Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Next Big Step


My Van Gogh novel has entered a vital new stage in its progress. Yesterday I sent off my first query letter to an agent, a person with whom I've had various email conversations over the years in regards to different writing projects of mine. His agency is the natural one for me to approach first. And if his agency requests to see the entire manuscript, it will be the only agency looking at Yellow for a while. (Actually, that agency is quite conscientious about not holding manuscripts too long.) Most agents, if they have asked to see your entire book, want an exclusive look, which I understand. But if you're sending out anything short of that--a query letter or email, a synopsis, the first ten pages, a few chapters--authors should, and do, feel free to contact as many agents as they like.

In any case, this new development means something significant for my novel and for this blog. Instead of working at the privacy of my desk every morning trying to make the book just a little bit better, I've officially--at least for now--declared myself done and am essentially releasing Yellow to the world. The work is no longer about editing and revising but about mailing, emailing, hoping, waiting, photocopying, developing requested synopses, mailing again, waiting, mailing more, waiting, getting depressed, getting hopeful, mailing, waiting, emailing, photocopying, waiting, developing a longer (or shorter) synopsis, mailing, emailing, waiting, photocopying, mailing, waiting. You get the idea. Makes me think of that Tom Petty line: "The waiting is the hardest part." Well, maybe. But it's also the most hopeful part. Finding an agent--hopefully the right agent--for your book can be a short process or a long one. Sometimes, it can be an interminable process. At this point, as I start out on my efforts on behalf of Yellow, I really have no idea how long it will take.

But I do know that moving into the agent hunt phase means there will be fewer day to day thoughts and insights that I'll be driven to share on this blog. (Funny how this should happen so soon after celebrating my 100th post.) After all, how many times can I say to the world "I sent out a query letter today!" without sounding uselessly boring? Certainly if any issue regarding historical fiction or how I put together my own book is on my mind, or if I care to comment about a historical novel I've read, or I have some great news about Yellow, I will be back in this space sharing my thoughts. But I figure my posts will drop to maybe one a week, and some weeks not even that. I'm in a different phase now. Let's hope it's a good one. Thanks to anyone and everyone who has kept up so far. I'll let you know how things turn out.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Burnt Norway at BEA


While throughout the world--and in our household--writers busily bang away at their books, in New York an annual Big Event in the pubishing world occurs this week. Formerly known as the ABA (American Booksellers Association) convention, Book Expo America begins tomorrow at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. The Expo runs through Thursday. While the basic point of the Expo is to allow publishers to show off their current and forthcoming titles, the Expo also includes some fascinating and entertaining speakers. Barbra Streisand delivers the keynote on Tuesday evening--will the singer deliver a high "note"? (yuck yuck)--while Wednesday's Children's Book & Authors Breakfast features Cory Doctorow and Richard Peck and will be mc'd by none other than Sarah Ferguson. That's right, that Sarah Ferguson--the Dutchess of York, who has penned numerous children's books of her own (and who, as I write this, is getting some rather embarrassing personal publicity). Thursday's Adult Book & Author Breakfast will be mc'd by Jon Stewart (yes, that Jon Stewart) and will feature Condoleeza Rice and John Grisham, among others. Finally, Thursday's Adult Book & Author Luncheon will be mc'd by comedian/actor/forthcoming zombie novelist Patton Oswalt and will feature sci-fi legend William Gibson.

All I can say is that I wish I were there. Because my book is! Not Yellow, but my earlier novel Burnt Norway. That's right. Burnt Norway will be present at the Expo in the flesh and featured, along with hundreds of other titles, in the Expo catalogue. I'm excited for it and curious to see what difference, if any, this makes for the book. But having paid to enter the Expo, I'd really like to hear Jon Stewart! Oh well. In any case, if you live in the New York area and are interested in book publishing (or Barbra Streisand) I suggest you drop by the Expo. Say hi to my book. It will be having all the fun while back in Arkansas I keep hard at work on its big brother Yellow.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A simple fact?!--uncovered!


