Thursday, June 25, 2009

Read This Book: Vanessa & Virginia

I can't pass up a book about Virginia Woolf. Vanessa & Virginia, about the sister's lives, is ravishing, literate, and fascinating. Susan Sellers, a professor of English at St. Andrews University in Scotland was so very gracious in answering my questions.

You’re a respected Woolf scholar, but why write a novel about Vanessa and Virginia? What was the impetus?

Some of my fascination came from research. I manage a scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf’s writing and this led me to read not only her novels and essays, but also her diaries and letters. We know an extraordinary amount about Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. And yet, there are gaps in what we know. Fiction enabled me to explore these gaps. It also allowed me to go inside the minds of both sisters, and to imagine what they were thinking and feeling.

The rivalry between the two sisters is palpable. I was wondering what elements did you bring to the novel that are not specifically factual?

I had a strict rule to myself when writing the novel that I would not contradict any definite fact. On the other hand, as I’
ve suggested, I wanted to explore some of the gaps in the story, and here I gave myself permission to invent. I see this as a feminist enterprise – filling in the blanks and omissions in the historical record.

I know that I brought some of my own life-experience to the sisters’ relationship. I’
ve always been fascinated by the way our early dealings with our siblings mould who we are and continue to resonate in our adult relationships. Like Vanessa Bell, I’m the eldest in my family and could empathise with Vanessa’s sense of responsibility towards the younger Virginia – as well as her pleasure in and at times intense resentment of her sister’s success!

This novel is narrated by an elderly, arthritic Vanessa, after Virginia has died. What made you choose this particular structure? And why have Vanessa be the narrator, when Virginia was the more famous of the two? What structural or story problems did you encounter doing it this way (and how did it free you?)

The honest answer is that I was too terrified of sounding like a poor pastiche of Virginia Woolf to attempt to write in her voice! Once I knew I would tell the story in Vanessa’s voice I began to see all sorts of advantages. For instance, it made it possible to give what I hope is a multifaceted portrait of Virginia: brilliant, risk-taking, intense, but also at times uncertain and needy. I think this would have been more difficult to do if I had been writing through Virginia.

The flashback structure offered great economy because Vanessa could select certain incidents rather than attempt to be all-inclusive and could also alter the chronology. This was important because some of the things that happened would have been hard to include sequentially in a novel, where as a writer you are thinking about pace, balance, contrast and so on. From this vantage point the most difficult part of the story was during the 1890s when the sisters lost first their mother then their half-sister Stella. This double tragedy would have been very difficult to handle if I had been telling the story in strict chronological order.

I also found it fascinating that it is the painter, and not the writer who does the narration of the story. What do you think painting has to say about writing and the creative process in general?

To prepare Vanessa, I spent time watching artists work and became fascinated by the way a painting is built up, brush-stroke by brush-stroke. This seemed to me a perfect metaphor for the role art played in both women’s lives. Scarcely a day went by when the sisters did not paint or write, and I think this incessant act of creation is one of the most empowering aspects of their story. No matter how difficult their lives were, they continued working. This is all the more remarkable when you think of the turbulent times they lived through – they experienced two world wars, tremendous political, social and technological change (they were the first generation of women to have the vote in Britain and Virginia wrote one of the first essays in the English language on cinema), and of course intense personal tragedy.

What was your whole writing process like in completing this book?

One very important impetus for the novel was a long period of research leave away from my University. This gave me time to write the first draft without the persistent interruption of work. After that, it was more difficult, because subsequent drafts had to be fitted around other commitments. For me, writing requires daily or near-daily space. I think you have to carry the world of your novel around in your head with you while you are working on it, and this is difficult to achieve if you have too many other demands pressing in on your time.

I tend to write my first draft in as uncensored a way as possible because if I start editing too quickly it kills all invention! Once that first draft is finished, I then read back through it and draw up a plan for what needs to be done. The second draft is always the most difficult because it’s at this point that I am thinking about the overall shape and momentum of the narrative, characterization, and so forth. After that, I could probably go on rewriting endlessly! There was a gap between the publication of the British and American editions – and the novel carried on changing…

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel about the contemporary London art world and about that moment in a woman’s life when she realises she may have left it too late to have children. The story is told partly from her point of view and partly from that of her (male) partner, so it also explores the impact childlessness can have on men.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I’m very glad you
didn’t ask me to recommend my favourite books because I always find that very hard to answer!


Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

looks like an amazing book.
Thank you for this posting!

Dory Adams said...

Great questions and answers -- thanks for sharing this interview Caroline. This is a book I'll look forward to reading.

Caroline said...

It's a fantastic book!