I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.
The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.
The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.
If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).
From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.
Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.
Moscow. Snow. KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.
So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.
Young children seem to have this capacity for asking questions that appear simple yet feel impossible to answer. Like “Why is yellow? ” What is yellow I could manage but I’d be stumped to find an explanation of why yellow is yellow and not green or red. Another one that threw me a few years ago came when I was coaching some slow readers in my local primary school. One child stopped in the middle of reading, looked up at me and asked: “where do ideas come from?” I tried my best but at the end she simply repeated the question.
It was a conversation I remembered two nights ago during an uncomfortable flight squashed in an economy class seat next to a stranger who fell asleep almost immediately we took off and then proceeded to snore loudly while listing ever closer to ‘my’ space. Unable to sleep but yet too tired to cope with a lengthy flim I flicked through all the entertainment options in the hope of finding something to distract me. And then I discovered some wonderful bite size entertainment in the form of Ted talks. Even better, one featured Tracy Chevalier .
Now one thing that I’ve often wondered about is how authors get ideas for their stories. What ignites their interest and gives them the initial spark for their plot? Through Chevalier’s talk I discovered one way in which the creative process can work.
Chevalier gets ideas by visiting art galleries and asking questions about the paintings that most interest her. Not the usual questions about the techniques used or when the painting was created. But questions about what is happening in the painting, looking for the story behind the story in a sense. It’s a practice that made her a household name – seeing Vermeer’s painting Girl With a Pearl Earring (also known as Girl In A Turban caused her to wonder …..” what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.”. The result, one can say is history for it resulted in her award-winning book of the same name and later an award-winning film. She seems to have used the same approach when looking at other works of art – a book on tapestries for example, gave her the inspiration for The Lady and the Unicorn.
In the TED talk she gives another practical example of the technique in action. One day, seeing a painting of a young man dressed in a sumptuous Elizabethan doublet, she began to speculate why he was blushing. I won’t spoil this by revealing the story she spun from this exercise -just listen to her TED Talk here to find out.
it got me thinking whether other authors follow similar practices? I can’t think of another book inspired by a work of art. Does anyone have a suggestion??