Author interview: Joe Byrd – Monet & writing historical fiction
In this interview with author and Now Novel Coaching member Joe Byrd, Joe discusses his debut historical novel about the French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet. We chat about researching and writing about historical figures, the genesis of his book Monet & Oscar: The Essence of Light, and the experience of working with a coach and editor.
The novel’s inspiration and genesis
Jordan: You recently published your debut novel Monet & Oscar: The Essence of Light. First off, congratulations! Could you tell our readers what the book is about and a little about its inspiration or genesis?
Joe: Monet & Oscar: The Essence of Light is a historical novel about the personal life of Claude Monet, the man behind his art. It is told from the point of view of an American soldier who remained in France after WW1 to find his father.
I first learned of Monet in a college art appreciation class and fell in love with his art. I wanted to learn as much as I could about him and dedicated my life to studying this one artist, because I felt I couldn’t do justice to the entire group of Impressionists.
When the pandemic arrived, I decided I needed a place to escape to. That place turned out to be Giverny, France, Monet’s home. My mode of transportation was my imagination.
Researching artists and historical figures for fiction
Jordan: A great mode of transportation, especially during this past year.
Monet and the Impressionists are fascinating subjects (I was lucky to visit the Kunsthaus Zürich just before the COVID-19 pandemic and was amazed at the scale of his paintings of water lilies, not expecting them to span entire walls!).
How did you approach researching Monet, the man, and his art? What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned during this process?
Joe: Over the next fifty years [after college art classes], I attended nearly every museum exhibiting his work throughout the US and in Paris.
In reading books about Monet’s art, I found very little about the man himself. I continued collecting and reading books and was able to glean bits and pieces about his life and personality.
I visited his home in Giverny, France, several times, even staying in the house once owned by his son. I’ve read all of his letters that I could find that are translated.
My next challenge is to learn French. I learned that he dedicated himself completely to his art. Despite many setbacks and failures to find acceptance of his art, he never wavered in his vision and drive to attain his goals.
Stylistic decisions and subject matter
Jordan: That drive is so key, to writing, too. To persevere and grow whether or not there is an audience or adulation at that moment.
Glowing reviews have been coming in and many readers have commented on the pleasure of the richness of your descriptive detail throughout the story.
Were there specific stylistic decisions you made because of the subject matter? I noticed, for example, many references to light which is an important aspect of Impressionism. For example:
He captured the fractured light on the water’s surface and the rays filtering into the depths beneath them. No ground, no sky—just the water and the willows interwoven in patterns of colors and shapes. He looked to be painting the essence of the light that moved on the surface of the pond.
Joe: Monet considered himself a gardener first and a painter second.
He spent his painting career trying to capture the effects of light in a variety of settings from train stations, to seascapes, to grain fields, and finally to his garden and lily pond.
Claude Monet, ‘Waterlilies Pond, Green Reflection’ 1920/26, from the Emil Bührle Collection
All of his paintings were about light and the effect it had on the color of his subjects. I tried my best to translate the visualizations of his subjects gained from his paintings into words. This is, of course, an impossible task.
Writing romantic sub-stories
Jordan: Going by your descriptions and the reviews thereof, perhaps not so impossible after all!
Without giving too much away, one of the main sub-stories in the novel is a romantic one, between Monet’s gardener Oscar and a woman he meets on a train, Isabelle.
The lives of great artists are full of romantic intrigues. Could you speak a little about ‘romance’ in your work? Are there romantic novels that have inspired you as a writer?
Joe: I didn’t intend to include romance in the story, but from the moment that Isabelle came onto the train and sat down beside Oscar, she wormed her way into his life and heart. I was powerless to stop her. Nor did I want to.
She helped Oscar understand the motivations of his mother that led to his being born and living a life without a father. I struggled with the romantic scenes because I don’t read romance novels and wanted to maintain a delicate balance between love and passion.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to judge if I accomplished that balance for them. No reviewer has commented on this part of the story so far.
Working with a multilingual editor
Jordan: In your testimonial about working with Now Novel, you said of editor Zee Monodee’s work with you ‘her background in French was extremely vital to her work on this particular manuscript’.
In what ways was having a multilingual editor useful to your process and story?
Joe: Zee helped me understand Monet’s life from a French perspective. Since I don’t speak French, I found her assistance invaluable.
I’ve traveled extensively in France so I have some understanding of the culture from the places I’ve visited and the friends I’ve made, but when it came to translating the subtleties of the culture into words, I needed Zee’s help.
The most important thing she did for me was to get me to straighten out my timeline. I had a rough outline of the book when I started writing but from the start, the book took on a life of its own. This made it fun for me to follow along with the story, but when I’d finished, Zee pointed out that my timing was way off.
This resulted in my rewriting major parts of the book to make sense of the timing. For example when the war ended and when battles took place. I’m so grateful for her help.
Working with a writing coach
Jordan: Prior to working with Zee, you also worked with writing coach Fiona Ingram and mentioned enjoying her ‘strong support’ and the Now Novel process being fun.
Could you tell us a little about this experience? What led you to seeking a coach’s help, and what was the best thing about working with a coach?
Joe: I’ve spent my life writing non-fiction books, newsletters and marketing materials for a business audience. This meant that I knew how to write but not how to create a fictionalized story, especially one that is 90,000 words long.
Fiona taught me how to write a fiction story and provided me with the discipline I needed to shape my fiction writing skills. In short, she taught me how to write, and I couldn’t have done it without her. She is an excellent teacher and a tough task master.
By the way, she also speaks French, which I mentioned is essential to writing a book about France and a French artist. An editor should have some background in the subject matter of the story.
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Forthcoming book projects
Jordan: In your novel’s Goodreads synopsis, you mention that life for Oscar is ‘complete until the next episode’. Do you have any teasers for us about forthcoming stories?
Joe: I intend this book to be the first of a series. The next book will continue the story and the characters with a few new ones added to bring spice and drama to the story.
Readers seem to love the characters and want to read more about them. I’m even considering a major change in point of view for the next book, but I’ll to wait and see if I can pull it off before I talk about it. Stay tuned.
Advice to aspiring authors
Jordan: I definitely will. Thank you for taking the time to chat to us about Monet & Oscar! To end off, what advice would you give to an aspiring author who has a dream of writing and publishing their own debut?
Joe: Just do it. Sit down and start the process. Research your topic, the audience you wish to reach, and the publication process. Then when you know enough to know what you don’t know, start writing.
If you are fortunate enough to find a coach like Fiona and an editor like Zee, you will finish with a book that you can be proud of. Bon chance.
About the author
Joe Byrd’s BS in Journalism and MA in Communications degrees inspired him to become a pioneer in electronic publishing. As a McGraw-Hill editor, he developed one of the first computer publishing systems. In the rapidly developing PC software industry, he co-authored one of his two books using PC desktop publishing software, the first for a major publishing house. He developed the first technical support website in the software industry. In his fifty-year career, he published magazines, wrote research reports, and developed conferences in the US and Europe for the digital photography industry. He launched one of the first digital photography dot coms. This is his first novel.
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