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BOOK REVIEW: White Houses by Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, "Hick," as she's known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as "first friend" is an open secret, as are FDR's own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick's bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan's Washington Square, Amy Bloom's new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.

My Thoughts:

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a novel inspired by the true-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her ‘first friend’, Lorena Hickok. I love books that tell the untold story of real women’s lives, and books which illuminate history in new and fascinating ways, and White Houses did both for me. I’ve not studied US history in any depth, and so the Roosevelts are just names to me. I had no sense of shock in learning that the wife of the 32nd President of the United States kept her lesbian lover in the White House. I felt only curiosity and a sense of wonderment that their love affair is not better known. I cannot imagine that happening today!

The novel is told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’ to her friends. The first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times, Hick had grown up dirt-poor in South Dakota and dragged herself up through her own indomitable will and razor-sharp wit. She first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign, and before long the two are going on holiday together and Hick has given up her career to move into the White House.

The book is not told in a linear fashion. It moves back and forth in time, much as a woman remembering her own life would tell it. Hick tells the story of her father’s abuse and abandonment, her first sexual experimentations while working in a circus, her love affairs and the difficulties of being a lesbian in 1930s America. Her voice is jaded, cynical and yet also lyrical:

‘Every women’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.’

The relationship between the two women was kept hidden for many years, but in 1979 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered eighteen boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the thirty years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. Here is one excerpt:

Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.

White Houses is only a slim book, but it delves deep into the interior lives of the two women, their heartaches and mistakes, their betrayals and failures. Hick is such a complex, difficult and vulnerable character, and her love for Eleanor is achingly real. A really fascinating read.

You might also be interested in my review of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

I was lucky enough to interview Amy Bloom for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

My Thoughts:

"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
and gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one."

This chilling children’s playground rhyme was inspired by the true-life story of Lizzie Borden, who was – in 1892 - tried but then acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. The case was never solved, and still continues to interest more than a hundred years after the event.

Sarah Schmidt says that she was inspired to write Look What I Have Done after Lizzie Borden came to her in a dream. I’m always fascinated by novels inspired by dreams, as so many of my own books begin in this way, and so I was eager to read her take on the well-known story.

The novel is told in alternating first-person accounts by Lizzie, her sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget, and a loutish young man who seems to have been hired by the sisters’ maternal uncle to hurt or attack their father in some way. None of the voices seem particularly reliable, and so it is hard to ascertain the truth of what has happened. The atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic and cloying, with many descriptions of the stench of rotting meat and over-ripe pears. Lizzie’s voice is awkward and childish and gleeful in turns, and – although Sarah Schmidt does not attempt to answer the question of who was truly the murderer – by the end of the book, I felt sure that it was Lizzie and that her acquittal was a miscarriage of justice.

For another wonderfully eerie, historical mystery check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecila Ekback.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

REVIEW: Pull Out All the Stops by Geraldine McCaughrean

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pull Out All the Stops
by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Blurb:

There isn't much drama in Olive Town. The highlight of Cissy Sissney's days are the letters from her old schoolteacher, Miss Loucien, describing her adventures on board an old showboat with the Bright Lights Theatre Company. If only life were full of such adventure for Cissy too. 

But then diphtheria breaks out in Olive town, a silo crushes Cissy's home and Miss May March agrees to take Cissy and classmates, Kookie and Tibbie, to stay with Miss Loucien until Olive town is safe again. The ramshackle crew on board the Sunshine Queen sail along the 'shoals and shimmer of the Numchuck River,' performing plays for the towns scattered along the shore. Cissy and her friends have a whole host of adventures beating hustlers at their own game, catching criminals, and embarking on a daring rescue mission. They must use all their wits to survive. 

As their journey along the river comes to an end, Cissy must put in one last performance and this time the stakes are higher than mere applause. The award-winning author, Geraldine McCaughrean, captures the spirit of adventure and the power of imagination in this rip-roaring read.

