Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who Was Rachel?

Elizabeth over at Scandalous Women is hosting a guest post from me on the topic of Who Was Rachel? Thank you, Elizabeth, for your hospitality!

Elizabeth is also providing a giveaway of one copy of Sunflowers, courtesy of Avon Books. The contest is open until 12pm, 5 Nov 2009 -- details at the end of the guest post. Good luck to all!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Onward Ho!

The St Petersburg Times Festival of Reading yesterday was a terrific success. Had a full house of about 70 people for my talk, a respectably sized line for my book signing, and the copies of Sunflowers available for purchase at the venue sold out! My family came down from Atlanta, which made the day extra special. Thank you to everyone who turned out on a beautiful Florida morning!

The next event is coming up this Thursday, 29 October, at Inkwood Books in downtown Tampa. At 7 pm, I'll be giving a presentation and Q&A about Sunflowers and signing books. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

*The* Newspaper Article

Since this weekend's Festival of Reading is sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, it only seems appropriate to post about THE newspaper article that best records the notorious "ear incident" and that inspired the writing of Sunflowers.

Pictured here is a clipping from Le Forum Republicain, the Sunday newspaper of Arles. The article is from the 30 December 1888 edition, one week after Vincent's self-mutilation. The article begins, "Last Sunday at 11:30pm, one Vincent Vangogh[sic], painter of Dutch origin, presented himself at the maison de tolerance no. 1, asked for one Rachel and gave her...his ear, saying 'Guard this object very carefully.' Then he disappeared." The article goes on to explain that the police went to Vincent's house and found no sign of life in the patient, then that he was taken to hospital.

The clipping as pictured here is misleading, as I discovered in my research for the book. I'd always seen the article photographed this way--the same picture appears in all the van Gogh literature--so I assumed it was the 'top story' in the paper that week. It wasn't. The "Chronique locale" (local news) section is actually on the back page. The news item about Vincent was not as prominent as it appears in this photograph; the original photographer cut and pasted the newspaper for the picture. Even so, it's easy to imagine shocked faces around the breakfast table that particular Sunday. All the more so considering that Le Forum Republicain had featured multiple editorials in the past about the prevalence of brothels and unregistered streetwalkers in the town. Even though prostitution was legal in the sense that it was regulated by the government (with strict laws), many townspeople did not approve. Of especial concern, it seems, were the number of prostitutes illegally frequenting the cafes around the Arles train station, in other words, the area where Vincent lived.

The article is noteworthy as the only known historical document that calls Rachel by name. The observation that Vincent asked for her specifically at the brothel reveals he knew her, and my question is, How much and how well? That question inspired the story that emerges in Sunflowers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Festival of Reading

This weekend is the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, held on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus (aka my workplace). I am presenting Saturday morning about "Sunflowers," and I'm looking forward to it a great deal. I've never presented at the Festival before. My talk is called "Writing Van Gogh's World" and will be at 10:15am in FCT 118 (aka my teaching classroom). A book signing will follow at 11am at the "Authors' Alley." I am hoping the weather is good so we have a nice turnout at the Festival. Many interesting authors will be taking part, in both fiction and nonfiction, local and internationally known. The schedule, list of participants, and all necessary information is online at the Festival website: Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Guest Posts

The event yesterday at the USFSP Nelson Poynter Library was a big success! A heartfelt merci to librarians Kaya van Beynen, Jerry Notaro, and everyone at the library who worked so hard to organize the event. We had a nice turnout, snacks, and a gorgeous bouquet of sunflowers to decorate the scene. Thanks to all who attended!

My "virtual tour" continues with two new guest posts: "Why I Love Vincent van Gogh" over at Historical Tapestry and "Following van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise" at Thank you to Marg at HT and Margaret at HN for your hospitality!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why First Person?

"Sunflowers" is here! Yesterday was release day, and even though I had to work/teach rather than play, it was still a special day. My parents sent me a beautiful bouquet of sunshiny sunflowers for my office, and my mom emailed camera-phone shots of my book on the shelves and tables of assorted Atlanta bookstores. I learned something very interesting: in a comprehensive bookstore, on a regular shelf, "Sunflowers" is shelved next to John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." One of Vincent's favorite books!

