Tuesday, August 20, 2013
An Interview with Stephanie Cowell
Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille, a Novel of Monet, graciously gave me an interview and shared some insights into her writing process and her love of history.
For those who missed the review of Stephanie's wonderful book, you can read it here. In addition, for lovers of the Impressionists and their world, Stephanie has a special set of 70 posts on her blog Everyday Lives of the French Impressionists that you can read HERE.
And now, on to the Interview:
EV: When did you first start writing?
SC: I first started writing at about the age of seven in black- and-white school notebooks. I printed in clumsy block letters and I have no idea what I wrote. I had decided early that other worlds and lives were much better than mine and I belonged there. I was drawn to young adult novels set in England or Europe…A Little Princess, Heidi, etc. I taught myself to type on my mother’s portable typewriter. By thirteen I was writing little novels which I read to my girlfriends at my sleepovers.
EV: What is your next book about?
SC: I’ve almost finished a novel on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and I am sure, as you love Victorian England, you know a lot about her! She was a very gifted woman but due to terrible tragedies in her family and her own bad health, she was an invalid in her father’s house in Wimpole Street until the gorgeous poet Robert Browning met her and fell in love with her. She recovered her health and ran away to live in Florence with him until his hidden past and her broken promises to her family and addiction to laudanum began to threaten their perfect love. It’s very romantic book about a brilliant, idealistic Victorian woman. I went to Florence where you can visit their apartment and stand on her balcony.
EV: Have you always been interested in writing historical fiction or have you experimented with other genres?
SC: I wrote two novels about my New York City and still hope to revise them. They are about the New York I know which is a world centered around music, museums, old churches, neighborhoods, etc. Oddly, though I adore historic New York City, I have no desire to write about it. Several friends have done so: they travel here to research what is right outside my door. Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe will be published in September; Stephanie Lehmann’s Astor Place Vintage is out now.
EV: You seem to understand the world of painters so well, and you've mentioned you were the child of artists. Do you paint yourself?
SC: Oh no, I have no talent for drawing or painting but I see like an artist; I see perspective and color, and the changing light just drives me wild with joy. The way light falls on brick buildings and over the river and through trees. But I grew up with artists and the easel and canvases and delicate paint brushes. I love these things. My mother used to teach at the Art Students’ League and when I was about four or five the baby sitter didn’t come for me, so she took me to the school where I wandered down the hall and into a studio where a nude female model was posing. I was greatly shocked and ran back to my mother’s classroom babbling about it, much to the amusement of her students. Art is wonderful to write about; it’s so visceral.
EV: It seems to me that much of the research needed for this book would have been in French. Do you speak and read French?
SC: I studied French during the writing of Claude & Camille and learned to read it at an intermediate level. I loved it. I never spoke it much and I have lost it a bit because I switched to Italian. There is a wonderful site in French written by one of the guides at Giverny who observed the gardens and house in every weather and season. It’s at http://givernews.com Her French is pure poetry. I made out what I could and read it every day when I was writing the novel.
EV: What advice do you have for beginning writers?
SC: Write what you love and understand it may takes years and years before you really have completed a book which expresses your story and speaks to others. I sometimes rewrite a scene 75 times. And it may take many years to get published. The writer C.W. Gortner took 14 or 17 years before he was published and now he is doing very well. I wrote 4 novels in seven years before the first one sold and then I was so shocked that I took the next day off of work and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. I kept calling the publisher every week on some pretense, but really to make sure they had not changed their mind about publishing the book.
EV: Since you mainly write historical fiction, how would you advice writers to go about their research for a historical novel? Do you research as you go, once you have the idea for a story? Or do you do most of the research ahead of time, once you’ve decided on your story?
SC: I generally am not drawn to a particular story or character or period unless I know something about it first. I research while I am writing and while I am revising. It happens at the same time! There is a scene in CLAUDE & CAMILLE where he finds her again in an upper class restaurant where he is trying to sell quick sketches of the patrons; he has come with Renoir because they are broke as usual. I can’t remember if when reading about the period I discovered the life of a restaurant or whether the scene came first. I think I saw some paintings by Degas and Manet with waitresses and patrons etc. and that inspired the scene.
EV: Do you have a favorite period in history?
SC: Yes, the Elizabethan. I have an odd feeling part of me lived back then. I was an actor (which means I would have been a man as there were no actresses allowed on the stage then) or a writer. But I love all periods in which I set my books.
EV: Are some historical periods that interest you easier to write about than others?
SC: I think the further back you go in history, the harder it is to hear people speaking and to present their speech to the modern reader. What was natural formal speech in 1600 can sound too formal to our ears and the casual can be incomprehensible! I have been working a long time on a book set in 400 AD Alexandria and it was hard to make the people come to life as I wanted them at first. Then I discovered books of letters between ordinary people written on papyrus and dug up a hundred and fifty years ago in Egypt. Their concerns and subjects were the same as ours: difficult travel, letters of complaining schoolboys, love pleas, exchanges between sisters, requests for money, birthday greetings. They may have worn tunics and lived under an aging Roman Empire, but they were more like us than not.
EV: Do you have favorite historical novels that you return to again and again?
SC: Oh yes, many! To name a few Girl with a Pearl Earring (Chevalier), I am Rembrandt’s Daughter (Cullen), Take Heed of Loving Me (Vining, long out-of-print but a masterpiece about John Donne, the worldly political young man who became a great priest). For a long time I read and reread Mary Renault again and again. There’s also Mary Sharratt’s The Vanishing Point and Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Some of the other novels I had read to pieces (not historical) are The Gift of Asher Lev (Potok), The Lost Madonna (Jones). I am forgetting most of the books I love here! Apologies to the gifted authors! Your work is so precious to me! And there are so many books I have only read once and desperately want to read again!
EV: Thank you so much, Stephanie for sharing your writing life with us. I'm sure many who read this will take heart and encouragement from your insights.
You can contact Stephanie at her website:
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