Friday, February 26, 2010

MoMA disappointment


I've visited New York a million times. During the 80s my sister lived in Chelsea, and I used to regularly take the train up from Washington to visit. My wife's family, moreover, originates from Queens, and many have resettled no further than Long Island, necessitating several more New York visits over the past seventeen years of our marriage. Yet it was not until just a couple years ago, when AWP held its conference in New York, that I finally made it to the Museum of Modern Art--what everyone calls MoMA. This is curious, because one of the first things I usually do when visiting a city is to check out the art museums. Curious too because over time I've lost patience with much--but certainly not all--of the pre-20th century art that I once admired and studied. Leanness and intellectual complexity are the qualities that I seek in art now, rather than flabby, over obvious, forms. MoMA should have been a natural pilgrimage for me. But what forced me to finally take the visit was not a devotion to 20th century art but my Van Gogh novel. You see, Van Gogh's iconic painting Starry Night (1889) hangs in the MoMA. I don't feature the painting in my novel. I don't dramatize, nor even mention, its composition. (Ironically, there's scant mention of it either in Van Gogh's letters.) If the point of my book is simply a tour of Vincent Van Gogh's Greatest Hits, then it's not a novel and I have no interest in writing it. I have to highlight paintings that fit the scenes I'm composing. This means that many many well known Van Gogh paintings get ignored in my book. Tough. (I actually had a lot more fun with the lesser known works.) That said, I couldn't not see Starry Night, could I? Not when I had a chance? Arguably the most famous Van Gogh painting of all, and the crown jewel of the whole museum? No, I couldn't. So in February 2008 I made the quick hike to the MoMA from the hotel where I was staying for the conference. I'd do it. I'd finally see Starry Night.

I almost wish I hadn't. Starry Night is without question a great, even radical, painting. That's apparent as you stand there jostling elbows with the fifty other people hoping to catch a glance at it. But it simply didn't blow me away. And let me assure you that my experience of seeing Van Gogh paintings in the flesh--not those dopey, insufferable reproductions that get stuck on everything from t-shirts to baby bowls--is that I Get Blown Away. The light and heat radiating from the Sunflowers series, for example, is so palpable you can measure it in degrees and lumens. Same for many of his Arles portraits, such as L'Arlésienne (1888), and landscapes such as The Sower with the Setting Sun (1888) a picture that so astonished me when I saw it in Amsterdam in 2001 that I was still thinking about it eight years later when I wrote the last scene of my novel (in which it features prominently). But it's not only the bright pictures I've been impressed with. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam also displays many works from his Dutch Period. The smoky, oaky, oppressive weight of these pictures--most notably The Potato Eaters (1885)--is just as impressive and just as moving, if in a completely different way, from his simmering Arles summer works. The point is, they all impress.

Starry Night didn't impress me. It looked dingy and faded, as if its sparkle had sunk underwater and been cauterized by seaweed. It didn't have much to show or to tell me. It seemed a painting that we were staring at because we all thought we were supposed to stare at it, not because it was entrancing. Others may disagree--I'm sure others will disagree--but that's what I saw. Van Gogh was known to rely on inexpensive, inferior quality paints because of his poverty, paints that degraded more quickly than most. As brilliant as his paintings
shine--I've heard experts pronounce--they probably shined even brighter in his own time, a thought that is both uplifting and almost impossible to entertain. Perhaps Starry Night is a victim of such degradation. I don't know. I am neither painter nor art historian. That day in the MoMA I was merely an appreciator. I stood in front of the painting for long minutes, letting it touch me as it would. But finally I had to walk away in search of other works, not much touched at all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gary in first


I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the need for me to sit tight and wait for response to my manuscript from the readers I've given it to. Well, I'm happy to report that last week one of my readers chimed in with both gratifying encouragement and thoughtful reservations. I've been living with my Van Gogh project for so long now it's hard to keep my perspective on what works, what doesn't, what's vital, what's not. I can tell you, blog readers, that when I finally finished entering my handwritten drafts into the computer, the novel was upwards of 1250 pages. The version I sent my three readers was 830 pages: long, but 30% shorter than what I had before!The first reader to chime in was Gary McCullough, a professional speech therapist and UCA professor who also happens to be a very active creative writer. Gary has written several novels, is starting to publish his short stories, has impeccable taste in his reading, and feels as much passion for his craft as any writer I've ever met.

