Please welcome guest blogger, author Katherine Webb, to the Book Club Girl blog! Her newest novel, A Half-Forgotten Song, goes on sale today!
At an author event for book bloggers in Spain last year, I came as close to being heckled as I have (thankfully!) yet come. A girl in the audience pointed out that the premise of A Half Forgotten Song – that of a character finding out the story behind a series of works by a great artist – sounded far too similar to that of Elizabeth Kostova’s book, The Swan Thieves for her liking. It’s worth pointing out that my heckler hadn’t actually read my book at that point, and that I hadn’t read Ms Kostova’s. I could only assure her that I was sure our treatment of the subject matter was very different, and having gone away and read The Swan Thieves, I can confirm that it is.
This got me thinking about some of the perennial themes in fiction – like art, love, murder, war, parenthood, bereavement and history. These things are the stuff of life; they are the things that govern us, that cause us joy and pain, that inspire and torment us, so no wonder they turn up again and again in both poetry and prose, and in the work of artists of all kinds. What makes one writer or artist different from another is not their choice of subject matter, but their approach to it, and the execution of their work. After all, I bet nobody ever criticised Van Gogh for painting landscapes because it had been done before…and I bet Renoir wasn’t put off painting picnics and boating parties because Manet was doing it too.
The novelist’s approach to art often seems to be to try and find the story behind the picture, another good example being Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. To me, there is just enough similarity between a painter and a writer, and more than enough differences, for them to be a source of fascination to me; and I’m sure I can’t be the only writer who feels that way. It’s all the result of a similar urge for creativity, after all – it’s all an expression of something inside that we need to say. Yet I can no more imagine how it must feel to be able express oneself through painting than I can imagine having a sixth sense, or what a colour I have never seen before might look like. So perhaps writing about art and artists is one way for an author to translate stories told via a mystifying medium into a form they are better able to understand?
The very first idea for A Half Forgotten Song was planted years ago, while I was working in a printing works during my university summer holidays. We were printing a book about the British artist Augustus John, and I was hand-collating it – gathering sections of pages into the correct order before they went off to be stitched. For weeks on end, I had nothing to do but gaze at John’s drawings as I collated. They are some of the most beautiful drawings I had ever seen, and I still find them completely captivating. It was no surprise to me that this seed germinated, years later, into a novel about an artist inspired by John and his glorious portraits. Inside the character of Zach, as he tries to put his finger on what he loves so much about the work of the fictional Charles Aubrey, there’s me, trying to put my finger on what I love so much about the work of Augustus John. Fiction just happens to be my way of exploring that fascination, of trying to describe the allure of that particular artist.
So, I’m sure art and the stories behind it will continue to crop up time and again in fiction, as other authors follow a similar process, and try to pin down the elusive nature of creativity in all its guises. So I hope that readers will forgive us if there are sometimes echoes and crossovers in the theme and contents of novels, and I think it’s necessary that there are. One writer’s interpretation of a subject will always be different to any other, and so, hopefully, there will always be different things for readers to discover in their books!For more on Katherine and A Half-Forgotten Song, visit her on Facebook or you can read an excerpt of her book here!