Editor’s Note: Linda Lappin shares her insights into creating a sense of place in fiction. Lappin is the author of The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci and, more recently, a new novel called Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne. While Travel Writing World focuses mainly on non-fiction, there is considerable overlap with the practice of creating a sense of place in both fiction and non-fiction. Lappin here ruminates on creating a sense of place in fiction, giving insights into how one might, in the absence of travel, leverage research and resources to create a sense of place in fiction, non-fiction, and in writing in general.
Reviewers of my new novel Loving Modigliani have called the book a “living map of Montparnasse,” a “3-D spectacle in the readers’ mind,” and praised its ambulatory recreation of Paris environments–which pleases me greatly because this novel is my love letter to Paris. But the map I draw is actually a palimpsest. The historical Paris I seek to recreate in two different eras (1920 and 1980) is layered upon a third, liminal Paris, where, as one reviewer put it, “dead people live,” which was quite a challenge to construct.
Loving Modigliani began as straightforward biographical fiction, a diary written by Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s common-law wife and a gifted artist in her own right, who committed suicide at the age of 21, just after Modigliani’s untimely death from meningitis. The diary begins when Jeanne is 16, describing the family life, dreams, and aspirations of a young girl with nothing particularly exceptional about her–other than her beauty, a certain stubbornness, a keen interest in art, and a penchant for the unconventional which her parents indulged. Her meeting with Modigliani, fourteen years her senior, called forth from her being a fierce passion, a capacity for concealment (her parents knew nothing about Jeanne’s liaison with Modigliani until she became pregnant), powerful artistic ambitions, and a willingness to risk all for her ideal, displaying inner determination which astonished those who knew her. During the last three years of her very short existence, she strove to make art her life and her life art. In this regard, she is an icon of her era, like Picasso or Modigliani himself. Jeanne Hebuterne’s artworks were confiscated by her family after her death and shuttered away from public view until the year 2000, so that only now have we come to know more about her personality and her role in Montparnasse.
In telling this story, plot, character, and place are inextricably entangled. Location is identity–to paraphrase Henry James: “landscape is character.” In my portrait of Jeanne, setting was a key element. I needed to recreate her home, the art academy where she studied, the cafes she frequented, the studio she shared with Modigliani, and the streets she wandered daily–and I did this through photographic research on the work of Atget and others. I studied descriptions by writers such as Francis Carco, Jean Rhys, Anais Nin, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, memoirs by the artists in their circle, as well as lesser-known diaries kept by art students in that era, together with Jeanne’s own sketches and other artworks. I sifted through mounds of documentation in museums, galleries, libraries, and publications.
But I soon ran into a hitch. The main problem with writing the novel as a diary was that Jeanne commits suicide. I could only get so far before the heroine dies. Moreover, the conclusion of the novel could only be tragic and I didn’t want to write a tragedy, because despite all, alongside the immense pain, I felt there was joy in this story. Joy in loving Modigliani, joy in making art, and being part of an unrepeatable moment in the history of painting, of which I believe Jeanne Hébuterne was fully aware.
Then I saw a photo of Jeanne in which her latent toughness is discernible, along with a ghostly almost vampiric air, and I thought–why not start the story with Jeanne’s death and let her ghost narrate the tale? So, I began writing what I thought would be a prologue, but which gradually took on more substance, and shifted my genre focus from painstakingly researched historical fiction to fantasy and magical realism. While two-thirds of the novel takes place in the real world, the rest unfolds in the realm of myth, the underworld of the other Paris. It’s a dusty, colorless city where the sun doesn’t reach, where music runs backwards, where the dead shuffle about looking for their lost loved ones and are judged for their misdeeds and failings. It is akin to the underworld as seen in Greek myth–only it’s Paris and not Tartarus. This Paris of penumbra is connected to the living world by bridges, doors, and catacombs, but one must have a guide to go back and forth. Jeanne will traverse this dreary terrain on a quest for Modigliani, only to discover that he cannot found there–I won’t say any more than that. Meanwhile, in the “realistic” sections of the novel, in a timeline running from 1981-2021, Jeanne’s artworks and diary are being rescued from oblivion, rediscovered, and reassessed by an art history student and a museum curator who briefly rub shoulders with Jeanne’s ghost.
While depicting historical Paris–I relied heavily on sense details: colors, sounds, flavor, scents of Paris as they are today and might have been in 1920, using word painting techniques. But creating the other liminal Paris required a completely different approach to world-building. I had to view the city through a grainy, gray, distorting lens–robbed of color, gaiety, food, drink, warmth, light, perfume, vegetation, as in sepia photos of winter. Descriptions of the afterlife drawn from classical Greek myth, as well as from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tibetan mythology, along with a dash of Disney in a funereal mode, fed my imagination as I envisioned this nether realm–which is the exact opposite of the joyous, sensuous world celebrated in the paintings of the era where both Jeanne and Modigliani have found a sort of immortality.
The English writer, Vernon Lee aka Violet Paget believed that we shed bits of ourselves in places that we love, warming them for the others who will follow us there. I like to think that the impressions I gleaned while rambling through Paris in search of Jeanne and Modi contain sparks of their lives that will be rekindled in the reader’s imagination.
Linda Lappin is the author of The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci and, more recently, a new novel called Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne. Watch a book trailer for Loving Modigliani.