's always working on a novel.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Kicking a coin, or the unexpected benefits of a trip


You never know what kind of dividends a research trip can pay. I remember hearing Tracy Chevalier say that while she was working on Girl With a Pearl Earring she only went to Delft one time and that was for a few days. But even so the trip paid off because it was on that trip that she noticed the great star embedded in Markt Square, a physical nuance that turned out to be extremely useful to the plot and structure of her book. Well, on a much lesser scale the trip I made to Arles last summer paid a similar divdend just yesterday, in this case allowing me to enhance the verisimilitude of an action. I was revising the scene in which Paul Gauguin, in October 1888, arrives via train to Arles. I'm not sure why, but I inserted a vagrant character into the scene, a shabbily dressed man lingering on the platform who eventually scuffles with Vincent. The vagrant--if that's what he is--acts strangely and wants to communicate something, but he speaks in a language that is not French, Dutch, English, German, or Spanish. Neither Gauguin nor Van Gogh understands him. Prior to the scuffle, Vincent tries to buy the man's departure, if you will, by giving him a coin. The man, who apparently is not begging for money, reacts with horror, immediately dropping the coin and kicking it. Well, without really thinking about it, I had the kicked coin bounce off the wall of the Arles station house.

However, having arrived and departed from that very station myself last summer--that's the actual platform pictured above--I realized that my original conception of the scene was fundamentally flawed. Gauguin, coming from Brittany, arrived on a southbound train. Southbound trains arrive into Arles on the far track (i.e., the one on the right in the picture). So this vagrant kicked the coin, on a hop mind you, all the way over the tracks to hit the station house on the far side? Uh uh. Again, having been there, I know there is a waiting room beside the far track. So I had my vagrant kick the coin that way. The coin now bounces off the wall of the waiting room, which is perhaps two feet away, rather than the wall of the station house many yards away and across a set of tracks. Much better. A minor detail? Yes. It is. But it could be an extremely distracting detail to any reader who has actually traveled through the Arles station and knows its layout. The very last thing I want to do is take one of my readers out of the story. And as many writers of historical fiction will tell you, the greater number of little details you get right, the more likely it is that your reader will buy into the fictional story you have to tell. So there's one detail--having flown all the way across the ocean to get it--that I'm happy to make right.

Sunday, November 8, 2009



Several years ago, I participated in a writing group comprised of differently faculty members from my university. The group went by the rather creative appellation of "The Bachelor Hotel Second Monday Riding Club" (too difficult to explain). While enjoying conveniently strong margaritas, we critiqued each other's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. At the time I was working on a (different) novel, and I remember remarking to a fellow group member, a poet, that I anticipated at least two more years of work before I finished the book. The poet was flabberghasted, almost physically bothered. Used to working in short, intense segments, he couldn't imagine such a prolonged, sustained commitment to one creative work. The simple endurance of it. "Yes," I said, picking up on his analogy, "writing a novel is like running a marathon." The odd thing is that when I said that I had never run a marathon before. I had read about running marathons. I had hoped someday to run one. But I'd never actually done it. Today, having trained for and completed five marathons, I can tell you that writing a novel is not just like but almost exactly like running a marathon.

I suppose this connection is on my mind at the moment because I am currently training for another go at the St. Jude's Memphis Marathon, which is held every year on the first weekend of December. (I did a 20 mile training run yesterday morning.) But the connection is also on my mind because it's so true. There are stretches in any marathon race when you feel great, when you feel better than you have any reasonable right to expect, when you tell yourself you've never run faster or sounder, when a PR (personal record) is a sure thing. Too, there are stretches in every marathon when you feel numbed and dully achy and vaguely discontented, when it seems so far from the finish and you know the worst is still ahead. And then there are, I guarantee, stretches in every marathon when your legs gams hurt so bad and your feet are so sore you don't understand why in the world you signed up for the race in the first place. You can think of a million other, better ways to spend your morning than running 26 miles. What's the point? you think. Was I insane? A masochist? The end to the torture seems only farther away, not closer, with each step. Yet there's nothing you can do except to keep pushing on through the pain. One step at a time. But too there is a stretch late in every marathon when you realize you will finish, you'll even finish with some muscle tissue intact, and you start to feel much better. Your soreness all but disappears. You feel a surge of new, unexplained energy, along with a rush of relief, pride, and gratitude that is as difficult to describe as it is profound to feel. Your step picks up and, weary legs and all, you fly to the finish. That's why I signed up, you think as you cross the finish line. That's why.

