Bloom: As a social historian and academic, you know how to conduct research. But how was doing research to write fiction different? Did you think about primary sources in a different way? Use different kinds of sources than you might for academic writing?
BCP: The great advantage of being an historian is that I have a grasp of the “big picture” of an era and know how to get to it. For areas I’ve done academic research on, particularly nineteenth-century France, I have a feel for how people talked, what the controversial issues were, how men and women and various social classes related to each other.
The difference in research for novels was in the details: How was a room lit? Did they sell roast chickens in Paris in 1897? How did you cut a cigar? Well, real life experience might have answered the last question, but at midnight, it was Wikipedia. Other details (the roast chicken, for example) come from the same primary materials (like novels and memoirs) that I used as an historian.
I use the Internet much more than I would as an academic (where so much depends on other scholars’ works and interpretation). I am also inspired by pictures (photos, paintings, postcards), which not only answer questions but fuel the imagination.
Finally, knowing a place is crucial not only for the setting but for opening up a plot in unexpected ways. One of my favorite scenes in The Blood of Lorraine was inspired by a painting in the local museum and a visit to the graveyard. In The Missing Italian Girl, the Gas Company, which I discovered while living in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, became a crucial element in the story.
Bloom: What carries over from your experience as a teacher and a writer of academic texts when you write fiction?
BCP: As a teacher, I want to say something. I want my work to address some important issues beyond the story. Of course, unlike in scholarship, the issues may well be emotional and individual rather than political or social. As an academic writer I was very concise and clear. In fiction I am still trying to liberate myself to elaborate more and allow for ambiguity.
A friend once commented that she liked reading mysteries where she “learned something else.” She’s the audience for the kind of stories I write.
Bloom: Zola figures into each of these novels in a variety of ways. Is he someone you were particularly interested in or had read a lot of before you began writing the Bernard Martin novels?
BCP: I had read some Zola before I began writing the novels. In fact, when I was working on pilgrimages, I wrote an article on his book on Lourdes. He is a great source for the historian and historical novelist because of his almost fanatical devotion to researching contemporary life. As a reader, sometimes his detailed descriptions lead to a kind of exhaustion of naturalism. I love him as a man, as an historical figure, more than as a novelist. In contrast, I love Cézanne’s art more than I love Cézanne.
Bloom: The three novels are neatly and organically tied together, not only by the character of Bernard Martin, but in their development of both Bernard and Clarie. Had you conceived of the trilogy all at once? If not, can you tell us a bit about how one novel pointed you in the direction of the next?
BCP: When I began, I did not think of writing a trilogy or a series. I was a complete novice. I got hooked on an idea (a mystery about Cézanne, geology and Provence) suggested by a friend. While I was writing it, a number of people told me that in order to sell a mystery, you had to “act” as if it were part of a series. Acting led to thinking, and then imagining a plot that intertwined with issues I was passionate about–racism, tolerance, identity. I began my research on French Jewish life and anti-Semitism (the racism of nineteenth-century Europe) while seeking an agent. By the time Cézanne’s Quarry was published I was writing The Blood of Lorraine. Then I had to write a women’s novel and bring Clarie out of her slump. I thought it would be about the women’s movement (a natural for me), but the timing of historical events and personalities didn’t work. Now I like the fact that anarchism, feminism, and the Dreyfus affair are part of the landscape rather than the subject of the novel.
Bloom: Bernard and Clarie are a fascinating couple. Clarie takes center stage in The Missing Italian Girl, expressing anger about the conditions of girls and women, and Bernard must respond to the growth of Clarie in a reflective manner. Can you describe how you write this relationship as both plot development and a way of conveying the political and social climate of France?
BCP: Let’s start with the second part of that question. The Missing Italian Girl portrays Martin as more flawed than in the other books, because Clarie’s risk-taking pushes him beyond the limits of his support for women’s rights. This was typical of most progressive Republican men of his era, who were fully supportive of women as long as they fit into certain categories: mothering, teaching, care-giving, respectability. While Clarie wants to save Maura and argue against the injustice that poor women suffer, she is also driven by another motive. Eventually she realizes that her search is not only about the girl, but about herself, and recovering the boldness she had as the young woman that Martin fell madly in love with. So, I guess the answer to the first part of the question is that in pursuing a plot that gives each of the Martins their own story and motive, the relationship must change.
