April 11, 2013
PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST by Mary Burns
This week I interview Mary Burns, author of PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST, a wonderful historical novel about the painter John Singer Sargent. I consider it one of the best historical novels I've ever read. Ms. Burns embedded photos of some of Sanger's work along with some of her own work in her answers to my questions. Unfortunately, I was unable to make them transfer to this blog. Chalk that up to my technical ineptness.
You can read more about Mary at http://www.maryfburns.com
1. You have a background as a lawyer, but you have obviously developed an interest in art along the way. Are you a painter?
I studied art in high school and college, and really loved painting watercolors as well as doing pen and ink drawings, but I haven’t done anything in years. And, other than literature classes, Art History was my favorite subject in college. Lately, though, I’ve been making stained glass windows—I just finished the final window in a “Four Seasons” series that I started about six years ago.
2. What was your inspiration for writing PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST? (I saw your answer on Amazon but want to include it here.)
I saw a huge exhibit of Sargent paintings in Washington, D.C. in 1999. I was not familiar with his work. The painting that intrigued me the most was the enormous (7 x 7 foot) “Portraits d’Enfants”, also known as the “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” Seen in person, up close, the painting is haunting and mysterious, with heavily laid-on swashes of pure white paint that leap out of the utter darkness of shadows in the background. The oldest daughter, Florence—I was to learn all their names in time—is more in shadow than light, her face not even visible. I remember thinking, what kind of portrait is that? In fact, it wasn’t even clear that the two girls standing in the back (next to Florence is Jane) are “daughters”—they’re dressed more like servants, with the younger two girls—Mary Louisa standing with her arms “at ease” and baby Julia on the floor—looking like stiff, dressed-up dolls. I kept thinking, there’s a story here, there’s some dark, uncanny, psychological tale hidden—and exposed—by all this paint. Who was this artist, and why did he paint a portrait like this?
3. I loved the format you used of writing about Sargent from the viewpoint of the subjects of his paintings. What made you think of using this technique?
My first draft of Portraits of an Artist was written in “close” third-person. It was solid writing, I thought, but frankly, a little boring. There was a sort of relentless forward motion that was rather tiresome. So I re-wrote it. I briefly tried a First Person POV with one of the major characters, Violet Paget, who was a long-time friend of Sargent’s, but then the book became all about her, which was not what I wanted. Then I wrote it with Sargent as the teller of the tale. It didn’t take very long to realize that that was very restricting, although his First Person voice brought a great deal more vivacity and immediacy to the story. It was easier to care about Sargent and what he was going through—but he had to be in every scene! I couldn’t reveal what other people thought about him, or felt about him, and that—it became clear to me—was turning out to be the essence of my book: how to understand a mostly inscrutable, intensely private person who nonetheless was a huge success in the art world of the late 19th century. Having written the whole book from Sargent’s POV, though, was a very fruitful exercise, as I now felt I was thoroughly in his head—I had mapped his motivations, his feelings, his responses, so I really, really knew him. I pondered the notion of having multiple First Person voices, and then it hit me: the portraits would be the characters! They would tell the story of Sargent, from their points of view—each with his or her own voice—reliable or unreliable—vain, sincere, spiteful, honest, blinded by love or lust—and from those “portraits” of Sargent by his own “portraits”, the reader would be able to hear and understand the impact that Sargent had on all those people—lovers, friends, teachers, clients, judges—and infer some sense of who the man himself had been.
4. You obviously did an incredible amount of research on Sargent, his subjects, and his paintings. Did you use books, interviews, the Internet? Did you travel to Paris for research?
Sadly, when I actually was in Paris back in 2000, this book was so far from my mind that I didn’t even think to visit places Sargent lived in or had frequented. But the memories were there when I finally did determine to write the book. I read TONS of biographies, of Sargent as well as his contemporaries and friends, and bought lots of beautiful art books, put together by Sargent’s great-nephew, Richard Ormon, who lives in London and is the “keeper” of the Sargent flame. The internet was, of course, invaluable, particularly one site – www.jssgallery.org – which has almost every painting Sargent ever painted, and where it is located today. I still have the stack of books I used in a corner of my office.