Now that the book is released, I'll be blogging about things related to it -- avoiding spoilers -- and if I'm asked a good question that I'd like to share with the whole class :-), I'll blog about that. I've been asked a couple of times, for instance, why I wrote "Sunflowers" in first person. I never consciously made a decision; I knew all along it would be first person. Why? First of all, I enjoy reading books written in first person. Recently, for example, I read Kathleen Kent's "Heretic's Daughter" and Michelle Moran's "Cleopatra's Daughter": both are terrific, both are written in first person, and they would have been different stories if the POV had been otherwise. I wanted readers to engage with Rachel in the way I like to engage with characters in first-person stories. Second, as a writer I thought I would "become" Rachel more easily in first person narrative. This turned out to be true!

Third, writing the story from Rachel's point of view allowed me to preserve some mystery around Vincent. If I had written the story in say, alternating third person point of view, then I would have been forced to show more of Vincent's actions and possibly inner thoughts. I wanted to maintain a certain distance rather than 'commit' to things we can't know for sure. The Vincent in "Sunflowers" is Vincent *as Rachel sees him,* and of course, she has an agenda!

First person does have limitations. There were many things about van Gogh's life and art I would have liked to include, but Rachel could not have known about them. First person *did* allow me to talk about Vincent's paintings from the POV of someone seeing them for the first time, which was fun. But she would not have known details about the symbolism or the artistic influences unless Vincent told her. Luckily, the historical van Gogh was quite pedantic about his own work, so the character could be too, when he was in the mood.

The first person viewpoint also allowed me -- or I should say, Rachel -- to choose how the story would be told. A non-spoiler example: Rachel is a prostitute. She has many customers. But she rarely talks about them, aside from an unpleasant encounter we learn about at the beginning. Why? Because it is a part of her life that shames her, that she'd rather forget. In a third-person story, I would have approached this differently, but in first-person, if Rachel wanted to downplay that or something else (eg events from her past), I let her. In this, I took a cue from the historical Vincent's letters to his brother. As detailed and thorough as the letters appear to be, Vincent *chooses* what to tell Theo and what to omit. There are many painful things in Vincent's life that he downplays, dismisses, or just does not mention, probably because they were painful. So it is with anybody recounting events in his/her life: two participants in the same incident can tell the story very differently, highlight some details, leave out others, according to how they wish to communicate what happened and who their listener is.

A rather long answer to a very good question!

Monday, October 12, 2009

T-minus...ONE DAY!

"Sunflowers" makes its big debut tomorrow! It'll be an ordinary workday for me -- teaching class, meeting with students -- but I'll be grinning nonstop. I hope readers enjoy the book!

Writing friends Catherine Delors and Julianne Douglas have posted interviews (tough questions!) and will have reviews of the book up later this week. Both are also offering giveaways of copies of the book. Please check my website for reviews of the book as they come in, as well as links to guest posts and information about upcoming events.

This Thursday, October 15th, I'll be speaking at the Nelson Poynter Library of the University of South Florida St Petersburg (my home campus) at 4pm. Books will be available for purchase at the Barnes and Noble on campus (10% off on the 15th), and I'll sign any that folks bring to the talk. A big THANK YOU to the staffs of the library and the Barnes and Noble for organizing this event -- we're going to have fun!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Coolest Website EVER

The Van Gogh Museum has unveiled their landmark website Vincent van Gogh: The Letters. Holy cow, this is one heckuva site! Free of charge, visitors can access the new and updated English translations of all van Gogh's correspondence, as well as annotated footnotes, pictures of the artworks associated with each letter, the texts in their original language, and scanned facsimiles of each page. It's much, if not all, the same content as the beautiful yet expensive bound volumes due to ship to stores and customers (me!!) any day now. With one notable exception: on a website, you can have search engines. Yesterday one of my seminar students was looking at the new site with me during an appointment to discuss her upcoming presentation, and for fun we typed "olive" into the keyword search (her presentation is on two of the Saint-Remy olive grove canvases)...presto! We found like magic all the letters in which Vincent discussed olive trees, and lots of other information she'll be able to use. Visitors can further sort the whole cache of letters by period, correspondent, and place.