What I Thought:

Geraldine McCaughrean is one of Great Britain’s most celebrated children’s authors. She is probably best-known for Peter Pan in Scarlet, the brilliant “official” sequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous story of the Boy Who Won’t Grow Up. I love her work, and am trying to slowly read my way through all 150 of her books. This one is a rambunctious adventure story set in a steamboat on the Missouri River. It features a cast of lovable, oddball characters, a lot of slapstick humour, a dash of poignancy, and a whole lot of heart. 


BOOK REVIEW: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Aviator’s Wife

Author: - Melanie Benjamin

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

Source of Book: I bought it 

The Blurb:
For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.
Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.
Drawing on the rich history of the twentieth century—from the late twenties to the mid-sixties—and featuring cameos from such notable characters as Joseph Kennedy and Amelia Earhart, The Aviator’s Wife is a vividly imagined novel of a complicated marriage—revealing both its dizzying highs and its devastating lows. With stunning power and grace, Melanie Benjamin provides new insight into what made this remarkable relationship endure.

What I Thought: 
The Lindberghs were incredibly famous in their day, both for their feats of flying, and for the kidnap and murder of their first child. This beautifully written novel reimagines the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh from the time of her first encounter with the handsome but controlling aviator Charles Lindbergh to his death. It deals with his infatuation with the Nazis, the terrible months following their boy’s kidnap, and the writing of Anne’s own book, ‘Gift from the Sea’, which I remember reading as a teenager. 

Not being American, I did not know much about the Lindbergs except their name and the fact their first child was kidnapped and murdered. I found this novel really fascinating as it draws in so much about the period. I came to realise just how extraordinary their feats of flying were, and how extraordinary it was for Anne to write ‘Gifts from the Sea’, a book of such beauty and grace, after suffering such a horrible tragedy. 

The book is deftly written and a real page-turner – I devoured it in several sittings. It reminded me of Nancy Horan’s books Loving Frank and Under A Wide, Starry Sky in that it is a book about a woman who has lived her life in the shadow of a man but whose own story is just as compelling 
The Aviator’s Wife is a really moving and powerful novel about one woman’s extraordinary life – I strongly recommend it. 

Writer’s website 


BOOK REVIEW: The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

Monday, July 01, 2013

Author: Lauren Willig 
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Age Group & Genre: Contemporary/Historical Mystery/Family Drama

The Blurb:

New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig "spins a web of lust, power and loss" (Kate Alcott) that is by turns epic and intimate, transporting and page-turning. 

As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. . . .

What follows is a potent story that spans generations and continents, bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of unforgettable characters. From the inner circles of WWI-era British society to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the red-dirt hills of Kenya, the never-told secrets of a woman and a family unfurl.(less)

What I Thought: 

I was very intrigued (and pleased) to hear about this new novel by Lauren Willig – I adore her swashbuckling, bodice-ripping, laugh-out-loud historical/contemporary romances – but I know all too well how a successful series can become a straitjacket for an author and I’m always wanting authors I love to be bold and take a few risks, and try something new and different. 

So I came to this new book by Lauren Willig genuinely excited and curious and wanting her to succeed. And I’m very glad to say she has succeeded brilliantly.

I’ve always loved books that move back and forth between a contemporary setting and an historical one. I have always loved books that combine mystery, romance, drama and a vivid sense of place and time. THE ASHFORD AFFAIR has everything I love in a book, and it’s all put together in what seems like a simple and effortless way … until you try to do it yourself. 

We begin with the story of Clementine Evans, a driven 34-year-old lawyer who is beginning to wonder if she has sacrificed too much for her career. She is running late – again! – to a family function celebrating her beloved grandmother Adeline’s 99th birthday. She is shocked and saddened to find her grandmother is frail and begin to wander in her wits … and calling her by another name.  