Gary told me something that was crucial for me to hear: He could, without difficulty, see Yellow not only being published but "big." (That's the kind of determination you can never make about your own book, so I appreciate Gary's confidence.) On the other hand, he had questions about the conflicts that occupy the last third of the book, when my Van Gogh character--as Van Gogh did in real life--has essentially broken from his family, except for his brother Theo, and commits himself to living the life of a painter in a foreign country. Previous to this point, and especially while his father is alive, Van Gogh struggles mightily against his own family (who regard him as a failure), and against his own uncertainty as to his vocation. Once he moves from Holland, conflicts with his family retreat to the background. (His father, at this point, has passed away.) What I try to show in my novel is that Van Gogh's main conflict from that point on was with his ability to realize the paintings he saw in his mind's eye.

This is not to say that the Van Gogh had no interpersonal conflicts in the last 5 years of his life. Hardly. In fact, his extremely complicated relationship with Paul Gauguin--a third resentful of him, a third suspicious, and at least a half worshipful--became the most dominant and problematic relationship in his life; previously that designation had belonged to his relationship with his father. In my novel, you can't miss Gauguin's presence in the latter chapters. Even so, it is Van Gogh's conflict with paint that dominates the last third of my book, and it's my challenge and my duty, Gary seems to be saying, to make that as vital and engaging a conflict as the earlier one with his family. I agree. Thanks for the input, Gary.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Absinthe update


Following my entry last week about absinthe my friend and UCA Writing colleague Robin Becker reminded me that I should have included a sugar cube in my absinthe preparations. The traditional method of preparation includes placing a slotted spoon over a glass containing a shot of absinthe. On the spoon is a sugar cube. One then pours water over the sugar cube and the water runs through the slots into the glass. Components in the absinthe are in this way released, enhancing both the flavor and the aroma. Apparently, too, the licorice taste is not quite so overpowering. Thanks, Robin. I guess I'll have to give absinthe another shot. Literally! (It can only get better.) There's no denying the popularity of this spirit, especially in 19th century Europe. On the other hand, about the word abstinthe one article states: "Some claim that the word means 'undrinkable' in Greek." True or not, I can sympathize. Even so, before I'm done revising my Van Gogh novel, I'll need to give this spirit another try.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Name Game


I posted a few entries back about the swirling craziness of one's writing process when one is bringing so many different research sources to bear on the act of fictionalization. I have to move regularly and fluidly between computer screen, fold out map, dictionary, book of biography, big fat coffee table art book, volumes of Van Gogh's letters, Van Gogh CD-ROM, etc. Well, of course, the handiest, and most frequently used research source of all is the internet. Some days I feel like I am doing nothing but trolling the web as I write. But such expeditions can be fun, which I discovered as I came to name the several dozen characters in my book. Because I'm writing about Van Gogh, my novel is set in four countries: Holland, England, Belgium, and France. Characters from every one of those nations appear in the book, most of which are characters invented by me, not figures out of history.

I've relied heavily on "Most Popular Names" web sites (e.g., "Popular Boys Name in Holland," "Flemish Last Names," etc.) And I've had a ball with them. Maybe it has something to do with that godliness of the power to name things, the favor the Almighty bestowed on Adam after all, or maybe it's because I'm a writer who cannot stick with a character for more than a few sentences without needing to naming him or her. A big blank space in your notebook, or a ________, or a ***, accompanied by a scrawled "Remember to stick name here," just doesn't cut it. That is an unworkable situation. I need to know what to call somebody. And it goes without saying that names matter, even if you don't name in the overly prescribed, too obvious style of Dickens. As I look (and look and look and look) at these sites I have to be careful to choose names that feel right for the age. After all, most of the sites do not distinguish between past and present--they simply give names. So I have to work from intuition and from my background reading to make sure the choices fit. At one point last fall I had to simply stop writing and start a log on my computer as to what names I'd already selected. Over the course of four years--or even four months--you can easily forget you already named somebody Gaston or Jaap or Hendrick. I certainly did! So I had to make sure to keep these things straight. Because while in the real world plenty of people in a given community might share the same first or last name, it becomes confusing for a reader if in the community of your novel there are two Pieters or two Emiles or two Bills. There's enough going on in my book already, I don't need to confuse matters with my naming. On a last note, I should point out that Belgium is an especially fascinating case, with the southern part of the country being occupied mostly by Walloons--French speakers--and the northern being predominantly Flemish--Dutch speakers--and the capital Brussels being at the center of a bilingual territory. (There is also a population of German speakers.) I have to know exactly which of these groups are likely to be around for a given scene and go from there. Did I say "fascinating"? I mean it's a kick.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Absinthe experiment