I've been trying not to play with the new site too much, because a) I should be working; and b) I don't want to spoil the fun of opening the books when they arrive, but I've seen enough to say this is an invaluable resource for any van Gogh lover, student, or scholar. The design is beautiful -- the Dutch are known for their graphic design panache, and this site is no exception, with its clean lines, harmonious colors, and easy navigation. And the content, the product of 15 years' research by the Van Gogh Museum curators, is simply a treasure trove. Bravo!!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Meet Van Gogh's Doctor

Holly over at Wonders and Marvels very kindly invited me to contribute a guest post about Sunflowers -- I opted for "Meet Van Gogh's Doctor," since W&M often has medical-themed posts. Holly, aka Prof. Tucker of Vanderbilt University, is a historian specializing in things scientific and medical. She is also offering a giveaway of Sunflowers -- click on the bookcover to enter. The giveaway closes on October 14th.

Stop by Wonders & Marvels to learn more about Dr. Felix Rey, the physician in Arles who treated Vincent after the "ear incident." Seeing his portrait at an exhibition in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 inspired an entire subplot in the novel!

Thank you, Holly, for the invitation to post, and thank you, Tina, for getting it up there.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Van Gogh's Montmartre

Over the next few weeks surrounding the release of "Sunflowers," several bloggers will be kindly hosting me in a mini-blog-tour, some with interviews, some with guest posts, with blogger-authored reviews of the actual book as well. The first guest post, "Van Gogh's Montmartre," is freshly available at the French-themed blog of novelist Catherine Delors, author of "Mistress of the Revolution" (a terrific book) and the forthcoming "For the King" (which I can't wait to read). Catherine is also hosting a giveaway of one signed copy of "Sunflowers" (details on her blog) and will be posting an interview and review. Merci bien, Catherine, for the blog-hospitality!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gauguin Exhibition at the CMA

Alas, no van Gogh exhibitions opening this fall in the U.S., but opening Sunday October 4th is "Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The museum website describes the show thusly: "This landmark exhibition gathers about 75 paintings, works on paper, woodcarvings, and ceramics by Paul Gauguin and his contemporaries to explore how the artist created his signature style during the year 1889. Co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 re-creates on a smaller scale the radical independent exhibition that Gauguin organized with his artistic disciples on the grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle—a display of about 100 paintings now recognized as the first Symbolist exhibition in Paris."

The "radical independent exhibition" is the so-called Volpini show, which Gauguin organized together with fellow avant-garde artists Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Louis Anquetin, and a few others. It was conceived as a reaction to the French art exhibition at the Universal Exposition, which was limited only to Salon painters and similarly well-established artists. Gauguin chose as a venue for the exhibition the Café des Arts -- run by a Monsieur Volpini -- on the actual grounds of the Universal Exposition, thus thumbing his nose at the establishment. The exhibition ran from May through July 1889, included a small catalogue, and was seen by contemporary critics.

At this time, Vincent had just entered the asylum of Saint-Rémy. His brother Theo did not submit any of Vincent's work to the show, believing it to be an upstart and unseemly enterprise, and in fact did not tell Vincent about it. However, somehow Vincent did learn of it and mentioned it casually in a letter to Theo of early June. Theo responded, "At first I had said you would exhibit some things too, but they assumed an air of being such tremendous fellows that it made one sick...It gave one somewhat the impression of going to the Universal Exhibition by the back stairs" (T10). In his reply, Vincent agreed that it was probably best his work not be shown ("My not yet being recovered is reason enough") but defended Gauguin and Bernard: "It remains very understandable that for beings like would be impossible to turn all their canvases to the wall until it should please people to admit them into something, into the official stew. You cause a stir by exhibiting in cafés" (LT595).

Gauguin himself learned of Theo's disapproval via their mutual friend Émile Schuffenecker. Writing from Pont-Aven in Brittany on June 10--where he'd gone after the show's opening--he defends the show and states, "I organized this little exhibition at the Universelle to show what can be done together and to demonstrate the possibilities." Unfortunately, we do not have Theo's reply to Gauguin.

"Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889" will be at CMA until 18 January 2010, after which it will travel to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.