An Interview With Mary Burns – and a Contest!

Please welcome Mary Burns, author of the new historical novel PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST (Sand Hill Review Press, February 2013)

13B Mary Burns

Mary F. Burns writes historical novels, is a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a member of the HNS Conference 2013 board of directors. Her debut historical novel J-The Woman Who Wrote the Bible was published in July 2010 by O-Books (John Hunt Publishers, UK). Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb where she earned a BA and MA in English; she also has a law degree from Golden Gate University. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she lives with her husband Stuart.

I met Mary through the Historical Novel Society and was fortunate enough to receive and read an advance review copy of her novel. I loved it (you can read my review here) and am delighted that Mary agreed to let me interview her today!

Portraits of an Artist cover

Mary is also giving away a copy of her novel to a lucky commenter! For a chance to win, leave a comment on this blog post between now and midnight Pacific Time on Monday, February 11!

And now, on with the questions!

1.  Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?

I was born in Chicago and grew up in the western suburbs in LaGrange. Our house was the second one to be built on a former cornfield (that was happening a lot in the 1950’s), and there were no trees. The day after we moved in (I had just turned three), the only other house in the “Cantigny Manor” development caught fire! As it was an unincorporated area at that time, and next to a very large state-owned forest preserve, there wasn’t even a volunteer fire department nearby, and fires could easily get out of control. Luckily, all my uncles and aunts—and there were lots of them (Irish/Croatian/Polish Catholic families)—were on hand to form a bucket brigade and put out the fire. That’s pretty much my earliest memory—what a welcome to our new home!

2.  What inspired you to start writing?

Reading! I became an avid reader at the age of nine, when I contracted rheumatic fever and was ordered to “stay in bed” for a whole year. My mother brought me books from the library: The Bobbsey Twins, the “Little Maida” series, all those Encyclopedia Brittanica books for kids about science and the natural world—but it was the stories I loved most. I moved on quickly to Nancy Drew, and I wrote a little diary (lost now, sadly—or not!). I wrote my first ‘novel’ in 1964 about The Beatles—even before “A Hard Day’s Night” came out, I imagined the adventures of the Fab Four as they wandered around a London I wouldn’t see for 40 years.

3.  If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?

Figure out the Point of View first – the first novel I wrote, inspired by visiting Mendocino, a tiny seaside village in northern California, has to-date been re-written five times, each one from a different point of view. I’m now so confused about the story that I haven’t a clue as to which one works best! But I’ve learned a lot about POV since then, and I realize that it’s closely tied to what you’re actually trying to accomplish, which character has the lead voice, and how you want to involve the reader.

4. Your new novel, PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST, explores the life (and scandals) of expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent. What inspired you to write Sargent’s story?

I saw a huge exhibit of Sargent paintings in Washington, D.C. in 1999. I was not familiar with his work. The painting that intrigued me the most was the enormous (7 x 7 foot) “Portraits d’Enfants”, also known as the “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” Seen in person, up close, the painting is haunting and mysterious, with heavily laid-on swashes of pure white paint that leap out of the utter darkness of shadows in the background. The oldest daughter, Florence—I was to learn all their names in time—is more in shadow than light, her face not even visible. I remember thinking, what kind of portrait is that? In fact, it wasn’t even clear that the two girls standing in the back (next to Florence is Jane) are “daughters”—they’re dressed more like servants, with the younger two girls—Mary Louisa standing with her arms “at ease” and baby Julia on the floor—looking like stiff, dressed-up dolls. I kept thinking, there’s a story here, there’s some dark, uncanny, psychological tale hidden—and exposed—by all this paint. Who was this artist, and why did he paint a portrait like this?

5. Do you have a favorite author or book? If so, who (or what) is it, and why?

I have to say Jane Austen and Henry James first and foremost—Pride and Prejudice and Portrait of a Lady, respectively. I love Austen because I can just open any one of her novels at any page and just become absorbed in her orderly, thoughtful, witty, generous society—a respite from our present age of chaos and violence. I adore James for the very complexity of his thoughts, his characters, his sentences that make you slow down and savor the flow of the idea, the turn of his phrases, his ultimate mastery of the language. And I have to add Colm Toibin’s The Master— a novel about Henry James—as a current favorite; there’s so much of James’ own style, with the added layer of modern emotion; I’ve read it four times in the last three years.

6. PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST tells Sargent’s story through the eyes and voices of his subjects, which gives the narrative a fascinating, layered perspective. What did you find most challenging about telling a story from multiple narrative views?

As I said, Point of View has become kind of an obsession with me. I wrote the first draft of Portraits in a third person objective POV, but it came out a little dull, just sort of plodding along—this happened, and then this, and then that. I briefly tried a First Person POV with one of the major characters, Violet Paget, who was a long-time friend of Sargent’s, but then the book became all about her, which was not what I wanted. Then I wrote it with Sargent as the teller of the tale. It didn’t take very long to realize that that was very restricting, although his First Person voice brought a great deal more vivacity and immediacy to the story. It was easier to care about Sargent and what he was going through—but he had to be in every scene! I couldn’t reveal what other people thought about him, or felt about him, and that—it became clear to me—was turning out to be the essence of my book: how to understand a mostly inscrutable, intensely private person who nonetheless was a huge success in the art world of the late 19th century. It wasn’t known, but it was rumored, that he was gay—or maybe not; that he had compromised a young woman of his acquaintance, and really should marry her—or maybe not; that he’d sold his soul (and body) for the chance to paint the most famous woman in Paris—or maybe not really…. What to do?

