Notes from Conversations with Teacher and Author Susan Vreeland
Linda Broughton, with Susan Vreeland
When I finish a novel and reflect on its effect on me as a reader, so often I ask myself, where did this story come from? I wanted to find out. I had the opportunity to contact Ms. Vreeland via e-mail during the winter of 1999. We had an energetic, spirited exchange of ideas. I find that once I know the author, or something about an author's life, his or her written text takes on a deeper significance. I begin to see the text differently. Reading becomes a mixture of minds. I read Vreeland's novel first on my own terms, and drew on my own experience as a fledgling water colorist and an avid reader of complex, challenging, imaginative literature, in order to react and respond. Then I reread parts of the novel to check them against the dialogue I had with the author about Susan Vreeland - the teacher, visual artist, person, writer.
Ms. Vreeland has been a teacher of English, creative writing, and art in San Diego, California, for over a quarter of a century. Her freelance writing began in 1979, several years after she started teaching, with "An Open Letter to High School Students," published in The Christian Science Monitor . As a teacher and writer, she continues to explore topics of interest in education, the arts, culture and travel. Vreeland states, "It was a way to broaden my life experience and to travel with a purpose deeper than tourism, and it was my initiation into non-academic writing." Asked how she "juggles" her time between teaching and writing, she said that she is an author during holidays and summer breaks. Her authorship takes a secondary position during the school terms. She also stays at school late (very late, at times) to get her school preparation and grading done. Her home office is set-aside as a place to write, not a place to grade papers. When she is at home, she is a writer. She also feels that her writing instills like-mindedness and compassion when she is teaching that comes with experiencing some of the struggles her student writer's experience.
Ms. Vreeland loves beautiful old things. She marvels at how centuries-old artifacts have been perfectly preserved and passed on from generation to generation. She wonders about their history, their creators. She imagines what owners of such accouterments presume about their property. Do the owners appreciate the "travels" of an artifact --- its history? Does the object that she sees as a thing of beauty affect others the same way, or differently? If so, why and how? Does everyone romanticize about that which we do not understand or know?
Vreeland tenders these and other human foibles in Girl in Hyacinth Blue . Not only does she describe the painting through the eyes of each of its owners, but through the eyes of both the artist and the girl of the painting.
We meet both the artist and the subject of Girl in Hyacinth Blue , his daughter Magdalena, in the final two story-chapters. Truth be told, Vermeer of Delft, a starving artist with eleven children, wants nothing more than to paint. He barters his paintings to provide a meager living for his family. He "paints" Magdalena so she will not shout and disturb his contemplation as he paints. For days she sits for her father and says nothing. Yet it is while she was sitting for the painting that Magdelena realizes that her father sees her only as a part of a composition of color, light, and shadow. She is no more important than the glass of milk that "reflected" the hyacinth blue of her dress (230).
Magdelena has two wishes in her life: first, she wishes to paint, for she knows she will never be taught, since girls "do not do those things"; second, she wishes that someone will look at her not as an artistic study, but with love. If she were permitted, she would paint not only what she saw - but how she saw it. Her father stilled life by painting items that he arranged and posed in the domestic world around him. While Magdalena was posing and looking out the window at the life of the village around her, she decided that if she could paint, she would tell "the truth in art" (238).
In the novel, it is Magdelena's inspiration to tell the truth in art that accounts for the way that Vreeland's imagined Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue , influences the lives of its owners over a period of three hundred years. The painting is "read and interpreted" singularly and unforgettably by each of its individual owner's emotional, aesthetic, and monetary motivation.
What I found particularly interesting was Vreeland's ability to create, in fiction, a poetic description of a (non-existent) Vermeer painting. The author explains that, through research about the artist and his techniques, she was able to create a fictional painting that is true to the qualities that are characteristic of Vermeer's paintings: masterful simplicity of composition and use of natural light. Vreeland was pleased to know that her descriptions of a fictitious painting so intrigued me that they led me to seek out a print of an actual Vermeer painting. I found images of his on one site that I recommend to readers as a complement to the novel:
Vreeland also creates a sense of authenticity through her use of Dutch names and places. She told me that she is of Dutch descent, and that she visited the Netherlands some 20 years earlier. There, she visited a small town called Vreeland (which appears in the novel). The region of Vreeland, as she recalls it, is a cold and demanding area that is inhabited by people who are known for their generous, open, and tenacious personalities.
