Like many people, I’ve been a fan of van Gogh’s paintings for a long time. But I’ve been especially interested in him the past eight or nine years, beginning with a research fellowship I had at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was there to write a scholarly book about ancient Greek art (and I did), but I kept returning to the gallery with the van Gogh paintings as a place to sit and think. When I became a fulltime professor, I started teaching van Gogh as part of the art history survey, and that became a great excuse to read more about him. As for why a novel — I didn’t exactly plan for it to happen. At first I was writing a little short story as something fun to do during the summer, after an inspirational trip to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise. Then it kept growing and growing...!
2. Which scene in the book is your favorite? Which scene was the most difficult to write, and why?
Rachel’s first trip to the yellow house makes me smile, but there are other scenes I like for their bittersweet nature. I love the last chapter. The hardest chapter to write was Chapter 34, “Seventy Days in Auvers.” A specific event had to take place that first of all I didn’t want to happen, and secondly, I had to decide how to convey that event to the reader. I ended up crafting the chapter as a series of letters between characters, but it didn’t start out that way.
3. Could you tell us a little about the history of van Gogh's sunflower paintings? What happened to them after his death and where are they now? Do the paintings function symbolically in your novel?
Great question and a long story! There are actually eleven van Gogh canvases of sunflowers, done between August 1887 and January 1889: four painted while living in Paris, seven in Arles. Let’s focus on the five most famous Arles pictures. In the novel, Rachel sees in Vincent’s studio Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, which has a yellow background and was painted in August 1888. Around the same time, Vincent painted Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, which has a turquoise background. Both of these were later sent to Theo and remained in the van Gogh family for some time after Vincent and Theo’s deaths: Theo’s wife Johanna sold the yellow-background version to the National Gallery in London in 1924, and the turquoise-background version made its way to a museum in Munich around 1905 or so. Vincent made two copies of the yellow-background picture: one in probably December 1888 during Gauguin’s visit (this one I don’t mention in the novel because it was getting complicated!), which again the family had for a time — after a series of owners, it was bought at auction by the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company (based in Tokyo) in 1987. The second copy, which I do mention in the novel, was done in late January 1889. This one never left the van Gogh family and today is in the Van Gogh Museum. Also in January 1889, Vincent made a copy of the turquoise-background version, which after changing hands a few times, today is in Philadelphia.
The Sunflowers paintings absolutely function symbolically in the novel. Vincent himself used the paintings to express ideas about the life cycle, and long before his time, the sunflower’s legendary quality of following the sun — even when it’s cloudy — granted it a spiritual meaning for many artists and writers. I’ll let readers interpret from there!
4. How important do you feel it is for historical novelists to travel to the places they write about? What locations did you visit in order to write SUNFLOWERS? How did your visits contribute to your descriptions?
I think when it’s financially possible, authors should visit their locales. When I traveled to Arles and Saint-Rémy in summer 2007, I already had a draft of the manuscript, I had a mental map of both places, photographs I had found, but making the trip added many dimensions that I could not have gotten otherwise. The church of Saint-Trophime in Arles is one example: in the earlier draft, Rachel does not walk inside the church, but the trip inspired me to add that scene and description. I returned to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise, both of which I had visited before, and I traveled to Amsterdam and Otterlo in the Netherlands to see the two largest museum collections of van Gogh’s work. I made two trips to New York during the writing process to see van Gogh paintings and exhibitions. I would have traveled more if I could!
5. At what point did you insert the quotations from Vincent's correspondence at the head each chapter? Did the quotations direct your writing of the chapters or sum up what you'd accomplished therein?
Fairly late in the process. I mainly intended the quotes for readers, so they could see snippets from original archival material. Each quote does “comment” on what’s happening in the story in some way.
6. What do you want readers to take away from their reading of SUNFLOWERS?
Hopefully, a new perception of van Gogh and a desire to learn more. “Famous” as Vincent is, he’s incredibly misunderstood. The cliché of the mad genius slapping paint on canvas is very much alive, even though the primary sources and the scholarship reveal it as a myth. He knew exactly what he was doing in his art; he was methodical, disciplined, and highly knowledgable about art history and the contemporary market. Popular culture focuses on his mental illness — often in ways that are very disrespectful — but there is much more to Vincent van Gogh than “the ear incident.” In the novel, I tried to contextualize his illness and show that it was only part of his story.
7. Do you think your future novels will deal with artists or the world of art? What are you working on now?
I’ve got some scholarly projects in the hopper at the moment — about ancient Greek art, not van Gogh. A second novel is percolating that yes, deals with artists and is set in nineteenth-century Paris. Finding time to work on it, though, is hard since I teach fulltime at the university and want to keep up my scholarship. I’m not in a hurry; I believe things happen in their own good time!
Sheramy has an autographed copy of SUNFLOWERS to send to one lucky winner. Please leave a comment with an answer to the question: "My favorite van Gogh painting is ...." by eleven pm PST Sunday evening, October 18. The winning entry will be drawn at random and posted Monday morning, October 19. Contest open only to readers in the United States and Canada. Good luck!
Many thanks to Sheramy for the interview and giveaway, and heartfelt congratulations on publication day!
Tomorrow: my review of SUNFLOWERS.