Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview with Priya Parmar, Author of VANESSA AND HER SISTER

Priya Parmar discusses her just released novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine). The novel has been chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Authors Spring 2015 Pick and is receiving wonderful press reviews. You can read my own review here.

1. How did you become interested in the Bloomsbury group and what compelled you to write about them?

I was reading a selection of Vanessa Bell’s letters and came across a letter that she wrote rejecting Clive Bell’s marriage proposal. The letter was startlingly modern and her tone was so authentic and likeable. Her character stepped off the page right there.

2. You chose to explore the Stephen sisters’ relationship from Vanessa’s point of view in the form of her private diary. What advantages did this structure and perspective afford you? In what ways did it limit you?

I am always interested in looking at familiar history through unfamiliar lenses. Vanessa Bell was the absolute center of the group but her letters have never been widely published and she did not leave behind a diary. Her unfamiliar voice in the midst of these well-known characters was fascinating to me.

Lytton (1912) by Vanessa Bell
3. You cleverly insert postcards, snippets of letters, facsimile tickets, telegrams and other non-narrative items between Vanessa’s diary entries in order to introduce other viewpoints into the story. Were these actual historical documents or did you fabricate them to advance the storyline and themes? At what point during the writing process did you insert them and how did you decide they were needed?

Everything in the novel was fictional but the design team at Random House and I worked from original documentation to create the look of the ephemera. They were all created in the style of existing primary documents and they are all based on actual correspondence. Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf several times a week and Roger Fry wrote to his wife Helen from his posting in America.

4. In the novel, Vanessa’s culmination as an artist coincides with her estrangement from Virginia. How dependent do you feel Vanessa’s success was on her ability to free herself of Virginia’s emotional demands?

This is very much a novel. It is a guess, a hat tossed into the ring at the interior landscape of these historical figures. Vanessa stepped into prominence with Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition and it did coincide with the end of Virginia Woolf’s emotional entanglement with Clive Bell. That much is fact. My fictional Vanessa had to emancipate herself before she could fully step into her role as an artist.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell
5. You portray Virginia as brilliant yet fragile and emotionally manipulative of those she loves. Did you worry about portraying such a revered literary figure in a less-than-complimentary light? How would you respond to someone who took issue with your portrayal?

It was terrifying. But my portrayal was grounded in huge amounts of research and I cleared it with several Woolf experts and then showed it to Woolf’s descendants. Once the brilliant writer Virginia Nicholson (Woolf’s great niece and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter) read the novel and approved it, I felt much better!

6. How did writing from the viewpoint of a visual artist challenge you as a writer?

I have a dear friend who is an artist and I spoke to her about her relationship with her work. It helped enormously as it is such a very different creative process from writing.

7. The novel begins with Virginia’s plea for forgiveness and ends with Vanessa’s refusal to grant it. Did the sisters ever completely reconcile in real life?

We do not know for certain. Based upon Angelica Garnett’s writing, no, I do not think they ever completely healed the rift. But they loved each other fiercely for the remainder of their lives.

8. What strategies did you use to help manage the novel’s large cast of supporting characters?

I had an extraordinary editor! She helped me to clarify and simplify. The cast was originally much larger!

9. If you could write the story of the Bloomsbury group from the perspective of any character other than Vanessa or Virginia, whom would you choose and why?

Ottoline Morrell. Because she was underestimated and underestimated people are always surprising.

10. What is the best bit of advice about writing or the writing life you have to pass on to as-yet unpublished authors?

Write the story that is in your head. Even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Write it the way you hear it in your mind.

A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, EXIT THE ACTRESS. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London. You can find out more about Priya at her website.

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