I spoke with Hermann about crafting this novel, her feelings for van Gogh, and her interest in sibling relationships.
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: Tell me the origin story for this project.
NELLIE HERMANN: When I was doing my MFA, I took an elective course with Simon Schama, the historian. Our final assignment was to write a true short story: a short story about something true. I wrote about Vincent van Gogh. I vaguely remember starting to read some of his letters, and I really got into his voice. In reading about him, it became clear that there was this undocumented time in his life. All biographies have a page about it — really not a lot of space or time. All the things I was reading said it was a huge, important time in his life, but there was no evidence as to in which ways. At the time I was the same age he was during that time, and I was fascinated that this über-famous guy had had a period of crisis, and there’s this whole story we don’t know. The more I read about it, the more interested I became. So I wrote the story for Schama’s class and then put it in the back of my mind, because I was writing my first book (The Cure for Grief). But I kept coming back to it, and somewhere in the aftermath of my first book, I came back to it and tried to read more seriously on the subject. The more I read, the more interested I grew. Even now, I want to go back and rewrite this book again.
You had to do some world-building in this book but remain inside a pre-built world provided for you. Did you go about writing this with a set of guidelines or rules to help you govern it?
One of the hardest things about writing the book was staying close to what was probably real, and also allowing myself to invent. I read a lot of historical novels to figure out how other people had done it, and I read a lot of research about mining towns and mines and miners and Christianity. I borrowed a lot from here and there; I cobbled things together; I tried to not stick too close to what is actually true, which is hard. Especially because I have such a crush on van Gogh; I respect him so much. In my early drafts, that’s something I heard from readers: “You love him too much. He’s not flawed enough.”
What do you admire about him?
Maybe admire is not the right word; I find him fascinating, and I feel for him. It’s easy to say, not having known the real guy — I’m sure, in real life, he was actually very hard to deal with — but reading his letters, you get this sense of his inner self, and he’s so sympathetic. He has such a big heart, and he’s so full of life. He stressed about everything, and he overthought everything, over-emoted. He’s so sympathetic.
How did imagining this decade of the artist’s life better your understanding of him?
In every way! I knew very little about van Gogh when I started this project. I feel close to him now, even though so much of what I wrote was an invention.
Do you identify with van Gogh?
Definitely. I think wrestling with who you are and trying to fit in but also not wanting to fit in, and feeling like people don’t live up to your expectations of who they are — I relate to a lot of it. But he was a very extreme guy, I think. I don’t think I’m quite as extreme as he was.
My mom never fails to point out that I have a brother who’s mentally ill, and she thinks that my interest in van Gogh is displaced — she’s like, “Isn’t it interesting that you’re writing about this!”
He wrestled with the role of art in the world, and beauty, and how you represent it — he was struggling to be understood, and he felt like everyone had given up on him. Even then, he had a never-dying love for the world, and it’s interesting how those two feelings can coexist.
You depict a critical point in van Gogh’s life and career path. How is his experience of inspiration similar and different from your experience of creativity?
This is a great question and one I’ve been wanting to write something about. Not easy to succinctly answer, but I’ll try. The van Gogh that I have imagined (I want to be careful to not make too many claims about the real guy) has similar inspiration points to mine, I think — he is inspired by natural beauty, and sees beauty in sometimes seemingly unlikely places, as in an impoverished mining hut or the depths of a coal mine. He is tormented by the desire to represent what he sees: this is a compulsion I have only sometimes experienced but one that I feel I can understand. Van Gogh was so appreciative of the beauty of the natural world, and he wanted to give back to this beauty by representing it as best he could. In the later years of his life, the part that my book does not depict, making art became his religion, and it was every bit a form of worship. In my better moments I like to think of writing, and any art-making, in this way as well.
You’ve written about sibling relationships before, in your first novel. How did exploring the relationship of the van Gogh brothers allow you to build on your understanding of sibling love?
I expect I’ll be writing about siblings my whole life — it is a natural obsession for me. And the van Gogh brothers, well, that was a sibling relationship for the ages. So complicated and important — if it weren’t for Theo van Gogh, we wouldn’t have nearly any of the art from Vincent that we have today. Theo was without question the most important person in Vincent’s life. But to have all these volumes of correspondence from Vincent that Theo kept and to have almost none on the other side, so that Theo’s voice is all but silent … it just adds to the mystery and the import. When Vincent died he had a letter to Theo in his pocket! And Theo died just six months after Vincent. Anyway, I’m not really answering your question — suffice it to say that I find Vincent and Theo’s relationship endlessly interesting and inspiring, and I find it teaches me about the power of any and all relationships, the importance of having at least one person in your life that will stand by you.
Your prose is beautiful throughout, and I was impressed by the confidence with which you take on his voice. Were there days, when you were writing, that you channeled him less well?
No. Honestly, it’s so weird, but that’s never happened to me before. I almost never write in the first person, and I don’t know why, but I loved being in that voice. It was not easy — writing the book was not easy — but the voice was actually kind of easy. I have no idea why, but I’m grateful that it worked.
What would you say to Vincent if you were able to meet him?
I’d just want to give him a hug and say, “It’s alright, man.”
I was reading the other day an article in Vanity Fair that follows up with Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the authors of the big van Gogh biography a couple years back. At the end of the book they suggest that he probably didn’t kill himself. They found a forensic scientist who could back up their theory.
I never thought he killed himself. It sounds weird to say, but when you “get to know him” by reading his letters and quotes, it just doesn’t add up or make sense. Yeah, he was depressed and crazy, but he shot himself in the stomach, which, to me, says his death was not entirely intentional. And that he really only got recognition after his death — it’s just very sad.
Most of my research ended around where my book ends, though I did read some later letters as well. I feel hesitant to even talk about it, because my version of him is based on his younger years. I do recognize, though, that he became really difficult. It was probably hard to be his friend. Which is why it’s fun to — I don’t have to be his friend, I just get to know him through writing about him.
Claire Luchette is a Brooklyn-based writer.