How the Pages Begin
Interview with Novelist Serena Burdick: On Writing Historical Fiction
If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Serena Burdick, you will immediately fall under her spell. To start, she is stunning, and has a way of speaking that showcases her thoughtful intelligence and creativity. She first told me about her book in a very matter-of-fact way — sans bravado. I had known her for a while when we spoke at length one evening in a restaurant — and in between the candle light and tinkling of wine glasses, she confessed her secret. She was the author of a book that was coming out in July.
I knew right away that I had to find out more about this person who had so quietly been creating a masterpiece. And so, this past April, Serena and I met in a rustic New England cafe where she revealed to me some of the secrets behind the writing of her book, Girl in the Afternoon: A Novel of Paris coming out July 12, 2016,
Girl in the Afternoon transports the reader to Belle-Epoque Paris, and tells the story of a female artist whose family is well-connected with famous impressionist Edouard Manet. Each chapter is purposefully and elegantly crafted, making you feel as though it is your feet on the cobblestones, and your hand on the paintbrush.
LR: Thanks for meeting me Serena.
SB: Of course, thank you for asking me!
LR: This is a great little cafe, how did you find it? Are you from here?
SB: I grew up here- in Millers Falls, but I’ve lived many places. California, Aspen, and I spent a lot of time in the Bay Area, LA, and Washington State. Then NYC for three years, and Sweden for a year before moving back here. NYC and LA were the longest stints.
LR: But you never lived in France, the setting of your book…
SB: I’ve never actually been to France … I don’t know if you want to make that known or not. [laughs]
LR: That’s incredible. Sometimes you read a book and the way the author describes streets and places you just assume they must have (at least) visited. And I felt that way reading your novel — so I’m just really impressed.
SB: I had a moment of panic during my research where I thought, I can’t do this — I have to go to France. But it just wasn’t feasible at the time. And I realized that since I wasn’t writing about contemporary Paris, going there would only be partially accurate. It would have been great to go and walk the streets I was writing about, but what I did instead was to read a lot of fiction. And if you read fiction set in that era, you are immersed in a time that is nothing like what you would experience.
LR: Which novels did you read?
SB: I read works by Emile Zola. He gave great impressions of smells, locations, and the feel of Paris in the 19th century. I read The Masterpiece, in particular, because it’s about an artist and I wanted to hear him tell the story of an artist in that era. As I was reading I would take these little notes and categorize things. I had categories for food, architecture, transportation, furniture, and so on. Then when writing I used these notes (particularly about the art) to cross-check the facts and be sure I was including things that were historically accurate.
“If you read fiction set in that era, you are immersed in a time that is nothing like what you would experience.”
LR: I’ll definitely be adding that book to my list. I’m really curious, what first drove you to write this? If it wasn’t being in Paris, then where did this story come from?
SB: I had just finished another (unpublished) novel that I’d been working on for five years, and I was at a loss for what do to next. I was sort of floundering and thinking — what do I write about now? How do I find another topic? It was my sister who gave me the idea. She’s an artist and she told me that I should really write about this time in Paris. I remember telling her “I can’t do that, I don’t know anything about it.” She told me to research it. And so I didn’t really have any story in mind to start, just a fascinating time in history.
LR: So you started researching before you started writing.
SB: Absolutely, I researched for about six months before I started writing. The story formed itself. I had no idea. I originally thought I would tell it from the perspective of a (famous) artist, like Manet, but I ended up deciding that that just wasn’t interesting enough.
LR: And did you discover that there were a lot of female artists at the time?
SB: I have always known there were female artists, but the sheer number of female impressionists that I had never heard of was appalling. I have friends that have gone to art school and just never heard of these women. You go to the Clark Museum, and there is not a woman in there. I find it really shocking. There are so many women from that era with truly prolific works.
LR : When I was reading the book I kept thinking, she must be an artist, know an artist, or have read first-hand accounts to be able to write like this.
SB: Yes. Art was a part of my childhood, and my elementary school curriculum. I was always taken to museums and my sister started painting at a young age — she was very good even from the beginning. I was never good any good, but I’ve always been very close to art.
LR: Are the artworks mentioned in the book real?
SB: All of Manet’s paintings in the story are real. Except for Jeune Femme, which I had to create. But in general, all of the historical details are accurate. Years, the war, and even the Salons and the paintings Manet showed in the Salons are are all accurate.
LR: How long did it take you to complete this novel?
SB: Technically two years, however I find it very hard to quantify the time. It was two years not including the research — two years of writing. And that would be inclusive of multiple drafts.
LR: Switching gears a bit, when did you know that writing was what you wanted to do?
