The authors stopped by powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn last month to discuss their novels, The Blue Period and The Season of Migration, which depict Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh before they became famous painters. This transcript of the writers’ live conversation before an audience has been edited for clarity and space.
Luke Jerod Kummer: A few months ago or so, I read Nellie’s book and was incredibly impressed. I also saw similarities between what she wrote about van Gogh and what I wrote about Picasso. So I thought this might be a fun thing to do. I’m glad she thought so, too. We figured it would be neat to start off by picking excerpts from each other’s books to read. The one she chose for me shouldn’t need too much set-up, other than that Picasso here is a young teenager living with his parents in A Coruña. His sister recently died, and his father is struggling as a painter.
For months, the family sagged under the weight of a leaden sky. Pablo’s father stared at incomplete canvases, his brush vibrating inches from the stretchers. He watched the window, waiting for the rain to end, the fog to burn away. It seemed to emanate from that wretched Tower of Hercules in the distance, a lighthouse not projecting a ray to lost ships but dispensing evil.
After one such spell, Don José removed a pair of shears from a kitchen drawer and wrenched open the trapdoor in the ceiling above, as if still deciding whether to slice his wrists or plummet from the rooftop. Instead, Pablo’s father returned a few moments later from the dovecote and hung a pigeon’s snipped-off feet—limp and red, like a pinch of whole saffron—from a nail on the wall in his alcoved study.
“Paint the outlines, claws, and scales. I’ll do the rest when I’m back,” Don José told Pablo before exiting the apartment.
This assignment was an exercise Pablo had occasionally undertaken, now that his father’s eyesight had begun to fade.
“That’s what separates artists from arses, the hands—and the feet, too,” Don José would say. “Draw a thousand, no, no . . . a million pigeon feet, and one day, you might render a human hand correctly—might!”
Pablo remembered how, years before in Málaga, he sometimes found his small clenched fists enclosed inside the grasp of Don José’s long fingers. Father and son would peer together as they opened their hands, analyzing each digit, each joint.
“Look how your second finger begins to point even when you don’t command it. Try. Squeeze tight. Tighter! Now release them all at once. See there—see how it’s out of the gate before the rest? It wants to show what’s ahead. Remember this when you draw. Let the fingers move on the canvas as they wish, just as yours do.”
Back then, Pablo revered this instruction. But even before Conchita’s death, the luster of those lessons had dimmed. Don José heaped praise on Pablo but also endlessly chastised him—dressing down his uninspired works as mockeries of nature, reminding him that only imbeciles ignore shadows—all to prod his son toward painting the masterpiece that he could not manage himself.
By Pablo’s teens, though, he estimated his work equal to Don José’s and, in some cases, superior. The implications troubled Pablo. What business, then, did his father have correcting him, doling out advice? Pablo had grown tired of this apprenticeship and was bored with painting pigeons. Seeing Don José so emptied now tore down the last regards Pablo had for the man.
And the family was sinking closer to privation. Lola, Pablo’s eldest sister, turned to mending the neighbors’ clothes to augment the pittance the art school paid Don José. At night, she stayed up late darning instead of doing homework.
His father had uprooted the whole family, brought them to this awful place, because of his chosen profession—or his lack of talent within it. Either way, Don José had failed to keep his home warm with a stoked fire, his children healthy, his wife loved. Pablo wondered: Was his own artistic ability really a gift from God, or had Don José merely handed down a jinx, then? If the latter, should Pablo be made to suffer all his life pursuing what had so bedeviled his father?
Pablo was back lying in bed and paging through cowboy comic books with the room’s door parted when he heard the man fumbling up the stairway leading to the top floor. Doña María rustled in bed. The lamplight extinguished with a sigh.
Don José pushed through the apartment’s entrance and collapsed loosely onto his studio chair in the alcove where he painted. Pablo quietly watched through the open doorway as his father grabbed at his pipe and sniffed the air upon finding the clay still warm. The man turned to the brandy cask, which was filled lower than when he left, and Pablo regretted not thinking to add water to bring the level to what it was before. But Pablo’s confidence rose when Don José glanced over to the easel, where the painting was now complete—no denying the pigeon’s feet Pablo had rendered on the canvas weren’t nearly identical to the ones dangling from the wall.