Having written the whole book from Sargent’s POV, though, was a very fruitful exercise, as I now felt I was thoroughly in his head—I had mapped his motivations, his feelings, his responses, so I really, really knew him. I pondered the notion of having multiple First Person voices, and then it hit me:  the portraits would be the characters! They would tell the story of Sargent, from their points of view—each with his or her own voice—reliable or unreliable—vain, sincere, spiteful, honest, blinded by love or lust—and from those “portraits” of Sargent by his own “portraits”, the reader would be able to hear and understand the impact that Sargent had on all those people—lovers, friends, teachers, clients, judges—and infer some sense of who the man himself had been.

And so I ended up with a novel that has fifteen first-person narrators, plus Sargent. Luckily, my publisher was as insistent as I was on using as illustrations a “headshot” of each of the portrait/characters at the beginning of the chapters in which they’re featured, along with their names. It was a challenge—but a wonderful one—to make each of their voices distinct, but I (humbly) think I met the challenge. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide.

7. Do you have a favorite scene or section from PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST? If so, what makes that scene stand out for you?

The scene where Sargent has just about finished painting his portrait of the famous “Madame X” and realizes it is too perfect. He needs to do something to it that will make it a truly great  portrait, not just a good likeness. I really got into the artistic mindset in this scene—something that’s true for all artists—writers, painters, sculptors, composers—and the aha moment that strikes like lightning and you know you’ve nailed “it”.

8. What is the last book you read, and why did you read it?

I’ve been immersing myself in two different historical mystery series:  Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and Frank Tallis’s Max Lieberman Mysteries. Both of these series have been around for a while, but I just found them! The Maisie Dobbs character is so very intriguing—thoughtful, a little spooky but grounded—and the era of “between the Wars” is absolutely fascinating. In the last three months I have read all of the books in the series except the first one, which I can’t seem to find yet. As for Max Lieberman, his time period is about 30 years before Maisie, in 1906 Vienna. Max is a “consulting psychologist” to detective Oskar Reinhardt, and they form a Sherlock & Watson team of great camaraderie, intelligence and humor. Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler are also regular characters in the series (Freud is always telling Yiddish jokes!) Both series are excellent examples of the true historical mystery.

9. How long did it take you to write PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST? How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing?

Two and a half years, what with all the re-writing. I got so many rejections from editors (I had a literary agent doing this) that it was quite discouraging. One editor said the book needed “more on-screen sex”, stating that I had perhaps captured the Victorian mind-set too well, and needed to pump it up for modern readers. (Sigh.) Another editor said it needed a strong female protagonist, as that is what sells to the largely female audience of historical fiction. It was very discouraging, and I put the book a couple of times, but my love for the characters and Sargent’s story kept me coming back to it. Eventually I found an independent publisher in my own backyard (Menlo Park) without the help of my agent, and everything just zoomed from that point on.

10. Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?

I have my Book Launch scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21st at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco, 7:00 pm. I’m working on other venues throughout the Spring.

And now, the speed round:

Plotter or pantser?

Definitely pantser (if by that you mean winging it as you go along?)

Coffee, tea, or bourbon?

Oh, Bourbon! (when it’s not champagne)

Socks or no socks?

Socks for sure. Always have cold feet, lol.

Cats, dogs, or reptiles?

None, though I love dogs. Too much responsibility and energy!

For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?

MEXICAN!!!! Hands down.

Thank you, Mary, for joining us today and sharing more about PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST!

You can find Mary at her website and more information about the novel on her blog. You can also find PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST through the publisher, Sand Hill Review Press,  at the Kobo Store, on Barnes & Noble, at Amazon, and at a variety of independent booksellers.

Portraits of an Artist cover

Also, Mary has generously offered to give away a copy of the novel to one lucky commenter! For a chance to win, leave a comment on this blog post between now and midnight, Pacific time, on Monday February 11. I’ll draw a winner on Tuesday morning!


7 thoughts on “An Interview With Mary Burns – and a Contest!

  • February 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    What a clever and fascinating concept for a novel, Mary! I loved reading about your search for the proper point of view. Kudos to you for attempting fifteen! And here’s to you for your perseverance. I’ve gotten the “needs more sex” rejection, too. Do publishers think that all women want to read is a variation on “Fifty Shades”? Anyway, I would love to read your book. Best wishes for a successful launch!

    • February 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      Yeah, the sex thing, it IS kind of discouraging! But character will win over all! Thanks for your good wishes!

  • February 7, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    I’m so excited to read this book! I LOVE Sargent’s paintings. A great interview!

  • February 7, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I remember Mary from HNS! The book sounds wonderful. Love the interview. Love the Bobbsey twins, love Nancy Drew and thankfully still have my first diaries.

    And absolutely love a writer who loves bourbon! What’s your favorite bourbon? And have you ever traveled to Vienna?

    • February 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      Hi DeAnn – my favorite bourbon right now is Basil Hayden’s, a light and wonderful for sipping bourbon from Kentucky. Another good one is Bulleit Bourbon (we – my husband and I – use Bulleit Rye for Manhattans, my dear old Dad’s favorite drink). I haven’t gone to Vienna, but those mystery books (and the pastries!) really make me want to make it a destination soon. Thanks for your comment!

  • February 8, 2013 at 2:55 am

    Ooh! This book looks fascinating, Mary! I love Sargent’s work, and have been fortunate to view his work at the Louvre and the Smithsonian in past years. His portraits are uncanny, and my favorite has to be Mrs. Astor. It just takes you into that time period. The glamour and lifestyle is so amazing. I can’t wait to read this!
    Thank you so much for doing this interview, and thanks to Susan for posting it!!

  • February 8, 2013 at 5:43 am

    I saw this book online last week (Goodreads, maybe?) and noted it as a to-read. Thanks for sharing the backstory – it will make reading the book even more interesting.

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