Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One reading suggestion


No news today on my own book. Just know that I'm still working on it, everday. Thought I would share a word about a historical novel I'm reading at the moment. Peter Carey's True Hisrtory of the Kelly Gang. Mr. Carey will be a visiting writer at my university next month, so I'm catching up on his work. And I'm happy to read any well-written historical novel while I'm busy on a historical novel of my own. If you don't know Carey's work, you should. He's won the Booker Prize--twice (!).

What I'm finding especially interesting about Kelly Gang is Carey's approach to the narrator's voice. How to capture historical speech is a question every writer of historical fiction has to struggle with, and I've sat in on more than one AWP session in which this exact question comes up. There are different schools of thought. Some think you need to imitate as best you can how people actually spoke during the period depicted. Others ask: Yes, but how can you know? We don't have voice recordings from Elizabethan England, for instance. We only have written documents. And as we all know, written documents--especially from an age in which most people did not write--are hardly a reliable indicator of how the general public spoke. Finally, I think, it's just got to feel right to the reader. If your best attempt at earlier speech patterns comes across as a forced or clownishly bad imitation, the reader could dump the whole novel for no other reason. In my book, I'm avoiding modern slang but I'm more or less making the speech patterns sound like our own. Why? Because in conversations I'm trying to transmit the emotional nature of those conversations: relaxed, angry, whimsical, questioning, etc. For a modern reader to hear a conversation as relaxed the diction and sentence structure must sound relaxed in his/her ear. Using outworn constructions won't come across as relaxed.

But here's the thing. In Kelly Gang, Carey is imitating past written speech. (19th c.) More than that, it's the written speech of a only barely literate, if intelligent, person. He gives himself an extra hard chore. Not only does it have to sound like believable 19th c. writing but the 19th c. writing of a near-illiterate. (And it is meant to be read as writing--something expressly put down on paper--not simply the narrator's consciousness. The premise of the novel is that these writings were found bound in packets and are being presented to the reader.) It's a pleasure to watch on the page as paragraph after paragraph Carey confronts this challenge. He employs an interesting and nearly convincing combination of atrocious grammar, almost non-existent punctuation, and the occasionally archaic or ornate sounding word (e.g., "adjectival"). The point of that latter, I'm assuming, is to remind the reader what century the book is set in. But, too, it feels intuitively right. How many people with poor writing skills can at the same time demonstrate ornate, even flowery speaking styles? There's some of that in this narrator, who is of course not speaking but writing. But he writes in a verbal style, his narrative directed at a specific listener inside the world of the story, not at a general reader. Check this one out, especially if you like novels with unique narrative voices.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A mixed up day


It's been a weird, mixed, and mixed up writing day. A transitional one. Got thrown off my pace this morning, in a good way, by a call from my mother. She'd ordered my novel Burnt Norway off of Lulu.com and was calling to say how much she liked it. I hear what you're thinking . . . of course his mother is going to like it. But she's an extremely literate person and a hecka of a smart reviewer of fiction. Her praise was intelligent and true to the nature of the book. In short, her kind words really meant a lot. But it also made me high as a kite for a while, and it took me some time to get back in the writing groove. I did, and actually, finally, worked my way through my (for now) complete revision of the Paris section of the novel. He's done there! He's on his way to Arles! I accomplished this, however, by just flat dropping a very long scene in which Vincent visits the studio of Georges Seurat. That was a hard choice. Not only did this visit actually happen (shortly before he left Paris) and not only is it intriguing to the imagination if you know anything about these two important Neoimpressionists, but I really liked this scene. I'd worked long and hard on it, carrying out multiple revisions and doing an immense amount of fact checking. But, in the end, it wasn't necessary for the book. Not only is the book too long already, but I discovered as I went along that the main focus of the Paris section is Van Gogh's developing, changing relationship with two men: Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. I shouldn't and finally couldn't distract from that. So I cut the Seurat studio scene and instead saved a scene (conveniently shorter) in which Van Gogh and Bernard arrange Vincent's studio on the night before he leaves Paris for good. That scene, in part, showed how the "evil" influence of Gauguin was already upon Bernard, a theme I run with in the Arles section, so the scene makes a nice bridge.