As you can tell if you've been following this blog, writing a historical novel is at least half an effort in fact finding, even if one is not being completely religious to the facts. I certainly want my novel to be as true to the facts as possible, unless those facts start to impinge on something [that I think is] necessary about plot or character. I've done a heck of a lot of fact finding since this project began and I'm still at it. One little piece of information that for the longest time I was unable to uncover was the precise location of the 8th--and last--Impressionist exhibit, held in Paris in 1886. One scene in my novel shows Vincent attending this exhibit and being moved by it. But in trying to write the scene one of the very first things I had to nail down was the where to place it. Where is Vincent when he is observing these pictures? Hard to draw the scene without knowing this, or at least deciding on it. After scanning a number of books and web sites and not finding the location precisely identified, I just decided to make a choice. The exhibit--as portrayed in my book--would be held at a private home rented for the occasion. Why a private home rather than a gallery or museum? Because the Impressionists were historically the "out" group in the Paris art world. They organized exhibits in the first place because the Salon turned down their works. All right, they responded, so we'll set up our own exhibit. That independent spirit would carry them, I figured, right up to the end. I really had no idea if my decision was at all accurate, but I needed to write the scene.

It's only now, as I put the finishing touches on what will be the first publically available draft of Yellow that I've came across my decision again and confronted it. What if a private home was a ludicrous idea, way off base? What if some very informed art historian found the idea laughable and called me out on it? But what to do if I can't find this seemingly simple piece of information? It then occurred to me that I ought to at least find the locations of the earlier and more celebrated Impressionist exhibits, when the group was still holding pretty well together. Where those exhibits were located could and should guide my decision as to where the 8th exhibit might have been held. Don't know why I didn't think of this before. In any case, I seemed to hit pay dirt almost immediately. One very informative article gave me the precise location of every single Impressionist exhibit--except for the last one! Errr. (Why was this so apparently unimporant?) But, it was heartening to learn that except for the 2nd Impressionist exhibit in 1876 (held at the gallery of the famous art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel) the exhibits were held in apartments or studios, not galleries--and never museums. So my instinct was correct. Should I just go ahead with the setting as I'd already determined it? Not so fast, I decided. Better check one more time. And what do you know, there it was. An article on gave me (just a half hour ago) exactly what I'd been needing all along. The 8th exhibit was held on the second floor of the Maison Doree restaurant at the corner of Rue Lafitte and Boulevard des Italiens. Where was this article when I first started researching? Where was it yesterday? I can't tell you. And why a restaurant? I don't know. Did the restaurant simply not serve on its second floor during the month long exhibit? Apparently. (Although the hours of the exhibit were from 10-6. Did they try to do dinner up there, amongst all the artwork?) I suppose it's a sign that the group was dissolving that they couldn't find a more conventional space. After all, this last exhibit is most famous today for two reasons: 1) It's where Seurat unveiled his mammoth and controversial Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte; and 2) almost every leading, well-known Impressionist decided not to exhibit. So those who did get into the exhibit were relative no-names and up-and-comers. They would have to take what space they could get. Conveniently, these were exactly the people Vincent needed to get to know and learn from. (Update: After doing more research I may have to contradict one of my last suppositions. The Maison Doree was quite a well-regarded restaurant at the time, serving an upper crust crowd. Perhaps the exhibit organizers regarded it as a superb location!)

As I head back to my manuscript, with precise and accurate information finally in hand, I am reminded of a lesson I so often drawn from Van Gogh's life and experiences, something writers of historical novels needed to tell themselves again and again and again: Don't quit. For the sake of my scene, I'm glad I didn't.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Playing with Paris


For many, Arles and Saint-Rémy France are the towns associated with Van Gogh. It is there where you find "Van Gogh walks," with signs posted showing you exactly where he painted which picture, and abundant Van Gogh paraphernalia (maps, t-shirts, cards, posters, ties, etc.). But really, there would have been no triumphs in Arles and Saint-Rémy without the two years he spent in Paris, meeting and learning from so many Impressionist and Neoimpressionist painters. The odd thing about the Paris years for a biographer or novelist is that our best source for information about Van Gogh--his own letters--shrank to a mere fraction of their customary number during the Paris years. (Because he lived with his brother Theo and did not need to write to him.) As a result, many questions arise that have no firm answer. One questionable area is his relationship with Agostina Segatori, an Italian woman who owned the Café du Tambourin, where Van Gogh and his friends frequently went to drink and take meals. It is assumed in many circles--and sometimes repeated as fact--that Van Gogh had an ongoing relationship with Segatori. But because there are so few evident letters from the Paris period, his comments about her aren't conclusive. Some letters suggest a relationship closer than friends; others letters do not. He reports to Theo in one letter (when Theo was away in Holland) that Segatori has either had an abortion or a miscarriage--either way she looks ill; in another letter he reports, rather angrily, that even though her business has dissolved she refuses to give him back some paintings of his that he allowed her to use as decoration for the cafe. There is nothing in the letter to indicate a relationship. So I wasn't sure, as I wrote my Paris chapters, what to do with the woman.

