Life Studies: Stories by Susan Vreeland
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The Art of Fiction:
An Interview with NYT Bestselling Author Susan Vreeland
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
"I love to study figures in paintings and imagine what's going on in their lives."|
Life Studies, New York Times bestselling author Susan Vreeland's first short fiction collection, continues to expand Vreeland's exploration of art and artists as vehicles for storytelling, begun with novels including Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia. I caught up with Vreeland in an Albuquerque West Side bookstore, where we chatted over tea (and a late lunch for Vreeland, whose flight from Denver had been delayed), and agreed to continue chatting about writing for a long time to come.
AUTHORLINK: How does a fiction begin for you?
SUSAN VREELAND: Often it begins with a painting or a couple of paintings (often by the same painter) that suggest a situation or a character. I love to study figures in paintings and imagine what's going on in their lives. If I were an art historian I would be the Sister Wendy variety—except for style of dress. In a way, she gave me permission to imagine the lives of those on canvases throughout time.
AUTHORLINK: I imagine different fictions begin in different ways.
Yes, there are other ways for me to initiate a story as well. One is something that an artist himself said. Cezanne, for example, said, "Painters should make the world their catechism." Now, Cezanne was criticized for painting the same mountain more than fifty times, something I mention in "Of These Stones," and the answer that I give him [in the story] combines quotations from various sources: "Why does a man pray to God again and again? To know Him better. I paint to know the mountain, the spectacle God spreads before our eyes. From every angle, in every season, in sunshine, in shadow, in every circumstance of our lives. It is never the same, yet it is always the same, and always good, like God the Father. Painters need to think of the world as their catechism."
Sometimes an event in a painter's life will generate a story, often something that's only recorded as a single line in a biography or an essay or an art history. In the case of Cezanne, for example, I was reading Erich Maria Rilke's "Notes on Cezanne," in which he said, "I know a few things about Cezanne." He went on to describe the way the young boys in Aix en Provence chased Cezanne through the streets and threw stones at him, and then he went on to something else, while here was this sentence that made me outraged. So I invented a group of boys who would do that, who assumed permission for doing this act of aggression—hooliganism—from comments that their parents made reviling Cezanne for his dress, for his art that they could not understand, and for living with a woman for quite a while before he married her. If children are given the opportunity to hate, it may come out in behavior that's socially unacceptable.
A situation is another way a fiction begins for me, and for that I'm thinking of the first Monet story [“Winter of Abandon”], in which Monet's wife is dying and the wife of a collector and he have had a secret liaison which resulted in the birth of a child. And then the two families, because both were poor, joined households. Now wasn't that cozy? But certainly that's a situation that's ripe for narrative—and when I found that Monet had done a painting of his dying wife, that gave me the entry point for the story.
"One of the first writing instructors
I had—Mark Richard, at Writers
at Work in Park City —said creating
a story is like juggling three balls,
keeping all three in the air
at the same time."
AUTHORLINK: I begin my fiction writing classes by talking about fictional seeds. I've learned I need three seeds—obsessions I can't get out of my head—often unrelated, before I can begin a fiction. When you say you found "an entry point for the story," I suspect you're talking about the same thing.
VREELAND: One of the first writing instructors I had—Mark Richard, at Writers at Work in Park City —said creating a story is like juggling three balls, keeping all three in the air at the same time. So, yes, it is the same. For me, sometimes the third seed is an issue in the life of the main character unrelated to art. I like that encounter with art affecting the person's own issue. I think it's important that people don't see these stories as stories about the achievements of the artists. These are stories about ordinary people.
AUTHORLINK: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?
VREELAND: I have essentially four steps to my writing process. First is what I call discovery: a painting, a painter, a topic, a time period, and it all has to appeal to me and offer complexity and interest me. Number two is focus. What scenes do I want to develop? That decision will determine step three, selectivity. What events do I select as the next material and what events in this character's life do I eliminate as being irrelevant? Step four is invention. When research does not reveal what I need to do, when I need characters to illuminate a scene I invent: characters, dialogue, scene, occasion, all consistent with the research I've done in step one, discovery. Although truth be told I continue to do research as I find new information in the process.