The other mixed up part of my day came after I finished revising the scene I just mentioned. The way my novel is structured is that I go back and forth between scenes in St.- Remy, France (where V. was hospitalized) and scenes from the rest of his life. So, done with the Paris section, I was supposed to jump back to St.-Remy. Lo and behold, I got to my St.-Remy file and found that I was out of scenes! I'd used all of them already. Oh well, I decided, to paraphrase an old Dorito's commercial, I'll just have to write more. Two, as it turns out. One for now and one to insert after the Arles section. The former I kinda sorta finished by the time my writing day ended, the latter I haven't started yet. Both will be short. They simply have to be, given the length of the novel already, and because I think they can work well being short. Actually, having to compose these scenes works out nicely because there are elements of his stay in St.-Remy that I didn't bring in before but now can (albeit briefly) and in that way better nuance the tone of the whole St-Remy experience. That's it for today. Not too many questions to raise, just a report on one of my more scattered but still beneficial writing days.

(Above: The view from out the window of the recreated "Vincent's Room" at St. Paul's hospital in Saint-Rémy, France.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Article on historical fiction


A short article, blog entry really, by Celeste Ng appeared recently in Fiction Writer's Review. (Click on Ng's name to get to the article.) Ng responds to a lecture given at Breadloaf by Maud Casey. It's worth looking at. Casey's lecture seems to have been a reaction to the idea entertained by many readers that if they read a historical novel they know what it was "really like" to live at a given time or know a given person. Apparently, Casey was told by one French civil servant that he read historical fiction because he didn't want to "waste his time" simply reading something that somebody "made up." Casey's point and Ng's is that we "make up" in historical fiction as much as any other kind of ficiton. This is most obvious when a completely fictitious character narrates or is simply inserted into a historical piece. But it's also true, I think, when one is developing a very real person. Finally, it's the author's idea of the person that must carry the book and that he must remain truthful to, even if that means ignoring or changing historical fact. A historical novel has to work as a novel first and foremost; it's not supposed to, and can't, simply be a matter of passing on information in a more user-friendly way. Not, Ng points out, like blending the spinach of factual info into the brownie of a novel.

All the above is true and needs to be said. With my novel, I know I'm going to have to shout loud and clear, until the message finallhy gets through: "Be forewarned. This is a NOVEL. I am NOT writing a biography." However, I don't think we should discount the usefulness of factual information to the writer of the historical fiction. You don't want to be enslaved by fact, but being wthout fact can actually blunt the imagination. I've found that reading Van Gogh's letters and biographies about him often stimulates my imagination; this activity helps me visualize scenes as well as settings. And not only scenes that actually happened; sometimes scenes that never did. In fact, a number of times in my writing of this book I've wished I could have more information on what a person did or looked like. Or what a neighborhood or apartment looked like. Just a sentence or two of information is sometimes all it takes to engage your fictive, visualizing imagination. (Ng explains that only a one sentence reference in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook inspired Monique Truong to invent the narrator of her novel The Book of Salt.) With that sentence or two I can draw a whole picture--but I really do need that sentence or two. And I'm sure I'm not unusual in this regard. Finally, such "facts" may be more necessary and useful to the writer than the reader.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Paris party


One of the interesting features for me in writing this book is that certain chapters are from other points of view. Even if the book is Vincent's life story, I don't always remain in his point of view. This isn't unusual, although perhaps a bit counterintuitive. Colum McCann, for example, did the same in his book Dancer, a fictional take on the life of Rudolf Nureyev. As with McCann's book, a reader of mine may not pick up on the logic of why certain chapters are presented from other points of view. All I can say is that the chapters had to be written that way. The other points of view were present from the first moments I imagined those scenes. I was working on one yesterday that featured a party in Monmartre attended by many people Vincent knew there. The point of view character is Suzanne Valadon (there she is on the right, as portrayed by Renoir, and on the left as she portrayed herself) , a painter who ran with the Neoimpressionist crowd, modeled for some of them, and eventually earned well-deserved esteem for her work. In this case, there's a very specific reason why I presented the scene from Valadon's point of view. She did attend a party that Van Gogh went to and, years later, documented her observations about him. Anyone who looks into Van Gogh's biography will probably come across Valadon's recollection of that party. In doing the party scene it was Valadon's recollection that guided me from the start.

