US author speaks about her literary work and influential strong women
That Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted into the Accademia dell’Arte in Florence, the first woman to paint large-scale figures from history, mythology and Biblical sources, the first woman to make her living from the age of 18 solely by her brush impressed me deeply. I reasoned that she must have been a strong, determined, vastly talented woman. When I learned that she entered adulthood with a reputation stained, in those times, by being the victim of rape, and that despite torture in court, scandal and hostility, she was able to forge a full, creative life for herself, I knew her story would not only be dramatic but inspirational for women today. Were you familiar with the world of Italian Baroque? No, I wasn’t. I had heard of Michelangelo di Caravaggio, but through research, I discovered the Baroque in art to have characteristics which could be reflected in a strong narrative of Artemisia’s life. I’m referring to the drama achieved through sharp contrasts, emotionally charged moments of larger-than-life figures from myth, legend, religious and secular history, figures twisted, reeling, leaping at the viewer or reader, realistic individuals rather than idealized types. These characteristics of the art of the Baroque were my guides in developing Artemisia’s character and in writing the narrative. Would you say that Artemisia was a feminist before the term was invented? Yes, I would, because her personal life penetrated gender barriers, as well as her art. She produced works of startling invention portraying strong heroines caught in moments of danger, tension or choice, thinking or acting against convention. It took a female sensibility and bravery to invest these female figures with more intelligence, power, and defiance than previous versions of them painted by male artists. Why do you focus on women who have extraordinary lives? Would you not write a book with a male hero? I’ve written novels about two extraordinary women from history who have been somewhat overlooked in our time but whose goals and determination can serve to encourage contemporary women. Women can stand to have a few more examples of women who achieved despite enormous obstacles, and who have made their cultures richer by their contributions. This is not to say I have only written or intend to write about women. My first novel, «The Girl in Hyacinth Blue,» traces the lives of men and women who have lived their most defining moments under the influence of a painting by the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. In my story collection «Life Studies,» Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, and Vincent Van Gogh have all been characters. I am currently working on a novel in which Auguste Renoir is the main character. Although I can say that Artemisia Gentileschi and Emily Carr were feminists by virtue of their actions, I do not wish to be considered only a feminist writer. I hope people see the humanity in my work, regardless of gender. Why did you choose to write «Artemisia» in the first-person narrative? I wanted readers to come to know the inner Artemisia, not as a distant figure reported by an outside narrative voice, but as a woman whose concerns reveal an individual who readers can relate to as she functions and reacts in a largely male-dominated world. Do you consider yourself a writer of historical fiction? I do. Most of my work takes place in the past and is heavily researched, a stage in the process that I love. The case for writing or reading historical fiction lies in its stimulation of the imagination. Through fiction which sets us down in another time period, we are offered a window onto other lives, other sensibilities, attitudes, and values than our own. We escape somewhat from ourselves. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it’s a small step upward in the elevation of the human race. Consider its opposite. When there is no imagination of others’ lives, contemporary or historic, there is no human connection. Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving kindness, human understanding, even peace, disintegrate. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers. Literature, including historical fiction, as well as art, are antidotes to that. In addition, reading or writing an historical novel can be the means by which we can grasp the significance of our own lives by comparison. In your novel «The Forest Lover,» you bring to life the case of painter Emily Carr. Carr seems very different to Artemisia Gentileschi, but could there be a common thread? Yes, there is. Both women dedicated their lives to their art in places and time periods not encouraging to creative women. While Artemisia married and Emily did not, both women made sacrifices for their art, had financial problems and relationship problems stemming from their artistic devotion, and lived unconventional lives in order to accommodate their artistic careers. Are you always interested in illuminating personalities that contemporary society has forgotten? Not necessarily, though I did want to give Emily Carr and Artemisia Gentileschi their moments in popular culture. I do not want to present individuals who have already been written about fictionally at length, but well-known artists are certainly possibilities for future books. Renoir has not been forgotten in non-fiction and his work is beloved in museums the world over, but my novel will illuminate aspects of his time period which have not been explored in contemporary novels or in any novel about him. The 14 figures in his immediately recognizable painting «Luncheon of the Boating Party,» are my characters and their lives display the fabric of Parisian society of 1880. Do you feel you have contributed to making whole areas of historical periods more familiar to more people? Yes, I do. Through «The Girl in Hyacinth Blue,» readers not only became Vermeer lovers, but appreciators of Dutch resilience after floods, and because of «The Forest Lover,» readers were introduced to the rich art and culture of indigenous people of western Canada, and are awakened to the issues of the native in contemporary society. Places, too, become richer. Readers constantly tell me of trips to British Columbia that they have taken because of reading «The Forest Lover,» or to Italy because of «The Passion of Artemisia.» One entire book club went to Italy together after reading it. What is your ambition from now on? To continue to learn my craft; to continue to encourage readers who are not museum goers to go to art museums, and museum goers to enhance their love of art through reading fiction that illuminates the world of art; to awaken people to the bravery and humanity of historic individuals; to inspire people to notice and appreciate color, texture, shape, line, light, shadow, visual expression, all the glories that sight can bring them; and to be always, always grateful.