With her richly textured novels Susan Vreeland has offered pioneering portraits of the artist’s life. Now, in a collection of profound wisdom and beauty, she explores the transcendent power of art through the eyes of ordinary people. Life Studies begins with historic tales that, rather than focusing directly on the great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters themselves, render those on the periphery—their lovers, servants, and children—as their personal experiences play out against those of Manet, Monet, van Gogh, and others. Vreeland then gives us contemporary stories in which her characters—a teacher, a construction worker, and an orphan for example—encounter art in meaningful, often surprising ways. A fascinating exploration of the lasting strength of art in everyday life, Life Studies is a dazzling addition to Vreeland’s outstanding body of work.
The collection grew organically over a twelve year period rather than by preconceived plan. I was just exploring my narrative range with individual stories, reading and writing about art and artists out of joy, undirected by a governing theme. Hesitant to make the painters the central characters, I relegated them to secondary roles and gave the conflict to characters who knew them. This felt right, as it allowed art to serve as a means of resolution. However, I wanted to bring the collection into the present day to address issues that readers could identify with.
The challenge was to find a unifying format for the collection. When I saw that individual historic and contemporary stories could take up similar themes, I wrote more stories targeted to create pairs, and conceived of a transitional tale far outside of both time periods and styles to present my premise, that ordinary people, not just those with art educations, can have profound experiences responding to art.
By virtue of art, wives in both sections discover their worth, daughters yearn for parents, and characters outgrow their former selves. Two stories use art to solve a problem, and several show non-artists through the centuries discovering the vital role aesthetics plays in the fully lived life. Once I saw the reappearance of themes, I felt the collection had coherence.
How did the process of writing Life Studies compare with your experience of writing your novels?
I wrote the stories on faith, not knowing my governing principle and themes at the outset as I would know them for a novel, but trusting that they would reveal themselves. The process of writing Life Studies was more intuitive than for my novels. I took delight in dipping into different time periods and cultures and creating a wider range of voices, social classes, and sensibilities than I would likely have in a novel.
The short story form requires exactitude in making every sentence move the story forward or enhance characters or theme. There is no space for digression, and usually only one story can be told, whereas in a novel, minor characters can have their own stories which contrast or complement the main character’s issues which themselves can be more complex than in a short story. Isolating a single theme and single character issue sets the focus and parameters of short fiction.
Some of the characters in these stories are entirely fictional while some are based on actual people from history. How does the writing process differ with respect to these two types of characters? Do you find one type easier than the other?
Archival and published history often doesn’t record the relationships that are significant, so I have to invent characters to allow the artist to reveal himself through interaction. For example, Monet’s gardener, the boy who threw figs at Cézanne, Berthe Morisot’s wet nurse, the father of the girl with the watering can were pure inventions, while Manet’s and Monet’s wives were drawn from biographies.
My process follows the steps of discovery, focus, selection, and invention, with research happening throughout the process. Finding a story I wished to tell buried in known history or suggesting itself in a painting is as exhilarating for me as discovering hidden treasure. The sooner I am conscious of character questions and moral questions, and the more precisely I can articulate themes, the easier it is for the work to take a deliberate form rather than growing haphazardly.
With the contemporary stories, character development and conception of a situation occur simultaneously. Of course I have more liberty. At first, imagining a fictional character was less daunting than turning a historic figure into a story character, but I soon became comfortable doing both. Now, one is no easier than the other. It’s equally joyous to invent as to research and adapt.