A Conversation with William Arnold
The cover of the December 2014 Vanity Fair refers to the death of Vincent van Gogh as “Art’s Greatest Mystery.” How do you feel about that?
Well, obviously I agree with it. In fact, it might even be an understatement. It might be more accurate to up the superlative a notch and call it "history's greatest mystery," or at least "history's greatest murder mystery."
Because, as the full contours of this mystery become known -- as they are just beginning to be -- I believe you'd be hard pressed to come up with another historical icon whose death is so shrouded in astounding possibilities. Or one that suggests such an epic scale of malevolence behind it. Or one that so credibly reaches past its central figure to pull into its cast of victims and villains such diverse historical luminaries as François Mitterrand, Edouard Manet and Antonin Artaud. To my mind, it’s the historical murder mystery of all historical murder mysteries.
What about the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and JFK? Napoleon and King Tut? Surely, they are --
As far as I can see, those are just wild conspiracy theories without any real evidence or trustworthy advocates. Tabloid fantasies. But I don’t think there’s a Van Gogh scholar in the world today who doesn’t firmly believe or strongly suspect or at least give some credence to the possibility that Vincent was murdered. That’s quite a distinction.
THE TWIG IS BENT, 1987
Is this academic consensus, if that’s what it is, due to the Naifeh and Smith biography that claims murder, or at least manslaughter?
It started the ball rolling.
Yet you challenge the authors’ death theory.
Their instinct was in the right direction but, clearly, they missed the larger story.
That book came out in 2011 and you had been working with this material for two decades before that. Why did you wait so long before coming forward?
That's a complicated question but the short answer is that I had no choice. I had made assurances to my two most important sources that I would not write anything, "in any form," about what they told me while they were still alive or the year 2020, whichever came first.
And time finally took care of that problem?
Yes, but for a long time I was unsure what I would do with the story even when that embargo ended. I often thought it would be better for the Van Gogh legacy, and for me personally, not to publish any of it at all.
What changed your mind?
As all the Van Gogh movies and books in the wake of 2011 accepted the murder idea -- each with such a tiny piece of the puzzle -- it became clear to me that the Mystery of Auvers was not going to go away, no matter what I did or did not do. It also gradually became clear to me that I was giving myself way too much credit as a myth-destroyer, and the Van Gogh legend was resilient and enduring enough to absorb even something as challenging as what I had to throw at it.
So here you are with not one but two books on the same subject, and so many supportive features on this website that it could almost be considered a third part of a trilogy. How are we supposed take all this?
The principal work is the novel, Exile in the Light. The other work, The Mystery of Auvers, is it's nonfiction equivalent. In my mind, it and the website features are there to support the novel and, in different ways, expand and enhance the experience of reading it.
And the novel is essentially a thriller.
It’s an historical mystery, detective story and political thriller that takes place mostly in Paris over twenty-one days of April 1955.
So Van Gogh is not a character.
He appears in a brief prologue and is, of course, a presence throughout. But the story is set against the preproduction of the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life, which prompts the surprise appearance of both a witness to his 1890 Auvers death scene and a long-missing Van Gogh letter that could be catastrophic to his legacy.
And the punch of the novel comes from the fact that this witness testimony and the contents of the letter everyone is after -- the “MacGuffin” of your story -- are real and revealed for the very first time within the book.
Yes. The framing story is fiction. But all the details about the letter, the French Government campaign to suppress it and the alternate history of Van Gogh’s last days in Auvers-sur-Oise are as real as my more than three decades of research into the subject could make them.
Tell me about the rather unusual structure of the nonfiction book, which is divided into three parts which each tell the same story in a different form. How does each part relate to the novel?
The first third is a more-or-less straightforward account of the Mystery of Auvers -- its history and the new information I have to offer about it. It's the factual premise of the novel.
And the other two parts?
