Wednesday, November 9, 2011
The art of being Isabel Wolff...plus a book giveaway
**Giveaway is now closed**
You may remember Isabel Wolff from our interview in 2010 to promote "A Vintage Affair" (reviewed here). She's back now to talk about her latest novel, "The Very Picture of You" (Bantam Dell). Isabel was born in Warwickshire, studied English at Cambridge and after spells in the theatre and in advertising, got a job at the BBC. She spent twelve years producing, reporting and traveling worldwide. She also wrote freelance articles for magazines and newspapers, leading her to write a humorous girl-about-town column, Tiffany Trott. Soon Isabel had been signed up with HarperCollins to write books about Tiffany's adventures, which then led her to become a novelist. She lives in London with her partner Greg, their two young children and her two teenage stepsons. In her spare time she enjoys playing table football (a.k.a. foosball).
Isabel is here to share some history behind "The Very Picture of You" and THREE lucky readers in the US have the chance to win this novel, thanks to Random House!
To learn more about Isabel, visit her on Facebook, Twitter and her website.
AB: The Very Picture of You is about a portrait painter - what made you choose that theme?
IW: As I was finishing "A Vintage Affair," I began to think ahead to the next novel, and with all my books I give the heroine a very interesting career - one that is not just a backdrop to the action, but is pivotal to it. I hadn't yet done a book about a fine artist, but it had been at the back of my mind, and I began to think about portrait sittings, in particular about the intimacy of them - that in deciding to have oneself painted, one is allowing another person, nearly always a total stranger, to stare at every square inch of us, in order to recreate us on canvas, using marks made in paint or charcoal or crayon. And I became fascinated by the thought of it, and by the thought that the artist is portraying their subject not just physically - their muscles, sinew, skin, hair and bone - but psychologically and spiritually too. They are attempting to summon that person body and soul. I began to wonder what it must be like to sit there being scrutinised so intently. Would one talk? If so, in what depth? Would one divulge secrets? Or would one try to hide one's true self from the artist's unflinching gaze? Would one want to befriend the artist afterwards, or perhaps even fall in love with them? The possibilities began to crowd into my mind and so I began to write the storyline about Ella Graham, her five sitters, and their heartbreaking secrets.
MP: Are you artistic yourself?
IW: No, I'm not. I used to be able to draw quite well, but the minute I tried to put paint on it, it would be a disaster - I didn't know how to mix colour and everything would come out brown and beige. Nor did I ever learn how to put the light into the composition, and the correct placing of light is essential, because it's the fall of the light that gives the artist the shape and the form of what they're painting. So no, an artistic career was never on the cards for me!
MA: How did you do the research?
IW: I interviewed five well known British portrait artists - Jonathan Yeo, June Mendoza, Fanny Rush, Nick Offer and Michael Noakes. They were very generous with their time and helped me to understand the technical processes involved in painting another human being - and the psychological processes too - the way in which they find a 'way in' to the portrait, by noticing a particular gesture, or by seeing how the sitter is 'in their skin' - do they sit in a relaxed way, or are they tense? Are they open and expressive, or closed off behind a mask that the painter will then have to try and strip away? I also had myself painted. I commissioned Anastasia Pollard - an award winning portrait painter - and went to her studio six times and came to understand the portrait process from the other side of the canvas. This made me realise that when you're being painted you're reflecting on your life, and on who you think you are as a person, and you're also thinking about how others may see you. I chose Anastasia Pollard because her paintings, in addition to being very enigmatic and interesting, are small - about 10 inches by 8 - and so I felt that it was a painting I could live with. I certainly wouldn't have wanted a huge canvas of myself! Being a smaller painting also meant that it was considerably less expensive.
MP: Was there anything particularly challenging about the story line?