In the end, I played with her a bit. First, since I didn't want to or feel I could just completely ignore the common idea that she and Vincent were lovers, I suggested in a few scenes that they were friendly, people who knew and enjoyed each other's presence, and that one night, after Segatori had drunk a few, they had a fling in her apartment above the cafe. What's also useful to know about Segatori is that she let Vincent use the cafe as the venue for an exhibition of Japonaiserie that he admired so and had collected for several years. She also allowed him to show work made by he and his friends, the painters of the "Petite Boulevard," as he liked to call them, in contrast to the original Impressionists, who were associated with Paris's "Grand Boulevards" a bit further south. I've played with dates and facts a bit to have the "Petite Boulevard" exhibition occur shortly before Segatori decides to sell the place. This creates an interesting tension of guilt and blame in which Vincent thinks Segatori is blaming the failure of the Petite Boulevard exhibit for the failure of her business, although logically that cannot be true. In rendering this scene I also make it clear that the night Segatori and Vincent shared happened just two months earlier. The reader can tell from my descriptions that Segatori is quietly pregnant, but Vincent does not--not yet--realize it. The timing of these various events opens the possibility that the pregnancy suggested by Vincent in his real life letter was the result of his own loins! Let me make it clear that no biographer of Van Gogh, even the ones who regard Segatori as his Paris lover, make this claim or apparently feel they can. In my book it's only a tantalizing suggestion. And the way I paint her, Segatori would not want Van Gogh to know the baby is his, even if it was. She's not cold-hearted, just very very independent. And besides, Vincent, this man she rather babies when he visits her café, is not in her mind someone cut out for fatherhood.

I don't know what a Van Gogh biographer would have to say about how I handle the Segatori relationship, but the fact is that it is a sufficiently mysterious one to allow a novelist freeplay. I think I'm actually being conservative! As it turned out, Van Gogh had no children in real life--at least none he knew of--and though he does not say so explicitly in the letters, this, I think, was one of his most cutting disappointments.

(Picture note: The above painting from 1887 is titled "The Italian Woman." Most commentators feel sure that the model is Segatori.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Creating Van Gogh reaches 100


As of last Friday's post (5/14/10), Creating Van Gogh reached the 100 count. In almost exactly eight months, I've come to you with 100 thoughts about historical fiction generally and/or my historical novel Yellow in particular. Yes, I've taken a few detours on occasion--e.g., to express excitement over a new publication, or to thank someone who helped me with the blog, or to report on AWP, or to gripe about political/financing problems encountered by the National Writing Project--but for the most part I've tried to keep the discussion focused on the essential themes of the blog, the themes that followers and visitors are interested in reading and commenting about. I can't say exactly when I expected to reach 100 posts--or if I necessarily did expect to reach 100--but I'm relieved and gratified that I've made it. I know that a few--okay, several--of my posts are longer than average, but thanks for sticking with me through them. I hope that means you find my questions and/or commentary and/or anedotes relevant and interesting, especially if you're in the middle of developing or writing your own historical novel. I haven't been shy about detailing my research trip to France last summer--in fact, post 99 and post 100 did just that--and while some of those posts probably read like travelogues I hope I've made the point that I was there to see, hear, smell, read about, walk through, run through, drive through, draw and photograph specific places that Van Gogh either lived in or visited. No matter where I was, the man himself was never far from my thoughts. And these days the France trip is very much in mind, since it was this time last year that I was slogging, stomping, and wine drinking my way through that remarkable, beautiful country.