The duties that fall to fiction writers. Especially historical fiction writers. First, let me clarify that when it comes to alcoholic drinks I'm pretty much all wine and beer these days. Sure, I drank rum and cokes at college football games, whiskey sours at southern Maryland weddings, pina colodas at the beach, hurricanes in New Orleans, martinis in Long Island. I eagerly tested varieties of Scotch when I visited a distillery on my honeymoon. And I won't turn down a good margarita anywhere. But I'm basically all wine and beer. So it was curiosity when this weekend, for the sake of my Van Gogh novel, I took my first taste of absinthe. I've known for a while that I needed to get around to doing this. Absinthe was famously, or maybe infamously, the drink of choice for Van Gogh and a number of the painters he ran with. (In fact, it may have been Gauguin who, in Paris, got him started on it.) I think Van Gogh's reputation as borderline alcoholic has been vastly overstated to the point of mythology--and when it came to alcohol he certainly did not only drink absinthe--but I do show him sipping the stuff in a few scenes in my book. I even describe its taste, its sensation, its effects on mouth and mind. This without ever having tried the stuff! I knew that somewhere in the drafting process that tomfoolery had to stop. So recently I plopped down 30+ (!) dollars for a small, slim bottle of the stuff, assured by the clerk at the liquor store that this was a particularly smooth brand. (Or maybe that was my interpretation of what he said.)

Absinthe has, or least once had, a reputation as a dangerously psychoactive drug. In fact, for a time it was banned in the United States. This reputation explains in part why people associate it so readily with Van Gogh. (One brand is actually named after him.) Its psychoactive reputation, it turns out, is vastly exaggerated--it's no more psychoactive than any stiff spirit--but the reputation persists. I had a student freak out one time during a discussion of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" when he realized the man and woman were drinking absinthe. "Isn't that like a mind altering drink?" he kept saying. "Doesn't it make you see things?" For him, the presence of absinthe in the story lead to a very different reading. What is true is that absinthe is bottled at a high proof and traditionally served with water, with which the consumer can dilute it. With some trepidation--a friend who likes absinthe describes its effect as opening a direct corridor between mouth and brain--I went ahead and just sipped the stuff straight. Yeow! This "smooth" brand tasted like a glass of kerosene set on fire and served with licorice as a swizzle stick. (That's the anise in it.) I could only make it through about half a shot's worth, and that was enough. I threw the rest down the drain. Next time, I guess I'll add water. I can't say for sure whether Vincent did or didn't drink it straight, but I can tell you, with memory of my tonsils burning, I'm really ready now to bolster my description.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Audible incredible


A skeptic for years, I am a complete and total convert to recorded books. I can't tell you how many more books, sometimes very good books, I've been able to read in the past three years or four years just by hooking on some earbuds when I run. I started with cassette tapes and CDs from the library, but these were clunky and not terribly portable. I discovered the joys of when my wife gave me an iPod Shuffle a few Christmases ago. Finally, I could take a book anywhere. What have I read by listening in recent years? A lot of forgotten classics and some new ones. A short list: Sula by Toni Morrison, The March by E.L. Doctorow, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter, Mornings on Horseback and John Adams by David McCullough, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, A Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, When You are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. And this does not begin to count the hundreds of stories I've listened to on NPR's Selected Shorts podcasts and The New Yorker's monthly fiction podcasts. And just with an hour each day on a treadmill. Or a longer run on Saturdays when I'm training for a marathon. I shudder to think of how much good literature I would have not experienced in recent years had I simply stared at a television screen in the gym or at passing cars on the road.

