Author Interview: Louise Hawes on The Vanishing Point

The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). From the catalog copy: “In lush, glowing prose, Louise Hawes’s historical novel draws readers into the life and art of sixteenth-century Bologna with a compelling account of Lavinia Fontana, arguably the most famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. Here readers will find a coming-of-age story filled with quest, complication, and catastrophe as well as miracles and hope. Although the novel is set four hundred years ago, the hard choices it involves speak to all times, all places, and are sure to tap into readers’ own conflicts between head and heart, real life and dreams.” Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

When I talk to a group about the genesis of The Vanishing Point, a lot of folks expect a dusty lecture on art history. What they get instead is a love story, and a juicy one at that! Like anyone who’s fallen hard and fast, I remember all the details: six years ago, on a trip to visit my dad, who still lives where I grew up near Washington, D.C., I heard about a one-woman show at the National Gallery of Women in the Arts. All curious and innocent, I got in my car and drove downtown; still unsuspecting, I went inside and had a look around. ZAPPO! WHAMMO! I was a goner…

The gallery was holding a one-woman show, the work of a painter who lived over 400 years ago in Renaissance Italy. I walked into that show convinced that all the great Renaissance painters were men; I walked out blown away by the tenderness, fun, and sheer talent of the artist whose work I had just seen. Her name was Lavinia Fontana, and she painted with a fresh, wry intelligence that grabbed me from the very first canvas. I couldn’t stop thinking about the expressions on the faces of the women she painted, about the way small dogs kept wandering into her pictures, about she confidence, the sureness of her lines.

I left the Museum that day with my new favorite postcard (Fonatana’s portrait of a Girl with a Dog) and a head full of ideas that had just been turned upside down. You see, I was raised by parents who were both sometime painters, and our house was full of art books. Those books served as my picture books when I was a child, and I grew up sure of two things: 1) women in centuries gone by had a tendency to lie around without any clothes on, but they always made certain they were wearing lots of jewelry; and 2) all the great painters of the Italian Renaissance had names that end with O (Leonardo, Sandro, Michelangelo, Filippo, Donatellos, and on and on and on). Okay, I got over that first misconception soon enough — trying to sleep with my brand new pierced earrings when I was thirteen convinced me pretty quickly that only Gods and Goddesses could mix nudity and jewelry. But nothing I learned later, even as an art history major in college, did much to dissuade me from the idea that Renaissance art was this beautiful and famous all-male hall of fame.

Imagine how I felt, then, confronted by the extraordinary work of Lavinia Fontana! Someone who painted with the smarts of Carraci and the feeling for textures you see in Titian’s work. Someone who beat so many of the “Great Masters” at their own game, and had a sense of humor to boot. Someone who respected what went on “behind the scenes” in the world of women. No question, I was definitely in love. And I think maybe the feeling was a little bit mutual, because from the moment I set eyes on her, Lavinia kept whispering in my ear: “Luisa! Luisa!” (She tried to teach me Italian from the getgo.) “Andiamo. Tell my story!”

What was the timeline between spark and publication, what were the major events along the way?

You just read about the spark — that was in 1989. But, although I began to read and think about her non-stop, I didn’t decide to tell Lavinia’s story for another couple of years. And I didn’t finish it for another four. Put yourself in my place: I’d published over a dozen novels, every one of them with a contemporary setting and a contemporary teenager as protagonist. But my new crush was different; she was real; she’d actually set foot on the earth; and she’d made her mark there, a big one. I was way out of my comfort zone, and quite frankly, the prospect of trying historical fiction scared me silly. I’d never been hemmed in by facts before – I didn’t want to stop myself in the middle of a story and ask, “Was coffee invented yet? Did they have buttons then? Would there have been a cure for that?”

So I kept busy with other books and projects. My research on Fontana became a sort of background hum — something that went on underneath work that “mattered.” It was a hobby, I thought, a minor obsession that would surely pass. But it didn’t. And in 1992, the universe sent me a sign. The US Department of Defense asked me if I wanted to serve as a Visiting Author in ten American high schools at ten military bases throughout…guess which country?! Yep, Italy. A green light from fate! (Besides, if the Feds were going to choose between guns and me, I wanted them to choose me!) I went, and I toured more than ten cities in Italy in less than two weeks. Way too much, way too fast. But when I finally set foot in Bologna, when I walked the streets of Lavinia’s hometown, she became more insistent than ever.