I must admit that it was the example of my wife's blog Wordamour and her simple love of blogging that encouraged me to start Creating Van Gogh in the first place. Let's give credit where credit is due. And when I did start, I began with the idea that I needed to post something--anything--everyday. Well, within a week or two I knew that would prove impossible. After all, I was working on my novel! But I've tried to maintain due diligence, and I'm proud to say that even as I came off my fall sabbatical and was thrust into the grind of 4 classes per semester teaching I've actually logged more posts from January to the present then I did from September through December. Who knew? I worried over Christmas break that I might not be able to keep posting at all! (How Erika Dreifus updates her terrific Practicing Writing blog every Monday to Friday is beyond me. I salute you, Erika.) And since I've started the blog I can report some gratifying progress on different fronts. My novel, which back in September had just started a significant and drastic new round of cutting, editing, revising, and reshaping, is almost done. (Really this time.) It's so much tighter now, so much surer, so much more of what it was trying to be all along, largely because I've had to confront and resolve so many of the issues that I've written about on this blog. Since September I've also made some great literary friends through this blog, including Anne Whitehouse, who after a series of communications about a Van Gogh poem she published, kindly asked me to review her book of poems, Blessings and Curses. (Click on the link to read about the book.) Thanks for the confidence, Anne. It's meeting people like her that is the true benefit of any blog, or any online life. I hope more posts, and more such people, are in my future. Thanks everybody.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Meandering in Montmartre, Part Two


When I ended my last post I was recalling my first visit to Montmartre, back in 2005. My family and I followed Rue des Abbesses to Rue Lepic (the street where Vincent and Theo moved to a few months after Vincent arrived in Paris). We followed Rue Lepic--an upward slanting and curving street that is virtually all residential--until it ended, and then we took a series of turns. At that point we were about as high as one can be on the Butte Montmartre. In fact, we were level with the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, only behind it now, a block or two away, in an area thriving with restaurants and shops and overrun with crowds of summer tourists. Hot and thirsty, we grabbed a seat at an outside table of one of the cafes. I can't remember what my wife or kids ordered, but I ordered a large Stella Artois draft. And though I'm not a big fan of Stella, I can attest that I savored that one. As we sat and enjoyed our drinks we spied a sign on the wall of the cafe that indicated that the building dated to the nineteenth century and had been then a favorite hangout of the Neoimpressionist community located in Montmartre. I believe the sign even mentioned Van Gogh by name. So, what do you know, we had stumbled onto one of his old watering holes.

When we were finished at the cafe, we wandered the area for a bit longer, checking out some stores, and then found our way back to the Rue Lepic and down the hill again. It was my wife who discovered it: an unassuming, creamy white-toned building with white shutters and dark blue doors, a building that melded almost invisibly into the others lining the east side of Rue Lepic. We'd walked by it the first time without evening noticing. But a rectangular sign with gold letters affixed to the wall near the front door told you: it was the building where Vincent and Theo lived all those years ago. Immediately, of course, we started snapping pictures. My wife made me pose beneath the sign. People walking by studied us curiously, unable to figure why this rather ordinary building should attract such interest.

Well, that was 2005. As it turned out, our camera was having difficulties and we lost most of our pictures from the trip, including half that we took in Paris and almost all we had taken in the south. So part of my reason (albeit a small part) for wanting to return this past summer was to snap some pictures that would last. Indeed, on that cloudy Saturday morning last summer when I arrived in Paris the first place I went after I unloaded my baggage at the hotel was Montmartre. It was far cooler in May 2009 than it had been in August 2005, but not so cool that as to be uncomfortable, especially when the sun peeked out. From the 2005 trip I knew precisely where Vincent and Theo's building was located. I skipped the Basilica and headed toward Rue Lepic, stopping along the way to observe the curve of the streets, the color and architecture of the buildings, the characteristics of the inhabitants. I wanted to burn Monmartre into my memory as well as take dozens of documentary photos. (Such as the ones above.) I examined Vincent and Theo's building again; then, I headed up the street toward the Moulin de la Galette, the umbrella name for two famous windmills--located almost at the heighest point on the street--that Van Gogh depicted in various paintings. An historically significant edifice--it had to be defended during the seige of Paris in 1814--during Van Gogh's lifetime it was regarded as a colorful bit of scenery; a convenient end destination for center town Parisians out for a long walk; and the site of a popular observation deck (at the "Blute-Fin" mill) and a "guinguette" (bar/dancing venue) at the "Radet" mill. Since I'd decided to make the creation of one of Van Gogh's windmill paintings a significant scene in the novel, I lingered for a long time outside the (unfortunately locked) gate to the Blute-Fin mill and then further on to the Radet mill, which tops a still functioning restaurant.

