The amazing Nellie Hermann, and the conversation we had, as we transitioned from winter to spring here in Brooklyn. It’s summer now, but it’s not too late to acquire a copy of The Season of Migration!
Author Nellie Hermann
The Season of Migration is gorgeous to look at. The jacket, the design, all of it. Can you tell me about the work that went into the design?
I know, isn’t it?! I got so lucky – and truthfully I don’t know much about how the design all came together, except that the good people at FSG really got the book. “The Sower,” the painting that was used for the cover, is one of my favorites (Van Gogh did many versions of it), so I was extra happy that a detail of it was used. I’m totally in love with the way the book looks and can’t thank the designers at FSG enough!
Truly gorgeous design. And even more gorgeous writing. To start with, I think this is a true masterpiece of the genre. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. I say this even as I have read other books in this genre that I absolutely love, such as Joanna Scott’s Arrogance. Yet as I say this, I know you must have been inspired by other works or models, not necessarily in this genre, which I loosely define as a novel about the imagined inner life (as all inner lives must be) of a visual artist. I would rather call it this than a historical novel.
Thanks so much for your generous praise! Well, in terms of other books – I looked around a lot when I was starting writing for other books that had a similar project – a first person account (in the first version of my book it was all first person) from a historical and well-known real life figure. I was surprised at how few I found! The ones that I found that were particularly inspiring to me were David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, and John Williams’ Augustus. Also Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang which was a total revelation but also made me feel like I might as well stop trying because I could never write anything that good.
Inspiration is perhaps an irritating word, but can you talk about your inspiration for the novel?
I think the real inspiration was Van Gogh himself, and specifically his letters. It was his voice in those letters that really moved me and wanted me to try to emulate it, to spend more there.
What in his voice moved you specifically?
I was moved by his honesty I think, how close to the surface his emotions were, and how tied up always with what he saw in the world around him. I just didn’t realize what a great writer he was! Reading his letters actually make you feel like you’re really getting to know him, which was fascinating to me…maybe especially in this day and age where all our communications tend to be so quick and to the point.
For the sake of LitScene’s audience, I should mention that the idea for The Season of Migration came to you while you were a graduate student at Columbia in 2004, in a class with Simon Schama called “Writing Narrative History.” And that you were in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library poring over Van Gogh’s letters for hours.
How did you prepare and research for The Season of Migration?
I did a lot of research – read everything I could find about Van Gogh, biographies and his own letters and all of the extraneous collections of things written about him from anyone that knew him. I also researched quite a bit about mining life and about Christianity, the other two aspects of the story that I didn’t know much about! For mining life, the novel Germinal by Zola was incredibly helpful – I also went down in a mine in Pennsylvania which was invaluable, and used a few books that actually had photographs of mining life in the United States. I found that for writing a novel, images and photographs of life around that time were even more valuable than written accounts – when writing about London when Van Gogh was there I looked at a book of images of Victorian London and that allowed me to imagine characters that felt real but also my own. It was important for me to have a little bit of a sense of what things would have looked like in the places I was writing about in order for me to feel comfortable imagining the scenes there.
In what way was Germinal an influence for The Season of Migration?
Well, it was just the main text I read that gave me a sense of what life was like in a mining town. It’s a great book, very evocative and set entirely in the kind of environment I was trying to imagine, so that was perfect. It was very helpful for me in imagining what those mining buildings were like.
It makes sense to me that you would research how things looked in Victorian London, or in a coal mining town, in order to imagine the scenes for your novel. This also highlights the fact that the novel is powerfully visual, which is primarily what hooked me.
What I mostly remember from your BookCourt Q&A was that there was painstaking, obscure research not only into Van Gogh’s life — the kind of research that seems to have convinced more than a few readers into mistakenly thinking that this isn’t a work of fiction! — but into Van Gogh’s era, by which I mean historical details, like the little details of daily domestic life back in Van Gogh’s time. I certainly like what Chris Adrian said about how the miracle of this book is how it makes Van Gogh seem ordinary, even as, simultaneously, he is extraordinary.
