Interview with Susanne Dunlap, author of The Portraitist

Susanne Dunlap is an award-winning author of historical fiction as well as a book coach. We’ve been connected over the years through social media and the HNS organization and I’m delighted to host her as she launches her latest novel, The Portraitist. The questions I’ve asked Susanne are part of an ongoing effort to look under the covers and illuminate those attributes that differentiate historical fiction from contemporary fiction.

Mary: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction irresistible?

Susanne: For me, it’s being transported not only into a story, but to a completely different time and place, and then learning something at the same time. It’s a way to step back from the noise of today and see the universal, to see what’s the same as well as what’s different.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Story is story. A historical novel has to have all the same ingredients as a contemporary novel: a compelling protagonist, narrative drive, high stakes, etc. The difference is in the ingredients that go into those necessary qualities. The conflicts need to be period-appropriate, even though they can also be universal. The stakes might be the same in general, but different in specifics.

What was it that drew you to Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s story? What aspects about the past are you specifically trying to highlight in The Portraitist?

I was drawn to her because she was the underdog in a famous artistic rivalry—and there’s way less written about her than about her rival (Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun). That’s partly because she died youngish, and because a lot of her work was destroyed during the Terror. There are only a couple of slim books about her, and her work is pretty rare, although her most famous painting (featured on the cover of my book) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I had information about her exhibits and about her artistic and amorous relationships, but I couldn’t find out what she actually died of, or where she was buried. The only letters that survived were about legal matters. Nothing personal. And for a historical novelist, that leaves a lot to be filled in with the imagination.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme are true to the time period?

I read a lot of different material, online and on paper, books and periodicals and letters, and I try to get as close as I can to contemporary sources. I read an 18th-century treatise on oil painting, for instance, and Vigée Le Brun’s autobiography. Of course, she was an unreliable narrator—she didn’t even mention Adélaïde! 

But one thing I don’t do is try to make the characters talk just like they would have in the 18th century. You have to consider your reader, and strike a balance between not being anachronistic, being careful not to use words that didn’t exist at the time or ideas that are modern, and making the dialogue smooth and appealing. Not be too precious, so to speak.

How did you come to know Adélaïde’s character and make her relatable to today’s readers?

She was a blank page in a lot of ways. I had to extrapolate who she was from the few clues available, and from my general knowledge of the period—and the more available information about Vigée Le Brun. As far as relatable goes, even though the period is different, people are people, with their loves and passions and hopes and ambitions. I think, as I said, her status as the underdog, the one who had to struggle more (she didn’t have as much training and wasn’t as pretty or well connected socially as her rival) made her appealing from the outset. But that fact isn’t peculiar to her world or time. I think it’s important for those of us who write historical fiction to look for those universal qualities that bring historical figures closer to a reader, so to speak.

What aspects do you feel are critical to building a past world for your readers?

I think the details are really important. Understanding not just what was happening to your characters, the big stuff, but what mattered to them, how they got from place to place, what they ate, the fashions, their teeth (or lack thereof), their access to medical care, midwifery, superstitions, their education, what books they might have read, etc. etc. Even if a lot of that detail doesn’t end up on the page itself, it informs the whole world.

Can you tell us a little about the next novel you are writing?

Funnily enough, I’m actually working on a series of six novellas about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun! I had originally thought I would have three POV characters, three women artists, in the book that became The Portraitist, but that didn’t work, and I decided to focus on Adélaïde. I still wanted to do justice to Elisabeth, though, to give her side of the story—she’s pretty much an antagonist in The Portraitist. I thought I might write a second book, but decided against it. These novellas are my answer. It’s been a process of rewriting and revision, and it’s taking a lot more time than I hoped it would, LOL! But this is something new for me, and I hope it works.

Many thanks, Susanne. The artistic world of the 18th century is fascinating and Paris is a favourite setting for so many people. Wishing you great success for The Portraitist.

The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap ~~ Based on a true story, this is the tale of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s fight to take her rightful place in the competitive art world of eighteenth-century Paris. 

With a beautiful rival who’s better connected and better trained than she is, Adélaïde faces an uphill battle. Her love affair with her young instructor in oil painting gives rise to suspicions that he touches up her work, and her decision to make much-needed money by executing erotic pastels threatens to create as many problems as it solves. Meanwhile, her rival goes from strength to strength, becoming Marie Antoinette’s official portraitist and gaining entrance to the elite Académie Royale at the same time as Adélaïde. 

When at last Adélaïde earns her own royal appointment and receives a massive commission from a member of the royal family, the timing couldn’t be worse: it’s 1789, and with the fall of the Bastille her world is turned upside down by political chaos and revolution. With danger around every corner in her beloved Paris, she must find a way to adjust to the new order, carving out a life and a career all over again—and stay alive in the process. 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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2 Responses

  1. With only a few chapters left in The Portraitist, this interview came at the perfect time! Thanks for Susanne’s insights into historical fiction. This novel is a “carriage ride through the streets of Paris, to the Louvre, and Versailles!”

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