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As the daughter of an artist, I learned at an early age not only how to mix colors on a palette board, but also how important it was to shift one’s perspective. My mother believed you couldn’t fully appreciate a piece of sculpture unless you actually walked around it. She was known to take my childhood drawings and turn them upside down, encouraging me to see how everything changed when you simply altered the view.
I have often returned to these lessons when crafting one of my novels. When I’m in the midst of researching a book, I try to explore the subject matter from different angles. I find it fascinating to write from alternating characters’ perspectives, so I can explore how two different people might experience the same moment in different ways. I also try to examine how a character changes when placed in the various differing roles and responsibilities they have in a lifetime. For example, the heroine, Lenka, in The Lost Wife is not just an artist. She’s also a daughter, a sister, a young bride, and a friend. In all of those roles, she reveals another part of herself. In my new novel, The Garden of Letters, Elodie is a cellist, a daughter, then a secret messenger for the Italian resistance during WWII, and ultimately a fugitive seeking shelter. As an author, I try to turn each character around — to encourage my readers to see them from all sides — so they are not one dimensional, but rather spherical, continually revealing another aspect of themselves as the novel unfolds.
By writing through the lens of an artist, light and shadow also have a tremendous interplay in my work. I constantly challenge myself to pierce eras of great historical darkness with personal episodes of beauty and light. In The Garden of Letters, I explore not only the turmoil the Italian nation experienced during times of great political and social upheaval, but also how my characters use their art to communicate with each other, both to transmit codes for the Resistance as well as to channel their emotions.
At the end of the day, the process of writing is similar to the way an artist creates a painting or a composer invents a score. I search to understand the world around me, to carve something beautiful out of the darkness. And many of the tools I use are ones I learned when I was in the company of my mother, clutching a tiny paintbrush in my young hand. In the end, it was she who told me to open my eyes and take in the entire world around me — to never see it only from one direction, but always from several shifting points of view.
Related Content: Allegra Goodman’s post on artists and writers
Alyson Richman is the international bestselling author of The Mask Carver’s Son, The Rhythm of Memory, The Last Van Gogh, The Lost Wife, and The Garden of Letters. Her novels have been published in eighteen languages and have been bestsellers in several countries. The Lost Wife is currently in development to be a major motion film.