Interview for Prentice Hall e-Zine, with editor, Philip Fried,
June 15, 2006



Prentice Hall, an academic publisher, serves public schools and universities throughout the country. In Prentice Hall Literature, Penguin Edition, Grade 10, award-winning novelist Susan Vreeland discusses the relationship between fiction and nonfiction; she also introduces "Magdalena Looking," the final chapter of her novel about an imaginary Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which has become an educational classic, and is part of the curriculum in many schools and universities. The Prentice Hall online magazine, e-Zine interviewed her about her Work-in-Progress, based on Renoir's famous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party, and incorporating both fictional and nonfictional elements.

   Susan Vreeland on the Siene River, Chatou France   

Susan Vreeland on a Boat, Chatou, France: Courtesy Betty van Wijhe, 2006


e-Z: In Prentice Hall Literature you write, "Now, whenever I look at paintings of people, stories rise in my imagination." When did the "stories" inspired by Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party first demand to be written down?

Susan: I yearned to write a novel about Luncheon of the Boating Party the first time I saw it, in 2002 at its permanent home, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. I stood for an hour marveling at its beauty and life and sparkle. The interaction of the fourteen figures flushed with pleasure and enjoying a summer day on a terrace overlooking the Seine River captivated me. However, Renoir took pains not to suggest a specific narrative. That begs a novelist to invent one. It began to emerge two years later as I researched Renoir's life, his artistic crisis at this time, 1880, and the lives of the models, his very real friends. At first I thought I would create a series of separate stories, each from a different character's point of view, similar to Girl in Hyacinth Blue in form but moving forward as well as backward in time. Soon I realized that I wanted the models' interrelated stories to unfold in novel form using multiple points of view.

e-Z: Have the larger "cast" and the briefer time period of this book presented special opportunities and challenges?

Susan: The two months of good summer light during which Renoir had access to the terrace to create the painting provided a natural narrative tension. The larger cast of characters allowed me to develop a fuller picture of Paris and France in 1880, including the burgeoning entertainments of boating, theater, opera, dance halls and cabarets, and the tremendous explosion of creative energy in painting and publishing. Seven of the fourteen models reveal their own stories in chapters told by them. The challenge was to make all fourteen of the models individual, with distinct personalities and identifiable voices, especially when they all came together on Sundays to pose, and to make their personal stories relate to the main action of Renoir's own issues and his struggles to create this masterpiece.

e-Z: Which characters in the painting most surprised you as their stories unfolded in your mind? Why?

Susan: As I worked, I was increasingly attracted to Alphonsine Fournaise, the young woman leaning on the railing, the daughter of the restaurant owner where the painting was made, a widow who had lived in Paris through the Prussian Siege ten years earlier. Her sweet face prompted me to imagine her having taken humanitarian action during the peril. It remained for me to connect this to Renoir and his own regret for not having taken an action in his past.

I was surprised when my research revealed Gustave Caillebotte, the boater in the flat-topped straw hat, a talented painter in his own right, to be vital to the Impressionist movement for his financial support of several other painters, and for his attempt to keep the group from splitting into factions. Not only did he allow me to develop the crisis in the Impressionist movement, but, being an avid yachtsman, he gave me opportunity to show France's infatuation with boating as an element of freedom in la vie moderne, the underlying subject of Impressionist art.

e-Z: Have you been returning to the painting as you work on the book?

Susan: Oh yes. I constantly study a large reproduction of the painting hanging in my home office, especially as I'm working on the ten scenes of Renoir painting the models. It's a marvel. Each time, I discover something new and delightful in it.

e-Z: How has your work on this book changed the ways in which you view the painting.

Susan: I look at the painting in two ways now--for craft and for story. I am continually amazed by Renoir's brushwork and his blending of colors on the canvas, which show the hand of the painter. I will never tire of taking joy in isolating a brushstroke and imagining the moment Renoir made it.

In another frame of mind, I think beyond what my research revealed about the occupations and histories of the models, to how I used the known information to create their personalities and stories. When I look at them, I sense them thinking and hear them laughing and singing and crying. I hear Angèle's earthy slang, feel Alphonsine's fear that she would never be loved again, Paul's reckless lust for life, Gustave Caillebotte's anguish at the contention between groups of painters. I empathize with Ellen, the mime of the Folies-Bergère, in her longing "to say beautiful words, brave words, unforgettable words." I feel Renoir's struggle in meeting the challenges of this ambitious painting, and can taste his yearning as if it were my own.

e-Z: This will be your fifth book of fiction related to art. What makes you return to art as a basis for your writing?

Susan: I might answer simply that I love painting. Ekphrasis, the description in literature of a work of art made in another medium, has a long history because it offers a novelist or poet a source for creative reflection, and a concrete metaphor for an idea. By adding a visual element to literature, readers can experience the fictive dream more vividly.

But it's more idealistic than that. I wish to support the vital function of art to stimulate and enrich the imagination. Paintings allow us to live beyond our own time and place. 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 is no human connection, and therefore no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace--all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated can turn cruel, and the tragic hovers. Art--and literature--are antidotes to that.

e-Z: When will we be able to read the new book and share in your re-conceiving of this time-bound and eternal moment?

Susan: My Luncheon of the Boating Party will be published on May 3, 2007.