When I'd stood and gawked and photographed as much as I could, I continued on the Rue Lepic until I found the same cafe I'd visited with my family in 2005. This time, instead of sitting outside, I headed in without hesitation. I wanted to sit down, yes, and after the long stretch of Arkansas to Montmartre traveling a tall beer sounded awfully nice, but mostly I just wanted to see the interior, which was narrower and longer, more tightly packed, than I expected. I took my table--the place was almost empty inside--ordered my beer, brought my journal out from my backback, and began recording: what I'd seen and was now seeing, how the day had gone and was going. Without quite realizing it, I was sitting inside what would become the model for Café du Tambourin, the cafe appears in several of my Paris scenes. (Du Tambourin was an actual cafe, but I have no idea of its real life address as it does not operate anymore, at least under that name.) I think at the moment what I felt was pure fatigue, but accompanied by the delicious knowledge that I'd arrived--in Vincent's old neighborhood--and that I was gratefully off my feet; that I had a home here for as long as I wanted it, or at least until my beer ran out.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meandering in Montmartre, Part One


It was about this time last year that I arrived in Paris, on a cool, partly cloudy morning in early May, a Saturday as I recall. And one of the biggest national holiday weekends on the French calendar: the anniversary of the end of WW II. I felt grateful to find a cafe open for breakfast, to say nothing of the fact that my hotel hadn't lost my reservation, even if I couldn't yet occupy the room. When I finally did get into the room I dumped all my baggage: a large suitcase, a bag for my rather oversized laptop, and a backtop jammed to the hilt with books and guidebooks and maps and railway tickets and drawing pads and half a dozen other necessities. Then I reorganized, emptying my backpack of everything and then putting in only exactly what I needed for that day. I was sicking of lumbering around like a pack mule. You'd think I'd want to rest for a while, muzzy-brained as I was from a "night" spent on a transatlantic flight, which of course equals only a few hours of sleep. But I had only two days in Paris before I must leave for the south, and I knew my research itinerary was a full one. Besides, I was too wired to rest. I also knew the first place I needed and wanted to see: Montmartre, that famously bohemian district in the 18th arrondissement of Paris where Van Gogh lived for two years with his brother Theo, and where he first met a number of men who became crucially important to him, some personally and some professionally (and some both): Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Pére Tanguy, Georges Seurat. (Just to name a few.) Arguably, the story of painting in the second half of the nineteenth century is the story of Montmartre, as it welcomed first the Impressionists and then the Neoimpressionists before either group found acceptance in larger society. It also where many of these painters lived, if not permanently then at least for a time.

To clarify: This would not be my first tour of Montmartre. The first time I even heard of the place was in 2001 when my family and I took a trip to Paris with a group of UCA students who were going on a "field trip" while studying in Maastricht in the Netherlands. We were joined on this Paris leg by my mother-in-law and a couple friends of hers. While my family and I toured many of the familiar spots of central Paris, my mother-in-law was "dragged" by her friends up the slope of Montmartre. To her, the area was nothing but a "big hill" with a bunch of people trying to hawk tacky wares. It didn't sound like I was missing anything at that time, so I hardly gave it a second thought. We were too busy hanging out at the playground in the Luxembourg Gardens; at the small, temporary amusement park established at the Tuileries; and at the Jardin d' Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. When I returned to Paris in 2005, however, with the idea for Yellow firmly in mind, and armed with considerable knowledge about Van Gogh, I knew I had to go to Montmartre. It was a bright, gorgeous mid-summer day when we exited the Metro and made out way, among crowds of other tourists, to the area. To say the least, what I found hardly matched my mother-in-law's description. Yes, of course, Montmartre is essentially one high, large hill, around which a variety of streets wend. But oh what a great hill.

What one can't not notice upon arriving in Montmartre is the stunning white church that sits at the top: the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. The marble on the church, which has become the symbol of the district, literally shines. Although the construction of the church was not completed until long after Van Gogh's death--and thus it has no connection to either him or the artistic community he played a role in--one cannot visit Montmarte for the first time without stopping in. Or at least I thought so. While my wife waited with our two sons on the broad courtyard outside, and bought a great and possibly illegal purse from one of those nasty "hawkers," I walked up the towering church stairs, enjoyed the incredible view of Paris afforded from there, and then went inside. The transition from the bright sunshine outside was rather drastic but I felt rewarded by the lavish interior.

