Interview with Thomas Van Essen

When did you first get the idea for The Center of the World?

It was during my first or second year of graduate school, a long time ago.  I was taking 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, George Levine, 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.

So what made you finally explore that theme in a novel?

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 after I had failed to find a publisher for my first novel, a pretty good genre novel, but I knew that I needed to go back to it.

So I decided I would just write the book I wanted to write; I wouldn’t worry about it being “publishable” or anything like that. I would just do what I needed to do, engage with the ideas I really cared about. I would go back to the idea that had been kicking around in my head and in my journals since graduate school.

I made this deal with myself. I would get up an hour and half early every morning and write before I went to work. No adolescent agonizing, just produce some prose every day. All I had to do, I figured, was write 200 words a day, or 1,000 words a week.  50,000 words a year and I’d have a novel in two years.  Piece of cake.  It was, of course, more complicated than that and the two years turned to three and to four between living and crossing stuff out, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with what I was doing.

How would you describe the idea that is at the heart of The Center of the World?

In “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag says that “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art . . . Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”  What if the sketches that Ruskin destroyed were studies for a work of art that achieved that “transparence” that Sontag talks about more perfectly than any work of art ever has?  That work would be uninterpretable, it would just be what it was. How would people respond to such a thing? How could such a thing have been created? These are the ideas that I am playing around with in the novel.

An “uninterpretable” work, a work that just is, would be something that, as an aesthetic object, is more perfect than anything yet created and more erotic, as an erotic object, than any thing that ever was before.  When I think about the Turner painting in the book I think about two vectors, one labeled “art” and one labeled “eroticism” merging some place beyond anything we know in either category.  That intersection, treated as a real possibility, is what the book is about.  How could such an impossible object be created in the past? What would it be like to be in the presence of such an object in the present? Those are the questions I am trying to deal with.

That’s a very theoretical and pointy-headed description of what you are doing.  The book actually doesn’t seem that theory driven. 

Thank you. That’s me, in part, looking back and trying to make sense of the book after the fact.

Did you do a lot of research for this book?

Yes, but not a ton. In a joint interview E.L. Doctorow and Joe Papaleo (both of whom were my teachers at Sarah Lawrence) talk about how in fiction writing too close an adherence to historical fact can be crippling. (Conversations With E. L. Doctorow (1999), U. Press of Mississippi) Everything that happens in the book is more or less plausible given the broad outlines of what we know about Turner’s career, but I didn’t let myself be limited by the facts. One of the great things about writing about Turner is that he was a very private person—we don’t really know an awful lot about the man beyond the paintings—so  I felt like I had quite a few degrees of freedom there. I went to Petworth House a few times during the course of the writing—just wandering around like a tourist—and 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.

The Turner painting at the center of your novel seems to be a sexually explicit representation of Helen of Troy. How did you get to that?  

Well, I started with Turner’s erotic sketches and the notion that they were remnants, as it were, of a greater, but now lost, work. That work would have to have an erotic element to it, it would have to be a historical painting (this is Turner after all), and it would have to be about something really important. That got me to Helen pretty quickly. Early in the novel Turner is talking to his patron Lord Egremont about the difference between the ancients and the moderns, and who knew more about the truth. Turner says that “there is more truth between a woman’s legs than there ever was between Homer’s ears.” What he means here, I think, is that the “truth” is not so much an intellectual creation, but it is something that resides ultimately in the body and in human desire. When Turner, with Egremont’s encouragement, tries to represent that “truth” he is drawn to Helen, because Helen is the ultimate object of desire. She is, in some sense, the cause of everything: the Trojan War and epic poetry, art; the origin, from Turner’s perspective, of everything that matters.

There’s a relationship between the title of your book and Courbet’s infamous painting “The Origin of the World.” Can you talk about that? (For a link to the Musee d’Orsay page on the painting click here.  

The Courbet painting was in the back of my head as I was writing. Of all my early readers, Judith Gurewich, the publisher of Other Press, was, in fact, the first one to recognize the link; that was one of the things that made me feel I had landed in the right place at Other Press.

The first level of connection is that “The Origin of the World,” like the Turner painting in my novel, is a great work of art that was never seen because it is (or was) so scandalous. In that regard times have changed: today postcards of Courbet’s “scandalous” work are the second most popular card sold at the Musee d’Orsay. This popularity has, in some sense, ruined the painting. We can no longer be shocked; instead we indicate our ironic awareness that the painting is “shocking” by sending images of it to our friends.   But Courbet is, famously, a realist and his “Origin” was the last word in realism in that it depicted realistically and accurately something that was for social and cultural reasons “un-depictable.” Turner was, of course, not a realist (whatever that word might mean) and although the painting in my novel covers some of the same conceptual ground as the Courbet, it goes much “further” so that no one, not even me, can really say what it is a painting of. Whereas the intention of Courbet’s painting is pretty clear, I think of the Turner painting in my novel as just beyond the reach of anyone’s intention.  It is even a stretch for the fictional Turner in my book—he was never able to come close before or after the time described in the novel. 

