What inspired you to write about Paula Modersohn-Becker?
I learnt about Paula Modersohn-Becker when my first poetry collection, Everything begins with the Skin, (Enitharmon) was published and I was asked to do two readings in Bremen and in Hanover. It was in Bremen that I first came across her work in the beautiful museum dedicated to her. I also visited Worpswede, which is very similar in topography to the Somerset levels, near where I used to live. The wild landscape with its dykes and birches and German farmhouses, caught my imagination. I was looking for a new subject for a novel and decided that I wanted, as an art critic, to write about an artist. I also identified with Paula’s life and her battles; her desire for emotional intimacy and a child, her struggle to make a living and survive as an artist. I could also relate to her love of Worpswede and the wild rural landscape, as well as her desire to be in the thick of things in Paris. I myself had lived in Somerset and now live in Islington.
How long did the book take from that initial idea to a finished manuscript? On reading the Girl in White it felt at times as if I was walking around Paris and Worpswede with Paula, how much research did you do for the book and did it involve going to France and Germany?
There was a long gestation period thinking about it. And I did a lot of research. I am not a German speaker, and it is not a biography, so I didn’t need all the facts, but I did need enough to get to know her. I found a rather bad translation of her diaries published by an obscure American university press and I read a lot of Rilke, along with his letters to Cézanne etc. After my first visit to Worpswede I went back by myself and just walked around soaking up the atmosphere and visiting Paula’s house. The village is very different now. Then it was very remote. The community was started as a way of artists turning their backs on modernity and returning to the land and the simple life of the peasants. There were a number of such communities around Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was part of the Modernist project – a going away, and leaving what was inauthentic for the authentic. It is what Gauguin and Van Gogh did in Brittany, and later Gauguin in Tahiti. Now Worpswede is a place with cafes and tea shops. I didn’t especially go to Paris. I know it reasonably well and I researched it by reading contemporary material. It was very important that it should not be a sentimental version of Paris, but the real, dirty, smelly place that it was then.
What was the most difficult part of the writing, were there any aspects that you struggled with?
For me, having started as a poet, the most difficult thing is always to find a convincing structure. It took time to find that. As a poet it is much easier to write about the moment than to get people in and out of rooms! But you have to find a narrative arc. Using Paula’s daughter, who did exist, but in my account is entirely fictionalised, gave me a framing device that allowed me to tell Paula’s story, to live her imagined life, as well as investigate, by setting it in 1933, what had gone wrong with German Romanticism and the ideals that the Worpswede group had of returning to the land and the simple life. By 1933 this had become corrupted to “blood, soil, the volk and the fatherland” – and this slippage interests me. Paula was denounced as a degenerate artist by the Nazis.
I’m interested in this blurring of the facts of her real life with the life you’ve imagined for her, especially her struggles to reconcile the demands of being an artist with trying to have a domestic life as well. It had a modern feel and I wondered how much was in her diaries and how much you drew on your own experience? It’s rather shocking that we should still have their dilemmas as women a hundred years on.
Well I used her diaries a good deal and the emotions I give her I think exist in these. But it is not coincidence, I suppose, that I chose her because she mirrors much of my own emotional experience and I felt pretty close to her at times. I think the choice for younger women is still complicated. It is just that now it is more acceptable to be ruthless; to be a writer or an artist who is dedicated to your career. It is harder if one wants children - then the pull remains - the guilt that one is always in the wrong shoes, that one does not have enough energy, is neither a good enough mother nor artist.....
And related to the above question you decided the role played in the novel by her daughter, Mathilde would be entirely fictional, including her having an affair with a married man in Germany of the 1930s. That feels brave to me – did you have any dilemmas about doing this?
Not really. If I had wanted to be entirely factual I would, as an art critic, have written a biography. All acts of writing are a form of translation. Paula becomes my fictional Paula - though I do believe she is pretty similar to the actual person. But even so what I have written is an act of fiction and Mathilde had a formal literary role. She is there to frame the story, to stop it being merely biography, to allow me to imagine and also to explore the relationship between the Utopianism of the Worpswede painters and the slippage into the attitudes of the Third Reich. It also opens up the whole debate as to what is the best way to reveal a life. It is quite possible that fiction is more emotionally accurate than bald fact. Even a biographer is, to some extent, writing fiction.
And if your novel has inspired the reader to want to find out more about Paula what would you suggest? I’m assuming from your comment about the quality of the translation that you wouldn’t want recommend her diaries? I was surprised to discover that the Paula-Modersohn Museum in Bremen is the first museum in the world dedicated to a female artist.
No the diaries - as translated at present - are rather turgid, though useful to me. I would certainly suggest the PMB museum in Bremen - a very pretty city. There is also a painting in the Courtauld but little else here in the UK. And of, course, there is Rilke's poem, Requiem to a Friend - but that might tell you more about Rilke than PMB
I thought it was lovely that your first poetry collection, Everything begins with Skin (Enitharmon) led several books later to the Girl in White so what will come next for you? Another novel or a collection of poetry and do you work on one thing at a time or have several writing projects on the go?
Well I have a new collection from Salt coming out this spring: “The Forgetting and Remembering of Air.” and I am working on another novel based in Ireland. So we will see where that leads. I usually work on several things at once. Poems come very slowly and irregularly, where as I can plod on with writing prose and keep going back and editing it, hoping that each time it gets better - and, of course, I am always writing about art, but it all takes a very long time!
Sue’s publications are:-
Rothko's Red and other stories (Salt),
The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt) Forthcoming
There is a review of Girl in White here.