A few weeks ago I finished the book Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet. I love historical fiction, but I usually keep my tastes toward the “Tudor” end of things. I am also a lover of Impressionism, so when I spotted Claude and Camille I knew I had to read it. It’s a lovely book, and in interviewing author Stephanie Cowell I was fascinated to learn that she grew up with painters. This made complete sense to me because one of the things I noted in the book was how well she was able to describe how Monet viewed the light, what he saw when he watched Camille, or even looked out a window. Cowell tells the story of Monet as a young man, which better helps us understand where he was coming from in his more famous years later on.
Enjoy this interview.
I just finished reading your wonderful book Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet and was surprised to see that you grew up with painters yourself. How did growing up with parents who viewed the world with an artistic eye influence your writing, not just for this book but overall?
I think I was learning to see things as a child: light and shadow, and how they move. Also how to be still and watch. My parents would paint outside (I remember they loved boats and lighthouses) and there I would be with nothing to amuse me but a book or the glitter of the sun on the water and on the wings of a bird, and how white the boats were and how they creaked! I had a sort of quiet childhood. I was an only child for some time. I learned to be still and watch.
Like many writers, it seems you had the urge early on to create stories. Unlike many writers who put aside writing for more “sensible” or corporate jobs, you became a classical singer. Please tell us how you made the transition to writing full-time from a singing career.
Singing was hardly sensible, as it does not pay a lot to anyone unless you are in the handful of top singers! Most of my professional singer took place during my marriage. I had two sons and my then husband did not want me going to work; he was old-fashioned. But I sang and made a nice part time living. Then when he left and so did all child support (alas!), I had to find a way to keep feeding us and so I took an office job. That ended my running around all over to sing which made my sons happy. They knew where I was! I had written a lot as a teenager (I won the Seventeen prize for fiction) and I knew I would go back to writing one day full time. And I always loved history and literature. I always felt I really “lived” in an older time.
I loved the detail in Claude and Camille about the early years when Monet was young. The impressionists were very focused on their work and really endured a lot of years with little or no money. It makes me wonder what life would be like in the painting world today if they had not had that determination, and each other. What was the best part of writing this book for you? Were you surprised at some of the things you uncovered while doing research?
I am very interested in writing about artists when they are young because that’s when they really form. I think painters face the same problems today if they want to make money; everyone in the arts has that problem. Monet had dear friends (Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne) and when he found an art dealer to sell this work, he immediately said, “And here’s my good and gifted friend, Auguste Renoir!” What was the best part of the writing? Creating the friendship between the artists. They used to sleep on each other’s floors and pawn their watches when a friend needed food. It’s hard to remember what surprised me in my first research as it was a while ago, but maybe what a hard time they had. Once Monet couldn’t pay his rent at an inn, and they threw him out naked in the middle of the night! And what a long time it was and a hard path to owning Giverny and making a water lily pond there.
Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?
I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing a novel about a famous woman Victorian writer yet. This is very exciting for me. I have about ten other books in progress and sketches for several more. I’d like to live to be very healthy and old and still be writing. I have worked in several historic periods and will work in several more. I am so excited by the smallest thing from history: an old stairway, a ruined abbey, the name of an ancient 14th century street.
What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?
That’s impossible to say! I read fascinating ones all the time. I am amazed at the gifts and imaginations of my fellow writers.
In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?
A successful writer is one who writes books which move other people. You can’t say how much money you will make. Oprah could find me tomorrow and suddenly I would be very very well known. I think everyone has stories inside them but sometimes it takes years or decades to develop the skill to tell them and make them come alive for other people.
Advice for other writers?
Keep writing, keep reading, note what other writers do that you admire. Love your characters and your place with such passion that it becomes one of the most important things in all the world to get that one scene where she first sees him (for example) perfectly right.
Where can we learn more about you?
My web site is http://www.stephaniecowell.com or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have done a lot of guest blogging on the web, a lot of which is listed on my website.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am very thrilled when anyone is moved by my stories. As CLAUDE & CAMILLE: A NOVEL OF MONET is my newest, it so thrills me when someone writes me that they love it. [Editor’s note: Readers, I really loved this one. I think you will too!]