Q&A with Thomas Van Essen
Q. When did you first get the idea for The Center of the World?
A. It was during my first or second year of graduate school, a long time ago. I was taking a course in nineteenth-century nonfiction. I was sitting in the back of the room, on the left-hand side, when the professor, George Levine, told the famous story about Ruskin supposedly burning Turner’s erotic sketches. I didn’t know an awful lot about Turner at the time, but I knew I liked him and that he was a great painter. My first thought, I remember, was what a shame, but my second was, what if these sketches were a sign of something else? What if Ruskin burnt them not because they were merely erotic, but because they had some kind of power in them that was more than mere eroticism? What if they were the preliminary sketches for a work like no other? That notion, in various permutations, knocked around in the back of mind for around twenty-five years.
Q. So what made you finally explore that theme in a novel?
A. I have a very good “day job,” but one evening about ten years ago I had one of those “is this all there is?” moments. I was the last one left in the office; I had just gotten off the phone with a very demanding client and knew that I had done a pretty good job of handling a complicated situation. In some universe I should have been very pleased with myself, but I just felt empty and depressed. Is this what I really want out of life? I had stopped writing after I had failed to find a publisher for my first novel, a pretty good genre novel, but I knew that I needed to go back to it.
So I decided I would just write the book I wanted to write; I wouldn’t worry about it being “publishable” or anything like that. I would just do what I needed to do, engage with the ideas I really cared about. I would go back to the idea that had been kicking around in my head and in my journals since graduate school.
I made this deal with myself. I would get up an hour and half early every morning and write before I went to work. No adolescent agonizing, just produce some prose every day. All I had to do, I figured, was write two hundred words a day, or a thousand words a week. Fifty thousand words a year and I’d have a novel in two years. Piece of cake. It was, of course, more complicated than that and the two years turned to three and to four between living and crossing stuff out, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with what I was doing.
Q. How would you describe the idea that is at the heart of The Center of the World?
A. In “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag says,“Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art . . . Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” What if the sketches that Ruskin destroyed were studies for a work of art that achieved that “transparence” that Sontag talks about more perfectly than any work of art ever has? That work would be uninterpretable, it would just be what it was. How would people respond to such a thing? How could such a thing have been created? These are the ideas that I am playing around with in the novel.
An “uninterpretable” work, a work that just is, would be something that, as an aesthetic object, is more perfect than anything yet created and more erotic, as an erotic object, than any thing that ever was before. When I think about the Turner painting in the book I think about two vectors, one labeled “art” and one labeled “eroticism” merging someplace beyond anything we know in either category. That intersection, treated as a real possibility, is what the book is about. How could such an impossible object be created in the past? What would it be like to be in the presence of such an object in the present? Those are the questions I am trying to deal with.
Q.That’s a very theoretical and pointy-headed description of what you are doing. The book actually doesn’t seem that theory-driven.
A.Thank you. That’s me, in part, looking back and trying to make sense of the book after the fact.
Q. Did you do a lot of research for this book?
A. Yes, but not a ton. In a joint interview E. L. Doctorow and Joe Papaleo (both of whom were my teachers at Sarah Lawrence) talk about how in fiction writing, too close an adherence to historical fact can be crippling. (Conversations With E. L. Doctorow, University Press of Mississippi, 1999) Everything that happens in the book is more or less plausible given the broad outlines of what we know about Turner’s career, but I didn’t let myself be limited by the facts. One of the great things about writing about Turner is that he was a very private person—we don’t really know an awful lot about the man beyond the paintings—so I felt like I had quite a few degrees of freedom there. I went to Petworth House a few times during the course of the writing—just wandering around like a tourist—and tried to imagine how this real place could be instrumental in the creation of the impossible object that is at the heart of my book. The descriptions of the rooms and the paintings at Petworth are pretty accurate. The National Trust guide to Petworth House was an import resource.
Q. The Turner painting at the center of your novel seems to be a sexually explicit representation of Helen of Troy. How did you get to that?
A. Well, I started with Turner’s erotic sketches and the notion that they were remnants, as it were, of a greater, but now lost, work. That work would have to have an erotic element to it, it would have to be a historical painting (this is Turner after all), and it would have to be about something really important. That got me to Helen pretty quickly. Early in the novel Turner is talking to his patron, Lord Egremont, about the difference between the ancients and the moderns, and who knew more about the truth. Turner says that “there is more truth between a woman’s legs than there ever was between Homer’s ears.” What he means here, I think, is that the “truth” is not so much an intellectual creation, but it is something that resides ultimately in the body and in human desire. When Turner, with Egremont’s encouragement, tries to represent that “truth” he is drawn to Helen, because Helen is the ultimate object of desire. She is, in some sense, the cause of everything: the Trojan War and epic poetry, art; the origin, from Turner’s perspective, of everything that matters.
Q. What would you like your readers to get out of The Center of the World?
A. Pleasure, of course. Turner was a Romantic and his paintings, while wonderful as formal objects, are also full of feeling. My book is not one of those cool postmodern affairs. It shares, in some small way, a Romantic (with a capital R) sensibility with Turner and other artists and poets of his time. I would like readers to leave with a feeling for what art and love can be and with some new ideas about how those two things might be related.