Thursday, April 10, 2008

Waiting for Vermeer

Where do ideas come from? In the case of my upcoming book, tentatively titled THE VERMEER INTERVIEWS, the idea came from reading WAYS OF TELLING by Leonard Marcus, a book which I highly recommend to all children's authors and illustrators.

In WAYS OF TELLING, Marcus interviews 14 different picture book authors and illustrators to find out how each goes about the business of creating their books. I found each of his interviews to be more interesting than the last. I also found the solution to a problem that had been nagging me for years.

I had always wanted to write about the 17th century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer, who is one of my favorites. The question was, how should I present the information? In my first attempt, called MY DELFT (Delft was Vermeer's home town), I chose 14 of Vermeer's paintings and wrote a page of text for each painting from the point of view of Jan Vermeer himself. For example, this is what I wrote about Vermeer's painting, View of Delft:

“Welcome to Delft, Holland. I was born here in 1632 and painted this portrait of the city in 1660 when I was 28 years old. See the gleaming white tower in the distance? That’s the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, near where I grew up. And to the right, behind the two large boats, sits the Rotterdam Gate, one of several gates which allowed boats in and out of the city’s busy canals. See how the sun shines on the rooftops in the distance as it emerges from the morning clouds?  I loved to paint light. It was one of my specialties. You see, I was an artist. My name is Jan Vermeer. And although I died in 1675, I can still speak to you through my paintings. Come, let me show you around.”

I thought it sort of worked, but it sounded a bit like a series of monologues, and I had no good explanation for how Vermeer was able to speak to us from the grave.

Then I tried an ABC book called D IS FOR DELFT, and was very pleased with myself when I was able to find objects in Vermeer's paintings for each letter of the alphabet. However, this book was clearly aimed at older readers, so the ABC approach wasn't right either.

My third and fourth approaches both involved poetry. For approach number three, I attempted to explain each painting in verse and called it A ROOM IN DELFT. It was fun, but the result was neither here nor there. For approach number four, which I titled TALKING TO VERMEER, I wrote in cinquains (a 2-syllable line, followed by 4 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, and then back to 2 syllables), addressing the people in each painting as if they were alive. For example, I empathized with Vermeer's The Geographer like this:

Like you,
I can get lost in maps,
Dreaming of places I'll sail to

I liked this approach quite a bit, but it was probably a bit sophisticated for my audience. Then there was approach number five, written in the style of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, called THE TOWN THAT JAN PAINTED. Let's just say it was forced.

At this point, I have five completely different versions of a book on Vermeer, none of them quite right. So, as I said, I finished reading WAYS OF TELLING, a book of interviews, and I asked myself, "Why don't I interview the people in Vermeer's paintings?" It's fun. It allows me to present my information in a more creative and interesting way. And it makes the paintings come alive.

The more I worked on the interviews, the more I realized that this was the perfect format for a book on Vermeer. There is very little information on the artist, including very few written records, no early work or sketches, and no self-portraits. In fact, just about the only source of information we have on Vermeer are the 35 or so finished paintings that have survived to this day. So who better to tell his story than the people in his paintings?

THE VERMEER INTERVIEWS will be published next year, after six versions and at least that many years of stewing and marinating. Thank goodness not all my books take so long to come to fruition. But this one will be most satisfying.


Anna M. Lewis said...

Fantastic post!
Great information, great artist!

(BTW St. Charles library doesn't have WAYS OF TELLING but I ordered it from Geneva. St. Charles does have many of his other books and they look fabulous... yes, I live down the road!)

Bob Raczka said...

Thanks Anna. And yes, it's a small world. I also really liked DEAR GENIUS, which is Marcus' book about the letters of the famous children's book editor, Ursula Nordstrom.