Marjorie Price’s memoir, A Gift From Brittany, alternately left me touched by the people Marjorie met and the warm experiences she had in the Breton countryside, and frustrated by the situation she found herself in with an unyielding and quite demanding artist husband. It raised a lot of questions for me about how things might have been different for her had she been making the decisions that she made at a later time in history (she met her husband in the 1960′s). Price, and accomplished artist, now living in Manhattan as gracious enough to let me pick her brain about writing and the choices she made and the times in which she made them. Check back tomorrow for my review of A Gift from Brittany.
Nicole: Have you always written? Did you keep a journal of your experiences?
Over the years, I’ve written poetry, essays, and wrote and illustrated two children’s art and education books that were published. But I had never written a full length, adult novel. When I began to write A Gift from Brittany, it was a daunting undertaking. While I had never kept a day-to-day journal of the years I lived in France, I wrote detailed (and often illustrated) letters home. But I didn’t rely on those. Mainly, becoming a part of an ancient village in Brittany in the 1960’s was such a life-transforming experience that those years were indelibly etched in my memory.
Nicole: You have spent a lot of your career amassing an impressive body of paintings and drawings. What was it like to switch from one creative art form too another?
For a long time, it was hard to imagine myself as an author. I was a painter, painting a portrait in words of the villagers and especially of Jeanne Montrelay who was the inspiration for writing the book.
Nicole: What are the similarities that you have noticed?
To my mind, the similarities are great. I became fascinated with the process of writing, which I found to be similar in many ways to the painting process. As an example, the more I discarded anything that might digress, the more I focused on the essential, the stronger my writing became. The same applies to a painting. I read somewhere that each person recites the same poem over and over throughout their lives, with slight modifications. I see all my work as a part of the same “poem” of what I have to say. If I were a dancer or a singer, the same would be true. Although the language may vary, the unique thread of each of us remains the same.
Nicole: When did you begin writing about your experiences in Brittany, and did you always have a feeling that this was a story that you wanted to tell?
I always wanted to write about Jeanne Montrelay, the remarkable peasant woman whom I had the extraordinary good fortune to know and love. But since I had never written a full-length novel, I thought in terms of writing an illustrated children’s book. But I never had the time. When I had spinal surgery twelve years ago, I was unable to paint, lift a canvas or walk and was in constant pain. Having been athletic all my life, I was devastated. Unable to do anything else, I began to write about my years on the farm in Brittany and especially about my friendship with Jeanne. She was an elderly, illiterate peasant woman who lived in a farmhouse across the road from where I was living with my French painter husband. Outwardly, we had nothing in common. Yet we became close friends, and she changed forever the way I saw the world.
Nicole: Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
My title was refused by my publisher because they decided it was too “foreign.” Perhaps they were right from a commercial standpoint, but I still regret the choice. My title was The Chatelaine of La Salle. I thought it was more intriguing and in keeping with the tone of the book. I quickly learned an author has little voice when the publisher has made up his mind.
Nicole: Do you think that the feminist movement has affected women’s attitudes (or perhaps ambivalence) toward commitment?
A great question. I wish I had known about feminism. My book takes place in the early 1960’s, several years before the feminist movement took place in the United States. And I was living far away in a remote village in Brittany when it happened. I think the feminist movement gave women the right to have expectations in a relationship and the freedom to leave it if it turned out to be destructive rather than what they had been led to believe.
Nicole: Do you feel like your choice of partner and marriage would have been different had they taken place a decade or so later?
This is an insightful question that makes me wonder. To be honest, I don’t know. Hopefully I would have been more mature and less idealistic. Then, I might have decided that this particular French artist, with whom I fell in love and married, was better suited for an exciting adventure, but not someone to marry and try to build a life together. Yet I wonder if – even with the feminist movement – I would have been that sensible. Marrying a French artist was too good to be true. For a while, it was what I had always dreamed of. However, the dream didn’t turn out as I had imagined.
Nicole: What are you reading now?
I just finished reading a book by one of my favorite Italian authors Il contesto by Leonardo Sciascia, a Sicilian author who writes beautifully and thrillingly about the Italian Mafia. I love reading in French and Italian to keep up my proficiency in those languages and find an extra dimension of pleasure in reading in another language.
Nicole: Who are are some of your favorite books and authors?
Among my favorite books are Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits; Andre Makine’s Dreams of my Russian Summers; Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française; any book by Colette; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffe and Annie Barrows; The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery; Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady; and on and on.
Nicole: Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
Definitely. Since I began writing my book, I find myself stopping when I encounter a beautiful phrase or metaphor or a word that is so precise that it takes my breath away. I find myself reading and re-reading passages that amaze me how successfully the author has written them or when author succeeds in transporting me to another world. Just as when, as a painter, I see a painting that thrills me, I study it for a long time and try to figure out how the artist accomplished it. I’m no longer an onlooker; I feel like a participant.