“That’s that,” the man announced before sucking his teeth. “I couldn’t do a goddamn pigeon finer myself, nor could Michelangelo. ’Spose you’ve not much to learn here, anymore. Ignored by so many would-be Manets, at least pigeon painting is a discipline that will serve you many years,” Don José let loose with a groan. “Even after your masterpiece.”
Pablo continued turning the pages of his book.
“Hear me, boy?” Don José burst into a loud laugh that segued into a sputtering cough. “I might never paint again!”
Pablo got up and walked to the studio to see if he could quiet his father before Lola awoke, at least.
“Your landscapes instructor says you’re quite the prodigy,” Don José said, wiping his nose with his palm and then flipping open a newspaper on the table so he could glance down at the headlines. “You’ll pay the bills, eh, with me retired? Why, I won’t lift a brush!”
“Don’t say that,” Pablo replied. “It’s a promise we never keep.”
The graying man’s eyes narrowed. Don José almost spoke but stopped short, instead mouthing the word we. He tapped the ash out of his pipe and set it down before leaning forward in his chair. “And you should know how?”
Pablo raised a finger, but only the first syllables exited his lips before Don José’s open hand struck him below the cheekbone.
He smothered a whimper.
“Speak up, boy. I’m long in the tooth, short on eyesight, and having the damnedest time hearing you. You were about to expound on some insight you had, no?”
Don José removed tobacco from his pocket and told Pablo to compose his thoughts, returning to reading the paper unfolded across the table. “Of all the vileness Paris permits,” he said of the astonishing report that France had banned bullfights, “to think it would make illegal such a noble pastime. It’s all right. One might say, ‘The French don’t know how to kill a bull any more than they make real art.’”
Pablo shook as Don José growled, “Only a Spaniard understands the chief component to painting is pain! Not that which they call in France—what’s it? Ennui?” The man cleared the table with a forearm as he rose, shattering bottles of pigment and varnish.
“Yes, I’ll give you Delacroix,” Don José said, drunkenly. “A porpoise caught in the tuna net. The rest, they’re too busy sodomizing one another to paint anything worth hanging in a pissoir. That’s the only hurt they comprehend. But not us—we understand what it is to be knifed in the heart and live! Study that yet, did you?”
Pablo felt his eyes welling with tears. “What should I learn from you, if not to paint? Can you teach me to make a fortune? How about just enough to put a stone on Conchita’s grave?”
The blow that came next sent Pablo to the ground. The man knelt to meet him there, stabbing the air with his long finger an inch from Pablo’s nose. “Art emanates from suffering, bitterness, and hard, crystallized loathing buried in the soul. A paintbrush is a pickax! Mine your misery!”
The bite of turpentine filled the room. Don José reached for his pipe, stood, and lit it. “You’ll be sorry and so will everyone you meet, boy, but you’ll be good,” he said. “That is my gift. I’ve granted more than you know.”
[Reprinted from The Blue Period by Luke Jerod Kummer (Little A, 2019), pages 29-32]
Nellie Hermann: Thank you, Luke, for having me be part of the celebration for your new novel. OK, so, the passage in my book…It’s fun to read something someone else picked because it’s nothing I’ve read out loud before. I think the main thing for you to know here is that Vincent has been living in the Borinage, which is a mining district in Belgium, trying and failing at being a preacher. This is at the end of his time there. He is on a long walk to go see his brother, who lives in Paris. The last visit between them was after Vincent had been dismissed from his position at an art gallery. His brother told him, ‘Get a job,’ basically. ‘What are you doing with your life?’ After that, they didn’t speak for 10 months. Or at least no letters exist. The whole rest of Vincent’s life, there are letters back and forth.
