The disappearance of a young painter in New York City on the eve of World War II shapes B.A. Shapiro's fascinating historical novel, The Muralist. The book, the latest from the best-selling author of The Art Forger, blends historical and fictional characters "“ look for Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, among many others "“ to present the complicated world of artists during wartime, and the strong connection between creativity and politics.
This is at least your second novel about the art world. What is it about that particular subject that intrigues you?
I wanted to be an artist when I was a child, but after taking a few art classes I had to admit that I had no talent "“ my stick figures don't even look like stick figures. So I became an art appreciator. I travel a lot, and everywhere I go I always head straight to the art museums. I think I like to write books that put me inside the head of an artist because that way I get to pretend that I actually am one.
The book deals with the way history and art collide at a certain moment in time. Do you think that collision always happens? How does art fare in our times?
Everything collides with the moment in time it intersects with. I'm intrigued by this idea "“ that we are shaped as much by our historical moment as we are by, I think, our genes or our upbringing. In The Muralist, there are two protagonists: a female artist living in 1939 named AlizÃ©e Benoit, and a female artist living in 2015 named Dani. Their life chances, both in art and in general, are circumscribed by where they stand in time. And although it would seem that art fares better today, AlizÃ©e is being paid a living wage by the US government to create art in 1939 "“ Roosevelt's WPA New Deal program "“ something that is definitely not happening now.
Is making art always a political act?
I don't think it's always a political act, but I believe it often is. In The Muralist, which focuses on the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism, the artists argue with each other about whether making art political detracts from its emotional component, which is what Abstract Expressionism is all about. AlizÃ©e and Dani both believe "“ as do I "“ that great art speaks to the human condition. And what is more central to the human condition than politics? Ironically, the plight of European refugees trying to find safe haven and escape the war and persecution during WWII is a large part of the novel. What could be more topical?
Clearly you've done a lot of research into artists and their work and you juxtapose historical figures with invented ones. How do you find a balance between the fictional and the nonfictional?
It's a fine line, and writers of historical fiction each deal with it differently. I choose to have major historical figures "“ Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Joe Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, etc. "“ interact with my fictional characters. Obviously, Eleanor never befriended AlizÃ©e and Mark Rothko was never AlizÃ©e's lover, but I researched these people extensively, and I believe that what they say and think and do in the book is what they might have said or thought or done.
Do you think women artists are better represented/treated today than they were in the time of this novel?
I'd have to say that, yes, things are better for women artists now, but as with most things involving long-held prejudices, there is still a long way to go. Female artists win fewer prizes, have lower representation rates by prestigious agents and galleries "“ and I don't know this for a fact, but I'd guess make less money. The world of art "“ and literature "“ are no different.
Anything else you'd like to say about this book, your work in general...what would you say to someone in a "straight" job, like the ones you had earlier in your career, a young person who yearns to write?
I didn't start writing professionally until my late-thirties and didn't get my "big break" until I was sixty. After writing for twenty five years and publishing five novels no one read, my tenth novel, The Art Forger, hit the bestseller lists. Writing is my fourth or fifth career, depending how you count them, and I think it's important for young writers to appreciate that they don't have to be completely focused on it at all times. If you walk into any bookstore or library I guarantee that every book on the shelves was written by someone who was at one time an unpublished writer "“ and most likely had another profession. So go for it, but don't give up the day job.