IW: There were two or three things, yes. The first was the stillness inherent in a portrait sitting. My heroine Ella paints only from life, not from photos, and this means that her subjects have to have at least six two-hour sittings. I was worried that this scenario might lack drama and so I had to make the sittings dramatic in other ways, by having Ella's sitters tell her things, as they get to know her, and at times the things that they tell her are very poignant. So I gave each sitter their own background story and ongoing mystery, in order to make the novel diverting and page-turning. Another challenge was that there was inevitably going to be a lot of dialogue in the novel. It's not easy to tell a story through dialogue, and so I knew that this would have to be very carefully controlled. A third challenge was about the nature of the relationship between Ella and the sitter that she falls in love with - her sister's fiance, Nate. I don't want to spoil the story for those who haven't read it, but let's just say that I needed to handle this relationship very carefully in order for Ella to remain a sympathetic protagonist.
MA: How much of you is in Ella, or in any of the other characters?
IW: Very little I think. Ella's main issue is the absence in her life of her own, natural father. My father was always very present in my life and was a wonderful father to me and my siblings. So I had to imagine what it would feel like for Ella and how she would cope with the knowledge of her father's abandonment. Her mother, Sue, is a very flawed character - obssessive, unforgiving and very untruthful - and I certainly wouldn't want to think that I was like that! But she is also very strong and very determined. All the characters have their flaws and their strengths, as we all do, but although I write in the first person none of my novels are autobiographical - if they were I would have had a pretty traumatic life!
MP: Do you have a favorite portrait yourself?
IW: There are so many fantastic portraits - where would one begin? I think Gerhard Richter's portraits are marvelous. I love not at first knowing whether you're looking at a portrait or a photo - that blurred quality is wonderfully unnerving and makes us question the way we see things. The portrait of his that I love the most is of Betty, his daughter, who was then ten. She's actually turning away from us, so we have to imagine what she looks like, and so it's odd that a portrait that doesn't actually show the sitter's face should be one of my favourite portraits but it is. The other portrait that I love is Albrecht Durer's self-portrait from 1500 in which he has painted himself, audaciously, looking like Christ, as though he's trying to turn himself into an icon. And he's so handsome! I had a crush on Durer when I was a teenager because of that painting, and this is the incredible thing, that a portrait painted 500 years ago, in two dimensions, not only still exists to be admired 500 years later, but is so vivid and 'real' that women fall in love with it. This is the almost miraculous power of portraiture!
AB: What do the best portraits do?
IW: I think the best portraits must of course evoke a powerful likeness of their subject - even though that can be done in a way that is not 'realistic' - just look at Frank Auerbach's 'scribbled' portraits - they are still very recognisable. I read somewhere that a competent portrait will simply conjure a likeness. A good portrait will conjure the likeness, but tell us something about the character of the sitter. But a great portrait will tell us something about the sitter that the sitter may not even have recognised themselves.
AB: In "The Very Picture of You," you go into the past, as you did with "A Vintage Affair." Why do you choose to make your novels semi-historical?
IW: I think that for the story to sweep back in time adds depth and perspective to the foreground, present day story - as long as it's relevant to it of course. In 'A Vintage Affair' the story went back to the Second World War, and to Occupied France. In 'The Very Picture of You' the story goes back to 1930s London, to the life of a society portraitist who has painted the picture that's hanging on the wall at the home of one of Ella's sitters, the elderly Iris. I wanted the story of this particular painting to be told, as it's a very poigant story, one that will ultimately have an affect on Ella's life, and so I brought that painting, and the circumstances in which it was painted, to life.
MA: There's been a lot of talk in the press about chick lit having had its day. Do you agree?
IW: I no longer really know what the term 'chick lit' means. A we know, it began as a marketing label for books about hapless young women who were single, looking for love, and coping with problems at work or at home; but now, in the UK at least 'chick-lit' has come to include just about any lighter book, written by a young or youngish women - regardless of what is actually between the covers. It's become a catch-all phrase that is a bit meaningless and is usually derogatory (less so in the US I feel). Having said that, in the UK the reader seems to be tiring of stories about being single or newly single and is moving more towards thrillers, mysteries and historical novels, so maybe the answer to your question is 'yes'.
We are thankful to Isabel for sharing her thoughts with us and to Random House for sharing Isabel's latest novel with our readers.
How to win "The Very Picture of You":
Please comment below with your e-mail address.
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Bonus entries (can be listed all in one post):
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US only. Giveaway ends November 14th at midnight EST.