5. Florence is such an enigma in the story. Tell us a little of what you know about her in real life.
I actually knew very little about Florence and her sisters when I wrote my book. The story about her in the novel is completely made up, as are the excerpts from her diary. When I was finished with the final manuscript, a non-fiction book titled “Sargent’s Daughters” came out, written by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts American Arts curator, Erica Hirshler, and I bought it instantly and devoured it. Incredibly, how I had portrayed the four girls, especially Florence, was not at all at odds with their real lives. Florence was a rather odd duck, never evincing the slightest interest in marrying or attending the usual social events. She was an avid player of the relatively new sport of golf—which she introduced to the Boston area, inspiring the local rich folks to build a course at a country club in Newport. She and a cousin, Jane Boit Patten, nicknamed “Pat” to distinguish her from the innumerable Jane’s and Jeanie’s in the family, became fast friends and in later years, lived in what was called a “Boston marriage”, two spinster ladies living together.
6. Who is your favorite character in the story aside from Sargent himself?
Violet Paget, without a doubt. I loved her! I read two biographies of her, and numerous letters as well as parts of her own writing, under her pen name Vernon Lee. She seemed to me a charming mix of naivete, intellectualism, feistiness and good humor. She and Sargent were the best of friends throughout their lives.
7. Which of Sargent’s paintings is your favorite and why?
There are so many! But I have to say that, for now, I’m in love with “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” (below) – which is the painting that ‘ends’ my novel.
8. Do you own any Sargent paintings or prints?
Sadly, no. I wish!
9. I loved the novel, and I hope you’ll write another with art and an artist as the subject. Do you have any plans for this?
I’m thinking of doing something with Gustave Caillebotte, another “impressionist”, a little older than Sargent, who painted the unbelievably stunning “Rainy Street in Paris” which is at the Art Institute of Chicago (where I grew up, and visited it regularly!).
10. What are you working on now?
Actually, I’m working on being the webmaster for the Historical Novel Society Conference in June in St. Petersburg, Florida (www.hns-conference.org) which is taking up a lot of time right now! Plus author events and such for my book. But I have started a couple of different things that are very different from either of my two historicals, although I’m not prepared to say much about them at this time!
March 18, 2013
When I was very young, it was easy. “Of course I’m against abortion, and I’m against capital punishment, too. I don’t believe in taking the life of another human under any circumstances,” I would say.
It was that simple.
Recently, as I was doing research for a historical novel I’m working on, I read that Margaret Sanger, one of the icons and heroines of liberal women, made a statement similar to that when she was speaking about abortion.
However, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that it’s NOT simple. Few things are. All you have to do is scan down the postings of your Facebook page, and you’ll see how conflicted the country is about the abortion issue. On my page, there are as many posts espousing right to life as there are right to choose. That may mean there are plenty of people who have made up their minds one way or the other, but it also means the country as a whole is conflicted.
My own movement from certainty to conflict started after I began my career as a journalist. The first stab at my certainty came when I was covering juvenile court for a newspaper. I was looking at the documents in a case where a teenager was accused of murder. His rap sheet included DWI, drug convictions, and burglary. As I searched his entire file, I saw that both of his parents were alcoholics, both had been in and out of prison, and the boy had been abandoned to the streets at the age of eight. At least two of his siblings had been abandoned as well. The boy's life had been ruined forever.
Later, after the case was closed, I saw the judge in the case and said something like, “Those parents should have never had children.”
With a shake of his head and a worried look, he answered, “I know, I know, but. . .” He never finished the sentence. I knew he was a good Catholic and very conflicted.
My journalism career led me to a hospital where babies of drug-addicted mothers were dying, to shelters where children had been beaten and otherwise abused, and to interview twelve-year-olds who were pregnant and didn’t know how they were going to care for themselves, much less a baby.
Then I see my own children, and now my grandchildren who, need I say, are wonderful. I see children in my neighborhood and church who are healthy, happy, and well cared for. I see pictures of adorable children doing cute things on Facebook and on YouTube, and I ask myself, how could we ever take away their chance to live?
I have known women who choose to abort because they know they can’t raise a child, and I’ve known those who simply don’t want to raise a child. I’ve known women who have chosen abortion after rape. I’ve been pregnant myself and I have KNOWN each time that I was sheltering a SOUL at the earliest stages.
I cannot say what is universally right. I am conflicted. That’s the trouble with being a journalist. We are trained to see both sides, so that in the end, all we can say is, “It’s not that simple.”
In some ways it makes me envious of those who know for sure, one way or the other. Yet, in other ways, it makes me want to say to those on each side, “You just don’t understand.”