In August of 1996, Ms. Vreeland attended Bread Loaf Writer's Conference where her writing was warmly received. Immediately after she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Following treatments and a proclaimed remission she had a recurrence and had to undergo bone marrow transplant. She was out of work as a teacher of high school students for two years. She was able to find something positive about this time: it offered her uninterrupted solitude for reading, research, and spiritual contemplation. Her interests were drawn to her roots, her heritage, her ancestry. She says of this time in her life:
I experienced a shift in consciousness; living more intensely. I became a better observer, better writer, and developed an enriched faith. My friends were held more dearly, and my doctors more appreciated. ( Girl is dedicated to them). If I had to leave this world, I wanted to leave something of me even if it would only be read by my friends afterward--- so there was an urgency to complete it and polish it, and to have it be a product reflective of me, of my values, interests, and sensibilities.
Well, Susan Vreeland, you have given each of your readers a gift through the portrait, Girl in Hyacinth Blue .
About Susan Vreeland:
Susan Vreeland's short fiction has appeared in journals such as The New England Review, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx , Manoa, and Alaska Quarterly Review . Her first novel, What Love Sees , was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. She is the recipient of several awards, including a Women's National Book Association First Place Award in Short Fiction (1991) and a First Place Award in Short Fiction from New Voices (1993). She received the Grand Prize from Inkwell Magazine for her short story, "Gifts."
Most recently, Girl in Hyacinth Blue has been named a nominee for best Book of the Year by Book Sense (American Booksellers Association), and a nominee for Best novel of the Year buy the Western States Arts Federation.
She has taught English literature, creative writing, and ceramics in the San Diego Unified School District since 1969.
Editor's Note: During a panel discussion at Florida State University on January 22, 2000, Susan Stamberg, Special Correspondent for National Public Radio and nationally recognized and respected broadcast journalist, was asked by a member of the audience: "What are you reading right now that you like and would recommend?" Without hesitation, Stamberg stated, "A new novel about a painting by the Dutch artist, Vermeer, that goes back to trace the various people who had owned the painting for over 300 years. It is by a woman named Vreeland." When Stamberg was unable to recall the title of the novel for a follow-up question, I was happy to shout out, Girl in Hyacinth Blue !
Vreeland's second novel has earned high acclaim. It was listed in Publisher's Weekly as one of the five books that received the most attention during the Christmas sales period in 1999, after the Harry Potter books. It is now being sold not only in the United States, but also in the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Spain, France, Denmark, and Poland.
In a December 19,1999 book review in the New York Times , reviewer Katy Emck praises the novel:
Susan Vreeland's second novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue , may be a book about a painting, but it is never content with surfaces. Tracing the influence of one extraordinary picture on a succession of human lives, it touches gently yet thoughtfully on such weighty topics as the immortality of a great artwork and the ways in which art can be used for various ends. each chapter stands on its own, a marvel of economy, yet also builds on the knowledge the reader has already gained. Vreeland is especially good at conveying the tensions that arise among her characters but largely go unspoken. She is also adept at capturing the differing sensibilities of various historical periods, working unobtrusively and successfully avoiding a contrived "period" feel.
Like many of its predecessors, the penultimate chapter is filled with a sense of tenderness, a gratitude for the gift of life---a mood that doesn't cloy because it is accompanied by a clear evocation of the daily stresses of loving and living. But the final chapter is the crowning one, which introduces the girl in the picture and provides a glimpse of what is actually going on behind those dreamy eyes. Throughout [the novel] Vreeland strikes a pleasant balance between the timeless world of the painting as a work of art and the finite worlds of its possessors and admirers .Intelligent, searching, and unusual, the novel is filled with luminous moments
Vreeland's book, which is now available in hardback from MacMurray & Beck, will be available in paperback from Penguin Books in October 2000.
As editor of The ALAN Review , I would like to thank Susan Vreeland for her enthusiastic contribution to the issue, through her interview with Linda Broughton, and through the novel itself.