Daily Bytes | Literary Arts

Sena Jeter Naslund: From Ahab’s Wife to the French Revolution

Sena Jeter Naslund (photo credit: Ron Schildknecht)

Sena Jeter Naslund (photo credit: Ron Schildknecht)

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the UMFA Book Club, in partnership with the Utah Humanities Council, will host New York Times bestselling author Sena Jeter Naslund at 7 pm on Thursday, September 26, as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival. The event is free and open to the public.

Naslund’s new novel, The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman (William Morrow, 2013), explores the transformative power of art, history, and love in the lives of creative women. At the center of the book is the story of renowned nineteenth-century portraitist Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, a survivor of the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter. The UMFA has two Vigée-Le Brun paintings in its permanent collection: Princess Eudocia Ivanovna Galitzine (nee Ismailoff) as Flora, currently on view, and Portrait of Princess Natalia Ivanovna Kourakina nee Golovina (1797), which will be on special display the night of the event.

The talk will be held in the UMFA’s Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building on the campus of the University of Utah. Afterward, visitors can view both Vigée-Le Brun paintings in the Museum’s second-floor European art galleries. For more information, please visit www.umfa.utah.edu and http://www.utahhumanities.org/BookFestival.htm.

15 Bytes caught up with Naslund recently to float a few questions about her most recent release and her writing process:

15B: Your celebrated novel Ahab’s Wife, or the Star Gazer (William Morrow) begins with the sentence “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” which you say came to you along with the image of a 19C woman standing on a widow’s walk beside the sea. What was the prompt or inspiration of  The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, your current book?

SJN: The image of Venus Rising from the Sea, a fountain sculpture outside my library window, was the prompt for THE FOUNTAIN OF ST. JAMES COURT; OR, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN.

15B: You’re known as an author who doesn’t do the same thing twice–from the story of Moby Dick told from a woman’s point of view to race relations in the Civil Rights Era South and then to the story of Marie Antoinette told from a queen’s point of view. Fountain is a novel within a novel. Would you say you’re one who is always experimenting with form as well?

SJN: While I wouldn’t call it experimentation, I would say that I like to employ different strategies in terms of structure and style than those I have been using recently. Every point of view has its own strengths and weaknesses; I try to find the technique that best serves the new thematic concerns.

15B: The novel-within-the novel has been used before. (Tony and Susan, a novel from the 90s by Austin Wright comes to mind.) What payoffs does structuring a work in this way yield? Any limitations?

SJN: Yes, A.S. Byatt in POSSESSION uses the form of a novel-within-a-novel. Part of my thematic was to illustrate the interrrelatedness of life and art. I felt I could best do this by showing the life of a writer (at least for one day) as well as the novel she has drafted, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN.

15B: You are a poet as well–Poet Laureate of Kentucky at one point. How do poetics inform your writing of fiction? 

SJN: In Kentucky, a poet laureate is a practitioner of the literary arts in the broad sense, not just literally a person who writes poems. Certainly poetics do inform my style. I try to use fresh and evocative language, as a poet might, and I try to make every sense as well-wrought and interesting as I can.

15B: In Fountain Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun is a historical figure, a portraitist. But you also have another, contemporary protagonist in the novel. In what way do they speak to each other thematically or spiritually? Did you know in advance what resonances or tensions would emerge between them?

SJN: Both Elisabeth (the historical portrait painter) and Kathryn (the fictious contemporary writer) are successful artists in cultures where artistic success is more difficult for women. Both also love their children, and they have difficulties with men. Both are sustained by their devotion to the practice of their art. Both are sustained by the congeniality of friendship with other women. They have their differences, too. Elisabeth believes in the divine right of kings to rule and she is a devout Catholic. Kathryn bucks the mores of an unjust society: she worked in the Civil Rights movement and she is a Unitarian. Elisabeth accepts her philandering, spendthrift husband and absorbs herself in her work; Kathryn agonizes over her divorces and struggles to redirect her life when she is alone. Both of them have a good bit of courage and believe in the importance of creating art.

FountainOfJames hcAbout Sena Jeter Naslund: A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Naslund is the author of nine books, including Adam & Eve (2010), Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette (2006), and Ahab’s Wife (1999). She is Writer in Residence and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville, Program Director of the Spalding University

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