Q&A with Robin Oliveira
What was your inspiration for I Always Loved You?
I have always loved ballet and Edgar Degas’s paintings of the ballet. The inspiration for the book came when I learned that at the end of her life Mary Cassatt had not only burned all the letters that she had ever received from Edgar Degas, but that upon his death, she had retrieved from his studio all the letters that she had ever written to him and later burned them too. Because of this, the nature of their relationship has always been a puzzle to biographers and historians. Were they in love? What happened between them? Had they ever been lovers? This type of gap in the historical record is the entry point for historical fiction—at least it is to me.
How did you go about your research? Did you already know a lot about Paris in the Belle Epoque? After you have gathered your information, how do you know what to include in the novel and what to exclude?
I knew nothing about Paris in the Belle Epoque. Before I even began writing, I read a great deal of art history, art technique, exhibition catalogs, diaries, and biographies of the impressionists to educate myself. Fifty books, perhaps, in total. After I began writing, when I knew which paintings I needed to see in person, I visited many museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library and Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, the Louvre, and the Musée d’Orsay. I spent some time in the library of the Musée d’Orsay in search of unpublished letters and documents of the artists, including exhibition catalogs of the Salon and the impressionists. I also read old French newspapers at the Library of Congress. At the Musée d’Orsay, I arranged to see all of the artifacts that they owned from Degas’s studio—which they keep in the basement and are not on view to the general public. I spent ten days in Paris hunting down the impressionists’ studios, apartments and haunts, trespassing in some cases (sorry) so that I could get a behind the scenes look in alleyways and courtyards. And I walked the streets of Paris to get a sense of the city itself, to understand distances and to absorb its flavor. Always, when composing historical fiction, I search for the unusual detail. For this story, these turned out to be Degas’s glasses and the mask that appears toward the end of the story, as well as everything I could learn about his extraordinary Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.
Describe the difference between writing a fictional character and a real person as a protagonist. What challenges presented themselves? Do you prefer writing one over the other?
Writing real people as fictional characters presents many restrictions. As a writer, I feel obligated, as much as possible, not to violate what is known of their lives. There are the simple restrictions of place and timing, but I also feel an obligation to represent, as much as possible, their character. But I also have an obligation to the reader and to the story. And one can never know, unless one has access to a letter or diary, exactly what someone was thinking at any given moment. But we also know that even these supposed first person accounts can lie, because people lie to themselves all the time. A writer, or anyone trying to understand an historic figure, is also handicapped by the length of time that has intervened since a person’s death. People can become static in death, their reputation set. How they became that person is lost. This is where I feel I have license. I imagine my way into their lives, respectfully, in order to represent who and why they were.
A theme that runs through each of your books is a strong woman fighting for a place in a man’s world. Is this in any way related to your own life? What draws you to this theme?
Many people have asked me whether or not I have encountered prejudicial obstacles that have led me to this theme. I have not. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I was raised with four sisters and no brother to compare us to, so I was always told that I could do anything I wanted. Certainly, in the sixties and seventies, no one was encouraging me to be a brain surgeon, but I always thought that if I wanted to be one, I could. (Though I would make a terrible brain surgeon. Trust me on this.) But women as a whole have always had to fight for a place among men. It is one of the unifying conflicts across cultures. It continues to astonish me how tenacious this prejudice remains worldwide. I like to showcase women who have successfully fought the good fight and shown us how it is done.
In this book, you write about the process of being and becoming an artist. Did you find a connection between writing and art? Do you paint?
I have painted and drawn as a hobby, but I am not an artist. In fact, my forays into that area were gently discouraged by an art teacher at the University of Washington Extension. But as I wrote this story, I did find a great deal of connection between the two disciplines. To be an artist is to be an artist, no matter the medium. All artists face either a blank page or a blank canvas or a block of stone or….it can go on and on, because art has many guises and many mediums. But the process and fears, to me, are the same. It was a relief, in many ways, to discuss the difficulties of producing art through the eyes of painters. I felt freer to explore what I perceive to be the truth about creative work.
Which is your favorite character in this book and why?
I have no favorite characters in this book. I love them all. Each was so difficult to understand that I became invested in each one. However, if I had the power to go back in time and follow one of them around, I’d choose Mary Cassatt, because she was the fish out of water, the American woman in Paris, the first American woman—and perhaps man—to show so many pictures in the city at one time. I consider her fortitude extraordinary and admirable, especially since she had to fight her father to achieve it.
What is your writing routine? Is it hard to discipline yourself to write every day?
Do you ever get stuck, and if so, what do you do to move forward again?
I, like Degas and Cassatt, keep regular working hours. I write for at least six hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on how much my brain will tolerate. I can usually tell when my brain has turned off; I have found that trying to continue to write after that is a waste of time. Mostly, I write on a treadmill desk, which means I have an elevated desk with a treadmill underneath. I walk at about 1.1 miles per hour while I compose. However, depending on my task—rewriting or editing—I sometimes write lying in bed or sitting outside on the front terrace, but only when it’s not raining. I live in Seattle, after all. But I never really think about getting stuck. I find that if I have encountered a problem it generally tends to work itself out the next day. I think my brain works while I’m sleeping. Or I hop in the shower. That generally helps loosen things up.
Do you plan out the story as a whole in advance, or does the story unfold as you are writing it?
That differs depending on the story I’m telling. For My Name is Mary Sutter, I knew only that my character wanted to go to medical school and that she might or might not get what she wanted. I didn’t plan the story in advance; I allowed my research and my character to guide me. Writing I Always Loved You, I already knew many particulars of Edgar’s and Mary’s story. The challenge became how to make that story interesting. The why of it. I had to imagine their life together, especially since Cassatt burned all their correspondence.
Will you always write historical fiction? Will all your books have a woman named Mary as a female protagonist?
Never say always, but what draws me to historical fiction is the amount of research necessary to write a successful book steeped in the details, circumstances, and flavor of a specific historical time period. I love doing the research. I am never more at home than I am in a library; that was true of me as a child and is true of me as an adult. The Mary coincidence is just that: a coincidence. However, I am considering naming my next protagonist Mary, too, just to have a trilogy. (I’m only half joking.)