So too with novel writing--and novel revising, such as I'm engaged in now. There are days when I'm amazed at how accomplished, even profound, some of these scenes are. I read them aloud to myself not quite believing that I wrote them. And there certainly are other times when I'm less than sure about a scene but I know I have to keep going, keep pushing on: editing, fixing, cutting, adding. Whatever it takes. Doing what looks like it needs doing and hoping for the best. And too there have been the sloughs of despond: days in which I suspect the project is a mistake, a waste of not hours but whole years of my life. I don't let such suspicions linger. I push them from my mind, or fight them with some useful facts. I tell myself that the novel has been a blessing. I've learned so much about Van Gogh and about Neoimpressionism. I've been to the south of France. I've learned to speak a little French and will eventually speak more. I've had a hell of time taking a real life and make it imaginary. All that's true, of course, but in those moments I'd feel a lot happier if I could be sure the novel will turn out to be the thing I know it can be. Lately, however, as the final shape of the manuscript comes closer and closer into view, I've felt a deep, resonating satisfaction. In many ways this book is exactly what I hoped it could be when I started. In fact, it might even be better. Oh, I'm not done with it yet. Don't get me wrong. I've still got months, more revising, and many crucial decisions, ahead. But I'm feeling a new energy. The end is finally in sight. And I'm sprinting.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thank you, Monda Fason


I should take a moment, and one post, to thank blogger queen Monda Strange Fason for her invaluable techno help with this blog. When I started Creating Van Gogh in September, I was using a conventional template: functional but utterly boring. Monda, a colleague at the University of Central Arkansas, seized on the theme of my blog and designed the layout you see today. Immediately, I felt 100% better about the whole undertaking. Monda, by the way, is a committed and talented blogger herself. She maintains three blogs, two of which--No Telling and Fresh Ribbon--have received the impressive "Blog of Note" distinction from Check out these blogs for some entertaining and stylishly presented talk about writing. And if you need a jump start for your creativity, take a look at her third blog: Easy Street Prompts.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vincent's religion, Part Two


Today, I'd like to mention a few of the important connections within my own book that I've been able to develop and explore by dramatizing the near obsessive religious devotion Van Gogh demonstrated as a young man. (After he gave up on art dealing and before he decided to become a painter.) These connections make ignoring Van Gogh's religious inclinations not just cowardly but disabling to the dramatic power of the story. Many connections come to mind, but two in particular.

1) His love/hate relationship with his father. In his letters to Theo, Vincent probably complains about his father more than anyone else, and yet earlier in life he had hoped to follow in his father's footsteps; in fact, he wanted the exact kind of job his father did: ministering to a small town flock. This duality cannot be a coincidence. What most influences you can also be what you most resist and resent. And by drawing so fiery close to his father's faith as a young man, he surely felt even more bitterness, more disillusionment when that faith rejected him as a candidate for ministry. True, Theodorus Van Gogh was never convinced of his son's ambitions as a painter. He supported but did not exactly approve of or understand these ambitions; and he certainly did not approve of Vincent's deportment, his dress, or some of the relationships into which he entered. He even threw Vincent out of the house on Christmas day, 1881. But by dramatizing Vincent's religious faith, I show in the novel that the later break with his father came from a more profound place than "Dad doesn't like me" or "Dad was mean to me." The division between father and son is more painful, more resent-full, more chasmal than that.

