Thursday, March 3, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Stephanie Cowell

A 1/2 Dozen with
Novelist Stephanie Cowell
who talks about
the inspiration behind her work
and
the inspiring research
for her latest novel
about Monet
and his muse.

Here goes:

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

There were lots of tiny inspirations for CLAUDE & CAMILLE, mainly that I grew up the daughter of artists with the smell of oil paint in the house, trying not to knock over the easel or eat the bowl of fruit my father was painting! And I never thought of writing about painters, ever. Then about fifteen years ago my new husband and I went to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum about the origins of Impressionism, featuring paintings created in the 1860s when the young painters who would become the Impressionists were in their 20s. Their friendship struck me intensely, how they kept together in their poverty until they succeeded. And I wanted to know who they loved. The book shortly focused on the 25-year-old Monet and the young woman who was his muse. But I put the idea away for about ten years before an editor asked me to write another book about a creative historical person. Then it took over my life.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

The publication of my first novel was both amazing and unbelievably strange! The publication process was just wonderful. I had almost placed my book in several publishing houses (I had no agent then but that is a long story) and finally an editor from W.W. Norton called me at my office and told me they were buying the book and giving me a contract for the second book. I had my editorial lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC right where the Round Table used to stand and Madeleine L’Engle and Eli Wallach and many others blurbed for the book. And there was a story in Publishers Weekly about how the W.W. Norton office manager had discovered the book at a church supper; two ladies who had read my manuscript loved it and talked to him about it over coffee. I could go on for pages on how amazing it was. At the first book reading I sang Elizabethan songs with a lutenist at a NYC Barnes & Noble. (I had been a singer and it was an Elizabethan book.) We had a huge crowd.

But my first reading out-of-town was gruesome! It was held in a brand new Barnes & Noble in Albany and they had set me up to read about ten feet inside the constantly opening door and a few feet from the very noisy cafĂ© with no microphone. I shouted out scenes from my novel above the noise and finally gave up. Hundreds of people poured into the bookstore but none of them sat down in the empty chairs to hear me but continued to the back of the store. Finally, utterly bewildered, I asked the manager, “But where is everyone going?” and he said, “Oh, Spot the Dog is making an appearance here today!” So there I was, outdone by an actor in a dog suit. My son came to the reading with his girlfriend but no one else. They took me out for ice cream after. I was too depressed to eat it!

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I don’t recall my research being anything but wonderful and amazing to me. I went to Paris and Giverny to research the life and world of the young Claude Monet and also to visit the gardens he created when he finally had enough money to live well. I walked down the streets where he had his first studios when he was poor. I felt his ghost everywhere. When my friend and I were leaving his gardens at Giverny we walked down the road and saw a church build high up. If there are old European steps I have to climb them…so up I went. And in the back was his family tomb where he is buried. I had no idea he was buried there; I just stumbled upon it. I was so moved.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I had the proverbial lonely only-child childhood before the age of nine where if I wanted a friend I either read a book or created one in my mind. My best friend was David and I used to sit on half a chair so he could sit beside me…not being able to see him, everyone always asked why I sat on half a chair! I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. My father had disappeared, my mother was a career woman who was loving but impatient with me so she sent me to my elderly grandma’s house where my aunt and uncles lived and then took me back when she married. I was six and it took me a long time to get used to my new father. We lived in the city so I came home every day after school and was alone. We kept moving and I went to 9 different schools in 12 years. So the habit of living in an inner world was very strong with me even though I have so many wonderful friends now and family.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I am an Anglo-Catholic, which is a very “high” Episcopalian. We have vestments and incense and sung masses are generally from England or Europe before 1600. I pray about my work a lot. I would feel very alone if it were just me. I try to meditate everyday and ask God’s help.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

I had two novels which almost wrote themselves: they pulled me along. MARRYING MOZART took less than nine months to write and I was working at an office full time. My husband was coming back to health after a terrible illness and I was so joyful. I was a singer before I was a writer and sang a lot of Mozart and his music swept me along. The book just soared on happiness. I had no idea how long it would take me to write it; it just happened. The most difficult one which I finished (I have two big books I never finished) was the current one, CLAUDE & CAMILLE: A NOVEL OF MONET. I couldn’t find the center of the story and how I wanted to tell it. In this case I thought I could do it in a year and it took about five years. It was horribly difficult. I can only say that I HAD to write both those books. My beloved late mentor Madeleine L’Engle used to say that an idea of a book comes to you and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me.”


STEPHANIE COWELL was born in New York City where she had lived all her life. She began to write stories at the age of eight and by twenty had won prizes twice in a national story contest. In her early twenties, she left writing and trained her voice as a high soprano; she sang over thirty opera roles and appeared extensively as an international balladeer with guitar as well as forming a singing ensemble, a chamber opera company, a performing arts series, and producing several small Renaissance festivals. She returned to writing with the translation of a Mozart opera. Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest was published by W.W. Norton in 1993, followed by The Physician of London in 1995 (American Book Award 1996), The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare in 1997 and Marrying Mozart in 2004. Her latest novel, Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet, was published by Crown in 2010. She is currently finishing her new novel The Poet in the Tower, the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning..

**The paperback version of Claude & Camille will debut April 5th. Hardcover and Kindle are available now**