By JULIE BRICKMAN, SPALDING MFA FICTION FACULTY
On August 23, 2017, the author Susan Vreeland died. She was 71 years old and died from the consequences of the illness that launched her mind into composing her best work.
A bone marrow transplant for leukemia forced her to spend months in isolation in the hospital. Reading about art kept her alive, she said. But she wasn’t just reading. She was inventing, sometimes writing, the book that would become Girl in Hyacinth Blue, the New York Times best selling novel about a great painting, a lost Vermeer, as it passed through generations of owners, their stories recounted in reverse chronological order.
Following this, she wrote six more books. Three of these were also on the New York Times best seller list: The Passion of Artemisia; Luncheon of the Boating Party; Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Two others were LA Times best sellers: Life Studies; Lisette’s List. Her love of art radiated through her works, each of them incandescent in their passages about aspects of art from the brilliant execution of brush strokes to the privations incurred from the purchase of paints.
I first met Susan Vreeland through words on the page. I had reviewed her story collection, Life Studies, for the San Diego Union-Tribune back in 2005, concluding that:
Few story collections contain more than two breathtaking stories, but Vreeland’s Life Studies delivers a full, rich palette. Light and beauty pour from the pages in deft, accessible prose strokes. The sense of joy captured in Vreeland’s voice gives every character a moment of greatness. That joy seeps into the reader, where it beguiles, illuminates, enchants, delights, and maybe even transforms.
After it came out, Suzi sent me private words, a personal thank you note, saying how hard it was to get a good review in her own home-town turf.
Not long after that, Susan Vreeland was the Guest Visiting Writer at our MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. I was thrilled and delighted to get the chance to meet Susan, hear her read from the stories I knew well and watch her bring an auditorium packed with writers to their feet to applaud her generous and helpful talk about the process of writing.
Once we discovered that we lived near each other, Susan and I met regularly and I had the joy and privilege of getting to know her. We talked about writing and other significant or not so significant issues in life and I came to appreciate the qualities that made her and her work so luminous: what a brave, hard-working, dedicated writer she was: delicate in appearance, brawny in spirit.
She sent me every single manuscript she wrote after that, asking me to critique it, which I would do with pleasure. In return, she read and blurbed my story collection. Sometimes she would come from San Diego to Laguna Beach; sometimes I would go there. During these visits I got to know her husband, Kip Gray. He dedicated himself to her: assisted her with all the technical tools she needed to publicize her writing: her website; her French music CD; the sound at her readings; he read all her works, traveled with her, was endlessly appreciative. The deep love between them gave her the ballast she needed. Thirty years, they were married. After she died, Kip called me, asked if I would speak at her Memorial Service. Of course I said yes. As I listened to the others, many of whom had known her much longer than I, I found myself astonished at the overlap between what I had written when I reviewed her work and what they were saying about her personal qualities.
A frisson of insight chilled me. That’s what we can do as writers, I realized, get at the truth through words on a page. In the many eras in which truth is at risk, we writers, without always knowing it, set it free in our stories and poems and essays, for one thing we do know: there is no great art without the merger of truth with beauty.
Susan came to love art and beauty so much that she dedicated her life’s work to creating stories that captured it, so that others too would have a chance to appreciate the eternal beauty and verity of art, as painted by the great masters and rendered in her radiant words on the page. She gave her readers the chance to immerse themselves in the genius of Auguste Renoir, Emily Carr, Claude Monet, of Clara Driscoll and Louis Comfort Tiffany, of Marc Chagall, Edouard Manet and the women who modeled for them or married them. And to immerse themselves in her. Because when she wrote about art, Susan created passages of such soaring passion and beauty that they paralleled the genius of her subjects and carried her readers away in great waves of art. There, art and spirituality met, as she always believed they did: twin forms of sublime creation. In the spellbinding writing of those passages, in her incredible ability to unite joy and art and love and reverence on the page and in life, Susan Vreeland was a genre of her own.
Many people gathered in the majestic Organ Pavilion in San Diego’s Balboa Park to mourn, as I did, the too-early loss of their luminously talented author and dear (darlin’ as she would say) friend, Susan Vreeland. A light rain fell, and their faces shimmered from some blend of moisture and tears, while aglow, positively agleam, with love; yes, love. For they were also there to celebrate her life, so gloriously full of reverence, art, beauty, hard work, big talent, generosity, accomplishment and love.
Love intertwines with loss: the world had lost a great writer; I had lost a good friend.
Julie Brickman, Fiction, is the author of the story collection, Two Deserts, and the novel, What Birds Can Only Whisper. Her most recent publication is the story, “The Rampvan, the Skateboard & the Wheelchair,” published in Persimmon Tree, Summer, 2017.