Bloom: You are part of a writing group: how important is it to sustaining your work as a writer? Any feedback on these novels as they developed that surprised you? Any changes you made in response to the group’s feedback?
BCP: A group of six fiction and non-fiction writers carried me through most of The Blood of Lorraine and all of The Missing Italian Girl. These writers are the first line of defense, saving me from embarrassment. The embarrassment can be small, like a misspelling that completely changes a meaning, or larger, like a new character who is a real dud. There is a lot of attention paid to style as well as structure. Our group works well, because we know that criticism is given to improve the work and none of us is overly sensitive or ego-bound about our writing.
Any effective group keeps you on schedule and makes your writing better. Mine certainly performed both of these vital functions.
Bloom: What writers (of any genre, including academic) have had an influence on your writing?
BCP: This is such a hard question to answer, because I am an omnivorous reader, and always thinking, Why can’t I write like that? I recently told an audience that had I been asked when I was 19 who my favorite writer was, the answer would have been easy: Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov was the only novel I had read twice at that age. And, sure, I was going to become a dark, troubled, and famous writer. (Ah, adolescence!) More seriously, I’ll give the nod to John le Carré. His were the first mysteries I ever read, and he taught me something essential: every description should convey a mood or tell something about the character. I also love the way his novels try to say something about the world.
Bloom: You have published three novels in a relatively short period of time, impressive to me because of the amount of research you need to do. Any advice for writers of historical fiction?
BCP: The speed is an illusion. I worked on Cézanne’s Quarry on and off for probably 15 years. Then it took two years to be “shopped” successfully. By that time I was well into The Blood of Lorraine. Finally, since the publisher had so much confidence that I would finish on time (I almost did), much of the production (cover, print design, advance descriptions) were out even before I got my almost-final draft of The Missing Italian Girl in, so that came out with the speed usually granted only “celebrity biographies.”
As for advice: 1) Do enough research to be authentic to the time and the people before you begin, then you can start inventing. (For example, Cézanne and Zola were not really involved in a murder investigation in 1885, but the depiction of their personalities was historically accurate.) 2) Expect that you’ll be researching as you write, so start writing. 3) Finally, include an historical note at the end, dividing fact from fiction.
Bloom: In addition to your trips to France, what is your favorite thing about doing research for the purpose of writing fiction?
BCP: It’s always exciting to learn something new. And when something fits just right into what you are writing, it becomes a “eureka” moment. For example, when I found out that cigars are cut by a “little guillotine,” I was able to create a scene where (pace Freud) a cigar was much more than a cigar.
BCP: The one I keep coming back to is Shlomo the Red Dwarf. His character was based on a man I had met with a life-long disability and a desire to please everyone (which was his way of coping with his disfigurement). I had been worrying that The Blood of Lorraine was becoming too dark. Shlomo added color and light, and, of course, a means of advancing the plot.
Bloom: While The Missing Italian Girl comes to a clear end, providing closure to the mysteries involved, it also ends with big changes in Clarie. Do you have plans for another novel with her at the center? And perhaps also, Emilie, a minor but great character in this novel?
BCP: I love my characters, and some readers love them enough to ask for more. This is a great compliment. However, since we are engaged in a publication about the older writer, I feel comfortable saying that at this point I want to give something else a try, since I feel my opportunities to branch out may be limited. This year, I took a course in playwriting, which pretty much convinced me I’m not a playwright. My next foray will be an attempt to write a more autobiographical novel set in Cleveland. A return to the Martins (and Maura and Emilie) is always a possibility in the future. After all, I know them so well.
Click here to read Jane Hammons’ feature piece on Barbara Corrado Pope.
Image credit: Interior by architect Louis Bigaux exhibited at Exposition universelle de Paris 1900, via Wikimedia Commons