Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman
Guest Columnist: Elise Cooper
Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman
uses a real-life story of an abandoned apartment as her inspiration.
Within a historical fiction story readers will learn about
the Paris setting as well as the time frame from the 1880s
through the period just before World War II.
A few years ago an apartment was discovered to have been abandoned
for nearly seventy years. Among the treasures inside was a
portrait of Marthe by Giovanni Boldini, a famous painter of
the 19th century. Because the facts about these two women
are sparse, Richman wrote an imagined tale of Marthe de Florian,
a courtesan during the Belle Epoque era, and her granddaughter,
Solange. As with her previous novels she develops a story,
able to apply a mystery to the character’s lives.
Cooper: Why did you use velvet?
Alyson Richman: It is one of the materials
that has shadow and light, going from smooth to rough. The
metaphor is her illuminating her life as she tells her story
to her granddaughter. This is why I put in the quote by Solange
about her time spent with her grandmother, “Those hours
were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her
own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.
Why did the Germans never appropriate the apartment?
Alyson: I talked to a Jewish expert who believes
the concierge must have had a hand in hiding the unoccupied
apartment. This is why I gave them a role in the story. I
wanted to include how the characters reacted to the events
just before World War II.
Is the character based upon anyone?
Alyson: My grandmother. When my mother saw
the dedication she commented, ‘This way she lives on
forever.’ My grandmother was one of the most elegant
people I knew. She was a feminine person who took pleasure
in surrounding herself with beauty. I realized there are pockets
of people’s lives we have no idea about. I started thinking
how 99% of the people vanish upon death. Our memories are
kept alive through the possessions and the stories told from
generation to generation.
The Passover Haggadah plays an important role in the plot?
Alyson: I included an Haggadah, which represents
the story of Passover, and the Jews exodus out of Egypt. I
compare that to the threat for Solange and her future Fiancé.
They used it to help them escape the looming Nazi occupation
as they traveled to America.
There is a lot of symbolism?
Alyson: The original title of the novel was
The Painted Dove, because Marthe was kept hidden
by Charles, almost like a bird in a gilded cage. This is why
I had her give him that non-working watch with the dove engraved.
Charles called her his dove and the watch represents time
standing still. I put in the book the writer Jean-Pierre Claris
de Florian’s fable because it speaks of their life,
‘the dove hidden safely. Her wings only for me.’
I also wanted to explore the symbolism behind the objects,
and how they played a part in the story. Thus, making the
What about the Asian artifacts?
Alyson: I used a Famille Rose Chinese Vase
I saw on the mantle. I am personally fascinated with this
period in Paris when the impressionist artists were influenced
by the Asian works, including porcelains, prints, and textiles.
Marthe self educated herself through these beautiful objects
and learned more about their history with the help of Ichiro,
the Japanese antique dealer who became her friend. He propelled
her to learn more about the culture outside of her own nest.