Recently, the value of hit home as sharply as ever when, over the course of a couple weeks, I listened to Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. The novel, of course, is no news to anyone. It only won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. With this novel and his earlier "biopic" Dancer (a novel about the life of Rudolf Nureyev), McCann may be sprinting to the top of my list of favorite contemporary writers. As a child of the 70s (though I was born in the 60s) what I admire about both books is how he brings alive the physical details, the cultural pulse, the social entropy of that oft overlooked decade. And Spin is simply a tour de force, with so many competing points of view, gender identifications, nationalities, races, age groups, and social classes convincingly presented in either first person or third peson limited that it awes the writerly imagination. Drawing on these many different perspectives, McCann recreates a day in the summer of 1974 when an acrobat famously walked across a tightrope stretched between the the twin towers in New York. And in doing so he recreates an era, a city, a country. Read it or listen to it. Either way it will be an awesome pleasure. I'm glad I didn't miss out.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Save the Writing Project


I'd like to call your attention to a pressing national matter, pressing especially to anyone who writes, cares about writing, teaches writing, or cares about the teaching of writing--which I imagine defines many readers of this blog! Every summer, K-12 teachers from disciplines across the educational spectrum participate in 5 week workshops (called Summer Institutes) sponsored by the National Writing Project. The workshops allow the teachers to discover themselves as writers; to gain a new, or newly recharged, love for writing; and to learn about new ways to use writing in their curriculum. It's finally about improving the quality of writing instruction in our country by touching the people who can most readily bring about change: the teachers themselves. The model has proven to be spectacularly successful, based not only on student test scores but also overwhelming anecdotal evidence from teachers who have taken the Summer Institute and had their eyes opened. Teachers who complete the Summer Institute not only make more effective classroom teachers but are certified to conduct in-service workshops throughout the school year in their local districts. In that way, the good practices they are exposed to in the Summer Institute are transmitted to scores of additional teachers.

Unfortunately, the existence of the NWP is now threatened by different budget discussions going on in Washington. There is talk about consolidating funding for the Writing Project with five other literacy organizations under a new competitive program that states would have to apply to. By no means would all states apply to the program, by no means would all those who apply get funding, and by no means would the states that get funding necessarily use the money to allow their local writing projects to keep operating. In short, the National Writing Project cannot exist under this new plan. It would be dead. Since its founding more than 30 years ago, the National Writing Project has been a national, federally-funded organization, with a clear administrative structure and deep, practical connections between individual local writing projects and the national organization. It has been a very efficient and responsible manager of taxpayer money. (I can't imagine a more worthwhile use of that money either.) It would be a shame now to punish the organization for its success because our government cannot figure out how to pay its bills. Please help save the Writing Project! It almost got cut 10 years ago, but a grassroots response converted Congress and kept the organization alive. If you can, copy the form letter below, modify it as you must, and send it along via email or snail mail to your U.S. senator or congressmen. (Click here to find the names of your U.S. senators and here for the name of your congressman.) For teachers and students and anyone who cares about writing, you can make a huge difference. Thanks.


I am writing to urge you to support the National Writing Project, one of oldest and most successful school reform programs in education, as it faces losing its federal funding.

The NWP, a proven, highly successful national infrastructure, is currently at risk as a result of the administration’s proposed strategy to consolidate it with five other literacy programs which would only offer funding to state agencies competing for it with new, unproven programs.

The National Writing Project has a thirty year program of success in improving literacy among students by profoundly supporting the professional development of their teachers.Specifically, direct funding for the National Writing Project supports:
1. The national goal of helping students graduate prepared for college and career-ready;
2. Tens of thousands of teachers prepared to serve as a professional development resource to their colleagues and local schools;
3. A national improvement and reform infrastructure with demonstrated practices that support the success of local writing projects sites in providing high-quality professional development to local schools.
4. National programs and initiatives that extent and strengthen the work of local sites and that support site leaders in enhancing their work and sharing knowledge across the network.

