Sunday, October 11, 2009

Interview with author Sheramy Bundrick

Most of us who know anything at all about Vincent van Gogh have heard the story of how he cut off his ear and presented it as a gift to a prostitute. But how many of us have delved beneath the surface of the anecdote to imagine the relationship that existed between Vincent and the girl, identified only as "Rachel" in the article about the incident in the local paper? Sheramy Bundrick, and art historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has turned her musings about the couple into a novel that Publishers Weekly calls "a knockout debut...an impressive volume of suspense, delight and heartbreak." SUNFLOWERS, published by Avon A as a paperback original, goes on sale tomorrow, October 13.

Sheramy first contacted me through this blog as she searched for an agent. It has been great fun to follow her through each successive step on her path to publication. Passionate about her story and the people who inhabit it, she offered to share some of the research that went into the writing of the novel. In this short interview, her love for Vincent van Gogh, the man and the work, comes through with the verve and vigor of one of Vincent's own paintings.

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1. How did you become interested in van Gogh? What prompted you to write a novel about him, rather than an academic work?

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!

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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!

You can learn more about Sheramy and her work at sheramybundrick.com or visit her blog, Van Gogh's Chair.

Many thanks to Sheramy for the interview and giveaway, and heartfelt congratulations on publication day!

Tomorrow: my review of SUNFLOWERS.

11 comments:

lucyp said...

Not fair to make us choose only one, but I'll pick Starry Night. Even though it is a bit of a cliche, I love it. Great interview! Can't wait to read the novel (which I will whether I win or not!). Congratulations, Sheramy.

Sheramy said...

Thank you, Julianne, for all your support during this whole adventure!!

Thanks for the congrats, Lucy!

LoveHistory said...

My favorite Van Gogh is Starry Night, but not really for the painting itself. We look at it and see fuzzy images, but there are some autistics who look at it and see all of the images clearly. I haven't tested this on my boys yet, but I find that fascinating.

Great interview. I can't wait to read Sunflowers.

Linda said...

Your question sent me to wikipedia to look at over 200 images of Van Gogh's paintings. I had no idea!! Hard to choose a favorite, but since I really like pictures of poppies, I would say my favorite Van Gogh is "Vase with Daisies and Poppies". Knowing how prolific he was, now I'm even more anxious to read a book about him. Thanks for the post, and the giveaway.

teabird said...

I love the Van Gogh bedroom...

teabird17 at yahoo dot com

Catherine Delors said...

Great interview, Julianne and Sheramy! And congratulations: the big day is finally here...

Rachel said...

Thank you for the giveaway! I'd have to say that my favorite is his painting of his bedroom. It just looks comfy.

Rachelhwallen@gmail.com

Lindsey said...

My favorite painting is "Starry Night" and I love the song inspired by this painting by Don McLean. I also really like "Sunflowers" and "Irises" both of which I has hanging in my bedroon in college.

Linze_30@yahoo.com

Terry said...

I really love Almond Blossom by Van Gogh. Whenever I look at this picture, it always instills me with a sense of serenity.

tmrtini at gmail DOT com

marissaburt said...

It's tough to pick a favorite. I like his Cypresses, but I think my top choice would be a tie between "At Eternity's Gate" and "Girl Kneeling in Front of a Cradle".

Sounds like a great read.

Realm Lovejoy said...

Tricky! I love the look of Starry Night, but Sunflowers is pretty powerful too. It's so yellow with a vase of sunflowers it should look happy, yet, there's is somehow melancholy in it.