But here's something I've noticed, both in my own chapters and in real life research. Those who offered first person recollections of Van Gogh often remembered a man who is much more quirky, temperamental, and even anti-social than the Van Gogh I see in his own letters. So both in my book and in historical data, pictures of a canny and empathetic man butt up against pictures of a driven, self-involved, bewildering crank. Am I muddling the picture of my protagonist to a dangerous degree? Or am I presenting an interesting, real worldly complexity. After all, how we think of ourselves, how person X thinks of us, how person Y thinks of us, and how person Z thinks of us can be wildly divergent notions. The phenomenon I'm noting with Van Gogh is probably no different than it would be for most people, if others (years later) took the time to write down recollections of them. And in Van Gogh's case, the reputation of a man who cut off his own ear and eventually shot himself had to have embedded itself in people's minds. I think it may be true that in retrospect people remember a Van Gogh that was more erratic than the real man. Or maybe that's an excuse, an apology. But I think it makes sense. But too finally it's irrelevant to my dilemma, which is: should I keep these different pictures of my protagonist together, sometimes side-by-side? Will that help or hinder my novel? For now, they're in. Complexity is normally a good thing for main characters. It's not bad if mine demonstrates some. But with that said, I'm a long way from being done and from having made final decisions.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Vincent at art school


Had fun today working with one of my favorite scenes in the book: Van Gogh trying to take a painting class with Fernand Cormon (that's him on the right), a leading academic painter of the day and director of a well known Paris school for the fine arts. Though he did not study with Cormon that long he met a number of notable young talents there, some of whom became lifelong friends and important Neoimpressionists. Some people he met were Emile Bernard (pictured on the left), Louis Anquetin, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and John Peter Russell. My scene includes people who we know were students of Cormon and others who are completely imaginary. The group leads a revolt against Cormon and his rather backward aesthetic rules. Something like this did actually happen, with Bernard being one of the rabblerousers. It led to Cormon closing his school for a time.

It was nice to break out of Vincent's mind and show him interacting with fellow painters. He actually had a habit of making friends and associates in all the different places he lived. He wasn't simply an isolated man, despite his mad genius reputation. But even his friends regarded him as slightly peculiar and occasionally trying. At the same time they could also feel great loyalty toward, and love for, him. My worry for today is that in trying to fit Vincent's whole life into one novel I am necessarily sacrificing parts of that life, one being his ability to make friends and professional associates. (He did not seem shy about meeting other artists.) I do show his friendship with Anthon Van Rappard. I also will develop his friendships with Bernard and Signac and Gauguin. But I'm coming out of the Nuenen section in which he was more isolated than in other parts of his life, and out of the Antwerp section in which I've mostly highlighted his epistolary argument with Theo over whether or not he should move to Paris. Not a lot about friends in those parts, even if in real life he did have some. I don't want this book to become too interior even recognizing the profoundly interior nature of Van Gogh and of painting itself. As with any novel, stuff has to happen. And then more stuff. Basic rule.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sister, sister


Earlier today I was reworking a scene which while presented in the third person is from the perspective of Vincent's sister Lies. The middle sister, very little is reported about Lies in the literature on Van Gogh or in his letters. (I have seen a picture of her and read that she was interested in writing. That's pretty much it.) This is good in one way: I'm free to imagine her as I want. Maybe because of that, I found myself gravitating to Lies's point of view in several scenes featuring Vincent's family. There's nothing wrong with the scenes as written, but it's a fact of his biography that, after Theo, Vincent was closest to his youngest sister Wil. He wrote letters to her from France, and even considered introducing her someday to Boch, a Belgian poet and painter whom he met in Arles. After Theo, she was the most sympathetic toward Vincent's ambition to become a painter. And yet, I don't seem to highlight her that often in the novel.