SB: I didn’t know it for a very long time. I wrote my entire life, but it never ever occurred to me to do it as my profession. But it was part of my curriculum in school.
LR: You had to write in school?
SB: Yes, part of my elementary education was to write and publish stories. The school has its own press, and every semester students have to write and publish a book, as part of their reading and writing program.
LR: That’s wonderful. What’s the name of this school?
SB: It’s called Full Circle School, in Bernardston, and it’s easily the best school around. I credit them with so much of my creativity and who I am today. They are all about the arts and being an independent learner. The reason that I think I can sit down and write a novel to completion, is because they taught me how to start something on my own and finish it.
LR: Speaking of starting something on your own and finishing it, were there points in writing this that it felt like an impossible task?
SB: Not really. I wrote the first draft, which I’m really good about. And then I received these intensely difficult critiques. So I re-wrote the draft, and gave it to someone else to read. And that second round of critique was just devastating. But learning to discern critique is one of the most challenging things as a writer.
“The reason that I think I can sit down and write a novel to completion, is because they taught me how to start something on my own and finish it.”
LR: There were so many lines in your book that struck me. There is one in particular when Amy goes back to Henri’s apartment and she is studying the nude paintings he has done. Can I read it?
LR: “Girl in the Afternoon still hung on the wall, along with a large nude, and a dozen more studies from all different angles: a hand, a bust, a shoulder blade, the curved arch of a foot. Henri had picked her apart with precision. Aimée imagined that at night, with his hands, he put her back together.”
SB: It’s fun to hear lines that people pick out.
LR: The love scene you wrote was also incredibly beautiful.
SB: That was very hard. I found it incredibly difficult because I didn’t know how to make it…
LR: The right amount of sexy.
SB: Right, because you don’t really want to describe anatomy, but how do you write realistically without making something a romance novel. I’ll never forget one moment in the process though. My mother was reading a draft of the love scene and she glances up and says, “Oh, you don’t know how to write a sex scene.” [laughs]
LR: There were also so many beautiful descriptions in your book. I just read the part where a main character’s apartment is being changed by the presence of a woman, but instead of saying this outright you used the imagery of the new porcelain on his shelves. It’s funny because I was just trying to explain to someone the difference between showing and telling in writing. And this passage of yours was especially beautiful because you could feel the devastation of the visitor in seeing something so simple as cups and plates on shelf. Your dialogue as well, particularly your development of Manet’s voice is just incredibly believable. Did it take a long time for you to master description and dialogue in this way?
SB: Thank you. It’s taken a long time for me to get there with my descriptions. But dialogue has always come easily to me. I was an actor for 10 years and plays are mostly dialogue. So I really envision many things. And even in this next book I’m trying to write, I’m really just struggling with how the pages begin. So then I sat back and imagined what I would see in a film. How I would want it to begin — and that helps me start the story. How would I want it to end? If I was either watching it happen in real life or on film, or on stage — that helps me to get the story rolling, versus just imagining how things are going to play out. (Imagining) that is too daunting. I picture it in my head and think of the action instead of the words.
LR: That’s amazing. So you are starting something new?
LR: What period are you in? Are you in the research phase still?
“When struggling with how the pages begin I just sit back and imagine what I would see in a film. How would I want it to begin? That helps me start the story.”
SB: I’m nearly done with the research, and trying to start the first chapter. Today I was working on the outline. And today was a struggle. The first thing I do is to visualize the story and what will happen. I read a book on writing and the biggest thing that stuck with me, is that scenes should have a domino effect. Each scene should knock into the next. And there should never be any scene that is without a purpose, because it should be pushing you forward to the next thing that’s going to happen.
LR: What was the name of this book?
SB: Write Away by Elizabeth George. I’ve never read any of her books — but I know she’s a mystery writer. Some of those how-to books on writing aren’t very helpful, and almost too complex. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of a Novel
and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, are very good but too heavy for me. I really wanted something simple.
LR: Like succinct advice.
SB: Yes. Write Away and Steven King’s On Writing are my two go-to books. Write Away is wonderful in its direct tone. It’s very “here’s the plot, and here’s what you need to do.” It simplifies how to construct a story in a way that was very helpful to me.
LR: So can you give us a little teaser on your next novel?
SB: Yes! It takes place in 1915 New York City and is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old who’s been in trouble with the law.
LR: Well I’ll be watching for it. I’d like to close by asking, what are the things that have most inspired you creatively in your career?
SB: Books. I’ve always been an avid reader and I get very excited to begin writing new story — the drive to create something as good as the stories I’ve read is is always there for me. There are writers who I hold to a tier of excellence that I aspire to, and I am not there yet.