We’ve been talking about the sections of the book that take place in the 19th century, yet almost half the book takes place in the early years of this century. Talk to me about Henry.

Although Henry is not me, we are both about the same age, we both live in central New Jersey and we both have an important connection to the Adirondacks. Let’s say that you are an average sort of person, just a regular guy, with a normal educated appreciation for art. What would happen to you if this Turner painting, this impossible object, this work like no other, came into your life? How could you live? What would you do? Henry’s struggle is to reconcile the overwhelming feelings that the painting evokes, with the quotidian reality of the life of a middle aged American male. The encounter with the painting is troubling enough, but his situation is complicated by the fact that he knows that the painting is worth an extraordinary amount of money—so much so that all the problems that money can solve would be solved if he sold it. But he also knows that the painting would be ruined—just as the Courbet painting has been, in a sense—if it were to become a public object. So what to do? His narrative is about a person trying to figure out what is both possible and right in that situation.

Henry finds the painting in a barn in the Adirondacks. Isn’t that sort of far-fetched?

Not really.  In the early years of the twentieth century a number of wealthy New Yorkers built elaborate summer places—the so called Adirondack great camps—in the area and some of these folks had pretty impressive art collections. Henry’s house was once the caretaker’s house for one of those camps, just as our place in the Adirondacks once was. When my late father in law first bought the property, he told me how it once been part of the incredible place next door. As he showed me the barn I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found something here that was hidden back in the twenties?”  We never did, of course, but that’s what fiction is for.

Although you play around with a number of serious ideas in the novel, The Center of the World has a strong suspense element as well.  We learn pretty early on that Bryce, the art dealer and his assistant, are hot on the trail of the painting, and this pursuit propels the narrative along.  Why was that aspect of things important?

I am a kind of narrative junkie. I think novels should be fun both on the level of ideas and on the level of “and then and then and then.”  I think most us care how things come out; we want to know how the story ends. I wrote my dissertation about Wilkie Collins, one the Victorian era’s great story tellers, and there are a few references to his work in my novel, including a letter from his father, William Collins, to the painter David Wilkie, who knew Turner pretty well.  I wanted to reveal something of the history of the Turner painting between the time of its creation and the time of it discovery. A narrative in which Bryce learns more and more about the painting and gets closer and closer to Henry in the process seemed like a good way to do that.

In addition to your book, the last few months have seen the publication of Ian Warrell’s Turner’s Secret Drawings, a study of Turner’s erotica, and Robert J. Begiebing’s novel about those drawings. And Mike Leigh is said to be working on a film about Turner that will come out in 2014.  What is it about that Turner’s erotica that makes it such a popular subject these days?

The zeitgeist is a funny thing. I started writing my novel in March of 2003, pretty much locked up, I thought, in the cave of my own imagination. I didn’t tell anybody, except my wife, that I was writing, let alone writing about Turner. I was about halfway through the second draft of my book in 2007-2008 when the big Turner retrospective that Warrell curated appeared in    Washington and New York. This was great for me in that I could get a serious Turner fix without having to go to England, but I also thought that I might have missed the train—that by the time I got my book done and published Turner would be “out” again.  But when my book is in galleys I hear about all these other books—how weird is that? On one level it was sort of depressing, but the fact is that Turner is one of the greatest artists of all time, and has been recognized as such ever since the publication of the first volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters in 1843. Ian Warrell is the preeminent Turner scholar of our time; he written a number of important books about Turner; hopefully he will write some more. His newest book is a very nice study that lays out in one place everything that survives of Turner’s erotic drawings.  What’s sort of neat about it, from my perspective, is that Warrell’s scholarship doesn’t rule out the premise of my novel.

But there is plenty of room for all of us. Interest in Turner will ebb and flow, but he is so rich and so deep, that people who care about art and about what humans can be and can do, will always be coming back to him.

My favorite character in your book is Mrs. Spencer, the mistress of Turner’s patron, Lord Egremont, and the model for his Helen of Troy.  Is she modeled on a real person?

No, she is an invention, although I hope a plausible one. There are aspects of The Center of the World that still surprise me. I think I know myself pretty well, but I don’t really understand where some of the stuff in the novel came from. It seems so much better and smarter than I am. Mrs. Spencer is like that. She grew out of the writing. I was trying to imagine someone who is perfectly beautiful, someone who would make a plausible model for Helen of Troy. She became very real to me and I sort of fell in love with her. Not quite a Pygmalion situation, but sort of.  I think that is why she became a good character.

What would you like your readers to get out of The Center of the World?

Pleasure, of course.  Turner was a Romantic and his paintings, while wonderful as formal objects, are also full of feeling. My book is not one of those cool postmodern affairs. It shares, in some small way, a Romantic (with a capital R) sensibility with Turner and other artists and poets of his time. I would like readers to leave with a feeling for what art and love can be and with some new ideas about how those two things might be related.

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