In the rewriting process I have struggled with this, forcing myself to put more of her into the book. I'm starting to wonder if this desire is based solely on biographical fact and if I should stop worrying about it--since I'm writing a novel. With such a well known individual as Van Gogh, is the fiction writer expected to play it closer to the documented life? I tend to think so, even if in the end I, of course, need to stay true to what my novel needs. But here's the thing. I feel more comfortable writing from Lies's point of view. Wil, a lot of the time, feels like an add on. If this were any other novel I would simply cut Wil's character out. Can I do that in a historical novel? Well, yes, I can, obviously. (And maybe I will!) But what I'm really asking is can I do that without suffering repercussions of a kind that are never suffered by the writer of a strictly fictional novel. Can I get away with it without anyone noticing? I don't think so. Certainly not Van Gogh enthusiasts, whom I hope will be interested in reading this book. So what, if anything, to do differently with Vincent's sisters is one of the many crucial decisions I will face in coming months.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Struggling with what Theo believes


Yesterday, I was working over a scene in which Vincent's brother Theo receives Potato Eaters from him. All you need to know for now is that Potato Eaters is considered one of the finest, if the not the finest, paintings Van Gogh completed during his Dutch Period. I can't know for sure what Theo thought about it, but I do know that he hung it in his living room, which says a lot. Even he must have realized what an accomplishment Potato Eaters was; he must have seen how far Vincent had come in his technique and in his vision. At least that is how I play the scene out. While this didn't happen in real life, I have Theo receiving the painting already in a frame, the point being to show Vincent cared about how exactly it would be seen. (Don't get me wrong. He always cared about how his pictures were seen. He just couldn't afford to frame them. So he mailed them to Theo and told him how they should be framed.)

I like the scene. In it Theo's nervousness is highlighted. He knows Vincent has invested a great deal of time and effort and pride into what might turn out to be a failure. And if so he won't know how to tell Vincent that. Before Theo opens the box and sees that the painting isn't a failure, I have him speculate as to what makes or doesn't make a great painting. It's a weird passage. It felt right to me as I wrote it, at least in terms of what Theo might think jus then, but looking it over I'm not sure I even agree with it. Theo's a sympathetic character, so this makes me a little nervous. Of course, every writer has to deal with characters who think or do something that the writer wouldn't in life approve of. But because we're talking about the nature of art, here, I'm a little more squeamish.

In short, Theo argues that the mark of near-great art is that it's dominated by ideas, by precosity. The artist is fixated on pursuing an intriguing Idea rather than beauty, whereas in front of a great work of art "he fe[els] as if his head ha[s] been shot open and his thoughts drained away with his blood. There c[an] be no thoughts in front of a great painting, only a disbelieving awe." I don't stop there. I also add: "The great painters Theo kn[ows] d[o] not struggle so much to master technique—that they had learned ages ago—but to rid themselves of ideas, to so clear their minds of precosity as to let the technique be automatic; guided less by strategy then by will." This seems like an awfully conservative, Romantic notion of creation, one that I actually try to fight in my own creative writing classrooms. I don't have Theo say that the painting "just comes to you" when you're inspired--that would truly be drivel. I don't have him discount technique. I even indicate that master painters have already learned technique, and learned it well. So well they can surpass it. But I'm not sure that latter point actually comes across. It's his Against-the-Idea credo that dominates the passage, a credo which seems to resist the fact that a lot of important 20th century art--art I love--is hinged on interesting, novel, radical ideas. Do I really believe what Theo thinks here? Does he? Is it only a moment's impulse, one he'll contradict two minutes later? (We all do that, don't we?) Maybe; maybe not. Bottom line: I did enjoy writing the passage, and I'll just have to squirm about it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Juggling, juggling


Today I'm editing and revising what I've written about Van Gogh's two years in Nuenen. These were important years for him. He wasn't yet the painter he would become, but--through dogged work habits and finally some peace in his life--he began to mature and produce some of his first exceptional work. It's also known as his "Dutch Period." My big problem as I look over what I've written is knowing how much and what to include. There are so many different aspeccts of his life in Nuenen that, in my opinion, need and deserve to be reflected in the novel: his up and down relationship with his family, especially his parents (who lived in Nuenen); his suddenly strained relationship with his close friend Anthon Van Rappard; his first forays into teaching drawing and painting to others; his up and down relationship with the town; his growing insight into the "laws" of color, especially as interpreted by Eugéne Delacroix, a painter he greatly admired; his indifference to the Impressionists (about whom he knew only a little then), his father's death and how that affected the family; his difficulties finding models; his ever desperate need for indepedence; his love of Brabant and the peasant population; his ongoing epistolary relationship with his brother Theo. And that's just a starting list.