The road is quiet once again, the houses spread far from one another, crows alighting in groups from the side of the road. Once again it is nearly dark. He shifts the weight of the knapsack he carries over his shoulder and thinks of Theo in his freshly polished shoes. What is he doing now? Vincent imagines Theo at the Goupil’s office in Paris, with a customer, a woman with a bustle and a feather in her hair. He is nodding and smiling at her, that thin, polite smile he gives when he doesn’t agree, the same smile he gave to him, Vincent, that day by the Sorcière mine. Or perhaps he is in the back room, his top hat resting next to him on the table as he eats his lunch, hard-boiled eggs and green beans, a perfect cut of turkey breast, and a steaming cup of coffee.
His stomach growls at the thought of food. When was the last time he ate?
Dear Theo, he thinks, I am not the same any longer! Don’t you see?
Dear Theo, what is the point of being a man if you must stay the same?
Dear Theo, I do not wish to be a man who stays the same.
In front of him on the road there is a man walking next to a horse drawing a wagon loaded with tools and miscellaneous things. The horse is old and thin and moves at a glacial pace; Vincent is quickly alongside them. He can see the horse’s ribs, which protrude left and right from his sides as he slowly clops along.
“Good day,” Vincent says to the man next to the horse as he comes up alongside them.
“Good day,” the man says in response. He is wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a coat that looks warmer than Vincent’s. He looks twice at Vincent, once fast and then once with a lingering gaze. Vincent is not sure which aspect of him could be so interesting.
The man tells Vincent that he sells the items in his cart to the farmers in the area. “Whatever they might need, I have,” he says with a smile. Vincent notices he is missing two of his teeth. “I like to say I make people happy all day long.” He asks Vincent if he needs anything, or if he has a knife that he needs sharpened, as he does that, too. They are stopped now, and the horse sends a spray of urine into the dirt of the road.
“I have nothing,” Vincent says, “and so I need nothing.” He says it quietly, wishing it to be a statement of fact and not a dismissal. He wants to ask the man if he has any food or water, but he guesses by the horse’s ribs that they are both as hard off as he is. To his surprise, then, the man produces two apples from a bag at the front of the cart and offers one to Vincent, giving the other to the horse, who takes it greedily. “You hungry?” he asks Vincent. “I was just about to stop anyway.”
They sit at the side of the road and share the apple, passing it back and forth between them. They hardly speak. Vincent listens to the sound of the horse chewing and of the crunch of the apple as he and the man bite into it.
“So where are you off to, then?” asks the man after a long while.
Vincent swallows, and fights the familiar resistance to answering any questions. “Paris,” he says, “to see my brother.” He passes back the apple.
“Ah,” says the man. “Paris. Too big and busy for me.” He takes another bite.
They chew in silence for a few minutes, and then Vincent finds himself speaking. “I’m coming from the Borinage,” he hears himself say, and is surprised. “In Belgium. I was a lay preacher there for almost a year.”
The man hands the apple back to him; there is only the core left now. Vincent bites off the bottom.
“Ah,” the man says, “and so what do you do now?”
Vincent chews, and hands back the rest of the core. He shakes his head and then nods. “That’s the question everyone wants an answer to,” he says.
He can see the man is waiting patiently for more, but he has nothing else to say. He looks out over the field and is quiet. Next to him he can sense the man coming to understand that their conversation is over. Vincent does not look at him because he knows he will see the familiar look of confusion, disappointment, and then resignation, the stages he always seems to make a man’s face pass through.
“Well,” the man says, “I guess we should be moving on, then.” He stands and wipes his hands on the sides of his pants.
They walk on alongside each other for a few miles, nearly silent, the horse clopping, occasional clinking sounds coming from the cart, before the man, who has told Vincent his name is George, turns off onto the road into a farm. He holds his hand out to shake Vincent’s in order to say good-bye. “Wait,” says Vincent. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his sketches. “I’d like to repay you for your kindness.”
“What’s this?” asks George.
“They’re just little sketches that I’ve done along the road.” He riffles through them, unsure of which one to give away. He chooses the sketch of the cow chewing, and looks up at George as he passes it over.
“So this is what you do, then,” says George, grinning at him. He takes the sketch, looks at it, and nods. Vincent can read nothing on his face of what he thinks of the picture.
“Thank you, Vincent,” George says, “I will keep this,” and holds out his hand.
