THIS PAGE CONTAINS:
About my Writing Life
About the Writing of Claude and Camille
A Informal Tour of Monet's Paris and Giverny
I was born in New York City to a family of artists and fell in love with Mozart, Shakespeare and historical fiction at an early age. I began printing stories in a black and white school notebook at about nine years old and in my teens wrote several short novels which remain in a dark box. I learned something though, because by twenty, I had twice won prizes in a national story contest.
Then I left writing for classical singing. I sang in many operas and appeared as an international balladeer; I formed a singing ensemble, a chamber opera company, and so on. The translation of a late Mozart opera returned me to writing once more and I now mostly sing while washing the dishes!
My first published novel was NICHOLAS COOKE: ACTOR, SOLDIER, PHYSICIAN, PRIEST, followed by two other Elizabethan-17th century novels: THE PHYSICIAN OF LONDON (American Book Award 1996) and THE PLAYERS: A NOVEL OF THE YOUNG SHAKESPEARE. In 2004, I returned to my musical background and wrote MARRYING MOZART; it has been translated into seven languages and optioned for a movie.
My late beloved husband who was the best partner in the world was I am married to poet and reiki practitioner Russell Clay. I and have two grown sons (one in computer systems design and one a filmmaker). I was born in New York City and am still living here, a short walk away from all the impressionist paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.
ABOUT MY WRITING LIFE:
I cannot count the number of readers and reviewers who have said I write like a cinematographer. But to tell the truth, writing a historical novel is much like making a film, except one person chooses the actors and setting, directs, designs the sets, plans camera angles and lighting/shading, sews the costumes, touches up the makeup, edits, decides whether an antique clock or a very old photograph will go on a mantelpiece and…brings all this together so that a whole rich world comes to life before the reader when she/he merely opens the book!
I get so involved in my stories that I often date checks the year of the novel. I once addressed a supermarket clerk in Elizabethan English!
Looking back on my novels so far, I have found I return often to the passions and struggles as well as the intimate daily world of artists, writers and musicians of the past: Claude Monet half a century before he painted the water lilies, the unmarried Mozart choosing between four musical sisters (talk about sibling rivalry!), Shakespeare leaving his resentful family in Stratford to try make it as a playwright in London 1590 where he had never been in his life, and my latest intense love story about a much-loved writer from the nineteenth century...but more to come on that! Check back! See you again soon!
ABOUT THE WRITING OF CLAUDE AND CAMILLE (and, at page bottom, an informal tour guide for Monet's Paris and Giverny)
WHAT FIRST INSPIRED THIS NOVEL?
I am the daughter of artists, and the stories of the struggles of the impressionists were told to me as bedtime stories when very little. My parents were always painting or drawing, and I walked by the jars of paint brushes with reverence as if they were alive. I also recall taking an apple from a fruit bowl one day, and my mother crying, “Don’t touch that, please! Your father’s painting it!” Well, that was alive too, it seemed! So I grew up going to museums and art shows.
The specific idea for this novel came when I visited an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1995 called “The Origins of Impressionism.” The curators had gathered paintings for it created by the young group of artists who would become the impressionists. They were mostly poor then; they slept on each other’s floors or painted the same vase of flowers side by side and stood “shoulder to shoulder” against the world as Renoir would later say. But I did not return to the book idea for some time; I was busy writing other things.
WHY DID YOU WANT TO WRITE ABOUT MONET’S YOUTH?
I think the formative years of a great artist are so very interesting. Everyone knows the old man in his water lily garden at Giverny but most people don’t know how he began, and how very handsome and sexy he was at twenty-five. He was very proud. At one point in his life he told his fellow art students, “I only sleep with duchesses and duchesses’ maids.” He was also very poor for a long time. He couldn’t afford a flower pot, much less a garden. He was drafted into the army and almost died and he kept getting thrown out of his rooms because he never could pay the rent. And then he was so immature in a way and only centered on his art, and he fell in love and eventually had to support a family on…less than nothing! At times he did not know if he could continue painting. So he had a sort of La Bohéme youth, the friendship, the struggles, the impossible love.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT CAMILLE-LEONIE DONCIEUX?
We know little about this young woman whom he loved so much. We have none of her letters; perhaps Monet did not choose to keep them for his own reasons, or maybe they were lost. I had to use a lot of creativity to portray her. We know she was full of fun and a good amateur actress and came from an upper-class family who were quite horrified at her living with this penniless, scrappy painter who wore lace cuffs! I felt she must have been a bit of a mystery, a complex young woman. She sometimes made up fantastical things about her life and he had no idea how to handle that. She was both difficult and extraordinarily supportive; she was full of secrets which are revealed as the book progresses. Claude Monet seldom painted people and hardly ever portraits but he painted and painted her. It was as if he could not get enough of her.
ARE YOU AN ARTIST YOURSELF?
Heavens, no! I come from a family of artists as I said, but the gift utterly passed me by. However, I see like an impressionist. I go quite wild over light and shadow and the changing colors of water.
WAS THE BOOK EASY OR DIFFICULT TO WRITE?
It was very difficult and took almost six years, during which time I pulled a lot of my hair out! (The previous novel took nine months and so I felt it was all quite unfair!) I think it was so difficult because I wanted to tell three stories at once: Monet’s discovering art and who he was, the journey of the motley group of obscure painters who are now known as impressionists; and then the story of his impulsive passionate love for the upper-class Camille, to whom he wanted to give every luxury and of course he had nothing to give, not even bread sometimes. It was very hard to tell those three stories in a moving plot line, to have them move together over about twenty years. There was war and exile also and death and birth and so much else.