Done with the church we headed down the hill a bit and then westward along the Rue des Abbesses, picking up sandwiches at one of the many streetside eateries. Our rather overactive, overgrabby young boys earned a disapproving look from one restaurant employee who murmured to the woman next to him something unkind about the English. I chose not to disabuse him of his false identification, but smiled upon receiving our sandwiches and wished him a good day.

Next post's: Discovering Van Gogh hideouts

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mail slot minutia


You can consider this blog as another in my series of "Little Things I Learned On the Way To Writing a Historical Novel." In looking over a scene in Arles, one in which the point of view character is not Van Gogh but Gauguin, I was reminded of one of those little bits of historical detail that I want to make right before I declare my novel done. In the scene, Gauguin reclines on his bed in the Yellow House, enjoying a cigarette and an hour free from Vincent's company. The postman delivers the mail. From upstairs Gauguin hears it drop through the slot and on to the floor. Gauguin, enjoying his leisure, is slow to check on the delivery, but finally he does. The mail contains both positive and annoying news for Gauguin, and how he reacts to that news throws light both on his character and his relationship with Van Gogh. It also contributes to his initial decision to leave Arles and the Yellow House behind.

But my immediate concern as I looked over the scene yesterday wasn't the thematic but the mechanical. To wit: Would the mail have entered the Yellow House through a slot? I wrote the scene and revised it several times without worrying too much about this point, although it did cross my mind a time or two. Old homes have mail slots, I figured. So I guess that's how this mail comes in. But would it have? Really? It's become a question I can't ignore, as the clock ticks down on this last flurry of revisions on the book. I wasn't sure if I could find an answer that would satisfy me, and I'm not sure I have, but think I've got an answer that my book and I can live with. After a little internet research, I've learned that mail slots did not become common in Europe until the mid-1800s. In some parts of Europe, they did not become common until the late 1800s. Well, what about Arles? (And is 1888 "late" enough to be the late 1800s?) I don't know, but I do know that in Paris mail slots began to appear in the late 1700s. Whatever happens in a country's captial will eventually find its way to the provinces, and since Paris was one of the first world capitals to employ mail slots, it seems logical that the provinces of France would begin using them before other parts of Europe. Since I don't want Gauguin to show any hurry in getting the mail, I'd rather not have him get up to answer a knock from the postman. So the only reason I'd ditch the mail slot is if the evidence is obviously against it. That not being the case, I'm keeping it.

By the way, do you know why mail slots were invented in the first place? No, not to look all gold and glittery on a wooden door front. The reason is that prior to their use the postman would indeed have to knock and wait for someone to answer the door to receive his or her mail. The amount of time wasted standing at the door convinced someone to introduce the mail slot. (And later, in the United States--in 1915--the all too familiar tunnel-shaped mailbox, invented by one Roy J. Joroleman, a U.S. Post Office employee.) I'll count this knowledge as a one more peripheral benefit to starting down the long Van Gogh road five years ago.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Addition by subtraction?


At various times in this blog, I've noted where I think it's appropriate, or at least acceptable, for writers of historical fiction to break from the known facts. I've done this in different parts of my novel, although the vast majority of scenes in it are directly inspired by documented incidents in Van Gogh's life and/or by recollections of him written (sometimes many years later) by people who knew him. Recently, I have been editing and tightening the Nuenen section of the novel. Nuenen was the town in which Vincent's father Theodorus held his last position as Dutch Reformed pastor before he passed away in 1885. Just as significantly, it was the town where Vincent lived and worked for almost two years, producing most of the better known paintings of what is now known as his "Dutch period." It was also the last time he lived inside his home country.

The Nuenen years were crucial in Van Gogh's artistic development. In fact, it is not so much the surface affairs of his life that matter most in this period, but the discoveries he made in his painting and the simple devotion he showed toward his craft. (And the fact that for the first time in years he wasn't starving.) One personal situation does stand out, however. He met a woman named Margot Begemann, the daughter of neighbors. Margot, still living with her parents though she was past forty, was not entirely in her right mind, something Vincent recognized and pitied her for, but for which he blamed her parents and their autocratic way of handling her. He felt that they had tried to keep her cloistered her entire life and that this had emotionally crippled Margot. After a period of taking walks and getting to know each other, Margot decided she was in love with Vincent. The two actually agreed to marry. The Begemanns were astounded and outraged. They refused to let Margot see Vincent anymore. Theodorus himself was deeply embarrassed by and deeply uncomfortable with the situation; the relationship between the two households became strained to the breaking point. Margot, distraught over being denied her "love," escaped from her confinement one day to meet with Vincent and walk with him. When she collapsed on the ground, she declared that she had poisoned herself. Vincent made sure she vomited, took her home, and then got her a doctor. Later, she was hospitalized, and he never saw her again.