They shake hands and Vincent watches him and his horse amble away, feeling strangely bereft of them, not wanting to continue on alone.
He meditates afterward on his encounter with George. What kind of pride is it that has him put his hand in his pocket and bring out those sketches, when he knows they are not adequate payment for the kindness he receives? A day or so ago he gave a different sketch to a farmer’s wife in exchange for a few slices of bread and a cup of coffee; he remembers her face as she looked at the drawing: unimpressed, confused. James and Bertha, too, accepted the drawing as if it were the work of a child. Still, he hears George’s voice: So this is what you do.
Two months ago, in March, he had made a different trek, walking to Courrières, a town not too far over the French border, to try to see the painter Jules Breton. He thinks of it now, remembering the longing in it, how desperately he felt he might gain something from the encounter with the artist.
In 1875, when Vincent was working with Harry Gladwell at Goupil’s in Paris, he saw Breton at a salon opening with his wife and two daughters. He was a commanding presence, a hulking man with long hair combed back from his forehead and a thick beard of black and white, ragged as a mountain range. That year his painting at the salon was The Feast of Saint John, peasant girls dancing on a summer evening around the St John’s bonfire, in the background the village with its church and the moon above it. From across the room, Vincent stared at Breton, trying to match the man with the work. It was as impossible as looking under a man’s skin while he passed by. He tugged on Harry’s sleeve, pointing out the artist, trying to impart to Harry why he was important, but he could tell that Harry barely cared. Later, back in their room while Harry slept, Vincent wrote in his notebook: Even if we could see inside a man, glimpse his blood and his brain, we would not see what we were looking for. There is a reason why feeling is invisible; it is why art is necessary.
How would Breton paint the miner’s life? A dark palette, with single brushes of light—the glow of a lamp lighting the sweat on a man’s body; the canvas taken up with rock, only a sliver where a man lies. A canvas covered with strokes of black, a single corner of glowing yellow and a man’s face, illuminated in the lamplight but black as the night. For months in the Borinage, Vincent had meditated on what such a painting would look like. He spoke to Alard of it one day in February in the salon, telling him about Breton, “a living being of the artist species,” and describing the difficulty of representing the miners, who worked in the dark.
“How would an artist do it?” he said, his eyes glowing. He had made Alard and himself cups of tea on the coal stove in the front of the room, the cups on loan from the Denis house. Alard sat on the floor with his cup in his hands, Smoke, the cat, purring on his lap. “I have thought about it a lot. The experience of being down in the mine is unmatched, and I have never seen an image that comes close to it. Can you imagine? A painting that could capture the way the cage drops, the way you fall through the earth with the speed of a train? I wonder what Breton would do if he were to try it.”
Smoke watched Vincent through a quarter slit of his eye. Vincent told himself to stop, to change the subject, to engage the boy more generously, and yet he could not make his mouth remain closed.
“How do you paint a subject with so little light? How do you represent what is unrepresentable? All that darkness down there, those bodies toiling in the lamplight, it is so beautiful and awful, it deserves to be painted, but I wonder if it is impossible. It would be like—well, can you make a painting of despair? Can you make a painting of grief? Can you make a painting of God?”
Alard put his teacup down and picked up one of the pieces of coal that was in front of him, pulling a piece of paper toward him. “Let’s try it!” he said, and quickly went to work, covering his paper with dark strokes of coal, leaving only one streak white down the middle of the page. When he was done, he held it up to Vincent, who was still pacing. “Here you go!” he said with glee. Vincent took the paper and looked at it, then turned to the boy. “Alard,” he exclaimed, “you’re a genius!” Alard blushed with pride.
A month later, in March, desperate to see and speak with Breton, he trekked to Breton’s house in a too-thin jacket. The first night, he slept in a thin haystack while a steady drip of freezing rain fell on him all night, and then turned back before reaching Breton’s house, with no money and a terrible foolish feeling.
