Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The power in letters

I've noted that one of my key sources in researching my novel has been The Collected Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, a fairly massive, three volume collection that features his lifelong correspondence to mostly one person: his brother Theo. When I was in the early stages of drafting my novel, and it seemed necessary to have Vincent write a letter to his brother, I would just invent the letter completely. I felt I knew enough about Van Gogh's biography, his concerns, and his passions to do so, and I knew too what specific plot points I was trying to develop in any given scene. But as I continued with both my writing and researching, and I read or re-read more deeply into the letters, I found that Van Gogh made certain points so well and so eloquently that it only made sense to borrow the man's real words. So the letters in my novel started to become combinations of my phrasings and his. Often what I ended up doing is taking bits from a variety of letters written during a given time frame or situation and combining those bits into a consistent fabric. Doing so required a bit of tweaking on my part, of course: slight changes to his phrasings, transitional phrases and sentences invented by me, the trimming away or ignoring of a lot of subjects that I didn't think were important to bring up. If I was going to use the actual letters, I couldn't see any other way to do so. After all, it wasn't appropriate to simply pull five or ten full--even lengthy--letters and stick them unchanged into the body of my novel, especially when all sorts of topics come up in those letters that might have nothing to do with the plot point I was trying to develop. So I condensed; I focused; I distilled. And hopefully the result is that the letters, as presented in my novel, go hand in hand with the dramatized scenes. Hopefully, the reader can't tell which words are originally Van Gogh's and which are imitations written by me.

I started thinking hard about this subject again recently, as I looked over the Antwerp section of my novel. This isn't a terribly long section--Van Gogh only lived there a few months--but I feature a scene with him in a bar shortly after he arrives in the city (a scene suggested by an actual letter of his), also a scene with him observing Rubens' paintings in a city museum (something also drawn from his actual letters), and a few scenes with Van Gogh in Antwerp's Art Academy, an institution in which he did indeed enroll but finally left after too many frustrating disagreements with his instructors, one instructor in particular. While all these scenes are useful in emphasizing an aspect of Van Gogh's life or character, the real drama of the Antwerp period involves the question of when he would move to Paris. Reading The Collected Letters, one sees that he had a rather fast falling out with Antwerp and very quickly began pressuring Theo for permission to move to Paris and live in Theo's apartment. Theo politely tried to dissuade Vincent, tried to convince him to wait at least until summer. Over an extended series of letters, a reader can watch while Vincent tries to answer Theo's objections. (One doesn't have Theo's letters but can take a fair guess at their content based on what Vincent says.) Finally Vincent just arrives in Paris, without forewarning--both in real life and in my novel.

An earlier version of my Antwerp section included my own approximation of this epistolary battle: My condensed and patched together versions of Vincent's letters along with completely invented letters written by "Theo" (really by me.) However, in an effort to trim away the fat from my novel, several months ago I got rid of almost the whole bulk of this correspondence. Looking over the section now, I wonder if the epistolary argument between Vincent and Theo isn't actually more dramatically interesting that the dramatized scenes I wrote. I'm toying now with the idea of reinstalling all the letters I cut and trimming down, or getting rid of altogether, the other parts of the Antwerp section. As with many crucial revision decisions, there's going to be pain involved with this one. Something will be lost no matter what I decide. But one hopes--one always hopes--that the loss will be an overall gain for the novel. I'll let you all know what I finally do with this section.