It was a strangely short-lived if intense affair, one that made him very bitter--at his own family and the Begemanns--but which in the long run affected him astonishingly little. Much less so than his failure in London to woo Ursula Loyer, or his later infatuation with his cousin Kee, or his two year relationship with the woman he called Sien (in The Hague). I think this is because when he met Margot he was older, more jaded, just about convinced that a conventional marriage and family life was not in the cards for him. (This turned out to be true.) In imagining and crafting this section the novel, I've made the seemingly strange decision to remove Margot Begemann completely. Why, you might ask, when the affair causted so much turbulence? As I said above, for me the primary fact of Van Gogh's Nuenen years was his artistic not personal development; also, despite the Margot Begemann situation, Nuenen was a period in which Van Gogh did experience a small if crucial rapprochement with his family. His assistance in nursing his mother after she broke her hip showed the family he was quite human--and skilled--after all; and a grudging respect for his ability as a painter began to develop as well. Though he and his father never became close, they also didn't fight much, if only because Vincent had moved his studio to the house of the Catholic sexton and was seen less and less often at the Van Gogh homestead.

In earlier parts of the novel I detail Vincent's difficulties with women and with his own family. By the time the Nuenen period comes around, I think it's important for the arc of my plot to show Vincent's arrival as a painter. It is this subject that dominates the second half of my book. So as not to distract from that subject, and not to muddy the waters further with his family, I chose to remove Margot Begemann. It's an admittedly surprising, and even risky, move. But I hope it's a matter of addition by subtraction. Soon enough I'll be able to gauge whether or not I made the right call.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A gin discovery


My posting to this blog has slowed in recent weeks as I struggle through the inundation of end of-semester grading that typically inflicts one who works at a teaching-intensive university. (Four classes per semester.) However, my daily work of shaping and sharpening Yellow continues bit-by-bit, slowly but surely, as I near the date when I am ready to finally send it out. This morning, at my writing desk, I discovered a neat solution to a tiny little problem I encountered in one scene. In the scene, which occurs in the Drenthe section of the novel, Van Gogh confronts the owner of an inn at which he is staying and asks for assistance getting to Zweeloo. The innkeeper, as I portray him, is drunk at the time. In all my drafts so far, I have him drunk on vodka. I guess this seemed like an appropriately working class liquor, and one that certainly could have been found in 19th century Europe. One sentence refers to the man "reeking of vodka."

Along with a million other concerns about other parts of the book, a nagging thought remained in my head over the past couple years about this scene. First, exactly how popular would vodka have been in Holland then, and secondly, does one really "reek of vodka"? Vodka isn't odorless but it does not have nearly as strong an odor as other spirits. And culturally it does seem more strongly associated with Eastern Europe, Russia in particularly. In fact, after reviewing an online article I've learned the term vodka belt--those northern, central, and eastern european countries where vodka has historically reigned and where even today consumption is highest in the world. Holland, as it turns out, is not part of the vodka belt.

Seeking out another likely liquor choice for a hard-drinking 19th century Dutch innkeeper, I immediately thought of gin. I don't know. It just seemed right. Well, of course, I didn't rest there. I wanted to make sure it was right. A little internet reseach later and what do I learn?: Gin was invented in Holland! Eureka. In fact, the English first discovered gin when their soldiers went to Holland to fight against the Spanish in the 1580s. They proceeded to bring gin back to England, where it quickly became popular among the working classes. And of course it still remains popular in England--and America--today. But what matters is that it certainly makes sense as the drink of choice for my red-faced, semi-fictional innkeeper. Would it cause one to reek? Well, a couple things come to mind in answer to that question. First, gin is a berry-flavored grain spirit. It certainly does have a distinct, if not overpowering, smell. But more to the point--and pardon me for being so personal--my dear departed father demonstrated a strong fondness for gin late in his life. I think it's safe to say, one could smell it on him.