He walks on past the bend in the road where George turned off, and thinks that perhaps it is up to him to make the painting of the miners that he dreamed about. So this is what you do. Could it be? He dreams of how such a tribute might come to be, and what such a thing might look like. He walks with his eyes closed, concentrating, thinking of the descent into the mine, the cage falling fast, Angeline’s elbow a stone in his side; he sees lamplight cast onto wet stone, glints of white on a mottled surface, and a dot of light at the top of the tunnel like a single star on a canvas of black. He sees cells with men working, like the caves of a honeycomb, lit one next to the other in dancing shadows and warm lantern glow; a man’s body, stripped to the waist, lit from the side where a lamp is hanging, body gleaming with sweat and streaked with black, behind him a canary in a cage.
He can see the images in his head—arresting, beautiful, convulsive images of human toil luminous in darkness—but he knows his hands could never execute his vision, and so the idea deflates and crumples. He sees a man’s back, a landscape of burning flesh, skin rippling and blistered, then flakes of skin floating in a pan of water. A man’s eye stares up from a face without skin; the shape of Angeline disintegrates, again and again, into obscurity.
Dear Theo, I cannot do it; I can see it but I cannot make it. Dear Father, you were right: I am good for nothing. He walks on, the baby Vincent next to him, chanting, This is your life, this is your life, this is your life.
[Reprinted from The Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), pages 115-121]
Isn’t that a wonderful passage? I was so impressed by what you accomplished and how the text evokes van Gogh’s pictures. To back up a little, though, Nellie, why did you choose to write about this part of the artist’s life?
Well, a few reasons. I wasn’t particularly interested in van Gogh until I started reading his letters and found out he was such a beautiful writer. Then I sort of discovered this period where the letters stopped. As a fiction writer, inevitably you become curious. I searched in biographies, and everybody unanimously agreed this time in his life was crucial. Up until then, he was obsessed with religion and God, writing letters that are pretty much just Bible quotes. After this, he becomes the artist we know. He was about 27, and when I first learned about this, I was close to that age. Just the idea that van Gogh was like, “What do I do with my life?” resonated with me. So, that’s kind of how it all began. I became really interested in trying to fill in the gap of what might have happened. But I would ask you the same question.
The Season of Migration takes place over a fixed part of van Gogh’s life, and The Blue Period is also confined—it’s about Picasso’s Blue Period, which lasted from when he was 19 to about 24 years old, a little younger than van Gogh was in your book. Everyone knows that art history term – “the Blue Period” – but perhaps we don’t realize Picasso was very depressed. Like you, I also had no particular interest in Picasso before starting, but I liked discovering how this time in his life is at odds with the artist who I’d come to know from popular culture—this 60-year-old guy in a striped sweater, smoking a cigarette. Someone who’s incredibly talented but also has a gigantic ego and is self-absorbed, making these abstract mishmashes of form and flesh. Whereas the paintings from this earlier time, they’re the opposite. They’re not abstract, but very human, empathetic. Not about form, but feeling. That led me to start thinking, you know, this image I have in my head of a 60-year-old guy in a striped sweater, well, he wasn’t always a 60-year-old guy in a striped sweater. At some point, he was just a kid, a nobody, from a nowhere part of Spain, trying to figure out what he was going to do in life. I found that appealing.
Your book reminded me of this, for van Gogh. One difference, however, is that The Season of Migration takes place before he became a painter. Could you tell folks why he was so driven to become a preacher and what he was doing in the Borinage?
One similarity Picasso and van Gogh had, which I didn’t know until I read your book, was their father figures. Van Gogh’s father was a preacher. His family were preachers and art dealers, and so he tried to do both professions and failed. In my version of this story, his heart was never really in either of them. I assume that’s what you were thinking of?
It is one of the parallels, because Picasso was trying to live up to his father, a painter. I think that’s a common thing a lot of us have felt. But with these guys, both had a parent who set a template.
I have a question that’s related.
Part of the reason I picked that passage for you, and why it jumped out to me as a reader, is because of my understanding now of van Gogh. This idea of “mining your misery” and that art is a representation, potentially, of suffering. The Picasso I had in my head was also that older man making the more abstract paintings, so I’m curious because The Blue Period – I don’t want to give away the ending – certainly leads us toward Picasso devoting himself to becoming a painter of feeling, a painter of suffering, and that doesn’t really gibe with the paintings from his later life that are in my head, or the Picasso who I thought I knew. Now that you’ve studied him so much, almost lived with him in a sense, and created him as a character, does your narrative of his whole oeuvre change?