2) Peak moments. I'm trying to create an echo effect between Vincent's first sermon--delivered in a London church in October, 1876--and the final scene of my novel in which he paints The Sower (1888). The sermon was clearly a psychologically "peak moment" for Van Gogh, as we can tell from his bragging letter to Theo. He must have felt, after years of struggling to find a new path once he gave up art dealing, that he had finally arrived. If, in only a little way, he was sharing in his father's glory, his father's position. I present the sermon as not just a nervous experience but an ecstatic one, with blooming white light puncturing him. There is a distinct echo of this transcendent moment when in the last scene he works on what I consider the finest painting of his finest period (i.e., Arles). The scene is bathed in yellow, not white, light (if you've seen the painting, you understand) but the ecstatic emotions are similar. My point is to emphasize that the high emotions of sermonizing and the high emotions of painting come from the same psychological place in him. It's just that the former was a rather forced--that is, wrong-- choice of vocation (apparently, no one was particularly turned on by the sermon), selected for doubtful reasons that seem to involve a desire to identify more strongly with, and win the love of, his father; whereas the latter was the truer ecstasy, borne of the truer life choice: to become a painter. As I hope my book will demonstrate, there really was no other choice for him--it just took him a while to make it.

(Pictured above: The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vincent's religion, Part One


I thought it fitting on a Sunday to write about an aspect of Van Gogh's life that is little remarked on, except by those who have studied his biography closely: his religious nature. Anyone writing about Van Gogh, either to fictionalize him, like I am, or to do a straight biography, can't get around the influence of religion in his life. Not only were both his father and grandfather ministers, but for several years he was intent, even fanatic, about finding work as a missionary. During a crucial if crushing period, he was convinced that such was his calling. Of course, things didn't work out that way, and he later wrote with some regret and bewilderment about the religious "mania" that governed his younger self. For me, the writer of historical fiction, the challenge is what to do with that religious mania in my novel. I don't feel I can or should rightly ignore it. In fact, it's not hard to argue that Van Gogh simply transferred his mania for religion into a manic for art, which he always spoke of in sacred, even moralistic, terms. He did not compose religious paintings, at least as we normally think of them, but the impulse to create was a holy one for him, the vocation of painter something like a monastic calling. ("The Studio of the South" that he once hoped to build in Arles would have had a monastic structure, in fact, with Gauguin serving as its "abbot.") And he certainly did believe that art should and could be redemptive. While in later years he no longer attended church or studied the bible, religious language dominates his discussion of individual paintings and of the profession generally. So in writing about Van Gogh, even fictionalizing him, I feel the need to treat his religious impulses with respect rather than patronize them. I need to integrate them into the whole picture of him as a character.

But this does cause me to worry (just a tad). After all, treating religious subjects in fiction is dicey these days. The challenge is an aesthetic one of course but also--maybe even fundamentally--a political one. Earlier in the history of imaginative literature it was not hard to generate profound drama involving religious crises, decisions, even triumphs. The problem in our current age, at least in America, is that religion--or at least Christianity--has been co-opted by the far right. "To be religious" and to think religiously in contemporary America comes with a whole series of automatic political positions, positions that many, including me, find reprehensible, hypocritical, and un-Christian. It's true that plenty of practicing Christians are not right-wingers, but it's also true that many more of them are. The loudest of them are. The most influential of them are. In Arkansas, where I live now, to be religious and at the same time leftward-leaning politically is to be regarded as a servant of the devil. (All right, that's an exaggeration--but not a huge one.) Leftward leaning churches exist here but are few and far between.

So the problem for the writer of fiction is that to treat religion seriously is to run the risk that the literary reader recoils with fright and nausea, suffers flashbacks from the George Bush era. Unfortunately, the right in America has conditioned too many Americans to reject religious subjects automatically. And this is a shame. The religious impulse--be it for Christianity or some other faith--is a human impulse like any other. It is not some mutation in our DNA. It's not going anywhere. And with a figure like Van Gogh, for whom it was truly central in his life, I cannot ignore it. The difference in how I handle it, and how I hope it will work in my book, is that any religious discussions, meditations, activities etc. will be directed to developing a picture of Van Gogh's unique character not trying to sell religion to the non-believer. Sometimes books of fiction do try to act them way: sermons thinly disguised. But I'm not arguing for any religious position, just trying to show a certain committed idealism that fed and sustained him through his difficult years of artistic apprenticeship.

(Next post: more specifics.)