The National Writing Project accomplishes all of this because it is a highly developed and effective national infrastructure that includes broad reach, local usability and established quality. Without direct funding, the infrastructure of this crucial program is in jeopardy.

Thank you for your time and your support.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Heading out to Asniéres, Part Two


In a post last Saturday I described an outing to the Pont de Clichy to recreate and see for myself some perspectives Van Gogh had when he lived and painted in Paris. After about an hour or so on the banks of the Siene near the Pont de Clichy, I gathered my things, hiked through a small public park behind me (called Parc Robinson) and picked up the Boulevard Voltaire, a street that leads to Asniéres proper. There, I checked a posted map of the area and started sauntering around to see what the city (or what is technically known as a commune) looked and felt like. Eventually I found my way back to Boulevard Voltaire and crossed it to reach the Gabriel Péri Metro station, where I picked up a subway back toward central Paris.

One thing I couldn't help but notice in Asniéres was how new the buildings looked, especially given I had the 19th century in mind as I walked. I actually found it quite hard to imagine how the city would have appeared to Vincent and Bernard. With a few obvious exceptions, most of the buildings looked like there were constructed in the last 50 years, especially the apartment buildings. Many looked quite new, in fact. Unlike central Paris, which in some ways doesn't look that much different from when the Impressionists were painting it, Asniéres is no museum piece. It has the upbeat vigor, the hum, of a young, newly settled, newly arrived area. This may be because many of the residents themselves are new to France, or at least new to Paris. It's the home of significant Persian and Algerian populations--something I picked up from not only peoples' faces but the languages used on flyers and signs. (Although I definitely heard Italian being spoken by a young man and woman who passed me on the sidewalk.) It is a city of immigrants and of burgeoning families. Of kids on scooters, men on motorcycles, and young mothers carrying as much as they can back from the grocery. I thought: If I were a young professional who had just moved to the area and couldn't afford central Paris or Montmartre, this is where I would live. Or if I had only ordinary means and a couple of kids.

When I first arrived, I passed plenty of bars and cafes outside of which brown-skinned men lounged. As I walked on, I saw professional buildings, churches, a public library, a hospital. I saw neighborhoods with apartment buildings and neighborhoods with row houses. Some elegant, some less so. Mostly I noticed that the mood of the area was upbeat and, even for a Sunday morning, the streets were fairly lively. This was due in part to a huge street fair that I eventually walked into as I completed my circuit. The fair was jammed with visitors inspecting booths that featured the normal variety of clothes, scarves, shoes, CDs, food products, and whatnots. I saw some good deals, but what I really noticed was the sense of community. When I left the street fair, I had more or less walked the whole of central Asniéres. I can't say I found out much to explain to me how the place would have looked to Van Gogh. But the working class energy stuck me as being authentic--not just to our time but his.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Unexpected message this morning


I was going to write, as a followup to Saturday's post, about the community of Asniéres, France. But that will have to wait until tomorrow. Today I should give a shout out to, which has chosen Creating Van Gogh as one of the featured blogs on its web site. I found the unexpected email from them this morning. I followed this link, and, sure enough there I am, along with other sites they have previously selected. It's a clever marketing idea, and I certainly don't mind the exposure. So if you were thinking of going online to buy furniture, check them out!

I don't know about where you live, reader, but we're having a snow day in central Arkansas (another completely unexpected development), with public schools and local universities all closing. In addition to throwing a few snowballs with my sons, I'm going to jot down some details of what I remember about Asniéres. Look for that post tomorrow.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Heading out to Asniéres, Part One


My trip to France last summer was intended to continue my Van Gogh education, and so this determined/limited exactly where I went, how I spent my time. This was especially true for Paris, as I had only two days in the city--in fact, less than that, given that one of those days included the day I arrived (rather early) into de Gaulle airport and took the train into the city, where I stumbled around the vicinity of Notre Dame before getting my bearings and finding my hotel. Half of my second day there wasn't actually spent in Paris at all, but Asniéres, a place I'd known for months I wanted to see. Asniéres is community--a small city really--just past the northwest edge of Paris. It's relevant to Van Gogh because it is where the painter Emile Bernard, who Van Gogh first met in a Paris art school run by Fernand Cormon, lived with his parents when Bernard was still a young, arrogant, phenom, not yet trapped under the boot heel of Gauguin, as he would be later. One can walk from Asniéres to Montmartre, and I assume that this is what the young Bernard did to get to Cormon's school. And, of course, the reverse is true too: one can walk from Montmartre to Asniéres, which Van Gogh did regularly, in search of subjects and company. (And I suspect, too, to just get out of the city.) He painted in Asniéres not only with Bernard but Paul Signac, creating among other things several renditions of the Pont de Clichy, the bridge that crosses the Seine shortly before one gets to Asniéres.

