Hello and welcome to Behind the Fiction. This month, I have chosen to highlight an interview and review by another columnist, Nancy Mehl. When Nancy mentioned an interview and book review she had on hand, I instantly assumed from the title, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, it was a romance. WRONG! First of all it's listed as fiction at Amazon (silly me), and after looking into the book, I found it to be a moving story of eight interrelated stories concerning a newly discovered painting. That'll teach me not to judge a book by it's title! After visiting Susan Vreeland's web site, reading the interview and the book review, I decided this one definitely deserved to be highlighted. Thanks Nancy for sharing your newly found treasure with us.
I am a great art fan. If I had it my way, my walls would be covered with it! But, alas, I can only enjoy them on my screen saver and desktop. Below are some links to Vermeer's work, different art sites on the web, and a list of books to continue the art in fiction theme. Enjoy.
More artistry type reading
Susan’s first book, What Love Sees, was made into a CBS television movie starring Richard Thomas and Annabeth Gish. Her short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Calyx, Crescent Review, So To Speak, and other journals. She received Inkwell Magazine's Grand Prize for Fiction in 1999, and one of the stories in Girl in Hyacinth Blue was nominated for The Pushcart Prize.
GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE has sold over 240,000 copies through its hard cover publisher, MacMurray & Beck, and its paperback publisher, Penquin. Reports from the marketing field say it’s still going strong. It has appeared on the LA Times Best Seller list, as well as lists in the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, and NY Newsday. It has been on the NY Times Extended List, and is a regular on the Independents' List. It was one of five finalists for the Book Sense Best of the Year Award for 1999, and won the Theodore Geisel Award of the San Diego Book Awards. Recently it has been nominated and has passed the first elimination for the Dublin International Literary Award.
Foreign rights have been sold to fourteen countries, and it is currently doing very well in Britain and Germany. An outright sale, not an option, has been made to Hallmark Hall of Fame. Instructors at high schools and universities have begun to use Girl in Hyacinth Blue in their classrooms, and the State of California Board of Education has selected it for their Recommended Reading List for High School Students.
(Nancy Mehl) GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE has been extremely popular. To what do you attribute the success of this novel?
(Susan Vreeland) The positive response to GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE has been a surprise, and a delight, to me. Perhaps many people have, in their own families, a painting or a hand-made item that means something to them. If so, they can imagine, like I did, the provenance of how that precious thing came to them, and how it has passed through many lives. Perhaps also, Vermeer represents calm and tranquility in our fast-paced lives. His work reminds me of Wordsworth's line: "With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things."
(NM) Each chapter contains a different story that revolves around a painting. Was it easier or harder to write your novel this way?
(SV) I started by writing a pair of stories, which became the first and last. It wasn't until I was writing the fifth story that I began to conceive this as a little novel. Perhaps playing that game with myself kept me from feeling the formidableness of having a whole novel ahead of one.
(NM) Where did you get the idea for your novel?
(SV) That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, can survive natural catastrophe, neglect, and even mistreatment, has always filled me with wonder. Sometimes in museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a finely wrought page from a medieval illuminated manuscript toiled over by a nameless monk, or a primitive tool with a carved handle, I am moved to tears. The unknown life of the maker is evanescent in its brevity, but the work of his or her hands and heart remains. Likewise, paintings, especially those with people, move me, and feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? What was their relationship? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work?
I've always envied writers whose novels gushed out from their own growing up, rich in ethnicity or place or history. Countering my complaints about my ethnic blandness, the lack of a ready-made family story, one of my writer friends said, "Go back further." All I had was a love for art, a Dutch name, and a trip twenty years earlier when, to my surprise, I passed through a village in North Holland named Vreeland. I had nothing more than that--except a library card, and uninterrupted days of solitude, two years of cancer treatment and recovery, during which I could imagine my way out of my uncertain circumstances, and imagine my way into Dutch paintings. They showed me a heritage alive with vitality and history and the endurance of beauty. They survived--and so would I. Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the Johannes Vermeer exhibition in Washington D.C., I felt a growing love for a people and a place I could call mine. All those brave Dutchmen fending off flood on their fragile, sunken land were my kinsmen. But those complaisant matrons admiring their jewels, married to ship captains trading in African souls were my kinswomen too. A girl crouching on a swept Delft street with her orange skirt ballooning out behind her like a pumpkin could have been me in another age. I felt Dutch! It was Vermeer who gave me my heritage. In him I saw my same reverence for items made by hand--by someone unknown to him. Vermeer, too, was a lover of the connotations and qualities of things in his own domestic life: the luminous variations of pale colors in a hand-dipped window pane, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, the rough nap of a red Turkish carpet, the strong lines of a golden pitcher, a hand-drawn wall map showing where that ship captain sailed. Now the cords of connection tightened, and I felt free to add objects of my own imagination--a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl's new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting--and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had a start.
(NM) How have things changed for you as a writer since the success of GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE?
(SV) Oh my! Changes!
The world has opened up for me. I suppose I can fully call myself
a writer now. After a two-book offer from Viking/Penguin, I have
put a close on my 30-year
(NM) Tell us about your upcoming projects.
(SV) My next novel, The Passion of Artemisia, chronicles the life of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women to make a significant contribution to art history. Raped by her father's colleague who had been hired to teach her perspective, betrayed numerous times by her artist father who instilled in her the passion for dramatic storytelling on canvas, tortured in a papal court in an attempt to cripple her fingers, unloved by an unfaithful husband in an arranged marriage, she succeeds in heralding a new age for women through her paintings of strong heroines, and learns to forgive her father and husband through the influence of a wise but unconventional nun. It will come out from Viking in March 2002, with a Penguin paperback to follow.
