BY SUSAN VREELAND
I have been blessed with a mutually respectful and affectionate relationship with the brilliant Jane von Mehren, my editor at Viking/Penguin for The Passion of Artemisia, The Forest Lover, and Life Studies, and at Random House for Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Due to the exigencies of publishing company shifts, I have lost her. Let this be a tribute to her guidance and support.
I loved our exploratory discussions of a fictional idea just as it was taking shape, and appreciated her open-mindedness. In talking about Lisette's List, she encouraged me to think and invent freely, and said the paintings didn't have to be real, nor did the people. In this way she moved me out of the limitations of tracing a researched portion of a painter's life, into the realm of pure fiction, the challenge I needed. I was filled with excitement and eagerness.
When she approved of an idea, or gave me a solution to a narrative problem, it was always a thrill. After six months of researching Winslow Homer whose paintings I love, and writing 75 pages, I was still struggling with the framing of the novel. I admitted to her that his life just didn't lend itself to having sufficient conflict to create the arc of a story. She very gently, in a soft voice, said, “Maybe this isn't the novel that you should write.” Oh, how relieved I was to hear that! That freed me to conceive of Lisette's List.
On an earlier occasion, I proposed a novel spun from van Gogh's powerful but dark (some would say depressing) painting, The Potato Eaters. It would feature his troubled attempts at ministering to miners, his early experiences as a painter, and some unfortunate events with a woman. Jane said she thought it might work. Looking at his painting of a peasant family at their meager dinner, she asked, “But do we have to put these ugly peasants on the cover?” That was enough to dissuade me from that. “Can't you find a painting that is more colorful and joyful?” she said, and that was when I found Renoir's glorious Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Normally, I wrote nine drafts before she saw the text. Naturally, the harder part was reading her first critique letter. It generally began with a paragraph or two of glowing commendations, identifying the strengths of the text, followed by many pages of carefully thought-out constructive criticism together with possible solutions to problems that she perceived, and ended with much needed encouragement.
That was followed by another draft or two on which she wrote abundant marginal notes. When I discovered a word of praise, I rejoiced. When I saw a directive, I either hastened to fix it in order to hide even from myself the foolish error I had made, or I sulked and ruminated until I found a way to resolve the problem.
Discussing a draft of The Passion of Artemisia over the phone, she pointed out that I devoted only one line to Artemisia having a baby, an event that would impact her painting life and thetherefore, the rest of the novel. She said that it deserved a whole chapter, and asked why I hadn't given it more attention. I answered that I hadn't written it out of avoidance because I didn't know a thing about having a baby, never having had one. We laughed together over this obvious omission, and I went to work asking a slew of women what having a baby was like.
In The Forest Lover, I had to contend forcefully for keeping Emily Carr's quirky expressions and sentence fragments which ran counter to Jane's linguistic correctness. In fact, I had to write her a lengthy letter defending the voice I had created by citing passages in Carr's journals, before she retracted this criticism. She never complained about my sentence fragments again. In that experience we both learned something--she, to recognize that an author can be right, I, to stand up for my work.
In each novel, we eventually arrived at a point where we were both contending over some few small things. This is the part I liked the least because I had to conquer my feelings of injury and often had to give up something in the text that I loved for the betterment of the book. For example, in draft 12.1 of Clara and Mr. Tiffany, I included this line very near the end of the novel: "Maybe my real lifework was loving." She suggested, strongly, I recall, that I delete it because it was understood. After much back and forth between the two of us, and after recognizing that the chapter title was "Lifework," I took it out in draft 12.3. She was usually right so I trusted her judgment. I may have grieved a bit when I gave in, but it was Jane who gave in on the line, "I was awash with love for her,” which she agreed to keep in the same passage.
By the time I'm deep at work on another book, I've forgotten what all my fussing was about. So it has been a decade-long give-and-take, marked by generous encouragement and--dare I say it?--love. I remain humbled and grateful.
Susan Vreeland (svreeland.com) is the internationally known author of art-related historical fiction. Four of her books are New York Times bestsellers. Lisette's List presents one woman's yearning for art at a time when her family's collection of paintings had to be hidden in the south of France from Nazi art thieves. Clara and Mr. Tiffany reveals the talented woman who conceived of and designed the well-loved Tiffany leaded glass lamps. Luncheon of the Boating Party depicts Renoir's masterpiece, the personalities involved in its making, and the joie de vivre of late nineteenth century Paris. Life Studies is a collection of stories of Impressionist painters told by people who knew them, as well as contemporary individuals encountering art in meaningful ways. Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces an alleged Vermeer painting through the centuries. The Passion of Artemisia illuminates Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The Forest Lover follows rebel British Columbia painter Emily Carr in her encounters with native peoples and cultures. What Love Sees, tells the love story of a blind couple who refuse to accept limitations. Four of these books have been winners of the Theodor Geisel Award, the highest honor given by the San Diego Book Awards. Vreeland's novels have been translated into 26 languages, and have frequently been selected as Book Sense Picks. She was a high school English teacher in San Diego for thirty years.