Today I have a special treat — a guest post by Helen Maryles Shankman on her debut novel, The Color of Light. An artist-turned-writer, Helen has written a book that weds fantasy to history, vampires to World War II, and the vision of an artist to the novelists’ ear. So here’s Helen, in her own words:
For many years, when anyone said, “Tell me something about yourself,” my answer was, “My parents are Holocaust survivors.” Despite their unique and terrible upbringing, our house wasn’t grim; we were always laughing, though the jokes could get pretty dark. When I began writing, I wanted to address that, but I also wanted to write about my own experiences attending art school, working as an artist’s assistant in Tribeca, slaving away at Conde Nast.
Then, Buffy happened.
It was a frosty January night, probably around two in the morning. I had just watched the killer second season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was still gasping. Suddenly, it dawned on me. Vampires were the perfect metaphor for anyone living outside society’s boundaries.
I’d always wanted to tell the Holocaust stories my mother shared with me, but I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start. I was already working on a different story, based on my years in the art world. Now I saw a way to marry them together, in a way that would make each of them more meaningful.
Raphael Sinclair, my vampire, appeared in my bedroom the very next night, sitting beside me as I typed away, whispering his sad story into my ear.
Though I’ve loved writing since I was a little girl, I wasn’t a writer when I began working on this book. But as I moved through the worlds of plot, sentence structure and story arc, I found I was using the same familiar rules of thumb that I use when I paint. I still depended on form, color, and composition, only now, composition was transformed into the pattern of storytelling. Color was the way I used all the senses, sights, sounds, smells. Texture became the nature of the writing itself; dialogue or narrative in this passage, exposition or summary? Does this adjective precisely convey the emotional shading? Is it balanced, or is it too dark in one area?
Artists are a little messed up. And by artist, I mean anyone who paints, writes, acts, sings. You see, you don’t become an artist because you like to paint. You become an artist because you will die if you don’t paint. Normal people do not abandon conventional jobs–jobs that come with a regular paycheck, by the way–to daub oily goo onto canvases, nor do they stay up all night to brood over a single paragraph until they get it just right. Normal people don’t spend hours pretending that they are someone else. I wanted to celebrate those outsiders, people, who, in a curious way, are the most normal people I’ve ever known. The Color of Light is a love poem written for them.
Helen Maryles Shankman lived in Chicago before moving to New York to attend art school. Her work has appeared in Grift Magazine, Cream City Review, Danse Macabre, Jewishfiction.net,and The Kenyon Review. Her story,They Were Like Family To Me, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with her husband, four kids, and an evolving roster of rabbits. Her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are Holocaust survivors. Many of the events in her fiction are based on personal family stories of Holocaust loss and survival.