By Roz Kay
In thinking about Maureen Gibbon’s writing, I see similarities between her art and Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia, a detail of which illustrates the cover of her third novel, Paris Red.
Victorine Meurent, the model for the painting, is the voice of Paris Red. Living in Paris in the latter half of the 19th century, she modeled for Manet and others. In Maureen’s book, she is the lover of the French impressionist painter.
But when Manet first exhibited the painting at the 1865 Paris Salon, the woman’s bold, direct gaze was considered shocking in the context of details that defined her as a prostitute.
It was the French writer Émile Zola who acknowledged Manet’s honesty, saying: “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”
And so it is with the young women in Maureen’s books. You meet them on the sidewalks of life.
Writing something honest about life
Maureen told me in an email before we spoke: “I write about working class women, women in the margins of society, and young women who make their own way through the world.”
She recognizes all these things in the known glimpses of Victorine’s life.
“She was obviously lifetimes, generations, and a world away from me but it felt like I immediately understood things about her,” she says.
“She’s a seventeen-year-old woman making her way. And she doesn’t come from a family with any kind of resources. So, for instance, it was really important for me that she had a job.
“I didn’t want to depict her either as a prostitute or someone who’s just really on the street. I wanted her to have a day job, and skills. Because that’s what most Parisian girls had in those days.
“I really didn’t want that kind of clichéd portrait of her as an urchin or somebody on the streets.”
At first glance, Paris Red, with its actual historical characters (even though Maureen fictionalizes their lives) might seem somewhat different from her first two novels, Swimming Sweet Arrow and Thief.
But in all her novels, her main characters are survivors. Their lives are raw and unvarnished, and yet they describe their worlds in voices that are poetic and self-aware. Thematically, Paris Red holds true to the core of what’s important to Maureen.
“I grew up working class, and so some of this is personal,” she says.
“I think back to girls I went to high school with; boys I went to high school with too, but it’s just more natural to me to identify with other young women that I knew in my youth. And there was no lack of intelligence. People were perceptive and sensitive.
“Just because you don’t have the right format for expressing yourself or for channeling energy in ways that are more acceptable doesn’t mean that you’re not a smart, sensitive person.”
Nonetheless art is subjective, and Maureen has found that not all her readers understand her characters. Members of one book club that she spoke with (before Paris Red) expressed disappointment that her young women weren’t thinking about college.
Maureen herself was the first in her family, growing up in Pennsylvania, to go to college. Now, in her writing, she says it can feel as though she’s battling against “labels” such as “working class.”
“It’s like a curtain goes down,” she says. “And then we’re talking about people who don’t have education, who perhaps don’t have certain types of experiences. And we tend to want to see those lives as being really limited.
“And I know that the young people I grew up with were not limited in themselves. They were not limited in their hearts, in their willingness to see the world in its complexity, or in their sensitivity.
“So, I feel like some of my friends back from seventh grade could pick up my book and they would get that I was trying to write something honest about life.
“That matters to me. I never have forgotten about who I grew up with, or how I grew up, or the ways that I made sense of the world when I was coming of age. At the same time I would hope that all kinds of readers could identify with some of the matters of the human heart. We have so much passion when we’re young.”
This honesty extends to how Maureen’s characters think and speak about sex: no shame, no obfuscation, and yet, no eroticism, because it is simply the way things are. Like Manet’s Olympia.
Staying faithful to details while telling a story
Victorine took Maureen further into 19th century Paris than she had expected to go.
“She was my way into the world, but I have loved the work of Manet for so long, and the more I learned about him the more I came to not only admire his work but admire the man he was,” she says.
“So it was something that just kept drawing me in deeper and deeper, and the more I learned I really felt like I was falling more deeply in love with both people. It was a very sustaining project to work on for many reasons and on many different levels.”
Despite her delving into the lives of Victorine and Manet, Maureen never lost sight of the story.
“I want people to keep turning the pages,” she says.
“So I never wanted to write a novel where detail was driving the story. But at the same time I tried very, very hard to be accurate to the information that I had about the characters.”
The balance Maureen tries to strike in Paris Red is between the factual details and the direction that the story needed to go in as a novel. Finding the “emotional truth” is always the driver.
“That was a wonderful tension to live with,” she says. “And I think that’s really how I view writing a novel. You start, and the tension begins, and you stay within that tension and on edge until the book is done.
“I willingly enter into that state of tension. It makes me feel very alive. There’s pressure involved, but I like the challenge of the writing of the novel and, in this case, writing about people who were real human beings.
“I kind of felt I want to honor them in how I portray them. So it definitely added to my experience, and I hope it added to the book too, to try to stay faithful to actual accurate details.”
Maureen is working on two more novels. She has a full-time job so at times, her writing becomes her companion: a jump drive in her pocket, a notebook by her bed.
“I invite it into my life in as many ways as I can,” she says. “It really is the thing that keeps me going. I’m emotionally connected to these projects and it gives me a tremendous amount in return.
“As faithful as I am to writing, it is faithful to me.”
© Roz DeKett
Paris Red was published on April 20, 2015, by Norton. Publishers Weekly selected it as a Book of the Week.
You can learn more about the writing of Paris Red on Maureen’s blog.
About Maureen Gibbon
Maureen Gibbon is the author of two previous novels, Swimming Sweet Arrow and Thief, as well as book of poetry, Magdalena. Her short fiction, nonfiction, and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Daily Mail, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Playboy, Byliner, Huffington Post, and other publications. A graduate of Barnard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Maureen was awarded a Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship in 2001, and Loft McKnight Artists Fellowships in 1992 and 1999. In 2006, she received a Mill Foundation Artist Residency at the Santa Fe Arts Institute. She lives in northern Minnesota.