My new protagonist nagged and teased, begged and pleaded until finally I gave in. What’s the harm of trying? I asked myself. And once I’d begun writing about her, of course, I found I had fallen in love with Vini much too deeply to stop. That’s the kind of crazy tug that keeps you going, the fire that won’t die, not until all the research is done and the story is told. Houghton Mifflin published The Vanishing Point in the fall of 2004. This past winter it was an Association of Independent Bookseller’s pick and a Banks Street College choice. This year, it’s up for BBYA of 2005. And best for last, the book’s gotten top ratings from all the young reveiwers at Yeah Write! and the always wonderful Stone Soup.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

One of the biggest challenges happened fairly early in the timeline I’ve described above. As it turns out, it took very little reserach to find out that Lavinia Fontana came as close as most of us will ever manage to living happily ever after! I discovered that Vini, as she allowed me to call her — probably because she was still trying to sell me on the idea of writing her book, was much more famous than any female painter had ever been before her, and more famous than most who came after. She had a medal struck in her honor; foreign ambassadors fell in love with her; her patrons were kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, even the Pope himself. And as for romance, she lucked out in that department, too: Vini married a mediocre student who studied painting with her father and when her new husband recognized that her talent far outstripped his own, the good man stayed home and raised their ELEVEN (yes, I said eleven!) children. While Vini traveled across Italy and Europe doing what she did best — painting.

It’s not hard to figure out that writing a story when you already know the ending poses a serious problem. Those of you who are writers know that that’s the fun, the free-fall of fiction, after all — going on a journey that surprises you as much as it does your readers. How could I take that kind of journey with Vini, when I was all too aware (and – gulp – a little bit jealous!) of her Happy Ending with a capital H? This didn’t phase her, though, and she kept whispering. (“Luisa, Luisa, oggi! subito!”) Well, sure my Italian was improving under her constant barrage, but I was still thick as a brick. Finally, though, after I got back from Italy, in love all over again, I caught on: The person who’d been whispering in my ear all these years was NOT the famous grownup artist, but the young girl from whom she grew. And newsflash: it’s challenging and fun to tell a backwards story! That happy ending was only a trigger, a diving board; it helped me ferret my way back and back and back, asking, Where? When? How?

That’s what’s involved, you see, in writing about the adolescence of an historical figure whose adulthood has been well documented. That’s the thrill, so different from fiction, but equally fascinating: How did she get there? What made it happen? Where were the seeds planted? There is no historical record of Vini’s teenage years, so I was free to “make up” the early experiences and emotions that might have shaped the historical artist, that might have made her who she was.

So how DID she do it? How did a young girl raised in the strict, patriarchal society of Italy’s Counter-Reformation become a celebrated artist. How did she break the taboos against women studying the naked body? Or working side by side with male artists? Or joining a craft guild? Earning money? How did someone who lived when unmarried women seldom even left the house except to go to church, manage to accomplish what she did? To go, like a distaff Captain Kirk, where no woman had gone before? The answers to these questions led me to the last big challenge involved in telling Vini’s story:

The stuff of fiction is conflict, and there’s plenty of that in the life of Fontana. A young girl’s ambition, her love of painting, set against everything she’s been taught, even against her own family, perhaps even against God’s will. But here’s the catch: I couldn’t turn this book into a feminist triumph. I knew Vini well enough by now to know she would never have achieved her goals by giving up her faith, by turning against her church and society, or by being disrespectful to her parents. She wouldn’t have known the first thing about women’s rights; she was a product of her times, not mine. As such, she would have probably felt that concepts like equal protection and suffrage were sacrilegious, a violation of natural and divine law.

Yet I also knew Vini had a sense of humor, a love of small, powerless animals and children, a deep understanding of human nature. These qualities, then, must have been her weapons, her tools, as much as the brush and canvas. And these were probably what allowed her to achieve as much as she did. In the end, I had to trust our relationship enough to let her fight her own battles, without rushing to her defense from my own modern perspective of righteous outrage. Otherwise, the book would never be hers. Would never ring true. So I tried very hard to stay out of her way. I hope you like the story she wrote!

Cynsational News & Links

BookSense Fall 2005 Kid’s Picks from Bookselling This Week. Sending out particular congrats to Louise Erdrich, author of The Game of Silence (HarperCollins, 2005); Linda Sue Park, author of Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005); Cecil Castellucci, author of Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005); Jane Resh Thomas, author of The Counterfeit Princess (Clarion, 2005); Graham Salisbury, author of Eyes of the Emperor (Wendy Lamb Books, 2005); R.A. Nelson, author of Teach Me (Razorbill, 2005); Holly Black, author of Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

“It’s About the Story, Silly!” by K. Pluta, in the Getting Started section of Writer’s Support from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also “Mining Your Life for the Gold of Children’s Books,” an ICL chat with author Deborah Wiles, author of Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt, 2005).

Tofu and T. rex, reviewed by Hilary Williamson from BookLoons Reviews. Tofu and T. rex is by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005).