March 11, 2013
The dinner party was singularly unremarkable until the lunatic arrived.
That’s the opening sentence of SYMPTOMS OF DEATH, the first book in the Dr. Alexandra Gladstone Mystery series.
It’s free all this week on Kindle!
Of course I’m hoping that if you read the first book, you’ll want to read the second, AN IMPROPER DEATH as well as the third, HALF A MIND TO MURDER.
After that, you’ll have to wait a little while until I finish the fourth, which I’m calling THE QUEEN’S CRIME.
At the moment, SYMPTOMS OF DEATH is number two on the Kindle best seller list for historical mysteries. I know from experience that can change in a matter of minutes and will have changed several times by the time you read this, but I’m enjoying it while I can and hoping to find others out there who want to read the series.
Here’s the set-up for the book:
A gathering of nobles at the country estate of the Fifth Earl of Dunsford, and a killer stalks the guilded halls. Each of the guests has a secret vendetta against the Earl, but when he’s found murdered in his bed, the lords and ladies flee, placing the blame on a servant. The village’s lady doctor, Alexandra Gladstone, discovers evidence to the contrary and finds herself trapped in a web of scandal, deceit, and ghostly appearances that could cost her her life.
How I came to write this series, set in England in the 1880s, while I am a resident of the American West in twenty-first century, began when an editor asked me to write a historical mystery series and added, “You can write about any place you want except the American West.”
Apparently the reason for that was that “Westerns” had passed their prime and were no longer selling. Never mind that there’s much more to the West thnt gun slingers and saloon girls. And so much for the old adage, “Write what you know.”
Truthfully, though, being something of an Anglophile, I did write something I know. Although, getting to know the details of nineteenth-century medicine has been a real adventure. An added bonus for me is looking at all the tattered covers of antique medical books that line my bookshelves now.
Only a bibliophile would understand that.
March 1, 2013
Today, during a presidential news conference, a reporter asked President Obama why he didn’t just tell the Congress they had to lock themselves in a room until they came to an agreement about the sequester that we are told is going to harm the country. The president’s answer was that he is not a dictator and therefore can’t do that kind of thing.
Just a few days ago, I told my husband that if our kids had been squabbling about something and blaming each other the way the Congress is doing, I would tell them they had to stay in the bedroom of their choice (where there are no TVs) and not come out until they had worked out a compromise. If the argument dragged on past bedtime, they had to work on it the next day with no TV, cell phones, games, friends, or outings until the problem was solved. Their allowance would be discounted for each day the argument was resolved.
He chuckled and said, “Doesn’t work that way with Congress.”
That’s more or less the same thing the president said. It’s not the president who tells the Congress what to do, it’s the voters. It’s a cumbersome process, though, and doesn’t get immediate results. The law that brought about the sequester was passed with the idea that serious budget cuts that would harm the country were something politicians would never allow. They would come to agreement before the law took effect. Didn’t work, did it?
What this country needs is not a dictator, but a mom. One who, at the end of the day, after working and juggling a dozen other duties, is in no mood to put up with immature antics. (There’s another word for that, and it begins with s and ends with t.)
Any mom knows that when you are dealing with immature people, you don’t get them to act by taking things away from someone else. You ground them. Take away THEIR perks and privileges. Stop their allowance, or in this case, their salary, until a reasonable compromise is reached. Couldn’t we have a law that worked that way? We could call it the “Mom Act.” Or maybe the “I’m Not Putting Up With Anymore Of This S. . t Law.”
February 25, 2013
I have a magnet attached to my refrigerator that came with an order I received several years ago from The Teaching Company. On the magnet in bold letters is the declaration, “I’m Still Learning.”
Those words have never been truer for me than in the weeks since Christmas. To put it succinctly, I’ve learned to be a publisher and publish my own books. In this case, they are books from my backlist that have gone out of print. I have yet to publish an original edition of a book, but I can say with confidence that I no longer shudder at the thought.
Self-published books used to be seen as the mark of an amateur writer, but that’s no longer the case. Writers who read this post will know why. Readers will not care. So, I’ll just say that the advent of the internet and cheap books on line has changed everything.
I’ve never been one to resist change, so when all five of the books I published recently with Cool Well Press went out of print within a year, I jumped in to learn how to publish them on Amazon’s Create Space and on Kindle.
