Claude & Camille: An Interview with Author Stephanie Crowell

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

1393. Indian Ink – The best is stamped with Chinese Characters, breaks with a glossy fracture, and feels smooth when rubbed on the plate.

1394. Hair Pencils are made of camel’s hair; if they come to a point when moistened, without splitting, they are good.

Stephanie, congratulations on the wonderful reviews of your novel Claude and Camille.  I’ve been following you on your blog tour and enjoying all the comments and articles.  It’s a beautiful read.  I couldn’t put it down and even took it with me to work for break time.  I learned so much about Monet whose paintings I have loved since a girl. I knew nothing about Camille and how she inspired him.  Really, knew nothing at all.  Now I do and the imagery you create of them together will now influence how I look at the paintings. Camille is no longer in shadow though she has graced many a gallery for a century and more.

As a historian and writer, I’m always curious about certain touches and historical details that show up in historical fiction. Makes me want to ask, where did the writer find that? And how does the writer manage to balance history and storytelling?

One of the first scenes that struck me was in the shop in his hometown where young Monet goes to buy his paints.  You vividly describe the way the paints and supplies are displayed and how he goes about choosing what he needs.  I wonder if you could talk about your research into the materials available to Monet and his artist friends in the 1860s and 1870s.  What did you need to know?  And what surprising thing did you find out?

STEPHANIE:  I was very surprised to discover that oil paint had been first made available in tubes the year Claude turned age one in 1841, far before he could say the word “paint.”  Before that, the artist had to grind his own colors (or perhaps buy them ground) and mix them himself with oil or other substances.   To keep the newly prepared oil paints consistent in color and texture was difficult and when artists began to go into nature to paint, they sometimes carried their mixed paint in an animal bladder.  Impressionism, which was large spontaneous and outdoors, would not have been possible without this invention. (The painting tube went on to many other uses, including the tooth paste tube!)

The other thing that surprised me was how expensive supplies were. The most expensive paints could cost 15 or 20 francs a tube, or twice what a pretty female model cost per hour.  Renoir was offered a commission once, and had to ask his patron to front the money for supplies before he began.

That’s very interesting about the oils.

Claude and Camille go through many hardships, one of which is becoming refugees during the Franco-Prussian War.  Fleeing to England is something I didn’t know about, but explains his paintings of London subjects.  Researching the war and all its ramifications could have been really daunting because you then have to put it into the story.  You do an excellent job of showing the wretchedness of their situation as refugees and the conditions at home in Paris.  Once you got your facts, what decisions did you have to make to tell your story about Claude and Camille in this time period without bogging down, a historical fiction writer’s dilemma?

STEPHANIE : It is always the hardest thing I do, knowing what history to put in and what to leave out. I actually bought two or three books just on the subject and ended up using a few pages.   I imagine myself telling the story aloud to a friend, saying, “They went to exile in London and…”   I think you have to figure out what part their exile to London and Camille’s subsequent life during in her little bookshop during the civil uprising in Paris belongs in the story.  If the whole novel were set in the period of exile and then civil uprising, there would be more history.  But the important things to show for me was Camille’s resourcefulness under great hardship and also how torn up Claude was that he had had a really bitter fight with his best friend who was far away and might be in danger and only slow letters between them could begin to mend things.  We have e-mail and phones now, and it’s hard to conceive how long people had to wait for answers by post in 1871, especially when countries were at war.

Actually, most of Claude’s London paintings are from a later period when he was prosperous and returned to capture the Thames.  I think he only did a handful of paintings when in exile during the war.  He had no money and was trying to survive.

But he reconnected with the art dealer that had rejected him before!

There are some wonderful family moments in the novel.  I thought Camille’s illness was heartbreaking. 19th century medicine is not like today nor were attitudes.   What did you have to research to understand how doctors of her time treated patients, made calls, training (I suspect it was good in France). How were females treated?

STEPHANIE: Well of course they did have surgery then; they had some surgery back in the days of Egypt and there was Chloroform which came into use in the mid 19th-century which made surgery possible without horrible pain.  There were French medical schools, but the doctor who saw Camille was a homeopathic doctor.  They often did operate for a tumor, but Claude and Camille were living in an inaccessible place in the country, they had no money, and she insisted prayer would cure her.  These scenes required imagination on my part because relatively few documents refer to her illness.  They thought she was ill when she became pregnant with her last child who was still a baby when she died.  Claude was trying to paint enough to feed everyone in the house and writing desperate letters to friends for the smallest loans and by the time he really realized what was happening, it was too late.  It is amazing when we look at his paintings from 1878 and 1879 and see how bucolic they are (they were living in Vethéuil at the time) and to understand what a tragedy he was facing.

Thank you so much Stephanie for allowing me to be part of your blog tour. We “met” in that most modern way – Twitter – but I think our hearts are firmly placed in historyAll the best!


2 thoughts on “Claude & Camille: An Interview with Author Stephanie Crowell

  1. I have a lot of books of Claude Monets work, being a collector of impressionistic landscapes and something of a (laughable) painter myself. I have a wonderful book of his lesser-known beachside paintings he did on vacation and this reminds me of the richness and dimensionality of his domestic life. and where there’s a great man, a great woman is making it happen.

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