Monday, May 7, 2012

Susan Vreeland on Why I Love to Write Fiction About Art (includes giveaway)

Art as My Muse

Art provides me with rich opportunities for expression, for plots, for sojourns into history, for development of characters. I'm exhilarated whenever I describe a painting or its effects because it enables me to participate in the art world. Studying paintings has increased my powers of observation of the appearance, color, and shape of things so that my written descriptions can be more precise and vivid.

I have a philosophical reason for writing about art: its effect on the imagination. Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world one time period, our own, we can experience other times, other cultures which offer a window to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race. When there is no imagination of others' lives, there's little chance for human connection. Lacking that, compassion doesn't develop. Without compassion, then community, commitment, kindness all shrivel. Individuals can become isolated, the isolated can turn cruel, and the tragic hovers in the form of civil and international violence. Art and history, combined into literature, are antidotes to that.

There is a name for what I do: ekphrasis, a Greek term meaning the use of one art form to describe or interpret something created in another art form. It's as old as Greek sculpture and pottery depicting myths.

The ekphrastic writer can use an artwork as a metaphor to enrich the text. For example, in my story "The Yellow Jacket," (Life Studies) the young Armand models for van Gogh in his studio. When he sees the painter's "Café Terrace on the place du Forum" with its swirling, diamond-like stars, he is reminded of the sparkles in Jacqueline's eyes. He knows that there are more stars beyond the edge of the canvas, and we complete the analogy that there will be more women in Armand's life than Jacqueline whom we know he will lose. Yellow light pours out of the café in the painting, and we hope that he recognizes its hopeful import.

In Luncheon of the Boating Party, ekphrasis allowed me to deliver an elaborate narrative surrounding a moment painted by Renoir, fourteen people enjoying each other on a terrace overlooking the Seine. Researching his models, his very real friends, I was able to use them as characters to narrate events in their lives--an elopement, an episode backstage at the Folies Bergère, a duel, a crisis among the Impressionists, a confession, a rivalry between two women for Renoir's affection, a feminist demand for equality. This allowed the novel to illuminate the vibrant, fast-changing world and mores of late nineteenth-century Paris which readers could more easily grasp by virtue of the painting.

In a similar fashion, in Clara and Mr. Tiffany, about the women who created the famous Tiffany leaded-glass lamps, I was able to depict the vast social difference between the Gilded Age of uptown Manhattan and the flood of immigrants into the Lower East Side. I saw the lamps as a bridge between poverty and tenement living and the rich industrialist families who purchased the lamps. Thus, those lamps have become an icon of an important moment in New York history.

In Life Studies, "Of These Stones," expands the historically true event of boys throwing stones at Cézanne and his work. It explores the issue of hypocritical religious extremism gripping an older brother and making him cruel to his contrite younger brother who, through seeing Cézanne's landscapes and fruit, grasps what Cézanne told him, that he painted to express "the spectacle God spreads before our eyes" and "to receive the Father's blessing." What the younger brother experiences is the power of art to heal.

In my story "The Things He Didn't Know," a construction worker in an art museum sees "Three Marys Grieving the Loss of their Lord," and notices in one of the Marys seems to be longing for something she couldn't have. He says, "This one loved him differently. This one knew all along he wouldn't be there. He'd be gone." It helps him to get over the loss of a girlfriend not right for him.

"A Flower for Ginette" illustrates a deepening moral sense. Monet's gardener steals a scrap of a water lily painting that Monet intended for burning, and gives it to his wife. Later realizing that Monet had a right to choose what remained of his work, the gardener prays that "God would not let him stumble and break a leg and die in the dirt track, would not let his heart stop beating before he could get home to build a little fire of kindling in the grate and place on it the slice [of painting]."

My writing is full of epiphanies experienced before works of art. I'm grateful to have discovered such a generous muse.

Useful Links:

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Read an excerpt of the book at Random House Readers Circle:

Susan's website:

Susan on Facebook:

Giveaway details:

- to participate, just leave a comment including your email address
- one entry per household
open to US/Canada only
- closes 20th May midnight GMT


  1. Thank you for teaching me that word, ekphrasis. I'm very interested in the idea of art begetting art, across form. Now I have a name for it.

    Your novels are a great inspiration to me, as is this post.

  2. I love your beautiful novels - particularly "Luncheon of the Boating Party." What an adventure to lose myself in 19th century Paris! Thanks for the lovely post.
    katherinegypson at gmail dot com

  3. "Ekphrasis" is a new term for me. I can see how art inspires your writing. Great post!


  4. My sister is a docent at the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida - home to a large exhibit of works of Louis Comfort Tiffany. I would love to read this book to find out more about the designing of the lamps.

  5. I already own a very gorgeous copy of Clara & Mr Tiffany, so please don't enter me in the drawing...

    I just wanted to say how much I LOVE your historical art fiction, Susan. I wanted to major in art history, but had to settle with a minor, and loved every minute. My first read of yours was The Forest Lover - which I happily was able to get signed when you came to campus one year. And I was hooked. Love the idea of getting into the art...Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of my favorites :o)

  6. This sounds like an interesting idea to write about; I also love the time period. Please include me.

    BTW, your ending date says Feb. 20th.

  7. I have 3-4 of her books on my shelf to read because I love stories based on art or artists. I had the chance to meet the author last summer too. One of the books I don't have is Clara and Mr. Tiffany which is one I am most looking forward to as I think their lamps are gorgeous! Please enter me!


  8. I have had my eye on this book for a while. My knowledge of Tiffany is very basic and I love the idea of learning more not only about him but about this brilliant woman working with him. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  9. This book is on my "list," too. Susan, I'll always remember how gracious you were leading fiction workshop(s) at the Dahlonega (Ga.) Literary Festival several years ago. I still have those notes and remember your wonderful tips! Mostly, I remember your quick mind and your kindness - and your passion which shines through your work.

  10. I've been curious about this one since it came out. I'm glad to have a chance to win it! Thank you!!

    inthehammockblog at gmail dot com

  11. I think "ekphrastic" just became my next favorite word, now I just need to find out how to pronounce it.

    Thank you for the giveaway, I have my fingers crossed!

  12. I love novels centered around art. I have several of Ms. Vreeland's books in my home library and would love to add this one. Thank you for the chance!


  13. I've read several of Vreeland's books, but not "Life Studies"-never heard of it, so thanks for the info!

    I'd love to win "Clara and Mr. Tiffany."

  14. I had no idea about the history of Tiffany lamps, and really still don't, which is why I'd love to read this one!


  15. I so enjoyed this post. Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of my favorite books. I loved learning a new word - ekphrasis. Until now I was unaware of the book Life Studies, which I've added to my wish list. And just this past week I was lucky enough to see some of Tiffany's works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would love to win this book. Thanks for the giveaway.

  16. I read this book last year, and it was definitely my favorite read of the year. It is a wonderful, imformative, funny, and fascinating book! The scene with Clara learning to ride a bicycle for the first time is absolutely priceless. I still laught when I remember the dialogue of that scene! I'd love to win a copy of this book, so that I can read it again and so I can lend it to all of my friends!