In Van Gogh's time, Asniéres was regarded as an unfashionable, working class area. To paint there was to make a statement as to where one's fealty lay. It's not surprising at all that Van Gogh--Bernard or no Bernard--would decide to walk away from Montmartre to see where the real people lived. Before I started seriously looking at maps and seriously planning my trip, I imagined I might have to take a bus to Asniéres or maybe even a train. Or simply pay a hefty fare to some Paris cabbie. I wasn't staying in the northwest corner of the city but in center Paris, on the left bank. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized I could take the Paris Metro to Asniéres. Asniéres, it turned out, was the last stop on the 13 line. I actually got off one stop before then, so that I could cross the Pont de Clichy on foot and find a place to settle in there on the bank of the Siene. Whenever I can, on these trips to France, if I am near a place where Van Gogh worked, I try to find the specific location, a duplication of the view he had, so I can see and feel for myself what it is like to be there. Exactly there.

It was a beautiful, clear, sunny Sunday morning and I felt enormously relieved to just be out, in France, after those months of planning and days (it felt like) of traveling. I crossed the bridge, noticing, even a hundred years later, an energy to the area and the outline, in the near distance, of what looked like shiny apartment and office buildings. So that is where people really work, I thought, not just visit. On the other side, I found a stairway leading down, and then at the bottom, a wide walkway on the side of the river that went on for as long as I could see in both directions. In front of me was the Seine, behind me a grassy hill. I lumbered along for a while, until I found a spot with a bench that gave me a view approximating Van Gogh's. A group of guys, carrying several evident bottles of beer, were lingering harmlessly on a dock nearby; dozens of joggers passed on the walkway as well as dog walkers and parents with young kids in strollers. It was a Sunday. It was sunny. It was early May. The French were out. I settled in, pulled out a sketchpad and colored pencils and spent a glorious hour there by the river, watching the play of light on the water, the texture of the currents, the shape of trees on the other bank, the skyline beyond the top of the bridge. I drew and observed and drew and observed, soaking in the sunshine, trying to remove a hundred + years. Trying to feel myself in the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Even the 4th graders!


From the start of this project, I've been a little nervous about basing my novel on such a well known--nearly mythological--figure as Vincent Van Gogh. On one hand, the allure of the Van Gogh story means thousands of potential readers for the novel, people who have always been fascinated by Van Gogh's supposed dementia or simply by his bright paintings. On the other hand, there's the daunting task of believably bringing alive someone who so many people think they know. And, too, there's the worry that I could be taking on an overexposed subject. The painter's incredible reknown was brought home again just last week when my 4th grader son, telling me about presentations made in his GT class, reported that his friend Kameika presented on Vincent Van Gogh.
"Oh," I said, less than enthusiastically. Everyone's getting in on the act.
"Did you know that he was crazy? Did you know that he cut off his ear and gave it to his girlfriend?"
Well, that's not quite right, not exactly.
"Of course, Daddy knows," my wife said. "He's written a book about Van Gogh."
"You did?" my son said, impressed. "You wrote about him cutting off his ear?"
Yes, I had to admit, I did, as I imagined the horrors conjured up by his friend's presentation: flailing knives, streaming blood, a screaming "girlfriend," a wide-eyed madman, yellow paint splattered as widely as his proclamations, crazy Van Gogh painting and yelling and bleeding and flailing and gesticulating all at once. Those wild pictures. (She had of course shown some as part of her presentation.) Yes, I did, I told him, but I'm sure I couldn't make it nearly as interesting to a 4th grader as Kameika did.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The tornado of research


