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Where the Light Falls

Katherine Keenum on the origins of Where the Light Falls

What gave you the idea for Where the Light Falls?

A family story about my great-grandmother, Jeanette Sterling Smith of Circleville, Ohio: She was said to have been expelled from Vassar College for helping her roommate elope—whereupon she went to Paris to study art. Given the unreliability of family stories, I paid little attention to this one until my husband happened across a Vassar catalogue for 1879 with class lists and the words “Dismissed, February” attached to the names of Jeanette and another girl. So she did get expelled! Then a letter from a great-aunt turned up with a mention of Jeanette’s time under the portrait painter and teacher, Carolus-Duran. What on earth could it have been like, I began to wonder, for a spunky young woman of college age to study art in Paris in the 1870s?

Did other family papers answer the question?

No. None of Jeanette Smith’s letters or diaries survive. Memoirs, biographies, and the published papers of other art students, however, helped fill in the picture, along with exhibition catalogues and the extensive art scholarship on the period. Maybe the most fun was a remarkable little book called Studying Art Abroad and How To Do It Cheaply (1879) by Louisa May Alcott’s sister, May Alcott Nieriker. It gives information on travel, art schools, places to buy supplies, dressmakers, and so forth; it even gives tips on such matters as turning underwear into paint rags when the hard water and lye soap of Paris have worn out the linen.

Background anchors a story in time and place, but it is not enough for a novel. What inspired the plot?

The discovery of an 1878 guidebook to Paris that had belonged to Charles Mathias Greve, whom Jeanette married in 1883. Finding it suggested that Jeanette and Charles could have met in Paris. What if their love story began there? He was twenty years older than Jeanette. What did she see in him? Why did they marry? These questions pointed to a romance that could underpin a novel.

Did you make your main characters, Jeanette Palmer and Edward Murer, as much like the real Jeanette and Charles as possible?

Absolutely not! Luckily for me as a writer, I had so little to go on that I was entirely free to invent characters who interested me and allow incidents to grow naturally out of their imagined personalities and circumstances. I did retain Jeanette’s first name, which seemed to work from the beginning. Oddly enough, as long as I called my hero Charles, he was flat; but as soon as I changed his name to Edward, he came to life.

What about other historical characters?

The main one with a speaking part is Carolus-Duran. I read as much about him as I could find. Since part of my motivation in writing the novel was to understand that world, I tried to depict him as accurately as possible. That is true for the others who make cameo appearances, such as Rodolphe Julian, Marie Bashkirtseff, John Singer Sargent, Sarah Bernhardt, and Sophie Croizette.

How did you come up with the title?

It took a long time! Finally a friend told me that her daughter had asked an artistic aunt, “How do you draw a portrait?” The answer was “It all depends on where the light falls.” Bingo! my title. Where light falls on a subject is certainly the first consideration for artists working in a realistic tradition, and I did not hesitate to give the line to Carolus-Duran. What I like about the phrase most is that it resonates in other ways in the novel, too. For instance, where the light falls for Edward in his darkened world is important thematically and narratively.

What do you hope readers will get from Where the Light Falls?

First and foremost, I want them to respond to Jeanette and Edward as people and care about what happens to them. Some writers work intensely with just a few characters and a distilled plot line. I tend to see people in the context of their families, friendships, obligations, and physical surroundings. Therefore I hope the secondary characters will also be experienced as a company of interesting, surprising, sometimes baffling new friends. Finally, of course, I hope that readers will feel they have spent time in Paris at a fascinating period in cultural history.