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Novel Within Novel Offers Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

Fountain of St. James Court by Sena Naslund
The Fountain of St. James Court
by Sena Naslund

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Novel Within Novel Offers Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Sena Naslund
Author of The Fountain of St. James Court or Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

 

By Ellen Birkett Morris

November, 2013

In The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman author Sena Naslund offers a novel within a novel that explores relationships, aging, art and meeting the challenges of one’s times.

As the title suggests the focus is on the mature female artist, her challenges and joys.

 

Naslund sets this, her ninth novel, in the worlds of modern day writer Kathryn Callaghan and, in alternating chapters, eighteenth-century France as experienced and recalled by the painter Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun.

“The subtitle of this book references James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was published around 100 years ago about 1914. The image of an artist in that book is of a young man who is rebellious, ambitious and really hasn’t accomplished anything yet,” said Naslund.

She offers an alternative view of a mature female artist who experienced her life and work while firmly anchored to her family and the challenges of her time. For Le Brun these challenges include the violence of the French Revolution. For Callaghan they include complicated romantic relationships and the threat of violence in her neighborhood.

Naslund encountered the story of Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun while working on her novel Abundance, which centered on the life of Marie Antoinette, and admired Le Brun’s talent and resilience as she escaped a mob looking to send her, a friend of the court, to the guillotine.

“Above all, I admired her joy in her ability to practice her art . . .”
—NASLUND

 

 

 

 

“I admired her courage and clear-headedness. Above all, I admired her joy in her ability to practice her art,” said Naslund.

She was haunted by Le Brun at the same time she was pulled to write a novel about contemporary life, after having written several historical novels. The other catalyst for including the two women in the book was the frequency with which Naslund is asked ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

She developed the premise of the book with a desire to address at length the relationship between an artist and the work of the artist. In the book you learn about Callaghan and why she would be drawn to write the novel about Le Brun.

The book follows a day in Kathryn’s life after she has finished a draft of her novel. The story of the painter is told from the perspective of the painter as an old woman as she looks back on her life.

“The story of the painter is modeled on a kunstlerroman, a novel of an artist’s education and maturation,” noted Naslund.

The links between the two stories are subtle but strong as when Kathryn sees the fountain of St. James as like a lantern attracting moths while Le Brun sees the guillotine like a lantern attracting moths. Both women go on to speculate about how they avoid being drawn toward the light.

The book juxtaposes creativity with the capacity for violence. Le Brun encounters the violence of war, where as Callaghan gets a gun for self protection and is forced to decide whether or not to use it.

“I’m tapping into some of the current controversy about guns. What is the role of the gun in the average American’s life?. . . I don’t answer how we should relate to guns, but I am trying to put the question on the table in a way that would provoke thought and discussion,” said Naslund.

The book explores other issues including the role of parental love in the development of an artist and the pitfalls of romantic loves. Ultimately, Naslund asserts the book tells us “You know who you are through your work, how you spend your time, more so than through who loves you and doesn’t love you.”

Naslund’s own development as a writer has been marked with success and an increase in confidence. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction Award. Her books have been widely translated and her book, Ahab’s Wife, was a finalist for the Orange Prize in England.

“I am more confident now that I have written before and I can do it again. I am less fearful when something goes wrong but have the same exhilaration as early on when the writing is going well,” said Naslund.

In the book, her character Kathryn observes that practicing the art of revision was the best part of the art of writing, for her. It is an attitude that Naslund shares. “Many writers have said writing is mostly rewriting. It pleases me because the hard work of having something instead of nothing has been accomplished when I have a draft. I can start looking at undeveloped potential in a piece. I can find mistakes,” said Naslund.

“Revision gives me an opportunity for greater unity . . . “
NASLUND

She has multiple readers offer their thoughts on where they were confused, bored or enchanted. Her goal is a wholeness to the book.

“Revision gives me an opportunity for greater unity and also for greater diversity and richness in the writing.”

Naslund says she approaches revision with a loving attitude. She thinks of it as a woodcarver falling back in love with a carving and experiencing the pleasure of retouching it, polishing it and making it better.

She revised the beginning of this book 70 times and revised the entire draft four times, with the last revision being the most dramatic.

Naslund said she writes by both discipline and inspiration. She looks at her week and sees where she has space open to write and writes. She rereads the work of the day before, revising lightly and going forward. When she is done she strives to be kind toward her efforts and not critical, time for that will come later.

“Maintain a positive attitude to the sheer quantity of work Try to be kind to yourself, like a loving parent to your child creator.”

“When inspiration strikes see it as a gift from the muse and seize the opportunity, no matter how tired you are. Don’t take notes on your work . It will go dead, or at least it goes dead for me. Do work directly or the idea will fade,” she notes.

As Distinguished Teaching Professor and Writer in Residence at University of Louisville and director of the Spalding University brief-residency MFA program, Naslund believes that people come with a certain innate aptitude, as they would learning math or music, but whatever that aptitude is they can learn a great deal.

“I think creative writing can be taught as easily or well as mathematics or music. I don’t think it is any more mysterious,” said Naslund.

“. . .carefully consider your subject and write about what matters to you.””
NASLUND

She encourages students by pointing out that if they wrote a page a day in a year they would have enough pages for a short novel. She advises young writers to “carefully consider your subject and write about what matters to you.”

As for her next project, Naslund returns to history to take on the Civil War. “The literary landscape needs it. We have, course, Gone with the Wind, but I don’t think there is a comprehensive War and Peace of the American Civil War.”

About the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund is the author of nine novels. She is Program Director of the brief-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing at Spalding University and Distinguished Teaching Professor and Writer in Residence at The University of Louisville. She is a former Kentucky Poet Laureate, winner of the Alabama Governor’s Award, recipient of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction Award.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.