Vincent Van Gogh, for all the transcendent beauty and sorrow of his work, has a nasty habit of swimming around in people’s unconscious. Call it a pitfall of being “too famous,” but for many, like author Nellie Hermann, Van Gogh seemed to take up more space in public consumption than her own thoughts. It wasn’t until many years later that Hermann fell for Vincent and made him the subject of her second novel The Season of Migration.
Because who hasn’t felt empathy for Vincent Van Gogh upon finally hearing his story? Everyone from Don McClean to Dr. Who to my own father have been immensely taken with the man, the mysterious persona, the great beauty splashed onto canvas by the penniless alleged crazy-man who cut off his own ear and who ran his life out before his fortieth birthday.
And yet, when drawing inspiration from this rich subject, Hermann took not from the agony and the ecstasy of Van Gogh’s most dramatic moments. But rather from a sentiment more often seen on a twenty-something’s Twitter than by a 19th century painter: that of purposelessness. At twenty-seven, the real life Vincent was struggling with an identity crisis: not proud enough of his painterly skill to pursue it, not entrenched enough in anything else to commit to it.
The story is set in the late 1870’s, when Van Gogh took a job as a preacher a small coal-mining town, and augmented by a series of letters Hermann penned mirroring real correspondence between him and his brother Theo. Fans of her work may wonder at the author’s fixation on sibling relationships.
Hermann explains that it’s a direct result of growing up with three older brothers, one of which she lost at a young age. “I think it’s safe to say I’ll be writing about siblings my whole life,” she says. Hermann, herself holds a BA from Brown and an MFA from Columbia in Writing. Unlike Vincent, she always felt a sort of kinship with which would one day become her art. But her fascination with those who didn’t comes to head both her newest publication and also in teaching at Columbia’s Narrative Medicine Program, where she consorts with medical students as they step away from STEM to write creatively.
Her advice to young writers? “If you feel the desire, follow it.” Like Vincent himself, we must strike when the iron is hot, or run the risk of not striking at all and letting our talents be squandered into the abyss. And how much worse would the world be if Vincent, or Nellie, didn’t pick up and “make the novel happen.” As a young Van Gogh might say, God only knows.
Nellie is the Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She has taught creative writing to undergraduates, medical students, graduate students, and clinicians of all sorts and has given numerous national and international conference addresses. She has also received distinguished residency invitations from The Millay Colony, The UCross Foundation, The Saltonstall Foundation of the Arts, and others. She holds an M.F.A from Columbia. Her second novel, The Season of Migration, was published on January 6th, 2015 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.