One rather obvious aspect of writing a historical novel--an aspect non-writers can easily appreciate--is all the research, both on large matters and small, that goes into it. (It's the research on small matters that's actually the hardest, as some of my earlier posts attest to.) But it's a fact that almost all fiction, historical or not, requires research. You can be writing about a time period you yourself lived through, even a story based closely on actual events, and still find yourself Googling dozens of pieces of information. This is perfectly natural and to be expected--if you're a writer, who cares about getting the details right. While my Van Gogh novel is being read and critiqued by people whose opinions I respect, I've started a novella, and in the drafting of it I have already consulted Google Maps of Rehoboth Beath, Delaware, Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, DC. I've hunted down lists of the most popular rock and soul songs of the 80s. I've tried to dig up the name of the singer of a hit song I remember from a while back. (Then it suddenly came to me in the shower: Anita Baker.) I've tried to get floor plans for both the Georgetown and George Washington University hospitals in DC as well as information about the different departments in those hospitals. I've used Map Quest to chart driving times and distances between cities. I've looked up the history of the Datsun 280Z. All normal stuff for a working writer. The only real difference between conducting research for a non-historical fiction and a historical one is quantity. Because there's just so much more that you don't know about an era through which you never lived. And about specific people who lived through that era--if certain, real, specific people figure in your fiction, that is. (Plenty do in Yellow.)

Even before I started drafting Yellow I had accumulated a small mountain of books about Van Gogh and his life. Some I bought myself; some I checked out of my university library; others were given to me by family members who knew what I was up to. As the months and years went on, and the drafting began, the pile only grew taller. And broader. It became piles. The piles eventually took up an entire stretch of floor space on one side of my study. And the subject matter of the books certainly did not pertain only to Van Gogh. I paid a lot of money for a semi-rare, hardcover book about trees in Northern Europe. I bought a couple books about prostitution in the 19th century and others, designed to help writers, about Everyday Life In . . . (The 19th century, Victorian Times, England during the Regency period). I scrounged up books on mens' and womens' fashions of the 19th century (none of which were as helpful as I hoped), as well as books on painters besides Van Gogh: Gauguin, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat. I accumulated no less than three books about the Yellow House alone; several mammoth, coffee table size volumes with nice reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings; three different editions of his Selected Letters; and, when I finally admitted that I couldn't do without it, the hardcover, three volume set of his Collected Letters. (Hell of a resource, let me tell you.) To the books were added DVDs, CD-ROMS, maps, art supplies, calendars, brochures, flyers, and postcards, to say nothing of the hundreds of photographs I took in Paris and Provence and stored on a portable hard drive. Nor does this list include the scores of web sites I found myself returning to time and time again for information about anything from the look of miners' huts in the 19th century to the 19th century beer making industry to the history of gaslight installation in Paris. And everything--I mean everything--in between.

My study tends to get messy while I work anyway, but while I worked on Yellow the room became virtually unrecognizable, a tornado of research sources, some spread wide open, others tossed into corners or piled on my desk or placed at my feet for quick access. I could barely move my chair without running into or over something, sometimes an important something. I'm amazed I didn't destroy the spines of more books. (Although one volume I took from the UCA library, and kept for the better part of three years, finally had to be carted off to the book hospital.) It was an amazing and hectic and, let's admit it, fun way of working. Writing, stopping, reading, writing, stopping, Googling, stopping, looking at the map, writing, writing, writing, stopping, opening the Collected Letters, reading, writing, writing, stopping, looking in three different books for that one picture I remembered, giving up and Googling it, not finding it, back to the books, finding it, writing, writing,writing, stopping, checking a web site, checking another web site, thinking, writing, writing, back to the book, writing, checking another web site. And that could be in the space of a half hour. That could be in the space of ten minutes! I'm not ADD, but now that I think about it, writing a historical novel might be the perfect project for such a person. After all, you go hunting for another fact every minute. But, then again, maybe I should reverse myself on the ADD thing. Because the most important thing to remember about research is that none of it matters as much as your story does. If you're the kind of person who gets sidetracked too easily into historical minutae, you might never find your way out to finish your book. But whether you do or you don't, I have to say that it's a heck of a ride.