I am currently working on a collection of short stories conveying imagined narratives in the lives of painters as experienced by a peripheral character: Monet as seen by his gardener at Giverny, Cezanne from the perspective of a little boy who throws stones at him and his painting, Van Gogh as an influence in the life of the postman's son in Arles just before the young man joins the French Foreign Legion. The peasant family in VanGogh's "Potato Eaters" comes to life and copes, or fails to cope, with another mouth to feed. Manet's longsuffering wife confronts one of his models with whom she suspects he has committed infidelities. Modigliani's twelve-year-old daughter, only a baby when he died, discovers his nature, her mother's end and her own grief when she sees an exhibition of his work. Other stories use entirely fictional artists. Again, a Viking/Penguin offering.
After that, I will return to my interest in Canadian painter Emily Carr in a novel called Cedar Spirit. Emily's early feminism and spirited independence equip her to take on the male art bastion of Paris in 1911, while her love of the British Columbia wilderness stimulates her to adopt a native spirituality, the reverse inclination of her Salish friend, a basketmaker who tries to be more Christian than the Christians.
(NM) Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
(SV) Perhaps here is the place to share a little essay I wrote at the request of Penguin Books which details my experience while writing GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE. It's called "The Balm of Creative Endeavor."
The Balm of Creative Endeavor
Art, I am convinced, can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days of treatment for lymphoma became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet's garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo's figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, Jan Vermeer's serene Dutch women bathed in gorgeous honey-colored light. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin. My conviction grew that art was stronger than death.
Vermeer painted only 35 canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived neglect, mistreatment, theft, natural catastrophe. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used. Imagining my way into the lives of the people who might have owned the painting through the centuries resulted in imagining my way out of my own dire circumstances. As the stories took shape, I thought less and less of what I was going through, and more and more of the characters, lives, settings and circumstances I was creating. Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal. Mine was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and remember me and be proud of me in some small way.
When I was hospitalized for a month for a bone marrow transplant, I hoped they'd give me a private room because I intended to read my manuscript aloud over and over to polish the sentences, and that would drive any roommate batty. Conscious that one's thinking determines one's experience, and in the spirit of Dag Hammaarskjold's statement, "The only value of a life is its content for others," I gathered uplifting quotes to put on the windowed door of my room, facing outward to benefit family and friends going to visit other seriously ill patients, and so doctors and nurses tending to me would have a positive thought right before they saw me. Quotes like Milton's "The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven," and Shakespeare's "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," vitalized me and readied me for writing.
I took my journal of affirmations, a big dictionary and a thesaurus, beautiful new nightgowns in bright silks and flowered satin, colorful earrings and scarves to wrap my bald head, CD's of classical music, Gregorian chant, and Jessye Norman's Spirituals in Concert including "That Great Gettin' Up Morning" to help me rouse myself, and that moving "There is a Balm in Gilead." And, of course, art books. These composed my "armor of enrichment" as I went to do battle with Goliath.
I put a little sign on my hospital window high above Los Angeles: "Every morning lean thine arms awhile upon the windowsill of heaven and gaze upon the Lord. Then, with the vision in thy heart, turn strong to meet thy day." I wrote a love poem to my husband, and a Haiku series about my doctors and nurses. My Dutch characters became real to me and I loved them too. Nurses were amazed that I wasn't experiencing the horrible side effects predicted. Three times a day they shined a flashlight in my mouth to look for bloody sores. None there, folks! I had filled my mouth with love and beauty instead.
When I came home, I found myself drinking in the simplest things--the blessing of a refreshing breeze, the velvet texture of newly cut grass, a small child's lilting laughter. All the world seemed tender and rooted me in its loveliness. I embraced Henry James's writing advice to be a person upon whom nothing is lost. After recovery, my little book about people who lived their defining moments in the presence of a beautiful painting, as I did, has launched me into a new life. I am humbled with gratitude.
“She thought of all the people in all the paintings she had seen that day, not just Father’s, in all the paintings of the world, in fact. Their eyes, the particular turn of a head, their loneliness or suffering or grief was borrowed by an artist to be seen by other people throughout the years who would never see them face to face. People who would be that close to her, she thought, a matter of a few arms’ lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her.”
So ends Susan Vreeland’s novel – GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE. Yet in this touching, beautifully written novel, the end is the beginning. The story revolves around a painting - but not just any painting. A possible Vermeer. There are thirty-five known Vermeers in the world. Could this be another? Each chapter is a story in itself. The single thread running through the lives of each person and each family, is an extraordinary painting of a young girl in a blue smock sitting at a table, gazing out an open window. The painting’s backward journey begins with Cornelius Englebrecht, a mathematics teacher who is tortured by the fact that his father took the painting from the home of Jewish owners who were being rounded up and sent to German camps – and to their deaths. To him, the girl in hyacinth blue is a mirror of his own guilt. To Aletta Pieters, a girl whose life has been a nightmare of abuse and pain - she is the reflection of everything she can never be. And the life she will never have. ‘She looked up to the painting imploringly. “You think that somewhere girls actually live like that – just sitting so peaceful like?”’ To Magdalena, the subject of the enchanting painting – it is a picture of a girl whose father saw her only as the object of his artistic passion. Not as the beloved daughter she desperately wanted to be.
This is a novel that should be read slowly – inhaled deeply and experienced fully. It deserves to be kept in your possession as a valuable treasure. Susan Vreeland’s writing reproduces the same kind of artistry found in the painting she writes about. GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE is a definite masterpiece.