Please welcome Thomas Van Essen to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Center of the World is published today. Happy Publication Day to Thomas!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Thomas: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be “here” on the internet.
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Thomas: I started writing in high school. It always seemed to me one of the few things a person could do that really mattered I wrote at Sarah Lawrence, where I got to study with E.L. Doctorow and a number of other great people. I spent a year after I graduated trying to finish a novel I had started there, but I couldn’t make it go anywhere and, more importantly, I couldn’t figure out how to make a living and be a writer. So I went to graduate school in English, with the vague idea of becoming one of those English professors who teaches literature during the academic year and writes novels during the summer. It took me nearly forever, however, to complete my degree and when I was done I couldn’t get an academic position (I wasn’t one of those graduate students who impressed the hell out of people) and so I took a job because I needed to make a living. I wrote a pretty good, I think, post modern sort of detective novel in those early years, but when I couldn’t find a publisher for it I stopped writing and concentrated on my family and my career. But ten years ago I knew I needed to go back to writing so I started The Center of the World.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Thomas: I don’t know how interesting this is, but I write in the morning before I go to work. I wrote the first draft of The Center of the World with a Namiki retractable tip fountain pen on nine Ampad Gold Fibre 8½ by 11 3/4 writing pads, which, according to the text on the back of the pad, offers “Rigid backing for easy hand-held use/Professional quality bond provides smoother writing surface/Stylish cover fits with any décor . . . home or office.” All of which, especially the part about being stylish and fitting with any décor, is true. Having a stylish pad is very important, although even more important if you write with a fountain pen is good paper that doesn’t blot. Over my desk I have one of the section signs that says “PAPERBACK FICTION” from a local bookstore that went out of business. Whenever I look at it I think of the Beatles tune: “. . .and I need a job and I want to be a paperback writer.”
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Thomas: I had to look up “pantser” but I guess that is what I am. I had a pretty strong idea about how the story was going to end, but only a general sense of how to get there. I thought of myself as heading in a general direction, but I tried to be open to whatever unexpected things I might find along the way. I think the best parts of my book were mysterious gifts that came from some unexpected place and are greater, in some sense, than anything the more or less normal person that I am could produce. The Center of the World is about J.M. W. Turner, a Romantic painter, and the book shares a sensibility with the poets and painters of his era, a sensibility which is inimical to a strict “paint by numbers” approach. I believe you have to write in a spirit of openness to whatever might come along. The Center of the World has a complicated structure—four alternating narratives—two set in the past, two set in the present—that speak to each other in what I hope are interesting ways. By the time I got to the second draft I had to start worrying about how all the pieces fit together so I had to start wearing the plotter hat.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Thomas: Finding the time. And then finding the words.
TQ: Describe The Center of the World in 140 characters or less. /like a tweet/
Thomas: Two vectors, one labeled “art,” one labeled “eroticism” meeting some place beyond what we know in either category. Realistic fiction about.
An erotic painting by J. M. W. Turner that turns it up to eleven: how created in the 19th century? How would people respond to it today?
TQ: What inspired you to write The Center of the World?
Thomas: During my first or second year of graduate school I took a course in 19th Century Non-Fiction Prose. I was sitting in the back of the room, on the left hand side, when the professor told the famous story about Ruskin supposedly burning Turner’s erotic sketches. I didn’t know an awful lot about Turner at the time, but I knew I liked him and that he was a great painter. My first thought, I remember, was what a shame, but my second was, what if these sketches were a sign of something else? What if Ruskin burnt them not because they were merely erotic, but because they had some kind of power in them that was more than mere eroticism? What if they were the preliminary sketches for a work like no other? That notion, in various permutations, knocked around in the back of mind for around 25 years.
I have a very good “day job,” but one evening about ten years ago I had one of those “is this all there is?” moments. I was the last one left in the office; I had just gotten off the phone with a very demanding client and I knew that I had done a pretty good job of handling a complicated situation. In some universe I should have been very pleased with myself, but I just felt empty and depressed. Is this what I really want out of life? Is this all there is? I had stopped writing once, but I knew that I needed to go back to it.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Center of the World?