Now you can buy SINS OF THE EMPRESS along with WIZARD and all three books in the Dr. Alexandra Gladstone Mystery Series with their new covers. I personally like the covers better than the ones Cool Well did (with the exception of WIZARD), and I can’t wait to hear what the rest of you think.
Why did they go out of print so quickly? Cool Well said it was because they weren’t selling well enough, and that it was my fault for not promoting them. All I can say is that I did everything I could think of to sell them, but I have to admit that self-promotion has never been easy for me. Could it be that they didn’t sell well enough because they just aren’t very good? I don’t want to think that’s true, but if I have to face that awful truth, I will.
For now, however, I’m still writing the kind of things I like to write and the kind of things I like to read. The most recent book I’ve finished and that has been submitted to a publisher is a novel called FORGETTING TOMMIE about a woman who accidently stumbles upon a devastating secret about her husband. The one I’m about half way through is called THE MIND OF A DEVIANT WOMAN set during a troubling time in the early twentieth century in the U.S. when forced sterilization (of mostly women) was legal. Then I will finish the next Gladstone book in which Queen Victoria is accused of murder. I have about seven chapters done on that one.
So there you have it. As much as I tout my willingness to accept change, I don’t want to change the fact that I write stories that I would want to read rather than writing whatever is selling at the moment. For example, I couldn’t get past the first chapter of SHADES OF GREY. Obviously I’m in the minority, and I’m not condemning your choice of literature if you loved it. I’m just looking for a few good readers of my own.
November 23, 2012
Sins of the Empress available on Amazon
Infidelity is an old, old story, but it still makes headlines, especially when the powerful and prominent—the likes of David Patraeus--are caught or accused.
Grigory Orlov, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Army under Catherine the Great, didn’t make headlines or the lead story on the TV news when he betrayed the Empress Catherine by having an affair with another woman, but that was only because there were no newspapers or televisions. He certainly caused a lot of buzz and gossip in the ranks and among the public, however. You can read about it in my new historical novel SINS OF THE EMPRESS.
Orlov was assigned to Moscow and later Poland and was in charge of several extremely important missions. He was a big, tall, dashing and handsome man who attracted a lot of attention by his looks as well as by his success at keeping the bad guys out of Russia. It must have all gone to his head, and he couldn’t resist the attention and invitations of the women who flocked around him. Or maybe he was just lonely. After all, he had been away from Empress Catherine for months, and he’d been on many similar assignments over the years that kept him away just as long or longer. Sound familiar?
Some things never change. Hearts are broken, relationships severed, people suffer from the embarrassment either of being caught or being cockled, and generals lose their positions.
Although he was banished from court and forced to retire, the empress allowed him to keep his rank and gave him six thousand serfs and several thousand acres of land as well as an annual salary of one-hundred-fifty thousand rubles a year and new furnishings for a house he had just built on the River Neva. She also provided him with household servants and food. On top of that, she bestowed upon him the highest title of the time, that of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Talk about a golden parachute!
So it seems some things DO change, after all. I would be very surprised to hear of a similar fate for the most recent disgraced U.S. general.
October 5, 2012
"This is the kind of book I wish had been available when I was growing up." Lois Duncan, author of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER
November is here, and it’s going to be a busy month for me. Besides the holiday, I’m going to make a trip to Miami to accept the Gold Medal first place Readers Favorite Award in the fantasy category for my YA novel WIZARD. I had never written a fantasy novel until I wrote WIZARD, so this is a special treat for me.
The best part, though, is that in the Readers Favorite contest, the winners are selected by regular readers. The best kind of award to win!
WIZARD is the story of Merlin’s teenage sister who has to get out of Avalon to save her life. She’s being bullied in a very serious way. In an attempt to help her, Merlin accidently transports her to the twenty-first century. She finds it confusing to say the least. The fact that she’s out of practice with her wizardry skills gets her in plenty of trouble. She also learns that bullying is alive and well in the twenty-first century. This time, she finds herself in the roll of the bystander who should step in to stop it. It’s not so easy to do, though, when you’ve suddenly been catapulted to the level of most popular girl and school. Is it worth it to risk that just to stop someone from being bullied?
Bullying is much talked about these days. A good thing, I would say. Anything that is hurtful to others needs to be addressed. I’m surprised at how many people have told me they were bullied as children, and I experienced it myself as a teenager. I hope WIZARD raises the awareness in the minds of all who read it.
