Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with Thomas Van Essen

Bloom: The Center of the World has some great subtext about beauty—how it’s much less a moral state or ideal than it is merely a moment of pre-decay. There’s a real dividing line in the story between young and old(er) characters, and the effect that the painting has on them. This, to me, is not a young person’s take on the subject, and I’m wondering in what ways has your attitude toward art (and beauty, if you like) changed with age? Is art a hedge against mortality? Is creativity?

Thomas Van Essen: Beauty, art, and love have all become much more precious to me as I’ve grown older. When I was about halfway through the second draft of The Center of the World I got very sick. I was in the hospital, I was in a lot of pain, and there was a reasonable chance I might die. This will perhaps sound sort of corny, but from that place of suffering I was overwhelmed by a sense of how beautiful the world is. It was a very powerful emotion, one that I had never experienced before except in Russian novels (and I thought—but I was wrong—that Dostoevsky was maybe overdoing it a bit). That feeling somehow informed the rest of my work on the book. I am aware that the amount of time I have to look at the things I like to look at, to read the things I like to read, and to be with the people I love is limited. When I was younger I took those things more for granted. Nothing is really a hedge against mortality, but approaching mortality allows you, if you will let it, to see, as Turner did, what matters in a more saturated light.

Bloom: There are also some serious ideas about art and class in the novel. In 19th-century England, that’s pretty much a given. But in the 20th-century U.S., there’s still a strong sense of the difference between the cultured art world and an average guy like Henry Leiden—Bryce uses the fact that he is “far better equipped” than Henry to understand the painting to justify his behavior. Is this an attitude you’ve run into or have strong feelings about?

TVE: In the mid-’70s, while I was in graduate school, I commuted from New Jersey to see a shrink on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Depending on the bus connection, I would sometimes get to his neighborhood early. At that time, the Frick was free and I would step into that great museum for just a few minutes if I had time to kill. That was where I first learned to love Turner; two of the really great monumental Turners, “The Harbor of Dieppe” and “Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening” are there. The fact that I could see them for free, see them casually, and see them often, was really important. But money matters. Folks with money always have greater access to cultural capital than those who don’t. If you live with a piece of great art (attention, burglars: this is not an experience I have ever had) your experience of the work must be qualitatively different than that of somebody who stands in front of it along with ever so many of the unwashed in a crowded museum. But I hope it is clear that Bryce is wrong: his frigid savoir faire is no match for Henry’s untutored enthusiasm. I tried to suggest throughout the book that the painting speaks powerfully to everyone who sees it, regardless of their level of cultural fluency. That’s one of the things that makes this painting so special.

Turner_selfportraitBloom: Have you written about art before, either in your college years or in a professional capacity? What are some pieces of writing about art—visual or otherwise—that have stayed with you or moved you?

TVE: No, nothing beyond a few (mostly undistinguished) undergraduate papers. I was very influenced by Arthur Danto’s art criticism when it used to appear in The Nation, but I’ve never been much of a student of writing about art.

Bloom: And, if you don’t mind my asking the same question as above about erotica, seeing as there’s such a strong sexual quotient to the painting and you tread very lightly around that, but still manage to convey a general sense of it.

TVE: I do mind. No, seriously: it’s a good question. I don’t like the word “erotica” very much; it always suggests to me a kind of genteel titillation, pornography without the courage of its convictions (which is not to say that I like pornography or think of it as better). But I am very interested in the consideration of the erotic, with trying to understand the importance of eros in our lives and with thinking about how to represent that importance in art. The big idea in the novel is that the Turner painting “The Center of World” succeeds in representing that fundamental truth more fully than any other work of art has ever done. The challenge was to suggest what that might look like without using the vocabulary associated with “literary erotica.” I think I mostly succeeded, but there might be a few sentences in which I wound up on the wrong side of the line. It was tricky.

Bloom: Not to be too melodramatic, but do you feel that the painting was a curse as well as a blessing? Was Henry, in the end, fortunate?

TVE: Yes. I think he was lucky. It is better, as Tennyson said, to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but I think Henry is transformed. At the beginning of the novel, before he finds the painting, he is in a pretty dark place. The painting becomes a great struggle and a temptation, but he emerges, I like to think, a better person for the experience. I think I share John Ruskin’s view that great art is fundamentally moral, in that the deep experience of it makes you a better person, although my definition of “better person” is not one that Ruskin would recognize.

Bloom: What, in your vision of it, separates “The Center of the World” from Turner’s “Jessica,” one of his few other figurative works? Or maybe my question is: What makes “The Center of the World” such a moving painting, and “Jessica” such a slightly unfortunate one?

TVE: “Jessica” is interesting because it is the only large figural painting in Turner’s enormous oeuvre. If you stare at the painting long enough, you can find some good things to say about it, but to me it represents a real and almost radical refusal of the physical female body. And that seems very odd because in Turner’s academic studies and in those erotic sketches that survive, we can see that he “gets” the body. My thought was that in painting “The Center of the World” (because of the fortunate confluence of people and location that I describe in my novel), Turner was able to triumphantly get over whatever was holding him back as he painted “Jessica” and get to someplace that neither he nor any other artist had ever reached.

Bloom: Assuming you’ve read Ian Warrell’s Turner’s Secret Sketches, do you have an opinion as to whether Ruskin really burned Turner’s erotic sketches or not?

