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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column

The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman
Guest Columnist: Elise Cooper


The 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.


Elise 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.


Elise: 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.


Elise: 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.


Elise: 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.


Elise: 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 story multilayered.


Elise: 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.

Read the review by Elise Cooper

2016 Past Columns