Vincent and Theo: Deborah Heiligman's 2017 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

What a joy it is to be in this room with this community.

When Vincent van Gogh got his first and essentially only printed review, he was extremely pleased — and also knocked off balance. He’d been uneasy with praise since he was a child, destroying a drawing of a cat and a sculpture of an elephant because he didn’t like the attention. (I can relate.) So when he read this rave review of his work, he did something almost unheard of today: he wrote to the critic. He thanked him but informed him that the paintings sounded much better in the article than they really were. Vincent also suggested that the critic should have written about other artists — specifically Adolphe Monticelli and Paul Gauguin — and told him to go see their art. But Vincent was grateful, and he sent the critic a painting as a thank you, giving him instructions: let it dry for a year, then shellac it. And put it in an orange frame.

Vincent’s reaction speaks in part to his complicated ego, but also to his big heart, and to the importance he placed on other artists and the artistic community, past and present.

In June 1883, just three years into his journey as an artist, he wrote to his brother Theo:

Yes, one sometimes feels a longing to discuss it with people in the know. And especially when one works and searches in the same spirit, one can give each other great strength and stimulus, and one isn’t easily discouraged.

He would have been envious of what we have here.

Vincent was certain that by working alongside other painters he would become a better artist, and he hoped to create an artistic community. My friends and colleagues give me strength, stimulus, support, and encouragement. I have all of this in Steve Sheinkin and Melissa Sweet, and I am honored to share this award with them.

The theme of tomorrow’s Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium is “Resistance.” As it should be. Vincent van Gogh would be right here with us, fighting against the bullying, the meanness, the hatred that has been permeating the conversation in this country.

Vincent was determined to be Good and to do Right and to champion the underdog. His goal was to make the world a more beautiful place, and to do that through love: love of God, love of family, love of nature, of art, and of the powerless.

The writer Katherine Boo said that “very little journalism is world changing. But if change is to happen, it will be because people with power have a better sense of what’s happening to people who have none.”

From the time he was a young man, Vincent van Gogh felt empathy for those who suffered. He tried to help by preaching the word of God, but that failed, as he tumbled into the depths of his own despair. When he climbed out of the darkness, he was holding his artist’s pencil. And so he poured all that he had to give into his art.

And in his art he tried to capture life in all its shades. He wrote to Theo, about an early effort: “You see there is a blond, tender effect in the sketch of the dunes, and in the wood there is a more gloomy, serious tone. I am glad both exist in life.”

He also wrote: “Good and evil no more occur by themselves than black and white do in nature.”

This is a comfort at a time when evil seems to prevail. There is good; it is not all black and white. Vincent showed us this. Eventually, as he grew, he brought us not only subtle differences in shades, but vibrant, exuberant color. In large part thanks to Theo.

Vincent strove to “leave the world a souvenir” with his art, and God knows he succeeded.

* * *

I had no idea about any of this when I first got the idea to write about the Van Gogh brothers. In fact I wrote this book because a policewoman lied a little.

After Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, I decided I wanted to write something different. Something less serious. Something more fun. Not to knock serious, but sometimes a writer needs a change.

So as I looked for an idea I asked myself: what do I love? I went to the New-York Historical Society and typed into its computer catalog: “woman detective” and “New York” and immediately found Mary Sullivan, the first female homicide detective in New York City. She went on the job in 1911. And she had written an autobiography. Done! Right? Easy. This book would write itself, and in such a fun way. You see where this is going already, don’t you? I didn’t. If only I’d had a crystal ball…Actually there was a crystal ball in this story, but it didn’t help me predict the future, sadly, though it was a lot of fun to see it in person on the coffee table in Mary Sullivan’s great-granddaughter’s living room.

But even with crystal balls, undercover assignments, and my own nighttime ride with an NYPD detective, I couldn’t find enough to write a book. I wrote about my difficulties in the March/April 2011 Horn Book nonfiction special issue: Fact, Fiction, and In Between [“Wooing the Secret Holders”], as I was trying to find records for the one case I thought I could hang the book on.

When I finally found the case records, I discovered that in her autobiography Mary had changed the outcome of the case — to make herself look better. In 1938 when Mary’s autobiography was published, nonfiction was…fungible. That is to say facts could be replaced with sort-of facts. I know that trend has come back in some arenas, but not in ours! Nonfiction is about truth. Real facts. As it should be.

When I realized I couldn’t deliver a nonfiction book on Mary Sullivan to my long-suffering, patient, and brilliant editor, Laura Godwin, she told me she had seen it coming (did I mention she’s brilliant?). And so she smiled and waited as I proposed a new idea. I had only one.

While still working on Mary Sullivan, I made a trip to Amsterdam. I visited two notable museums: the Museum of Bags and Purses and the Van Gogh Museum. I don’t have to tell this room full of brain power where I had my epiphany (though I was ecstatic in the purse museum and if I could figure out how to write a book about handbags I sure would).

In the Van Gogh museum I read a small note about Theo supporting Vincent, and I knew that someday I would write about these brothers. Turned out that someday came around a lot sooner than I suspected.

When I presented the idea to Laura, not only did she love it, but she had also had the same thought when she visited the museum a year or two earlier. And thus began my journey — my five-year journey. So much for “easy.”

But I can say now — even though there were days when I thought I might give up — that working on this book was the most rewarding writing experience I have ever had. These two brothers, separately and together, were an honor and privilege to spend so much time with; they are inspirations as human beings, models of who we as humans can be. They kept me going.

I am in awe of Vincent’s perseverance — boy, could that man work hard — his wisdom, his big heart. And when he was being maddening and obnoxious, Theo helped me forgive him. Theo, a brother rivaled by no other, the epitome of brotherly love.

When I research, I start with primary sources. This process is not terribly efficient because I often have little or no context for what I’m reading. But I want to meet my people as much as possible on their terms, in their own words, so I avoid secondary sources until much later on, if and when I need them. I began this project by reading the letters from Vincent to Theo.

Not too far in I wondered: why did Theo support Vincent? And as I read, I kept asking myself that question. Over and over, especially as I saw how high-maintenance Vincent could be. I asked other people, too, especially brothers. Would you? Could you? Why did he stick by him?

But as I got to know the brothers and their whole story, I saw — in black and white and color — that just as Theo supported Vincent, Vincent supported Theo. Vincent had his artistic community right there. Others came and went, but Vincent and Theo were on the journey together forever.

* * *

When I turned in my first full draft, Laura’s main “note” was that I quoted from Vincent too much. She wanted more in my own voice. He was such an amazing writer that it was hard not to make the book a string of quotes. But I went back and found my own voice within his. I hope you don’t mind, though, if I end this talk with a quote from Vincent. He wrote to Theo about his attempt to make art, and it says everything for me about the process — and about trying to achieve anything, really. I hope you will find it a guidepost, as I did. Vincent said:

I can’t help but make progress precisely through learning by doing; every drawing one makes, every study one paints is a step. It’s true that it’s like going along a road, one can see the steeple in the distance, but the land undulates, so that when one thinks one is there, there’s another stretch that one didn’t see at first and which is added on. However, one does get nearer.

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB17.
Deborah Heiligman
Deborah Heiligman
Deborah Heiligman is the winner of the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction for Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (Godwin/Holt).

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