August 30, 2012
My late friend, Eileen Stanton, wouldn’t read a novel unless she knew it had a happy ending. She was not at all ambiguous about exactly what a happy ending is, either.
“I don’t want any of the main characters to die, and I want everybody to be happy because they’ve solved all their problems in the story,” she said. “And I don’t want the author to leave me guessing about what happens next when the story ends,” she added. “I want to KNOW what happens next and that it’s all good.”
Obviously she’s not alone in her preference. We wouldn’t have so many books and movies with Sleepless in Seattle happily ever after endings or the good guys defeat the bad guys endings if that wasn’t the case. Happy endings sell books.
A psychologist would probably say we have so many ambiguities and unsolved problems in our real lives that when we seek entertainment or escape, we want to see movies or read novels about situations where all the ambiguities and problems are fixed and tied up with a big red bow.
While I’m not fond of existential endings that leave me scratching my head and wondering what all that means that I just read, I don’t insist on a traditional happy ending. What I want to read and write are novels, whether mystery novels, literary fiction, historical fiction, or YA fantasy with SATISFYING endings.
Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove doesn’t end happily. One of the main characters is dead, and the other is an old man who has lost his ranch and the love of his life. But he’s gained something, too, something better, I would say.
Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy doesn’t have a happy ending since “the prince” has died a tragic death, and so many people had been hurt so deeply, but the main character’s redemption made the ending satisfying.
One of my favorite literary novels, is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. At the end, we still don’t know whether or not Grace is a murderer. We only know she didn’t end up with the man she loved, yet we see in the quilt pattern she is making at the end that she has no regrets about any forbidden fruit she has tasted because it gave her life.
That’s not to say that I don’t also love a happy ending, especially the kind of happy ending Anne Tyler is so good at. And of course I loved Sleepless in Seattle. How could you not love that?
My own novels include historical fiction, contemporary fiction, mystery novels and YA fantasy, and the endings are as varied as the genres. I want to know how you feel about endings. Do you need a happy ending? A satisfying ending? An existential question ending? Leave a comment on this page and no matter what your opinion, you’re automatically entered in a contest to win a free copy of my latest novel, Sins of the Empress. (It has what I call a great ending.)
May 3, 2012
Catherine the Great’s birthday is this month, and you can have all the presents—a free Kindle and a spa basket fit for an empress (or emperor).
Go to www.coolwellpress.com/sins and sign your name. That’s all you have to do. Of course, I’d love it if you would buy the novel I wrote about Catherine, although that’s not necessary to win. The novel is called Sins of the Empress, published by Cool Well Press.
You may have heard of Catherine. She’s the tsarina with all the lovers. The one they tell that salacious story about having sex with a horse. That story is NOT true. It is true that she was a very passionate woman, not only in her love life, but in all that she did. That’s the reason she is such a good subject for a novel.
She was forced into an arranged marriage with the heir to the Russian throne when she was still in her teens. Her husband, Peter III, had been an alcoholic since the age of eleven, and it stunted his growth, both physically and emotionally. On his wedding night he brought his toy wooden soldiers to share the bed with Catherine.
She was under pressure to produce an heir, and since her husband didn’t seem to understand the mechanics of sex, her ladies-in-waiting convinced her to take a lover. She had several before her life ended (by natural causes, not by the horse incident), and she did produce an heir as well as another son and daughter. One of the tragedies of her life was that she was not allowed to see her children, and she risked her life to be with them.
Some accused her of murdering her husband—I’ll let you decide whether or not she did after you read the book. She did manage to secure the throne, though, even before his death, and proved to be one of the greatest rulers of the Russian Empire.
She was no ordinary woman, refusing to stay within the confines of what a woman “should do.” Many disapproved of her, many still do. That is exactly the kind of woman who makes a great story—the kind I love to write about.
April 3, 2012
Congratulations to Emily Rencich who won three books in the Alexandra Gladstone series by registering on my blog.
Congratulations also to Nikoleta Kats who entered the contest through another blog that featured the Gladstone series.
Thanks to everyone who entered! If you didn't win this time, you'll have another chance to win a book this month. This time it will be my new YA novel called WIZARD. It's about Merlin's teenage sister who accidently gets transported to 21st century America.
You can read the first chapter on my web page now. Just click on New Chapter at the top of this page. In the meantime, I'm working hard on the fourth book in the Gladstone series called THE QUEEN'S CRIME which I hope to finish in about three months.