SO19 talks with THOMAS VAN ESSEN

Like the fictional Turner painting at the heart of the novel, Thomas van Essen’s The Center of the World (Other Press, June 2013) is many things: a historical novel, a suspense novel, a novel of ideas, a portrait of painter J.M.W. Turner and his milieu, a celebration of the power of art, and a narrative built on the fallibility of the human beings who create, view, covet and trade in that art. The novel’s evocations of the past are particularly rich, informed as they are not only by the author’s work on the book itself but also by his experience studying the work of iconic 19th-century author Wilkie Collins. Van Essen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned his PhD in English from Rutgers University. He lives in New Jersey with his family, and The Center of the World is his first novel; you can find out more about the book from the author’s website here. So19 was delighted to talk with van Essen about art, writing, and, of course, our beloved 19th century. —SF

SO19: In terms of its depiction of the 19th century, your material about Lord Egremont and his circle at Petworth vividly evoked the mores of an earlier part of the 19th century, while his illegitimate son, Wyndham, suggests some of the repressive social changes to come.

TVE: I’m glad you picked up on that. The primary event in the novel—Ruskin’s burning of Turner’s erotic sketches—can be seen as a symbol of the clash between Victorian mores and the freer, easier values of the preceding period.

The sections of the novel set in the 19th century take place in 1830, a time of transition: the 1st Reform Bill will be passed in 1832 and Victoria will become queen in 1837, but, more importantly for me, this period represents the last flowering of English Romanticism. I thought of Wyndham as representing the dawning age—the age that will eventually burn the sketches—while Egremont (who is a an old man in the 1830s) represents the highest achievements, in terms of art and sensibility, of Georgian England. The Center of the World tries to imagine a work of art—Turner’s “The Center of the World”—that is the product of that last flowering (and which could only be produced in that specific historical place and time).

SO19: I was surprised to discover that Mrs. Spencer was a fictional character rather than a historical figure. She read as entirely convincing, and this central female presence felt essential to the story. Talk a bit about creating her.
TVE: She was a real gift. Most of the people who have read my book and spoken to me about it, mention Mrs. Spenser as their favorite character. She is my favorite character too. I don’t quite know where she came from. I was trying to imagine someone who was beautiful enough to be a model for Helen of Troy. But Helen is more than just a pretty face; she is a complicated personality as well. Mrs. Spencer, therefore, had to have some sadness in her past and she had to know a great deal of how the world works, to be worldly in the best sense. And she had to have a great deal of strength. What is interesting is that she began for me as “Egremont’s beautiful mistress” but as the writing progressed and as I saw her interacting with the other characters in the novel she grew into someone who was much greater than my original conception. I fell in love with her while I was writing—not quite a Pygmalion situation, but close.

Among the inspiration for her was one of Turner’s sketchbooks for “Jessica,” now in the Tate Collection. As I said, I first thought of her as “Egremont’s mistress” but once she became Turner’s model—and a model who posed naked for Turner, she became a remarkable person in that she could be both of those things at once.

SO19: You’ve mentioned that John Ruskin’s claim that he destroyed Turner’s erotic drawings was one of the inspirations for the novel. Can you talk a bit about how and why this incident captured your imagination?

TVE: Well, I first heard this story in graduate school, back in the mid ‘70s. I was taking a course called “Victorian Non-Fiction Prose”; it was an introduction to folks like Mill, Carlyle, and, of course, Ruskin. The professor told the story of Ruskin’s destruction of Turner’s erotic sketches to make a point about the difference in sensibilities that I talked about earlier in this interview, and also to make the point that Ruskin was something of a nut. My first thought was “What a shame!” but then I thought “What if those sketches were a sign of something else, something greater than mere erotica, something greater, perhaps, than anything Turner ever did? What would this something be? Under what circumstances could it be created? How would people respond to it today?” The Center of the World was a long time in gestation and I mulled over those thoughts in various forms for almost twenty years before I began writing the novel.

SO19: I believe you did your doctoral dissertation on Wilkie Collins, who is mentioned briefly in the book. Did your reading of his work, and/or other 19th-century fiction, affect the way you approached this novel?
TVE: Yes, I did write my dissertation about Collins. I read all of his novels, including all the awful ones, but his two great books, The Woman in White and The Moonstone are still really worth reading. His first published work (which almost no one has read) is a biography of his father, the minor painter William Collins, who makes a significant appearance as a letter writer early in the novel. So there was a direct influence there. But more importantly Collins is one of the Victorian era’s great storytellers, and storytelling—giving the reader the pleasure of “and then, and then, and then”—is very important to me. I think of The Center of the World as a novel of ideas—what is art, what is the relationship between art and eroticism?—but I also wanted very much that it be a good story, a book that would carry the reader along because of her or his interest in the characters and in what will happen to them. That is a value I associate with the great 19th-century English novelists.