TVE: I have read it; it is a lovely and useful little book. The argument against the burning boils down to the fact that some of the erotic material (which is reproduced in Warrell’s book) survives. Why did Ruskin allow that stuff to survive if he had gone to the trouble of burning other material? Why not burn it all? I think we will never know for sure, but I believe that Ruskin did burn some material that was particularly offensive to him. The premise of my novel is that the material that was singled out for destruction was the preliminary work for “The Center of the World,” but it could been something else. Although that seems highly unlikely.

Bloom: Petworth and its grounds are almost a secondary character in the novel—did you start out with such a strong sense of the setting, or did that come after you visited the site?

TVE: I am so glad you felt that because it was big part of my conception that this specific historical and geographical place and only this specific historical and geographical place could produce the painting I imagined in the novel. It’s sort of embarrassing, but when I first began writing my book, I didn’t know anything about Turner’s biography. I knew his paintings (or some of them) but I didn’t know much about his life at all. As I was setting out the outlines of my book in my earliest notebooks, I thought that I would invent a country house and a patron. But then I read a few biographies and learned about Petworth and Lord Egremont. On my first trip to do research for the novel, I went to Petworth and was just blown away. I felt that the place was mine because I had invented it before I saw it, although the reality of that place is greater than anything I had imagined. If you are ever in London, it’s really worth taking a day to go to Petworth.

Bloom: The Center of the World is deeply concerned with the transformative power of art. How has its writing changed your life? Are things different for you now that you’re an “out” author?

TVE: 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 think, 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.

But 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,” although I do feel (and this is a very good feeling) that I have accomplished something that I have wanted to accomplish since I was in high school 40 years ago. It’s a good book, and I am proud of it. But now I have to own myself as a writer and I have to figure out what that means.

Bloom: You’ve kept your professional and your creative life separate. Is there any overlap at all? Have you done any kind of work at ETS or with the SAT that helped you—or steered you away—from methods of describing abstract ideas?

TVE: I would say the transfer has less to do with methods of dealing with abstraction than with a general notion that one has to take care using language. I spent the early part of my career at ETS as a test developer, mostly working on verbal tests. That job requires one to be very careful with the words you use and very careful about what they mean. Test developers need to be more careful about language than novelists: if the novelist is sloppy, the result is a failure of art; if the test developer is sloppy, there is a wrong answer and a lawsuit. So I think there was some transfer at that level. The other connection between my professional life and my life as a writer is more prosaic, but perhaps more important. I spent part of my professional time managing, or watching others manage, large complex projects. From that I learned that consistent effort spread out over time can produce results. I learned a kind of discipline from my professional life that allowed me to produce a novel by writing, essentially, for an hour or so every morning for seven years.

Bloom: After writing The Center of the World on your own, without being part of a writer’s group or any kind of feedback mechanism, how difficult was it to then work with an editor?

TVE: I was very lucky to land at Other Press because I got more editorial support (and probably needed more) than most first-time novelists. The book that was published is about 10,000 words shorter than the book that was accepted for publication. And working with an editor was not difficult: I was grateful for anything that made the book better and comfortable enough with my insecurity as a writer to accept criticism and suggestions gracefully. Interestingly, working as a test developer was good preparation for that. Test questions have no “author”; they are collaborative efforts. Even if you have drafted the first version you have to give up “ownership” and listen to what others say and accept their suggestions. That turned out to be very good preparation for working with an editor. There were a few occasions in the process of revising The Center of the World where I was reluctant to cross out or change some bit or phrase that I was particularly fond of. But usually, if I thought the phrase or bit was really “special,” that was a sign that it needed to go.

Bloom: Can you say something about the book you’re working on now? And do you have plans to dust off your earlier postmodern detective novel?

TVE: I am actually revisiting the novel I first started as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence. Back in the day, it was going to be novel about a young man trying to come to terms with his father’s past, but now it has morphed into a novel about a unreliable middle-aged narrator trying to come to terms with his own mortality and the unreliable stories that his elderly father tells. I mean it to be a shorter and more compact novel than The Center of the World. It has been a heavy lift so far; it’s very dark, but has some moments that are promising. And yes, I may go back to that detective novel. I think the perspective and experience I have now might make it a more interesting book than it was.

Bloom: And I guess I shouldn’t leave off the totally pedestrian question of what writers you love and have influenced you…

TVE: The great Victorian novelists are very important to me, as is W.G. Sebald. E.L. Doctorow is a big influence. I am big fan of David Mitchell. I had not discovered him until I had completed the first three drafts of The Center of World, but I read him intensely while I was looking for an agent. When I had my first meeting with Chris Calhoun, he asked me what authors I admired. I mentioned Mitchell’s name and we talked about his work. I said that I had read all the novels he had published except for Number9Dream. Chris then went into the office next door and asked Mitchell’s agent if he had a copy that he could give me. He did and I left Sterling Lord’s office with an agent and a copy of Mitchell’s novel. That copy of Number9Dream, thus, is important to me as the first thing of value I received as a novelist.

Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature piece on Thomas Van Essen.

Bloom Post End

Image credit: “Self-Portrait” by J.M.W. Turner, via Wikimedia Commons

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