As The Plot Thins (ATPT): First off thank you so much for taking time out of your busy holiday/book release schedule to answer some of our questions, we really appreciate it. How has some of the early press for the book been?
Nellie Hermann (NH): Early press has been good so far! There have been three reviews so far (PW, Kirkus, and Booklist), and I’ve been lucky! Fingers are crossed it won’t be downhill from here. 🙂
ATPT: Let’s start with your new novel. What prompted you to write about this particular artist and this particular time of their life? It seems there could be plenty other people that have had interesting periods of their life to write about.
NH: Of course there are! I was inspired to write about this time in VVG’s life because of a class I took in graduate school, called “Writing Narrative History,” with the great historian Simon Schama. We were asked to write a “true short story” for our final assignment and somehow serendipitously I started to read VG’s letters, and found out about this time in his life when he was estranged from his brother Theo. I was about the same age then as Vincent was during that time, and I found the whole thing so fascinating — the mining town, the crisis of faith, the isolation from Theo, and the fact that I had never heard about this before — I just thought it would make a great novel. I found that the story wouldn’t leave me, and years later I started to write it in earnest.
ATPT: How much research went into this novel? I know in your acknowledgements you mentioned reading Van Gogh: The Life by Naifeh and Smith, but what other addition research did you do?
NH: I did quite a bit of research for the novel — I had to really tear myself away from the research, because I could have kept going forever and never written the book. I read a handful of biographies of Vincent, as well as Irving Stone’s novelLust for Life, which was very helpful. I also read a few different books about mining, and about Christianity. I tried to read things that Vincent was reading at the time – books that he quoted from, like Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Dickens’ Hard Times, and The Bible. But again, the research could easily have swallowed me, and at a certain point I had to stop myself in order to write the book.
ATPT: In the midst of writing, did you unearth anything surprising to you or others you had discussed this project with? Any anecdotes that were particularly shocking?
NH: Hmm. I can’t think of anything terribly shocking — though really the whole story was surprising to me, and continues to be to other people that I tell about it. The popular story of VG does not include him trying to be a preacher in a mining town, and most people are surprised to hear about this, as I was when I first learned about it. It’s interesting to think about the legend that has cropped up around VG, this “crazy artist that chopped off his ear,” and then to dig a bit under the surface and unearth stories far more complicated and sympathetic. This is the way life often is, isn’t it?
ATPT: Has art history always been something that interested you, or do you find it’s just Van Gogh in particular?
NH: I’ve always been interested in art history in the sense that I’m interested in artists and people who have devoted their lives to art, and I’m interested in stories. Van Gogh’s story was always one I was interested in theoretically, but it wasn’t until I started to read his letters that I was hooked in any real way. Then as I read more about him I just became more and more compelled.
ATPT: Your first book was also literature, but probably less historical research. How did the processes differ from the writing in the these books?
NH: Oh, completely different. My first book was based on my own life, and I did absolutely zero research. I always had a sense of the story in my head. This book, I knew absolutely nothing about the world or the story when I began. I think because my first book had been so personal, I was very attracted to the idea of writing a book that had absolutely nothing to do with me, and would be a real challenge from a narrative point of view. Of course in the end I found lots of myself in this book, but beginning in a foreign place, and writing about a man, and needing to do research to enter it — all of this was very appealing to me.
NH: I always have trouble with the word “favorite,” but two books I loved in 2014 were Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and the memoir Epilogue by Will Boast. In 2015, hmm, the pile of books grows ever larger, but one book I’m looking forward to reading is my friend Elisa Albert’s After Birth, which is coming out soon.
ATPT: Can you tell us anything about your next project? Will we be treated to another historical piece on a very interesting person?
NH: I wish I could say more about my next project, but it’s very unformed at the moment, mostly just sketches and ideas. I don’t think it will be another historical piece, though I suppose that could still change!
ATPT: We know you are a fan of Van Gogh, but what other artists or pieces of artwork would you put in your favorites category?
NH: I gained lots of favorites through my relationship to Vincent – now I love one of his favorites, Jean Millet. I have a million other favorites but as it’s a cold and moody winter day as I write this, let’s go with Edward Hopper.
ATPT: Lastly, anything you would like to say to your fans?
NH: I’m still stuck on the idea that I have “fans”! It’s really exciting that the book is about to be out in the world, and is so gratifying to think that anyone might read and get something out of the novel after its having lived for so long in my head. I hope this book might do a tiny part toward expanding the narrative about van Gogh that is told in the world. But to anyone who takes the time to read it I just want to say Thank You!