SO19: You’ve juxtaposed several different narratives, and told those stories using a variety of tools and forms. Folks sometimes think of this as a modern strategy, but it’s also one extensively used in the 19th century. What do you feel it gave you that a single overtly unified narrative or time period couldn’t?

TVE: Collins, of course, is the great innovator of this technique, but there is also Dickens in Bleak House. Very early on I settled on this approach, and for a few reasons. In the first place, I‘m very interested in the way the past and the present talk to each other. I think of that as a very active conversation, so it made sense to have the sections set in the past and the sections set in the present rub shoulders with each other—if I had used a more linear structure I would have missed a great deal of what my novel is about. One of the big “technical” challenges in the novel is how to describe this impossible painting. I didn’t want to come out and say here is what it looked like (because I don’t really know what it looked like), so I was very careful about describing only pieces of it, or aspects of it from different points of view. The mosaic- like structure of the novel became a kind of analog to the way I represented the painting.

I wrote the first draft of the novel in long hand (with a fountain pen!) alternating the various narratives as I went along. By the time I got to the end, however, it was a big mess, so I began the second draft by rewriting it as essentially four novellas—one for each of the narrative strands in the novel. I wanted each one of those strands to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When that process was done I put the book back together again, alternating between the various narratives, as if I had just shuffled a really large deck of cards.

SO19: The painting at the center of the novel (not to mention the world!) is transcendent, transformative. Yet it’s also very much a unique physical object with an extraordinarily high material value. The tension between those two kinds of presence gives the book a lot of thematic richness, but it also provides plotlines and suspense.

TVE: As I said, I was very interested in writing a novel of ideas that would be fun to read, so I was interested in having a suspense element. But I had also set myself the challenge of writing about an impossible object—a painting like no other, that does something that no work of art has ever quite done before—as if it was a real object. I was interested in trying to imagine and represent the specific social, material, and historical context which could produce such a work (Petworth House in 1830) and how people would respond to this work in the present. I am very interested in the relationship between great art and money. A painting like the one I imagined—or even any “normal” great Turner painting—would be worth a great deal, and this fact is central to what the thing is and how people respond to it. As the great philosopher Cyndi Lauper once said, “money changes everything.”

SO19: Your imaginary Turner painting is referenced as being sexually explicit, but it’s also complex, with a mythological theme and myriad pictorial elements. How did you meld Turner’s work and your vision to “design” this indescribable painting?

TVE: I started with the notion that some of the materials that Ruskin burned were studies for this great painting. So there had to be an erotic element to the work. It was a Turner painting, so there was a good chance it would be on a mythological subject. That combination got me to Helen pretty quickly. Turner is famous for painting very few works that center on the human figure and when he did do the human figure he did it pretty badly. That always struck me as odd because Turner produced any number of thoroughly competent Old Masters-style drawings of both the male and female nude. So I tried to imagine him taking on the human figure and succeeding for once. I looked at a lot of Turner paintings, both in person at museums, at Petworth House and in reproductions during the course of the writing and tried to interject those elements that seemed most Turner-ish (to use a technical term) around the edges of the imaginary painting that is at the heart of my novel.

SO19: The received notion we have about great art is that it immediately and automatically enriches our lives. But Henry’s experience in particular is more complex, more ambiguous.

TVE: Great art does enrich us, but for Henry there are at least two things going on. The first, and most obvious, is the money. The particular piece of great art would be extraordinarily valuable—he would have to give up the painting to realize the money. But this painting is so powerful that he doesn’t want to do that—even though he could really use the money. The other thing is that this painting is so powerful that everyone who sees it wants to keep it for him or herself. The urge to possess the painting makes it much more complicated as a force in the moral decisions that the characters make. The painting “The Center of the World” is great art but, if I can be allowed this, it is also more than that—it represents some profound truth about how the world works that knocks everybody who sees it a bit off kilter.

SO19: What 19th-century elements of the book were the most difficult for you to imagine? To research? To write? Which came the most naturally?

TVE: Oddly, the 19th-century sections of the book were a lot easier for me than the 21st-century sections. I don’t know if that is because I have probably spent more of my life as a reader in the 19th century than in the 20th and the 21st or if it was because that part of the story always seemed clearer to me. I did a good deal of research for the novel, but not a ton—I read a lot about Turner when I started, but then I allowed myself to “play” as it were in the 19th century. It was harder to do that in the 21st—perhaps because I know more about it and I felt constricted by the facts. I was fortunate in that I worked with a very good editor at Other Press; she was very helpful in helping me get things like terms of address right. She also made sure that I got things about how deer hunting was carried out in that day right (or close to right) and about how characters in the novel interact with servants. I don’t like novels that wear their erudition on their sleeve and ask you to admire all the research the writer has done; so I tried to get things right but not make a big deal of it.

What I mostly liked—and I don’t know if this will sound corny or nuts—was getting to know the 19th century characters. It was a kind of time travel, I suppose, but I felt I learned a lot from them and that they were very generous in revealing themselves to me.
Interior at Petworth, J.M.W. Turner