Then the narrative goes back in time to Adeline’s childhood. Her parents have been killed, and she is sent as a charity child to live with the uncle she has never met, who lives with his family at the grand manor house, Ashford Park. Her Bea is her only friend, even though she has a habit of getting Adeline into trouble. 

The two girls grow up together - one falls in love and the other marries. It is the ‘20s, and the giddy gaiety of the times does not suit serious, bookish Adeline. The young women grow apart, and, in their own way, hurt each other badly. 

Meanwhile, Clementine realises that her family hides a secret … a story of love, betrayal, and possible murder. 

The two stories touch and part, touch and part, in an intricate yet graceful dance, each new revelation helping the suspense to build. I was genuinely surprised at a couple of plot points and genuinely uttered a deep aaaah! at the end. 


INTERVIEW: Suzy Duffy, author of Wellesley Wives

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I’m appearing at a panel called ‘The Spirit of Romance’ at the Sydney Writers Festival this Thursday, along with the fabulous Suzy Duffy, Rachael Treasure and Amanda Hooton.

Suzy Duffy has travelled to Sydney all the way from the small town of Wellesley in the US. She had built a national radio, television and writing career in her native Ireland before emigrating to Wellesley, which inspired her latest book Wellesley Wives (the first of a four-book New England series). 

This funny and romantic book made the Amazon Kindle top 100, within two weeks of being published, and won 10th place in the US Bestsellers List 2012. Romantic comedy is how she sees life.

For more information about our event, go here

What is your latest novel all about, Suzy? 

Wellesley Wives is a romantic comedy about four Boston women who seem to have everything but then it all comes crashing down. They move from Ferraris and fine art to working in a boathouse in Banagher (in the middle of Ireland.) However, that’s where they discover their true worth and inner strength (because I think we gals have incredible chutzpah when we need it!)  Naturally Ireland is awash with gorgeous, brooding Celtic types just waiting to be saved by stranded suddenly-singles. It’s a rollicking ride through America, Ireland and Mexico and it’s guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. 

How did you get the first idea for it?
It’s true; art imitates life. I live in Wellesley and one lovely sunny day I saw a woman (who looked like Goldie Hawn) driving a spanking new red Ferrari – top down - of course. She looked happy. I hated her.  I was in my jam-stained, kid-smeared, dog-moving, SUV.  Then, as I drove home with Barney drowning out the noise of my kids fighting, I began to imagine Goldie’s life... maybe it wasn’t as great as it looked on the surface.  Maybe there were lots of things about to go wrong. What if everything she knew was about to fall apart?  I got home and started writing.

What do you love most about writing?
I love making women laugh. It’s a fantastic thing to do. I love writing funny stories, at home in my quiet little study and then hearing from women all over the world who enjoyed them, laughed out loud and perhaps shared them with their friends, mothers or daughters.  What a fantastic job!

What are the best 5 books you’ve read recently?

Waghhh, I hate this question. I feel like I should have five classic, high-brow tomes at my fingertips but I don’t.  I’ve read Anna Karenina and War & Peace, but I prefer to laugh.  I particularly love Irish writers even though I live in America because, being Irish, I share their humour.

From Ireland, I really loved Melissa Hill - Something from Tiffany’s.  

Patricia Scanlon’s new book - With All My Love had me crying as well as laughing . 

In the USA, Claire Cook - The Wildwater Walking Club was great too. 
Chelsea Handler’s, Hello Vodka had me in tears with laughter! 
For Australian humour, I’m reading and loving Amanda Hooton, Finding Mr. Darcy just now. It’s full of laughs!

What lies ahead of you in the next year?

It’s a bit manic but that’s good.  I’ll continue to promote Wellesley Wives in Australia, Austin - Texas and New York this year.  It’ll be published in Norwegian in the Autumn, so may be there for that but I’ve been invited to California too, so I think I’ll have to choose one or the other. No one can do everything...  