One of the things I learned from Van Gogh was this sense that work is work – for him, working at art was much the same as working as a peasant in a field – he put the same kind of effort into his art, and in a way his working at his art like that was a way for him to connect to the common laborers, whom he always admired but never fully belonged with. I like this notion; it resonates with me.
You often mine metaphysical themes — such as invisibility, dissociation of identity — in your work. These are as real to me, as a reader, as the description of wheat fields, canals, and old mills in this novel — your handling of these themes are closer to your treatment of light as both abstract and sensual. Speaking of which, light is metaphysical in passages like this one:
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 (p. 121).
It’s passages like this that are just stunning to me as writer and reader. I can’t think of the last time I read writing that felt this gorgeous. It’s like watching a Tarkovsky film, but I’m a sucker for language, so I’m just glad to be reminded that a single sentence can still contain the potency of an entire film. Thank you.
How do you feel about the place of metaphysical themes in contemporary American fiction?
I appreciate these questions very much, and thank you for noticing all of this. Not sure I can succinctly answer. I will say that these “metaphysical themes” you speak of are, I think, often what draws me to a book, and often what I appreciate in other writers, so it’s nice to hear you appreciating them in my work! I do think these themes and explorations are fairly rare, and perhaps under explored/represented in contemporary American fiction … these days writers who write “quiet” books (a word that has come to seem ugly in the publishing context but in fact is not!) have a harder time finding homes for their books (particularly if these writers are women, but that’s a whole other conversation), which is just an unfortunate byproduct I think of today’s digital world with short attention spans. Yeah, I could go on about this but I think I won’t.
I will say though that in my experience it is definitely these metaphysical moments that connect me to my own creativity – in the writing of this book especially, I had to have a lot of mental space and feel a connection to the natural world (i.e., not be in New York City!) in order to enter it and move forward. I’m not sure if that will be the case with all of the books I write, but for me it took that otherness of place to connect me to my own creative well and to Van Gogh’s voice.
That’s really interesting, I know what you mean about not being in NYC! I know you have taught and lectured on the use of creativity in nontraditional contexts, as the Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, and I feel curious about your thoughts and feelings on this.
I do teach and talk a lot about creativity and its uses for people who don’t tend to think of themselves as creative … another big topic, and I’m not sure if it’s directly related to these questions of the metaphysical, though basically I do think that everyone at root is creative just by virtue of being human – there’s something innate to all of us that holds wonder and imagination – and that the challenge really is for each of us to find out how we can best tap into that part of ourselves and let it be cultivated and explored. There’s no question that letting that part of all of us live and breathe would be a good thing for each of us, and that all it takes is a bit of effort!
I’m interested in this because one of the things I love most about your novel is that it draws attention to Van Gogh’s own struggle with his creativity. Even—perhaps especially—a genius struggles. What do you do to convince people who don’t tend to identify themselves as “creatives” that they are, in fact, creative at heart?
I think the only way to “convince” them is to show them that they are capable – so I just ask them to write! Once someone who doesn’t think of themselves that way does a few creative exercises they tend to start to have fun with it and cut themselves more slack.
I enjoyed the discussion of “idling” in your audio interview with Zinta Aistars. What do you think is the relationship between “idling” and the creation of art? Does an “idling” kind of life result in better art? Why do artists need unstructured time in order to create, if, in fact, they do?
That’s a tricky one – no, I don’t think an “idling” life results in better art, and I don’t even think of the word that way – really I think of it as a word that was thrown at Vincent though in fact what he was doing was anything but that. We each work differently – I do tend to write more when I have uninterrupted time, but I have friends who actually work far better when they are squeezing in a half and hour in between everything else. I think it’s all about finding out how we work best and then trying to figure out how to fit that into what else we have to do.
What are you reading right now that feels meaningful?
I just read two books which I really loved, very different from one another – Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, which I found devastating and incredible in its language and restraint, and Cesar Aira’s An Epsiode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which was strange and other-worldly and made me want to read all of his other books.
Thank you so much, Nellie.