Life Studies, Susan Vreeland's first short fiction collection, continues in the vein of the best-selling author's previous work, using art and artists as vehicles for storytelling. I recently caught up with Vreeland at the new Borders on Albuquerque's Westside on a recent sunny winter afternoon. Vreeland looks the schoolteacher she was for 30 years, but beneath this facade lies a passion for writing and art that she delights in sharing. We chatted over tea (and a late lunch for Vreeland, whose flight from Denver had been delayed).
As Andrea Barrett does with scientists, you use art and artists as leitmotifs in your fiction. Can you talk about this?
The viewer brings to a piece of art the issues in his life and sometimes art helps to resolve them. That's the theme of Life Studies. At times, this works better for those untutored in art history, because their experience of viewing a painting is unburdened by academics. In "The Things He Didn't Know," for example, Steve represents this: I chose a construction worker instead of an electrician or plumber so he could look up at the balustrade and consider how it was made. Steve is responding to art from his own frame of reference, and it works for him.
The epigraph I chose for the book reflects this as well. It's from art historian John Berger: "The real question is: To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?" What impressed me is that here's an art historian coming down on the side of those uneducated in art history. So you'll see several of my characters, especially in the contemporary section, who approach art freshly, and who, through the encounter, have a greater sense of their own self worth.
You were a high school English teacher for many years before the publication of your first novel. How does that inform your work?
High school students are unrelenting in telling me whether a story works for them or not. They're deadly honest. I think that helped me, but also I recall that every time I taught Hamlet, it took me longer to get through it. I first did it in two weeks, but the last time it took six weeks, because [it seemed as if] somebody put new lines in that play, and those new lines jumped out at me as images and variations on images that strung the play together. That suggested to me how I could string together the discrete stories of my first art-related book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by using certain images in different ways through different characters.
One of your stories, "Their Lady Tristeza," takes place in a high school in a small New Mexico border town. Why did you choose to set the piece here?
What I was aiming at was a teacher with certain prejudices having those prejudices eroded as she grew to appreciate and love her students. It's a story of the students' yearning for some understanding and support and the teacher's slow recognition that she was placed there to give it. I felt that way at times—that I was in my right spot to give humbly what was needed. The teacher's intolerance dissolves because of her interactions with her students, and her values become more centered around human need, human interaction, and less on artifice.
My brother-in-law, Mike Gray, was a teacher of special needs students in Santa Fe—he passed two weeks ago—and we often talked about teaching. Whatever I learned about the three cultures [in New Mexico] came from Mike.
Your knowledge of an Alzheimer's mother in "Uncommon Clay" seems firsthand. Is there an element of autobiography in this compelling story, as there is in the equally compelling "Crayon, 1955"?
"Crayon, 1955" had a great deal more autobiography than "Uncommon Clay." My mother, although sometimes repetitive and demanding, did not really suffer from Alzheimer's. My stepfather did seem to have it, however, so I combined them in this fictional mother. I don't want to imply that either of my parents had Alzheimer's—even my stepfather was never diagnosed—but I had done some reading about Alzheimer's in order to determine if we were headed in that direction.
Finally, I'd like to ask the obligatory "what are you working on now?"
My new book is about Renoir's painting "Luncheon of the Boating Party," which portrays 14 people after having lunch on a terrace overlooking the Seine, about 25 minutes by train from the center of Paris, in 1880. My novel will cover the two months Renoir spent working on it intensely. The 14 figures on the painting are my characters, and I dip into their lives.
In addition to researching the real-life characters who posed for the painting, I researched cabarets and opera and boating regattas and the layout of the streets of Paris that was changing, and the cultural milieu was very, very exciting to me. Some of my research required me to learn French. A friend of Renoir wrote a book about him that's only in French.
Can you explain how your work differs from non-fiction?
My work only involves a portion of a painter's life, delivered from the painter's voice rather than from an external reporter. My work also involves the conflicts and issues of secondary characters as they reflect the attitudes of society at the time. Biographies don't do that, although I use biographies as the beginning of my research.