I finally decided to write little interludes between the major sections when he is 68 years old, just before he exhibited his water lily paintings; he is writing Camille’s sister who is very angry at him. Camille had been dead thirty years then and he still had not really come to terms with her loss. He looks back. This technique helped frame and center the book. He keeps trying to reach out to the sister, saying, “What do you know about Camille that she never told me?” And meanwhile his first water lily show is coming close and he is increasingly anxious about rediscovering his lost love and the value of these very unique paintings. Sometimes he felt that everything he had failed in his work and life. He could get very depressed. I move back and forth from his old age to his youth in the novel.
WHEN DID MONET START PAINTING?
He was seventeen, and already making a fortune doing these silly, clever caricatures of everyone in his home town of Le Havre in Normandy. He was skipping school and lying to his father who wanted him to come into the family business. A local painter, Boudin, persuaded him to try landscapes and Monet turned his back on the business and caricatures forever.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR MONET TO BEGIN TO MAKE A STEADY INCOME?
I think he began to find some secure footing when he was fifty. That’s a long time to live with financial insecurity. When he was about forty-three he rented Giverny; he could not afford to buy it until several years later.
WHAT ABOUT HIS OTHER FRIENDS? HOW DO THEY COME INTO THE NOVEL?
The young Monet shared studio space with his close friends; he first rents a studio with his friend the artist/medical student Frédéric Bazille who plays a critical part in the story and pretty much saves Monet’s life and then later there is a terrible tragedy between them. As soon as they have a studio several others pretty much move in, sleeping on the floor, leaving their dirty socks everywhere and half-finished paintings. The dishes are hardly washed. Auguste Renoir is making money painting pretty women on the walls of Paris cafés (all lost now), Camille Pissarro is running between his day job decorating blinds and his early paintings of the countryside, many of which he will lose. Paul Cézanne is there and several others. Years before their first independent exhibition together, they are trying to get people to take their work seriously. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, everything changes for everyone.
HOW DID YOU DO THE RESEARCH?
Oh my, well I must have bought at least fifty books about Monet and the impressionists, maybe even seventy-five. I am still tripping over them! I learned a little French for the research. I really bought a lot. I went to Paris and all the places he lived and of course I went to Giverny.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GARDENS AT GIVERNY WHEN MONET DIED?
Sadly, they fell apart for a long time. His son’s widow lived on, but she had no money or strength to keep up the gardens as he had left them. By the time Monet’s second son died in 1966, the gardens were in terrible shape. Rats overran them. The greenhouse panes and the windows in the house were reduced to shards after the bombings of World War II. Floors and ceiling beams had rotted away, a staircase collapsed. Three trees were even growing in the big studio.
The Giverny property was left to the Academie des Beaux-Arts and in 1977, Gérald van der Kemp was appointed Curator there. With the gardener André Devillers, he reconstructed the garden as Monet had created it, using the help of many gardeners. The new custodians expected only a modest number of visitors but, to their surprise, the numbers grew steadily until they now exceed a half million each year. I visited a few years ago and you almost expect the old painter to come from the house and grumble at all the visitors as he made his way down the path with his easel towards the water lily pond.
AN INFORMAL GUIDE TO MONET's PARIS AND GIVERNY
The lovely Margie White (of Glen Ellyn's JUST THE BOOKSTORE) asked me to put together some thoughts of visiting Monet's world for her and I decided to tuck them in here as well.
On the right bank, go to the rue de Furstenberg, or the Place de Furstenberg. There is a museum there to Delacroix, but when I went the guard never heard of where Monet lived but it was there he had his first studio with Frederic Bazille. Delacroix was super famous when Monet was just beginning. Very near there you will find the Musee D’Orsay, which holds many of the famous paintings done by the Impressionists in the 1860s when they were young and struggling. It includes the haunting one of Camille on her death bed, which I describe in the novel and also Bazille’s Studio in the rue de la Condamine, a small picture of all Bazille’s friends, hanging out in his studio. He painted that several months before he went to war and died.
You can walk right to the Il. St. Louis where Camille’s parents lived (in my novel at least) and look at the beautiful 17th century French houses. Also look down into the Seine which all the guys knew so well. Notre Dame was very old when Monet was young. On the right bank, take the trolley up to Montmartre. Somewhere there (look in your guidebook) you can find the windmills which are all that is left of the famous outdoor dance hall called Bal au Moulin de la Galette Montmartre. Renoir lived a little way from there when he was painting it. On top of Montmartre you can find artists working and Sacre Coeur, which incidentally was not built until after the Franco—Prussian war. The farmlands of that area are long gone but some vineyards, run by amateurs, still remain and produce wine. Here’s the website for Montmartre! http://www.montmartrenet.com Go buy wine!
In Paris you can find marvelous Monet paintings at the Marmattan http://www.marmottan.com/ and also that little portrait of him where he looks like Johnny Depp and also his palette and other things and at the Orangerie you can find the huge water lily round murals which he finished just before his death at the age of 86 (as I recall) http://www.musee-orangerie.fr/ And there are things in the Louvre which is a huge zoo of a place. It has a few Monets, but also the ghost of the young Monet, for he likely had a card (as did Renoir) to copy the pictures there.
Of course go to Giverny. Here are travel directions. http://giverny.org/transpor/ A little way down from the house is the church where he is buried. Camille is buried in Vetheuil which is a suburb. It probably takes half an hour from Paris today but back then there was no direct route so it took a long time.
I’d mainly say hang out at the river a lot. And a lot of Paris as you now see it was old when Monet was a young man.