You can see my problem. In a novel that's already getting too big, how do I make scenes out of all that stuff and keep this beast from becoming Ugly Monster Big. By very judicious choices, of course. But that's easier said than done. By giving the novel what the novel needs--and nothing else. Of course, but that's easier said than done. It all seems necessary. (This guy had a quietly big life!) Errrr . . . The old schoolboy nerd in me really comes out in these situations. I want to be thorough! I want to cover it all! I remember way back in high school when I was assigned to do an oral presentation for an American History class. I was assigned a reading and basically was just supposed to explicate it to the class. I can't remember the time limit, but I went up to and beyond it--and I still wasn't done. More points to get to! The teacher had to stop me and schedule the rest of my presentation for the next day. "I think I gave John too much to read," he said, very generously. But I remember, even then, realizing the truth: I just didn't choose carefully enough. I tried to give too much information. It all seemed fascinating, relevant, important. Yes, I'm sure it was. I'm sure it was . . .

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What it's about


I've only been on this project for four+ years. I guess it's about time I tell somebody about it. I'm writing a historical novel and mine happens to feature as its subject the infamous--and I think misunderstood--Vincent Van Gogh. Historical fiction comes with its own set of problems and challenges, in addition to all the usual problems and challenges of writing fiction, and so I thought it would be good--especially as I'm moving into the phase of some serious decision making about the book--to share these challenges with anyone who is interested. And, of course, hopefully, to hear back from others who have sallied forth into historical terrains of their own. Maybe we can all learn from each other.

Why Van Gogh, you ask? I suppose he is a rather familiar--overly familiar?--figure. Everybody knows he cut off his own ear. Everybody's seen Starry Night. Novels have featured him already, to say nothing of feature films, educational videos, children's books, neckties, baby bowls, t-shirts, and postcards. Everybody thinks they know about Vincent. But do they? The truth is, when I chose this subject I didn't care if Van Gogh was familiar or not. I chose this subject because I couldn't not choose it. It chose me. I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam one summer, several years ago, and was stunned by what I saw. I simply could not get enough. Let's just say that all those reproductions you see of Van Gogh's paintings don't begin to do justice to the real thing, live in the flesh. The light coming from his paintings was--and is--simply brimming. I'm a fiction writer, so how do I respond to something that moves me? Right. It took a while, believe me. The idea didn't coalesce immediately. But I remember mentioning it to someone a few months after I came back from that trip. And then some years went by while I worked on another book. And then a few more years reading up on the man himself, learning the very much that I did not know about him, and that most people still don't. And after living with, next to, nearby, and inside Vincent Van Gogh for over four years now I can tell you that the Van Gogh that comes to mind when you hear his name probably isn't the Van Gogh in my novel, because it's not the man either. At least not in my book. (Excuse the pun.) But, then again, I find myself constantly asking each day: So who is the Vincent I want in my book? And how do I make him happen? Nagging but imporant questions--and finally my inspiration for this blog.

I can only assume that various others out there are similarly struggling, trying to bring alive other historical figures. Some famous, some unknown. I remember William Styron writing, in regards to Nat Turner, that he was grateful that so little was known about Turner, because it freed him to create a Nat Turner of his imagination. I'm in the opposite position: there's a lot known about my character. In fact, he filled whole volumes with his correspondence. Yet, finally, my daily struggle is the same as Styron's: to create a Vincent in my imagination that feels right and who interests me. Does that make me a hypocrite when I proudfully announce, as I just did, that the Vincent of my novel is closer to the truth? Is there a Truth about someone? Do I really just mean that my Vincent is closer to how I want to perceive him? Does it mean that all I'm doing is frantically writing against type? I don't think so. Maybe. Hell no. Or yes, I guess so. How do I answer these questions? That's the point of this blog. They ARE questions. And I'm smack dab in the middle of trying to figure answers to them, along with what seems like a million other questions that leap up everyday. (Some of those being downright teensy-weensy.) I'll use this space to share some of those questions--big and small--with you. Whether we get answers, I can't promise. But I can promise a finished novel someday.