"I work whenever I'm home, and when|
I say "work," that could mean doing
research, it could mean reading
something related, studying fiction,
or researching "
AUTHORLINK: That brings us to the question of how you work. Do you have a regular schedule? How is revision/rewriting a part of your process?|
VREELAND: I work whenever I'm home, and when I say "work," that could mean doing research, it could mean reading something related, studying fiction, or researching the time, place, and social conditions of the person I'm writing about. Or it could mean writing the first draft material, or writing revisions, which for me takes fifty times longer than writing first draft material and is so much enjoyable.
For me, writing the first draft material is very difficult. I often leave gaps (I write on the computer) and go back and fill them in later. Sometimes, even if I'm writing a scene, an idea surfaces that will appear later in the scene, and I'll move it to where it belongs later if I think of something out of context.
When I get a draft that has no more holes in it, I print it out and thus begins the revision process, which I like to do on hard copy, although if I'm inserting a lengthy section, then I go back and work on the computer.
I work in a rather looping fashion so that after I finish building a whole Chapter 1, revising it as far as I feel to know how to, at that point, I go on and construct Chapter 2. But then, after completing a draft of Chapter 2, I then go back to Chapter 1. Then the same with Chapter 3—back to Chapter 2. I read 2 and 3 together, etc. until I get to the end. Then I revise again, from beginning to end, several more times, with my mind on different things in each revision. One might be narrative pace, another voice. Another revision, I would be watchful for areas I have skimped on or the opposite, overwritten, and would either expand or tighten. Now that said, this sounds like a very disciplined way to do revision, but you also know that when you're focusing on voice, other things pop into your head that you're not going to ignore.
"I used to belong to a critique group|
with whom I worked for about a dozen
years. . . It was so valuable to me to get
the considered opinions
of working writers."
AUTHORLINK: What about having others read your work? How does that work into what you do?|
VREELAND: I used to belong to a critique group with whom I worked for about a dozen years. They were in LA, and I was in San Diego, but I'd drive up there after a full day of teaching on a Friday night, every other weekend. It was so valuable to me to get the considered opinions of working writers. We had a very organized way to approach this. We weren't just bantering back and forth about our work, but after reading aloud a section of ten or twelve pages, one person would give all the comments that he had noted, positive, negative, and questions, and then it would go on to the next person, and then, the next, and the next. During this time, the writer who had read did not speak, did not defend his work, only wrote down what he wanted to discuss or wanted to consider later. But sadly, the traffic between San Diego and many of these people's homes has gotten so horrendous that I was no longer able to go so often, particularly when my own writing obligations began to include so much travel.
I think from now on there's another reason why I've given up that group, and that has to do with the benefit of having a reader who will read the manuscript front to back and not have this intermittent commentary, which was good when I was learning to write, learning to construct a scene, but now I'm needing critique on the whole sweep of a novel, so my method with my new novel will be to select three or four readers, some of whom are in publishing, and I will read their work in progress, or something like that.
I must add that I believe that revision—the process of revision—separates the hobbyist from the real writer. Often when I'm asked to speak at a writers conference, that's my chosen topic. I give a lot of ways to go about it and things to do, even though many who attend think that I am going to be talking about comma placement!
AUTHORLINK: Is there anything else you'd like to share with Authorlink's writer/readers?
VREELAND: Please add that I offer phone chats with book groups who are reading Life Studies, which can be arranged at my website, svreeland.com, where the paintings and excerpts that relate to them can also be found. All of my books have readers' guides and book club discussions as well.
author of Dissonance, short-listed for PEN Southwest Book Award, and Coyote Morning, a Southwest Book of the Year
Copyright 2003-2006 by Lisa Lenard-Cook and Authorlink.