Written from the perspective of Dr. Gachet, Vincent van Gogh’s physician, Carol Wallace’s Leaving Van Gogh is the fictional story of the famous painter’s final months in the French town of Auvers. Based on 902 letters exchanged between Van Gogh and his family and friends, the novel paints the picture of a brilliant but tormented artist who alternates between captivating and scaring those closest to him.
After having written 20 books on subjects ranging from parenting to social history, Leaving Van Gogh is Wallace’s first encounter with the genre of historical fiction. Having majored in comparative literature at Princeton when she was young, she recently went back to school and completed a master’s degree in Art History at Columbia Univeristy and in the process fulfilling a longtime dream. The research for her thesis ended up being the foundation of her book.
Narrator Dr. Gachet is a fascinating figure: a doctor who specialized in the mentally ill and had befriended some of the greatest French artists of his time. When he died, the doctor left behind an enviable art collection, including 26 Van Goghs, 24 Cézannes, a number of Pissarros. Apart from that, Gachet was also the subject of a famous work by the master himself. In 1990, his portrait fetched a staggering $82.5 million, making it the most expensive Van Gogh painting ever to be sold, and the most expensive painting in the world at the time. Looking at Vincent through his eyes is a wonderful and richly detailed experience, that also includes a fascinating look at the state of mental health treatment in the 1890s.
She’s currently working on her next book, a novel about the relationship between artists Manet and Morisot — “there is a kind of love story there but it’s not a conventional one by any means” — and writes a regular blog, Book Group of One, reviewing almost every book she comes across.
About to embark on the book tour for Leaving Van Gogh, Wallace took the time to share her thoughts on Vincent van Gogh, mental illness and the joy of writing about painting.
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Merel van Beeren: How did you come to write a historical novel?
Carol Wallace: I had previously published two novels of romantic suspense and one of social comedy, all of which I enjoyed writing. I began Leaving Van Gogh thinking that it would focus on Dr. Gachet and the history of his collection and thought there might be a mystery of some kind — I had contemporary characters interwoven with the historical ones. But at a certain point, the historical narrative started to drown out the contemporary one. It just seemed to have more authenticity, it was more alive to me.
MvB: There is quite a history of people reimagining the last days of famous artists. Why do you think readers are fascinated with the personal lives of famous artists?
CW: For myself, it has to do with the link between the visual and the verbal. In 19th-century France, there was a close link between the novel and the painting: writers and painters were each acutely conscious of what the others were doing, and each felt as if somehow the other ones had the edge on being able to portray life naturalistically.
It’s a way of writing about creation, or creativity — which I think is a topic a lot of people find interesting — in a more dramatic way. With painting, your progress is, um, visible. For writers, it’s so much more internal. Maybe writing about painting is a way of getting around that.
MvB: Why do you think Vincent van Gogh’s life fascinates so many people?
CW: His story is appealing on so many levels. His painting style is easily recognizable, and then when you get the rudiments of his life story – the severed ear, the lack of success, the stoicism, the suicide, the posthumous success — it’s full of drama. And what a great story arc! The guy keeps on trying, just keeps banging his head against the wall, suffering and guess what: he was right!
MvB: Writing a work of fiction about people that actually existed must be difficult — why did you choose to do so and what kind of challenges did you encounter?
CW: I think it’s like writing in any form: there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the people existed. They did certain things, and these are your immovable points. Your work as a novelist is to create a detailed character for whom those actions are consistent. I’ve always liked working with limitations, so maybe that was why historical fiction beckoned. More, though, I love research, so that was part of the draw.
One of the biggest challenges for me was creating an authorial voice. I started the book with an omniscient narrator, then shifted to Dr. Gachet’s point of view. I had to make him sound old, French and like a denizen of the 19th century — all without alienating the reader. It was also very intimidating to create dialogue for Vincent van Gogh. The letters were an immense help there, though. I wasn’t much of a Vincent partisan beforehand but the letters are incredible. He wrote so much and so well that after a while it wasn’t too hard to hear him.
Because Vincent was separated from his family for most of his painting career, because he was such a wonderful thoughtful exciting writer, we have astounding access not only to his movements but to his thoughts about what he was doing. What’s more, because he was often quite manic, if he wasn’t painting he was writing. There was often an almost frenetic level of activity. And the letters give us wonderful insight into his variable mental processes as well.
MvB: You pay a considerable amount of attention to the state of mental hospitals and psychiatric care in the book. Do you have a particular interest in this history?
CW: Oh, yes. The mental-health part of the novel was especially fascinating. I think most of us today have a sense of this great mystery, don’t you? We’ve all felt overcome by our moods, have maybe been alarmed by them, and realized how little control we have over them. And many of us have also had the experience of understanding how flawed our perceptions can be, how we can misunderstand motivations, situations, events, according to our mental or emotional states. At the very least we’ve seen other people do this.
And the current medical debate over the merit of talk therapy demonstrates how little understanding we still have of what goes awry in our heads. Heck, even saying that — “in our heads” — is a metaphor. Certainly Dr. Gachet’s diagnosis of Van Gogh’s illness may seem primitive, but I’m not sure we’ve made that much progress in our understanding of mental ailments. So many of the current treatments, even when effective, seem to be partially understood.
MvB: You’ve written 21 books so far … was being a writer a childhood dream of yours?
CW: Absolutely. My father, William Noble Wallace, was a sportswriter for the New York Times and wrote about seven books. My great-great-grandfather, Lew Wallace, wrote a novel called Ben-Hur, which was, guess what, a historical novel. I don’t believe in genetic transmission of a writing gene, but I always thought of writing as a way of making a living. And from the time I understood that, it was what I wanted to do.
MvB: You write your own blog of reviews, where you post something every three days or so. It seems like you have an amazing pace in reading and in writing about reading. Are you just as fast in writing your books?
CW: Sadly, no. Leaving Van Gogh took about three years to write, and then I worked with the Random House editors for another year on revisions. When I was writing more superficially, I wrote a lot faster. What seems to take the time now is imagining, and it can’t be rushed. I cannot tell you how much this frustrates me. I don’t feel as if I’m working unless my fingers are moving on the keyboard. But my understanding of the characters, their actions and motivations, develops over time and there’s nothing I can do about that.
MvB: Are you a painter yourself, or would you like to be one?
CW: Not at all. I can’t draw and the smell of oil paint actually makes me sick. It’s very frustrating because I do have a visual memory and I care about the way things look. But if I try to so much as hang a painting or set the table or arrange a vase of flowers, my husband has to take over.
MvB: What is your favorite Van Gogh painting?
CW: There are several, naturally. I love his series of shoes: they are so modest and homely and beautiful. But I also adore the almond blossoms on the blue background. When I saw that Random House designer Greg Mollica had used that painting on the cover of Leaving Van Gogh, I burst into tears.
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Leaving Van Gogh came out on April 19 and is available on numerous online bookstores, including Amazon.
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