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
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.