Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Guest Blog by Thomas Van Essen, author of The Center of the World - July 10, 2013

Please welcome Thomas Van Essen to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. The Center of the World was published on June 4, 2013 by Other Press. You may read an interview with Thomas here.

I started writing The Center of the World on March 21, 2003. I had turned fifty the year before. I was doing well in my job, having climbed about as high up the ladder as I was going to get. I had wanted to be a writer in college and I had written a pretty good, I thought, detective novel shortly after I finished graduate school, but after I couldn’t find a publisher for it, I got discouraged and stopped writing. I concentrated on my career and my family.

The idea that eventually became The Center of the World had been kicking around in the back of my mind since I had been in graduate school. That March I knew I had to give it one more shot. I told my wife that I had started working on a book and that if my interest in the project lasted long enough for me to produce seventy pages of long hand prose, I would cash in some frequent flyer miles and go to England to write and to do some research (which, in this case mostly meant going to the Tate and the National Gallery and looking at pictures by Turner).

So I made the trip. In addition to London, I went to Petworth House (about an hour south of London) where I found the scenes and the inspiration for the sections of my book that were set in 19th century England. In the morning I wrote for four or five hours, a luxury my job and life did not permit; in the afternoons I soaked up Turners. It was great.

I came back to New Jersey and went on with my life, but with the important difference that every morning I woke up an hour and a half earlier and wrote. I still worked hard at my job and did all the other things I was supposed to do, but I now had this writing time which gave some important meaning, purpose, and structure to my life. I had good days and bad days with the writing, but the time I spent working every morning as I sat in my pajamas and drank my coffee, made me feel good about myself in a way that I hadn’t for years.

But I never told anyone beside my wife and one or two very close friends (who were asked not to talk about it) about my writing. I didn’t want to be a fifty-something unpublished writer, nor did I have whatever it takes to be a member of a writing community. There are, I know, lots of writer’s groups that meet in libraries or online, but I never felt like I wanted to do that. I think it would have been in some sense healthier to be “out” about being a writer—to at least define myself that way in public—but I didn’t want to define myself (at my age) as a failed (i.e. unpublished) writer. I don’t think that was a particularly healthy attitude, but that is where I was during the writing.

I hadn’t quite realized while I was working on The Center of the World that I had encoded my thoughts and feelings about writing and my relationship to writing into the very structure of the novel. Every book contains an element of autobiography and in all works of art about art, there is an implicit dialogue between the work of art in the process of being created (in this case, my novel) and the work of art that the work of art is about. The Center of the World is about a secret and forbidden painting, a painting so powerful that it transforms all who come into contact with it. There is, I have come to understand, a deep psycho-metaphorical link between the secret and “forbidden” nature of the painting in my novel and my own practice as a writer. Part of what I was trying to work out was the transformative power of writing in my own life. My writing, I was trying to tell myself, was the secret, powerful, and transformative center of my world.

Now that The Center of the World has been out for a few weeks, I am no longer a secret writer and writing is no longer forbidden. I have been thinking about what’s different. The short answer is “not much.” I feel, of course, (and this is a very good feeling) that I have accomplished something that I have wanted to accomplish since I was in high school forty years ago. It’s a good book, and I am proud of it. Most people who read it like it; it’s gotten good reviews. But now I have to own myself as a writer and I have to figure out what that means.

I think a lot about that great moment in the second act of Waiting For Godot:

         ESTRAGON: We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?

         VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.

For writers, that waiting that Vladimir recommends is more writing. And that is what I have to do: keep writing.

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.

About Thomas

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

1 comment: