Interview of Sheramy Bundrick, author of Sunflowers
Sheramy, welcome back to Versailles and more, and thank you for your beautiful guest post on Van Gogh’s Montmartre.
Thank you for having me!
In your acknowledgments, you recount how Sunflowers began with a walk at Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived and died. Then you have a separate note about places: not only Auvers, but Arles, Saint-Rémy, Paris… How do you, as a writer, relate to the settings of your novel?
The historical Van Gogh had a strong sense of place, and it was important to convey that. On top of which, I personally am an avid traveler and francophile. I traveled to all the locations in the book as I was writing (the ones that still exist), and I tried to capture in words the sensory experiences of being there as best as I could. Setting, I believe, is crucial to making any story feel “real.”
The real Rachel only registers in the story of Van Gogh’s life as the prostitute who received his gruesome “gift” after his first major crise in Arles. You explain in your author’s note that we know next to nothing about her. What made you choose her as the narrator of your novel?
I think she chose me! Every year in the art history survey class I teach, I talk about van Gogh and I usually mention “the ear incident.” Rachel’s name has come up many times, and through that and my own reading, I’ve always wondered, “who was she?”
I am amazed: how on earth did you manage to escape the curse of the headless woman for your cover art? What can you tell us about the genesis of this – stunning – cover?
Headless woman…or earless man! Very early on, I told my editor, Lucia Macro, how much I wanted an original van Gogh artwork — she looked at some images I provided and shared them with the design team. The final cover is actually version 3; version 1 had the same Sunflowers painting but a different detail. Version 2 was very different and did not have a van Gogh painting. For the final version, the designers opted for a close-in view of the flowers, a more turbulent composition than version 1. To me it expresses the mood of the story very well. I am glad you like it.
Van Gogh worked on a series of sunflowers still lives in Arles. What made you, or your publisher, pick for your cover this particular painting, with its blue-green background?
I sent high-resolution jpegs of all the sunflower paintings in the series for Lucia and the designers to see. I thought they’d pick the yellow-background version (the famous one in the National Gallery in London),but they surprised me. There’s probably a specific reason, but I’m not sure what it is.
You are a Professor of art history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Were you ever tempted to use a nom de plume? How do your students and colleagues react to the fact that you are also a novelist?
I wondered if a pseudonym was a good idea for about five seconds, then worried people might think I’m embarrassed to include a novel among my publications. I’m not! My students and colleagues at USFSP have been enormously supportive. The campus library staff are hosting a launch party on October 15th, and I’ve gotten all sorts of well-wishes, including emails from students I had in years past. It’s fun but a little overwhelming.
Rachel, though obviously an intelligent and sensitive young woman, fails to notice the early signs of Vincent’s illness. Later she yearns to marry and have children with him, after becoming fully aware of his uncontrollable fits of physical violence. Is this love’s famed blindness? Or do you see her behavior as self-destructive?
Some readers might interpret her behavior as self-destructive, but I don’t. She’s a very idealistic person, and she has a strong desire to save Vincent in a way she could not save other people she loved. After I had already created Rachel and started mapping her journey, I ran across a letter from Theo to his then-fiancée Johanna from December 1888, while Vincent was first in the hospital. Theo writes, “What I hope he will still find one day is a woman who loves him so much that she will want to live with him…someone who has herself experienced the depths of life’s misery and has come to the conclusion that the unhappiest people are nonetheless the best company.”
Van Gogh’s fellow painter Gauguin appears under a definitely unfavorable light in Sunflowers. How much is your description of him based on your research, and how much on your personal feelings? And how do you – personally – react to Gauguin’s paintings?
Rachel doesn’t think much of Monsieur Gauguin, does she? Although in the past much of Gauguin’s account of events was taken as fact, nowadays scholars are skeptical. In his autobiography,for instance, he basically takes credit for Vincent’s sunflower paintings even though the first in the Arles series were done long before he arrived, and he claims other things that seem not to be true. Gauguin had a tremendous inclination to invent and exaggerate, and he tangled with other artists besides van Gogh during his career. There’s no doubt his paintings contributed to modernist developments and exhibit innovation, and for that reason I appreciate his work.
Do you look at Van Gogh’s paintings differently after writing Sunflowers?
Inevitably, yes, and I think of him differently too. Even though I knew quite a bit going into the novel-writing — because I’ve been interested in him for a long time — I know “things about him that I hadn’t known before,” as Rachel says at one point. He feels real and alive to me in a special way.
What is your next project?
I have a few scholarly projects underway — my academic specialty is ancient Greek art, a far cry from Vincent — and a new novel is percolating in my head. Set in nineteenth-century Paris, a place I’ve discovered I really love, and of course with a cast of artists. If only there were more hours in the day!
Many thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and best wishes for the success of Sunflowers
FTC Disclosure: I received a free galley of Sunflowers.