I mean, his later works are very different, and his life then was also very different. I think after he achieved a fame almost unprecedented in human history…. Before Picasso, kings and queens and generals – Napoleon, and such – were famous, but there wasn’t the pop culture we have today. He was one of the first modern international celebrities. The time was ripe for that—the telegram had been invented, so you suddenly had a worldwide press; photography had been invented, so it was easy to reproduce his images. I don’t know if he was necessarily the most talented, but the conditions were right. This thrust him into a status that hadn’t really been felt, outside of royalty and a few political figures. I really do think celebrity can be corrupting, and he certainly didn’t deal with it very well. Whereas, during the earlier time when my book is set, Picasso isn’t famous. He’s poor, he’s struggling, and he’s living a life similar to the people he’s decided to paint. He’s sick, he doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from, he’s on the fringes. I wanted to write about that. I don’t think I would have written about…no, I just wouldn’t have written a book about his later life.
Well, it’s interesting because van Gogh of course died very young, and I wonder what would have happened if he had been alive for his celebrity. You know, in the book, part of what he does as a preacher, which gets him fired, is he moves into a miner’s hut, stops bathing, and basically tries to become a miner. And that kind of ethos was the same when he became a painter. You know, ‘I’m going to deprive myself in order to make art,’ right? But then he dies.
If Picasso died at the age van Gogh did, I think we’d have a very different concept of him. Later on in life, with Guernica, for example, the impulse to depict suffering bubbles up. But there’s also plenty else. By the time Picasso was an old guy, he could just sign something and it was like printing money. And that’s different than the person in my book, when he was doing the opposite, refusing to paint the kind of bright, Lautrec-esque portraits that would sell, instead committing himself to producing work that wasn’t selling at all, which was making him very poor—a kind of art for art’s sake he had in common with van Gogh. One of the reasons I asked you to read that passage from The Season of Migration is I really love that line where Vincent is questioning, “Can you make a painting of despair? Can you make a painting of grief? Can you make a painting of God?” Having written this book about a person intent on suffering the way his subjects have, what do you think is the connection between art and suffering? Is there one?
What do I think, or what did he think?
How about both?
Well, I’ll just answer for him. I don’t know that I have an answer for myself––yet! Although this is something I think about a lot in my own life. But for him, maybe suffering isn’t the right word. It was more a sense of…he was really religious and that religiousness transferred into his art. Suffering was part of that. This sort of deep sense of belief in a larger presence, whether you call it “God” or not––because after he became a painter, he stopped writing about God, but he still very much wrote in a similar way. But I think for him the suffering was the religion and the religion was the art.
For folks who haven’t read your book, can you describe the conditions he was seeing? There are unfortunately things comparable today, in America and elsewhere in the world, but life in the mines at that time was apparently dire.
When I was reading I realized everyone might have been like, what is she talking about? But at the end when he’s talking about skin floating in water and things like that, it’s because there were a lot of explosions in the mine when he was there. We know that to be factually true. In the book I wrote about a specific explosion where he has to help them take care of the bodies coming out of the mine. But it was extreme poverty. He started out being a guest in a home, a real home with a real bed, and then he was like, ‘What am I doing here? I can’t preach to these miners if I don’t know what their lives are like.’ So he moves into this hut. And it’s very much the way he was, until the end. He was sort of like, who am I to be doing these things? That’s why it would have been very interesting to see if he had been alive for his own celebrity. I mean, he sold one painting in his life before he died––it’s kind of crazy.
I will refrain from spoilers, but he does suffer a tragedy during the course of his time there, which shapes him.
But I made that up.
Oh?… Well, then it’s very well done.
You’re talking about “Angeline,” the girl he has a romance with who becomes injured, right?
It’s one of the things in your narrative arc that I felt related to the story I told, where an event made tragedy real for the artist and changed his idea about what he was doing on this planet and in his art. That really struck me.
