An Interview with
Susan Vreeland, author of such books as Life Studies, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and The Passion of Artemisia, is a contributor to The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most to Them.
Interviewer Karyn Johnson: How were you approached about doing The Book That Changed My Life project?
Susan Vreeland:I believe Roxanne Coady emailed me and asked.
What compelled you to participate?
I always try to do what I can to encourage reading, and this seemed to be a doubly effective project---one that would introduce particular books to people who might not know of them otherwise, and would financially help the Read to Grow Foundation.
Your novels and your collection of short stories are about the art world, so I was surprised to see that you picked To Kill a Mockingbird as the book that changed your life. How have you incorporated the qualities that you admire about this book into your own writing?
The humanity of the characters is something I wanted to emulate. The foundation of To Kill a Mockingbird is love in its various forms---parental, brotherly, love for community, and an expansive love reaching out to those marginalized. I try to have my characters illustrate varieties of love too, particularly the unexpected moment when a character expresses the loving kindness that elevates humanity and signals a state of grace. This can be achieved no matter what the outward subject of the novel is, which in my case, is fiction about fine arts.
Did you have to stop and think about the essay you contributed to this project, or did you know right away what you wanted to write?
I knew right away what book I wanted to write about and the title I would give it, "Hey, Boo," signifying the acknowledgment of a human being on his own terms, which is love-based. However, I couldn't resist the opportunity to reread some favorite passages to reacquaint myself with the feelings I experience whenever I return to this novel. I'm not ashamed to say that even though I know the novel well, and have taught it many times, I got teary, rereading it, overwhelmed by the shortcomings of humanity as well as by human capacity for tenderness and respect. Such power in a book! Those feelings helped me to shape my commentary.
In addition to Harper Lee's book, what other books have had a large influence on your life and/or your writing?
Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife, the saga of a strong and rare woman in search for a spiritually satisfying life, has shown me that a literary novel with many passages of introspection can also be an adventure tale and a novel of romance. Her read-twice sentences of absolute brilliance have encouraged me to slow down in my writing and rewriting to craft more carefully at the sentence level.
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, has changed the face of literature forever by demonstrating the use of language to penetrate a character's consciousness and sensory experience. Now I'm unsatisfied with fiction that does not do this, and I'm compelled to reach for this in my own.
As you know, proceeds from the sale of The Book That Changed My Life go to the Read to Grow Foundation, which promotes early literacy. What advice do you have on improving literacy?
I encourage people who are readers of fiction to give a book they select carefully to a person whom they suspect is not a reader of fiction, saying that it was selected specifically for the recipient. It doesn't need to be a friend, or a new book, but it has to be a thoughtfully selected book and recipient. When a person receives such an unexpected gift, perhaps from someone one doesn't know well, curiosity about the book takes over, and creates a reader. This can be done with people of any age.
Of the other books that were chosen by your fellow writers for this project, which ones have you read? Additionally, what books have you read by your fellow contributors?
There was a surprisingly wide range of books included in this project, which is healthy. I've read Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, the plays of Shakespeare, The Little Engine That Could, The Catcher in the Rye, Hiroshima, Lolita, Uncle Tom's Cabin, David Copperfield, A Room of One's Own, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Hemingway's stories, the Bible, The Great Gatsby, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, oh yes, Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, the book that made me a reader!
I've read Harriet Scott Chessman's Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Someone Not Really Her Mother, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Bernie Siegel's Love, Medicine and Miracles, Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson, and some stories by Alice Hoffman and Margot Livesey.
On your website, you posted a letter from a woman who told you that your books have changed her life. How does it feel to know that you can have such an impact?
It humbles me, and gives me a responsibility to write with the ultimate aim of the betterment of humanity, to infuse my writing with bravery, upliftment, spirituality, honor, worthy endeavor, and a great open-armed cry of love to the world.
Internationally known best-selling author Susan Vreeland, two-time winner of the Theodor Geisel Award, is known for historical fiction on art-related themes. Her story collection, Life Studies, (2005) reveals Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters from points of view of people who knew them and shows that ordinary people can have profound encounters with art. Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999, Finalist for Book Sense Book of the Year) traces an alleged Vermeer painting through the centuries revealing its influence on those who possessed it. It has become part of the curriculum for many schools and universities, and was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. The Passion of Artemisia, (2002) illuminates the inner life of Artemisia Gentileschi, Italian Baroque painter, the first woman to make her living solely by her brush. The Forest Lover (2004) follows the rebel Canadian painter, Emily Carr, into the British Columbia wilderness to paint the native totemic carvings of the people she loved. Vreeland's novels have been translated into twenty-five languages.
Contributing reviewer Karyn Johnson interviewed Susan Vreeland, contributor to The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them, about
her book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Karyn Johnson/2006.