Newton Neighbors will be published in September. It’s the second book in the New England Trilogy and things will ramp up a gear and then I also need to get the first draft of Lincoln Ladies (book 3) into my Publishers by December 2013!

All this and I have five beautiful children and my husband at home.  It’s gonna be busy but I love busy. 

Did I mention that 10% of my royalties go to Friends of Boston's Homeless so it’s comedy with a cause.  You’re doing good when you buy a Suzy Duffy Book! As they say in the USA... it’s all good! (Unless you look like Goldie Hawn – LOL.)

Love Suzy

Suzy's website


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Halloween has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival,’ I told her. ‘And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:

Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-een). 

Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.

Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.
Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.

However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 

In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of hat was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 
In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish poem about Samhain to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

Translated by Caitlin Matthews

You may also like to read my blog on Midwinter Feasts


INTERVIEW: Geraldine Brooks

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Geraldine Brooks is one of my absolute favourite writers and so I am absolutely delighted that she agreed to an interview with me. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels Year of Wonders, March, People of the Book, and the non-fiction books Nine Parts of Desire, and Foreign Correspondence. Born in Australia, she lives in Martha’s Vineyard, in the US.


Are you a daydreamer too? 
When I was a child I lived in daydreams.  These days my work is a kind of extended reverie so outside of that, I find I'm attracted to tactile, in the moment things, like horse riding and gardening where your focus tends to be very much on what you are doing now, and now, and now...
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A journalist, yes, from the time I was eight years old.  The ambition to be a novelist came on me in midlife, unexpectedly.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 

For Caleb's Crossing, it was a notation on a map, marking the birthplace of the first Native American graduate of Harvard, in 1665.  I was immediately engaged--how had this come about?


How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Not at all, really.  I have the shards of historical fact, in as much as they are known.  But I proceed from there instinctively, feeling my way day by day.
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I wish my dreams were interesting enough.  Sadly, they're not. Recently I hit a nadir of banality.  I dreamed I was reading the paper.

Where do you write, and when? 
I have a study, but these days I find I move around a lot, especially if no one else is home.  If the weather's nice, I sit in a big old cane chair under the apple tree and write.  If it's cold and grim outside, I sit at the kitchen table with a wood fire burning.   I work when the kids are at school.  Simple as that.

What is your favourite part of writing? 
The surprise as you uncover the story.  The freedom--the fact that it is entirely up to you, no excuses, but no answering the bell, either.
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I remind myself that there's no hairdressers' block, or panel beaters' block, or radiologists' block, and I just get on with it.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
That thankfully hasn't been a problem.  There are so many good stories in the world.  People are infinitely interesting.

Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Tim Winton, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Eva (Sallis) Hornung, Helen Garner, Andre Makine, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Yeats, Shakespeare, Mary Renault

What do you consider to be good writing?
The kind you feel on your skin.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
Take some good books, put them in your backpack and go, as far as you can afford to.  Get a job in an unfamiliar place.   If it doesn't work out, quit and get another one. Learn another language.  Write something every day.  You have to write badly before you write well, so don't be discouraged.
What are you working on now?  
A novel set in Iron Age Israel.

Geraldine Brooks website

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Interview with Susan Vreeland

INTERVIEW: With Susan Vreeland

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Susan Vreeland


I first fell in love with Susan Vreeland’s work when I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue which was just the most extraordinary book. It told the story of a painting, going backwards from contemporary times to the day the painting was created. Each chapter is complete in itself, making it a collection of interlinked short stories, each detailing the impact the painting made upon an individual. Some of the stories are hauntingly sad, others filled with small pleasures and preoccupations. I absolutely loved the book, and so whenever a new Susan Vreeland book came out, I would buy it at once. This is a rare occurrence. Since Girl in Hyacinth Blue was published in 1999, Susan Vreeland has published only five new books. All of them have a preoccupation with art and artists, and all of them bring a place and a time vividly to life.

