Portland author Ellen Notbohm interviewed author Linda Stewart Henley of Anacortes, WA. She Reads recognized Estelle as “One of Summer’s Most Anticipated Historical Fiction Titles” for 2020. The novel is available now through independent bookstores.
EN: Tell us about Estelle.
LSH: Estelle is an historical novel about the painter Edgar Degas’s five-month stay with his French Creole relatives in New Orleans in 1872-73. It is told in chapters alternating between that time and 1970. The second storyline follows Anne Gautier, a young artist whose Louisiana ancestors knew Degas. The two stories intersect and some of the details of Degas’s visit unfold as Anne learns about him through a journal found in the attic of an old house she’s inherited. But the journal also leaves some questions veiled in mystery.
EN: When Anne discovers Degas’s notebook, she wonders, “What does it take to become an artist of significance?” while acknowledging that she hasn’t truly made the effort. At only 22, she’s inherited a house and money to renovate it, and has also been handed a plum job. Is this a 1970s version of white privilege, and does it explain her “artist’s block”?
LSH: Anne does come from a privileged background, although it wasn’t typical. Most twenty-two-year-olds don’t inherit historic homes, and I’ve never known anyone who found an artist’s notebook in their attic. These are all fictional devices. However, there’s no reason why anyone, privileged or not, couldn’t have discovered something of value in an old house. We see that all the time on television in Antiques Roadshow.
Artist’s block is a different matter. I think it can apply to all artists, regardless of circumstance or race. Artistic inspiration, often described as a muse, is elusive. In Estelle I wanted to explore the premise that in order to create a work of importance it’s necessary to face the truth. Anne has to go through quite a bit to learn this. In Degas’s case, after months of rendering family portraits that he doesn’t consider exceptional, he learns a startling truth about his family. He then paints something far greater than anything he’s produced before. Perhaps the answer to the question about an artist’s block is best found in Degas’s own words: “A man is an artist only at certain moments, by an effort of will.”
EN: Many of the characters in your 19th-century storyline were real people, but some were entirely fictitious. How much license did you take in melding fact with fiction, and how did you decide where the line would be? Did the true-story part shape the fictional Anne’s story?
LSH: There wasn’t much of a story behind the known historical facts of Degas’s five-month visit to New Orleans. I was reluctant to introduce any gratuitous drama because I felt it would be an unfair exploitation of the artist who, after all, is not around to object. I didn’t want to mess too much with the true story or with the real characters, members of Degas’s family. We know that the artist visited the city before he was famous, he didn’t like the heat, he was concerned about his eyes and the strong sunlight, and he wasn’t interested in cotton. He made a few comments in letters he wrote while there, but we know little about his personal life. He was demonstrably fond of his cousin and sister-in-law Estelle, but we know of no romantic liaisons while he was in New Orleans. I took some liberty in that regard, but only a little.
I introduced Anne to the story to provide a window for viewing Degas and his Creole family’s life, mostly from the vantage of fictional fifteen-year old Marguerite. Anne’s story is shaped by Degas to the extent that she compares herself to him as a struggling artist. She wonders if he had also experienced personal setbacks (an artist’s block) that prevented him from painting. It’s only after she learns about his unique use of white in his ballerina paintings that she feels inspired to try techniques new to her.
EN: Estelle’s characters range from affable to detestable. Anne makes cringeworthy missteps and misstatements, but she owns them and tries to do better, and thereby becomes more likeable. Degas was known to be surly, misanthropic, and self-centered, yet we like him. In literature, do we hold women protagonists to a different standard of likeability than men? Did this in any way figure into your portrayals of Anne and Degas?
LSH: Historically, literature has produced sympathetic strong male characters far more so than women. This is changing slowly, but I think it has had a lot to do with expectations for traditional gender roles. There are plenty of sympathetic strong women characters in fiction: Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, Cosette of Les Miserables. But other women characters, such as Scarlett O’ Hara, Lisbeth Salander, and Emma, don’t necessarily engage our sympathy. Why? My guess is that these are strong women, not victims, ones who take control of their lives without necessarily sacrificing themselves in service to others. They don’t care if they’re not likeable. What readers want from a strong woman is that they care about her, and want her to succeed, even if she’s not particularly likeable. That, I hope, is the case with Anne. Degas, on the other hand, is just himself. We don’t ask more of him, and even if we don’t particularly like him, we do want him to succeed.
EN: Tell us about how the Creoles used three shades of white in painting their home interiors. It made me want to run right out to the paint store and redo my house.
LSH: I agree that the discussion about the three shades of white is one of the more interesting details in the book. But the colors that the Creoles (as well as some designers in New Orleans today) used were meant to blend and balance the strong Louisiana light. Anything that would help to cool the climate—along with mint juleps on a front porch—would be welcome. The three shades of white with different colored undertones, all used together on different surfaces in a room, were supposed to reduce the glare and create “a soulful ambiance” for New Orleans interiors. These colors are available commercially: Navajo White, Swiss Coffee, and White Dove. However, those particular shades may not produce the same effect in other areas of the country. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, where the light is different—less bright, often gray—a paint store would suggest an entirely different set of whites, one that would probably serve to brighten the inside of a house rather than mute it.
