“Camille dropped to her knees in the mud. Her skirts absorbed last night’s rain and the scent of sodden earth. She plunged a trowel, stolen from her neighbor’s garden, into the red clay and dug furiously, stopping only to slop hunks of art into a wooden trough. She needed one more load to mold the portrait of Eugénie. The maid would sit for her again, regardless of her protestations.” ~ from Rodin’s Lover
Camille Claudel will need every bit of that determination, too. In her time, a woman was encouraged to dress well and marry soon; any dabbling in art was viewed more as a hobby. But Camille pushes against social mores. She pursues her passion and earns the attention of her fellow artists, especially that of the great Auguste Rodin.
What unfolds in Rodin’s Lover is the tragedy of Camille’s life: of a female artist’s plight in the 19th century and her spiral into the dark unraveling of her mind.
I’m honored to host Heather Webb today to talk about her novel. There’s also a book giveaway: simply leave a comment, even just your name, and you’re entered to win a copy. Now, welcome Heather Webb!
CC: What initially drew you to Camille Claudel’s story and inspired you to write Rodin’s Lover?
HW: I fell in love with Camille while in my French film class in college. The film, simply called Camille Claudel, was multiple award-winning in Europe and the U.S. with stars Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu playing the roles of Camille and Rodin. Their tragic love story gripped me and I swooned at the beauty they created both together and separately. After the film, I became rather obsessed with sculpture in general. Many years later, I had not forgotten Camille, and knew I wanted to delve more into her life. It has been an incredible experience spending time exploring her brilliant mind, and ultimately sharing her story.
CC: Monsieur Jacques, Camille’s teacher at Académie Colarossi, tells her at one point, “To advance, you must take risks.” Both Auguste Rodin and Camille take risks in his pursuit of a relationship with her beyond that of a tutor and in her surrender to her desires for him, sealing a connection between them that is both passionate and bittersweet. What risks did you take in writing this book or in building these characters?
HW: I took plenty of risks. For one, my first novel is much more of a classic marquee figure in historical fiction that centers on Josephine Bonaparte and Napoleon’s empire during the French Revolution. With RODIN’S LOVER, I skipped ahead one hundred years and had to learn about a whole new era, its inventions, conventions, and fashion, how women were viewed, and what was happening in the art world. Choosing a little-known artist in a new era was risky for sure!
Also, I wrote about a character who isn’t always likable—sympathetic, yes—but likable, no. Camille Claudel was brash, outspoken, and had a violent temper. But also, she had a great sense of humor, was loving, passionate, and created such beautiful pieces, how could one not at least pause to honor her memory upon viewing them? Her story compelled me. Even if some readers don’t fall for her, others will and have, so to me, it has been worth it. Her work has been revived again and that feels a bit like giving back to not only women, but women artists, who struggled in history.
The other risk I faced was confronting the Camille Claudel enthusiasts that despise Rodin and saw him as nothing but a womanizer who took advantage of her. That simply isn’t true. Yes, he loved women, but take advantage of her he did not. I think society loves a victim and she is painted in that light in regards to her tutor. All the research shows that Rodin was obsessively in love with her. Not only did he teach her all he knew, he helped support her, even after she was committed to the asylum. In death, they share museum space together because of the will he left behind. She would have been forgotten, otherwise, which is sad, but true. I painted him in the novel, I feel, as he was—a man who struggled to do the right thing, who was torn by loving more than one woman, and whose passion for his art mattered above all else.
CC: Rodin’s Lover is not only about the relationship between Camille and Rodin; it also gives testament to the life of the artist during that time—the struggle to create the work they were inspired to do even if it went against political and moral grade. I imagine you spent quite a bit of time doing research (and it pays off!). When researching, was there anything you discovered that surprised you or turned the story in a new direction?
HW: I researched like crazy, and not just because I wanted to get things right. I mean, yes, I wanted to get things right, of course, but also I was utterly fascinated by the art politics of the day, how they meshed with common politics, women’s issues, the creative rights of artists. The Belle Époque gripped me in so many ways! It was a time of invention, expansion of the middle class, and the champion of the common man. It was a time of the early civil rights movement. This all was happening not just in France, but all over western Europe and the U.S. as well during that time. A fascinating era!
In terms of what surprised me, I would have to say the most shocking thing I learned was that Camille’s beloved brother Paul visited her only a handful of times in the thirty long years after she was committed to the asylum. That broke my heart for her just a little more.
CC: What are you reading these days?
HW: I’m reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. I also have several nonfiction books kicking around for research. I read widely and across genres so I tend to read a few at once.
CC: What piece of writing advice do you turn to most?
HW: I think what I “need to hear” varies depending on what I’m going through at the time and the story I’m working on. A few pieces of wisdom I live by include:
“Get it down on paper and don’t fret. You’ll edit later.”
“Don’t compare your success to others. We each have a unique journey that’s beautiful. Revel in it.”
And recently, the best advice I’ve received that I’ve clung to is:
“Quantity doesn’t matter, consistency does.”
I beat myself up sometimes when I see how quickly other writers rack up their word counts and crank out novels. Even one per year is almost too fast for me. I need time to research and think and ruminate and craft lovely sentences. When I was lamenting how I’d spent several hours and only written 500 words one day, a writer friend of mine said those wise words above and they stuck. I’ve been carrying them around with me since. Keep plugging away, one word at a time, and you’ll get there.
Heather Webb writes historical novels for Penguin and HarperCollins, which have been translated to three languages and have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, France Magazine, Reuters News, and the Huffington Post, as well as received national starred reviews. Heather is also a freelance editor and contributor to award-winning writing sites WriterUnboxed.com, Writers in the Storm, and RomanceUniversity.org. Find out more at: www.HeatherWebb.net & @msheatherwebb on Twitter.
The GIVEAWAY: Drop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Rodin’s Lover. The contest is open until noon on Tuesday, April 14th.