"When I was nine, my great-grandfather, a landscape painter, taught me to mix colors," Susan Vreeland recalls in an interview on her publisher's web site. "With his strong hand surrounding my small one, he guided the brush until a calla lily appeared as if by magic on a page of textured watercolor paper. How many girls throughout history would have longed to be taught that, but had to do washing and mending instead?"
As a grown woman, Vreeland found her own magical way of translating her vision of the world into art. While teaching high school English in the 1980s, she began to write, publishing magazine articles, short stories, and her first novel, What Love Sees. In 1996, Vreeland was diagnosed with lymphoma, which forced her to take time off from teaching -- time she spent undergoing medical treatment and writing stories about a fictional Vermeer painting.
"Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal," she later wrote. In Vreeland's case, her goal "was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and know that in my last months I was happy -- because I was creating."
Vreeland recovered from her illness and wove her stories into a novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The book was a national bestseller, praised by The New York Times as "intelligent, searching and unusual" and by Kirkus Reviews as "extraordinarily skilled historical fiction: deft, perceptive, full of learning, deeply moving." Its interrelated stories move backward in time, creating what Marion Lignana Rosenberg in Salon called "a kind of Chinese box unfolding from the contemporary hiding-place of a painting attributed to Vermeer all the way back to the moment the work was conceived."
Vreeland's next novel, The Passion of Artemisia, was based on the life of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, often regarded as the first woman to hold a significant place in the history of European art. "Forthright and imaginative, Vreeland's deft recreation ably showcases art and life," noted Publishers Weekly.
Love for the visual arts, especially painting, continues to fire Vreeland's literary imagination. Her new novel, The Forest Lover, is a fictional exploration of the life of the 20th-century Canadian artist Emily Carr. She has also written a series of art-related short stories. For Vreeland, art provides inspiration for living as well as for literature. As she put it in an autobiographical essay, "I hope that by writing art-related fiction, I might bring readers who may not recognize the enriching and uplifting power of art to the realization that it can serve them as it has so richly served me."
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Two other novels relating to Vermeer were published within a year of Girl in Hyacinth Blue: The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.
Vreeland lives in San Diego with her husband, a software engineer. She taught high school English and ceramics for 30 years before retiring to become a full-time writer.
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Susan Vreeland had to say:
Foremost of my suggestions for summer reading is to read slowly and thoughtfully rather than racing through a book to find out "what happens
next." Instead, choose books that are gentle, that unroll their stories with a languid pace, encouraging reflectiveness. Isn't summer a time to
slow down and listen for birdsong? Do as much of your reading as you can outside. Here's what I recommend:
To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee's quintessential summer tale of family, growing up in Macon County, Georgia in a slower time but a time
of racial prejudice. It's summer quality of long days for the children Scout, Jem, and Dill, all released from school, barefoot and fresh, ready for their plunge into life's darker realities. Lee has given us a classic not to be missed.
The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier is what I'm enjoying now. She transports me back to the Middle Ages into a tapestry of characters each with their own goals, played against the making of one of the world's art masterpieces, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff -- Not a children's book, but one with a childlike simplicity, it's a sort of companion to the Winnie the Pooh stories with a delightful dash of Taoist philosophy. You don't really know these furry creatures from your childhood summers -- Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Roo -- until you ponder them in light of the "let it be" attitudes of Taoism. Don't be surprised if you don't get those summer projects done, like clearing out the garage. After all, some days Pooh found the honey pot full, some days he didn't -- and it didn't matter.
Spiritual Illuminations: Meditations for Inner Growth, edited by Peg Streep, is a treasure. Luxuriate in the fanciful illuminated borders,
each page different, as you absorb the thoughtful passages from a variety of thinkers, poets, favorite authors, Biblical verses. This is one you should savor slowly, in order to apply each page, a work of art, to you.
And while on the subject of art, choose an art book with plenty of large color plates, and turn the pages slowly, letting your eyes roam over
every square inch. Use a magnifying glass and lose yourself in the expressive power of a brushstroke and the wonder of the blending of one
color into another. I recommend a whole book on a favorite artist, so the reading of the accompanying text will make you feel you know him or her.
Read to someone you love.
And finally, cuddle up and read to a child, even a child you barely know. It will do your soul good.
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