Thomas: I read a lot about Turner, and looked at a lot of his paintings. I am fortunate in that I live near New York, so I could look at the Turners at the Met and the Frick. I used the Frick Art Reference Library to do research on some of the less well-known painters mentioned in the novel. I took a few trips to England to look at the Turners in the Tate and the National Gallery and to go to Petworth House where much of the novel is set. At Petworth House I tried to imagine how this real place could be instrumental in the creation of the impossible object that is at the heart of my book. The descriptions of the rooms and the paintings at Petworth are pretty accurate. The National Trust guide to Petworth House was an import resource
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Thomas: Mrs. Spencer, who is Egremont’s mistress and the model for Helen in Turner’s painting, was the easiest. When I started writing she really wasn’t part of the original conception and I don’t really understand where she came from. She was a gift. It wasn’t really a Pygmalion situation, but I fell in love with her as I wrote and that made it somehow easy. The hardest character, oddly, was Henry, the guy who finds the painting in the present. He is not me, but he is about my age and, like me, lives in New Jersey and has a place in the Adirondacks. What I found difficult was getting the right amount of distance between Henry and myself. He is a less happy and more troubled person than I am and it took awhile to figure out how to draw on my feelings to make him real, but to do so in a way that wasn’t me. Judith Gurewich, the publisher of Other Press, gave me some important help with him.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The Center of the World?
Thomas: I think my favorite scene in the novel is the one where Charles Grant, one of the narrators, first poses nude for Turner. Grant, who is a very beautiful young man, has been chosen to be the model for Paris. Grant is a poor, but university-educated writer who feels out of place at Petworth. He finds it difficult to reconcile his tenuous position in society with the fact that he’s been asked to take his clothes off in front of Turner. As Grant stands naked before Turner, the painter gives him a pose and tells him to look through the studio window toward the distant horizon. Grant tells us that after a few minutes of concentrating, he sees “a bright shadow on the physical world, and I knew in the depths of my heart that a goddess was making her appearance.” As Grant seems to see the goddess, Turner experiences what he calls “the frenzy. . . [when] the work seems to make itself, as though I’m a mere medium for some other power.” When the two men compare notes after the event, Turner says,
Funny about the gods. They’re a damn hard business. They are long gone in this miserable nineteenth century of ours. The groves are empty and so forth. Still, I sometimes imagine I catch a glimpse of them. Or see what they might be if they existed, if you follow me. You can walk about the park all you like. See deer. Foxes. Flocks of fowl. Most wonderful song birds. Marvelous light. Color. Shades between shades never seen before. But no gods. They are gone. Decamped to who knows where. Railways and machines took their place. Who knows? But sometimes, when I look about me, I sense that they were here, that they have just departed. It is hard to explain. They leave behind a scent in the light. As though an attractive woman’s been in the room. Only her scent remains. But in light. The residue of their glory in the world. An odd business.
At one level this is a scene is about what I would like my writing and the process of writing to be, but it was also a scene in which some of the main currents of the book came together for me.
TQ: What's next?
Thomas: I’m revisiting the novel I started while I was an undergraduate, but coming at it from the very different perspective of an older person. It features an unreliable narrator trying to make sense of the lies his father tells (or doesn’t tell). It’s about history and how we remember it; about the sins of the fathers and the sins of the sons. I hope it will be a shorter and more compact novel than The Center of the World.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Thomas: Thanks for having me. It’s a nice place you have here.
About The Center of the World
The Center of the World
Other Press, June 4, 2013
Trade Paperback and eBook, 384 pages
Alternating between nineteenth-century England and present-day New York, this is the story of renowned British painter J. M. W. Turner and his circle of patrons and lovers. It is also the story of Henry Leiden, a middle-aged family man with a troubled marriage and a dead-end job, who finds his life transformed by his discovery of Turner’s The Center of the World, a mesmerizing and unsettling painting of Helen of Troy that was thought to have been lost forever.
This painting has such devastating erotic power that it was kept hidden for almost two centuries, and was even said to have been destroyed...until Henry stumbles upon it in a secret compartment at his summer home in the Adirondacks. Though he knows it is an object of immense value, the thought of parting with it is unbearable: Henry is transfixed by its revelation of a whole other world, one of transcendent light, joy, and possibility.
Back in the nineteenth century, Turner struggles to create The Center of the World, his greatest painting, but a painting unlike anything he (or anyone else) has ever attempted. We meet his patron, Lord Egremont, an aristocrat in whose palatial home Turner talks freely about his art and his beliefs. We also meet Elizabeth Spencer, Egremont’s mistress and Turner’s muse, the model for his Helen. Meanwhile, in the present, Henry is relentlessly trailed by an unscrupulous art dealer determined to get his hands on the painting at any cost. Filled with sex, beauty, and love (of all kinds), this richly textured novel explores the intersection between art and eroticism.
Thomas Van Essen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned his PhD in English from Rutgers University. He lives in New Jersey with his family. The Center of the World is his first novel.
Website ~ Twitter @tvanessen2