EN: One can’t write about New Orleans without writing about its extraordinary food, and you did. You are English-born, moved to US at 16, then went to Tulane University. The difference between English cuisine and Cajun/Creole in New Orleans must have been jarring. Tell us about it.
LSH: Well, that’s a good question for a person who grew up in England at a time when most “foreign food” (other than Indian) was hard to find. I’ll confess that I’m not a foodie. I found out right away when I moved to America that seafood restaurants don’t like the question, “Do you have any flaky, white, tasteless fish?” I never really learned to appreciate the unique cuisine of Louisiana, and hardly ever ate any of the things I describe in Estelle. However, when a foodie friend read an early draft of the story, she asked why I always had the characters eating trout. I realized that one of the few dishes I had enjoyed there was trout almandine at the Pontchartrain Hotel. She was right, of course. How could I avoid describing all the varied and delicious meals readily available in that food-loving city and the historic restaurants like Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s, which so define New Orleans?
EN: New Orleans’ architectural heritage is as rich and legendary as its food. Historic preservation is a focus in your book, in compelling and realistic ways that affect everyday people, not grandiose mansions and plantations. Why was portraying such preservation of history important to you?
LSH: I hope people take away from the book the sense of the importance of the preservation of history. These days that might be a matter of controversy, but I think it’s part of who we are.
EN: In the 100 years between Estelle’s story and Anne’s, expectations for how a woman should dress changed radically. The contrast between Estelle’s gowns and Anne’s jeans couldn’t be more striking, and Anne is slow to realize that in her post-college professional life, clothes do matter. How did your own experiences at Tulane inform Anne’s attitude about clothes?
LSH: When I started college in the late sixties, most young women wore dresses and skirts most of the time. Pants were for extremely casual wear. We paid attention to our makeup and general appearance, and were taught that dressing appropriately for an occasion was a sign of respect. Things changed dramatically at Tulane by our senior year. The Vietnam war turned everything upside down. The hippie movement caught on. Students adopted more casual styles of clothing, and even the debutantes wore their fur coats over bell-bottom jeans to class. In Estelle, Anne rebels, to her detriment, when she refuses to dress up for her post-college job at the art museum.
EN: There are three characters named Estelle, all quite different from each other. Your title character Estelle, the only one based on a real person, bore numerous hardships and indignities with tremendous grace. What do you want us to come away with from her?
LSH: Estelle has serious health and family problems that she can do little to resolve, and she manages without complaining while being generous to others. Rather than play the role of victim, she makes the best of her situation, and survives. She says to Degas at the end of his visit, “Don’t worry about me. I have become accustomed to my failing eyesight . . . I’ll always be able to see in my mind’s eye the things of beauty in this world—the palm trees with their green fronds, the roses, the golden evening light, the faces of my children, even your wonderful paintings. No, especially your wonderful paintings.” Estelle embodies courage, kindness, and hope.
EN: You’ve called yourself a “failed poet” but I find your poetry to be whimsical and charming. You obviously know that not everything we write has to be high literature. Does your poetry writing serve or inform your prose writing?
LSH: I wish we had more silliness in our culture. There are enough serious problems in our lives and a light touch can sometimes prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously. I enjoy injecting some humor in my work. One editor advised me to cut a scene in Estelle where Anne’s father, an entomologist, suggests exterminating the termites in her house by using a decidedly unusual organic tactic. The editor considered the scene too silly. I liked it precisely for that reason, and kept it.
Writing poetry forces me to pay attention to the rhythm of language. I’ve enjoyed writing many silly poems, ones that rhyme, sometimes with deliberately simple scans. In prose I try to form sentences that flow well, with words that balance. I hope that my study of poetry and attempts to write it have helped me become a better writer.
EN: Degas wanted his paintings to be truthful. Anne seeks difficult truths in her life as well, which she finally translates to her painting. Do you think this truth-seeking is typical of most artists?
LSH: Some artists, particularly portrait artists, aim to please their patrons with a flattering or pleasing rendition. Not so Degas. Truth was more important, and he preferred to paint what he saw. In Estelle, Degas describes having painted a portrait of his friend the artist Edouard Manet and his wife. Manet disliked the portrayal of his wife, saying she was not attractive enough, and cut the canvas so that her face no longer appeared as part of the painting. Shocking but true story!
LINDA STEWART HENLEY is an English-born American who moved to the United States at sixteen. She is a graduate of Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans. She currently lives with her husband in Anacortes, Washington. This is her first novel. Find her online at lindastewarthenleyauthor.com and on Facebook.