Just briefly, here are a round-up of her other books:

The Passion of Artemisia (2002) which tells the life story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman painter in the Renaissance. She was raped at 18 by her father's colleague and had to endure a trial in which she was tortured to see if she was telling the truth. She went on to paint some extraordinary paintings, and to become the only woman ever to be accepted into the Florence salon. Brilliant!

The Forest Lover (2004) is told from the point of view of the Canadian Impressionist painter Emily Carr. I had never heard of Emily Carr before I read this book. Afterwards I was googling her paintings and could not believe that this feisty, strong-willed, pig-headed and vulnerable woman was not more widely known. Her paintings are extraordinary - bold, unconventional and filled with light and mystery.

Life Studies (2005) is a collection of short stories revealing the inner and outer lives of well-known Impressionistic painters. Luminous and entrancing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007) looks at Renoir's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner.

Finally, her new book Clara and Mr Tiffany (2012) which looks at the unknown woman designer of the famous Tiffany leadlight lightshades. It’s another piece of forgotten art history illuminated and brought to life. I loved it:

Here are Susan’s answers to my questions:

 Are you a daydreamer too?
I sometimes work myself into a quiet mental space whereby the next chapter of a novel will come to me, or the next thing a character says or does.

 Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. The urge started in 1984 when I was forty.

 How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
By seeing Clara's gorgeous lamps in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2007, the exhibit that introduced her to the world.

 How extensively do you plan your novels?
I make a list of chapters or scenes, but this list constantly is altered as I proceed.

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My own dreams? No, but I like to have my characters dream.

 Where do you write, and when?
I have a beautiful office with wood built-ins. From my desk, I can look through the glass French doors onto a patio. When? Morning, noon, and night, my dear.

 What is your favourite part of writing?

 What do you do when you get blocked?
Change activities, while keeping the chapter that comes next floating in my thoughts.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I remind myself to listen to the one divine Mind of the universe which is offering me ideas and directing me. I deeply feel gratitude to this source for what I've just written.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I try to do some reading of a spiritual nature in the morning before I start work.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Virginia Woolf
Robert Frost
Sena Jeter Naslund
Stephen Dunn, poet
Emily Dickinson
Emily Carr, Canadian painter
Harper Lee

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A delicate touch of imagery, a compelling story, a handful of themes that resonate currently even though the work may take place ages ago, an appealing voice, an occasional surprise.

 What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, read, keep a journal of favorite sentences or passages arranged by topic. Readers can email me for my list of topics.

 What are you working on now?
LISETTE'S LIST, a novel taking place in Provence, France, of two generations who own a small collection of paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, Picasso, and Chagall, and what happens to their lives and the paintings during and after World War II.

A link to Susan Vreeland's website describing how she came to write Clara and Mr Tiffany:

 Susan Vreeland's website

You may also like:

My review of 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' 

My review of 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

REVIEW: 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' by Susan Vreeland

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Title: Clara and Mr Tiffany
Author: Susan Vreeland 
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 432 
My stars: 4/5 stars 

The Blurb:
Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color. 

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World's Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered. 

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest--the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart. 

My Feelings:
I love Susan Vreeland’s books. She is interested in art and poetry and history, all the things which I love too. Her books always feel like a journey of discovery for me, illuminating the forgotten life of some brilliant, creative, unknown woman. Her latest book is called Clara and Mr Tiffany, and it brings to life Clara Driscoll, the woman behind the beautiful and exotic stained glass lamps that the House of Tiffany produced just before the turn of the century. The Mr Tiffany in this case is the son of the famous Mr Tiffany of the well-known aquamarine box. He was an extraordinary character too, and the relationship between him and Clara is quite fascinating. He made it a rule that none of the women artists working for him were permitted to marry, so that Clara was constantly having to choose between her art and love.  I really loved this book, and look forward to Ms Vreeland’s next wonderful creation. 

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