Are you a longtime fan of Vincent van Gogh? If so, you’re a step ahead of me. I’ve always loved art and haunted museums, but until I wrote Leaving Van Gogh I could walk past Vincent’s paintings with only a passing glance.
Even now I’m a little bit surprised that I’ve written a novel about him. I came across Dr. Paul Gachet while I was researching my master’s thesis in art history, back in 2005. Gachet was a doctor who treated mental illness in Paris in the late 19th century, and was also a friend of many of the great painters of the era. He seemed like a terrific subject for a novel. I thought I’d write about his collection of paintings, many of which ended up at the Musée d’Orsay.
And what happened? Vincent van Gogh hijacked the narrative. As I was writing, Vincent walked into Dr. Gachet’s sitting room in Auvers, France, a village northwest of Paris. He put down his portable easel and paint box, and started to talk. The focus of the novel shifted from the doctor’s pictures to the painter’s pain. Well, you can understand why. We novelists are looking for drama. We need pressure and conflict. Vincent van Gogh, in May of 1890, was a man under terrible strain. He wanted more than anything else to paint. But he had been mentally ill, confined to an asylum for a year, and he knew that he was still menaced by his demons. That, obviously, was my story.
But before I could write the whole book I needed to do a lot of research. When it became clear that Vincent was going to be the star of the show, I started to read his letters and that is how my affection for him took root. He was such a stoic. He endured such anguish, and scarcely complained. He believed in his art when only his brother Theo and Dr. Gachet shared his enthusiasm. He wrote to Theo, “It is my earnest hope that I am not working for myself alone.” He never knew how much he would matter to us all.
Dr. Gachet’s side of the story fascinated me, too. It was a period before doctors had many tools to deal with mental illness, but Gachet took a humane and sympathetic stance toward his patients. A man who had always been fascinated by melancholy, he was in some ways the ideal physician for Van Gogh. He was certainly one of Vincent’s greatest fans, even after the painter’s death.
Genius, madness, suicide – these are some of the big issues running through Leaving Van Gogh. I’d love to know what you and your book club think. If your group of ten or more can set a date that works for me, we can have a discussion by phone. Email me at carolwallacebooks.com to initiate the process of setting this up. I look forward to hearing from you!