Well, thank you, but it is definitely made up, which relates to one of the questions I had for your book – which is an interesting question about writing historical fiction, in general – how do you put it together? What do you create as opposed to what do you maintain when you know what’s real and what’s not? I mean, coming to your book, I didn’t know anything about Picasso. So I have absolutely no idea about what you made up and what you didn’t. I could, to some extent, answer the question for myself, but I will ask you first. How did you…well, just whatever comes to your mind in response.
First of all, I’m sure that you encountered the same thing – because both of these people are very famous – but there’s a tremendous amount about them that’s available to research.
You’ve got to be careful.
You could be reading for the next hundred years.
Even though these portions of Picasso’s and van Gogh’s lives are some of the least written about, there’s still heaps of material. My goal always was to do a bunch of research and write the story mostly as closely to true as possible – as far as what history passes down to us, anyway – because it was already a pretty wild tale of this tragic love triangle. And I thought people would read it, and say, you know, ‘He made up all this stuff.’ But then they’d use Google, and be like, ‘Oh, that’s not made up.” The rule I applied is if I was filling in gaps, it had to be not only plausible but also prompted by something I’d read in a first-hand or biographical text. And, while my book is historical fiction, there’s a certain amount of fiction to history, too. History isn’t an exact recording, but a lens—or, sometimes, many lenses. For example, many of the primary sources finished during Picasso’s lifetime were written by his friends, so you have to read between the lines of what they included and left out, and what they’re being careful to dance around. And I think if you’re the novelist or historical fiction writer, you start to think, ‘OK, well, what were the little things they sort of hinted at without saying outright? Is there another source also hinting at this?’ Then that allows you – or at least in the way I approached it – to fill in some of those gaps. But for the most part, I tried to keep what you once called the “scaffolding” in place of the history that’s passed down to us.
For you, what was research like? I mean there were a vast number of letters between van Gogh and his brother to draw from. For Picasso, that’s not the case. He exchanged some postcards back and forth between Paris and Barcelona, but nothing like the volume of letters you had. What was it like trying to read through and distill them, pull out a story and then do that special thing you accomplished where you made these letters yourself?
Yeah, tonight I read a third-person passage, but a lot of the book is written in the first-person in the form of letters to Theo. In my case, I deliberately stopped reading letters past a certain point. There’s so much, as you said, written about van Gogh, but also his own letters, I mean it’s like––there’s A LOT.
Van Gogh is also a very good writer, right?
Incredible writer, very intimidating, but just sheer volume. It would take a year to read all his letters if you were doing nothing else. And because I knew my book was going to end before he was an artist, it seemed like I shouldn’t read the later stuff, because I didn’t want a different version of him clouding my telling of his early life. So I read all of the letters up until this time, but then mostly stopped. And I read some entire biographies, but often I stopped early on, because I just didn’t want that in my head. So this made it a little easier. I don’t really know if the Blue Period has been written about, but in my case really next to nothing exists about this part of van Gogh’s life. That’s how I could make up that whole character, because Vincent sent I think a total of three letters during that time to anyone we know of. There were some recollections, such as one written many years later by someone who knew him in the Borinage, that kind of thing, and I loved reading them. But the voice I found in his letters weirdly – I don’t know why – inspired me to imitate it. I wanted to write like him.
You did a helluva job.
Thank you. I mean I loved that you thought that Angeline was real. That really makes me feel good. But it was truly a pleasure to try and imitate that voice. That’s not what I would normally write like, but it was so fun to do, and I miss it, actually.
You do an interesting thing in this book, which you mentioned, where it’s got these two different voices—parts are written in the form of letters, but because they’re exchanges from Vincent to Theo, we almost have the sensation that they’re written in second-person perspective sometimes, because in the address of ‘you’ – which is Theo, the brother – this can feel like Vincent speaking to the reader. And then there’s also this wonderful third-person omniscient voice. The book alternates between these. Why? Did it start out that way? Or, how did you choose the book’s structure?
The first draft was entirely letters, and because throughout I pulled actual quotes and phrases from his letters, I had all of those in italics just so I could keep track of what was mine and what was his. So it was kind of a mess, while also being kind of fun. But a person who I gave the book to said, ‘This is too internal.’ Basically, ‘No one will read this. It’s too much in the guy’s head. You need to have some sort of outside air coming in.’ That made sense to me. So I wrestled with that for a long time. Should it be third-person? Should it be letters from Theo? Should it be letters from someone else? Should it be…I mean I really took a long time to figure that out. Also, and this was several years ago, but I do remember being attracted to the idea of Vincent being a huge walker, who really did walk all the way from Belgium to France, more than once. He would just go on these long walks and sleep in the hay. I was really drawn to that, and it seemed like a way to show him from the outside, to have those walking passages. And I knew I wanted him to go to see Theo.
But how about you? Your book is quite complicated in its structure. I want you to talk about it because I don’t even know how to articulate some of the moves you make. One of the things I want to ask you about specifically, though, because my book does have a lot of first-person in it, and part of what I really had fun with was trying to be inside of this person and see if I could feel what he felt, but you don’t do that. Although, you do jump through many different characters––your point of view jumps into other people, not just Pablo. So I’m curious about that, and I’m also curious to know if you struggled with the decision to not have first-person. Like, did you ever want to be Picasso? Why did you never choose to be him?
Your rendering of Vincent – as I exhibited in my presumption that “Angeline” is a part of the historical record – is phenomenal. So much of The Season of Migration feels not like a novel, but van Gogh’s own words. To answer your question, though, I thought briefly about writing The Blue Period in first-person. But, you know, they’re very different figures, van Gogh and Picasso. Frankly, van Gogh is more likable. Picasso was very smart, but aloof, which I guess is also true of van Gogh, but he wasn’t as verbal as van Gogh. For example, Picasso was not a great writer. Yeah, he wrote some, but nowhere near the same level. So it didn’t make sense to have this ongoing narration from a person’s head who you didn’t necessarily want to spend 350 pages in—and I didn’t want to spend 350 pages in, either.
Another challenge I set for myself is I knew people identify Picasso with Cubism, which changed his life and western art. And so I was trying to figure out how – even though his Cubism phase doesn’t happen until several years after my book concludes – to give a nod to it within writing about this earlier period. I came up with an idea rooted in thinking that Cubism starts in the 20th Century’s first decade, which is about a hundred years after the third-person omniscient voice with internal thoughts entered literature with Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma – which was later taken up by Flaubert and Tolstoy, whose book Anna Karenina makes an appearance in The Blue Period. That kind of writing didn’t exist in western literature beforehand. Then, Cubism comes along with the same intent of not just portraying a single perspective but multiple perspectives in the visual arts. I found this interesting and wondered if I could write in a vein that would have been popular at the time – something like what young Picasso’s contemporaries were reading – while inviting a comparison of how the dawn of multiple perspectives in literature perhaps led painters to think about how to represent that as well. I also considered the Renaissance artists Picasso had studied, whose achievement was the invention of linear perspective. This too has a parallel in literature: shortly after Michelangelo’s time, Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, the West’s first novel. The point is, there’s always been interplay between the visual arts and literature, and I wanted to bring that into my book. I tried in a couple ways. First, my narrative jumps around a bit chronologically, and I do some things with shifting tenses to imitate Cubism’s flexible depiction of time. Second, I wrote in a third-person omniscient way that delves not only into Picasso’s thoughts, but also those of other characters, so you would have views from multiple perspectives, similar to what Cubism allows us. Sorry, that’s an overly complicated answer.
No, I’m glad I asked.
Thank you for that, Nellie.
And thank you.
Luke Jerod Kummer’s nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New Republic, New York magazine, The Washingtonian, The Village Voice, The Millions and Literary Hub. His debut novel, The Blue Period, about the tragic events that led a young Pablo Picasso to paint in nocturnal shades, was published in 2019
Nellie Hermann is the author of The Cure for Grief and The Season of Migration. She has been a Cullman fellow at the New York Public Library and a fellow at The Institute for Ideas & Imagination in Paris, France. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University and has taught and lectured widely on the use of creativity in nontraditional contexts.