The second third is my first-person memoir of investigating the Mystery of Auvers and the Van Gogh letter T41b. A subjective account of how I came up with that premise and the real basis on the novel's detective story. The last third is simply excerpts from my interviews with the former French secret service agents who took part in the suppression of the letter T41b and the coverup of the mystery in the 1950s: The raw material, I guess you could say, of what would be fictionlized and dramatized in the novel.
But this book could easily stand alone, as history, without the novel.
It could, yes. It's written that way. In fact, if you just want the bare bones of the Mystery of Auvers and this new take on it, all you have to read is the first part, the journalism. But the other two parts -- which allow you to experience the same territory as personal memoir and via the direct testimony of some of its participants -- provide additional information and a different perspective on the material that will hopefully take you to a deeper understanding of the mystery.
And so, I assume, do the dozen or so offerings on this Mystery of Auvers website.
Yes, each is designed to give you still more information on the phenomenon of the Mystery of Auvers. None of it is crucial to the experience but each adds another layer to the larger story, and, hopefully, to the fun of losing yourself in it.
What we haven’t said so far in this interview is that the whammy of your many-tiered Van Gogh experience -- its solution to the Mystery of Auvers -- is absolutely mindboggling.
It is, isn't it?
More than mindboggling. Seismic. And not just in terms of Van Gogh.
With something this seismic and this credible, I'm still having a hard time understanding why you decided to make its primary showcase a novel. Was it because you thought fiction would be more commercial?
Partly, yes. My career has mostly been in journalism but my greatest success has been as a novelist, even if it was a long time ago. So I know a good premise for an epic historical thriller when I see one. And this one was better than good: It was godsent.
Does this not reveal a certain distrust in yourself as a journalist?
In a way, I suppose it does. But the more I worked with this material, the more I came to believe the story was just more than nonfiction could effectively handle. The Van Gogh death is complicated, with a lot of characters and possible motivations and still-remaining shadows. My take on it has a whole new level of complexity set in the 1950s. It gradually dwaned on me, in the years I had to think about it, that the best way to crystalize the Mystery of Auvers and communicate its ambiguities and make it accessible and compelling to a large reading audience, was through an ambitious entertainment.
Putting it out in the cushion of fiction also protects you, to a certain extent, from the wrath of all those Van Gogh scholars who are not likely to welcome your premise.
Yes, exactly. The bottom line of the story is, as you say, seismic. Put forward in a nonfiction book, it can be reduced to a single National Enquirer headline. And that headline is so outrageous that, if you don't look closely at what's behind it, it's easy to dismiss as one more supermarket conspiracy theory. But if you enter the mystery as my protagonst does, and follow the same steps of detection he does, the thesis gradually becomes much less outrageous, and finally impossible to ignore.
Also, I suppose, readers and reviewers of a novel are much less-inclined to give away the mystery's solution when talking about the book than readers and reviewers of a nonfiction book.
But haven't you, in a way, invalidated this protection with the companion book?
Possibly. But I'm hoping that it will be regarded as what it is, a book that supports a novel. The novel's research notes, you might say.
Okay, that explains why a novel. Can we talk about it without giving away its punchline?
We can try.
All right, then. Can you briefly describe the story of Exile in the Light?
I suppose the pitch would be something like: “Blacklisted American screenwriter in 1950s Paris solves murder of Vincent van Gogh.”
Why its mid-1950s French setting? Why not 1890 Auvers with Vincent as the protagonist?
Because 1955 Paris is the more interesting and dramatic of the two settings, and the better vantage point to view the Mystery of Auvers in its entirety. It's when all the elements of the mystery were suddenly coming out of the woodwork and being covered up by the French Government and therefore the right time for a political thriller and detective story and examination of the phenomenon of Vincent. I didn't want it to be one more book that presumed to get inside the head of Vincent van Gogh. God knows, there's been enough of those.
Didn't you also live in Paris as a small boy in this same era?
Yes, that too was a factor. Maybe the biggest factor. I had primal memories of the terrain that made it even more irresistible to me as a vehicle for the exercise of my imagination.
Besides this explosive Van Gogh material, you also manage to pack the storyline with the Algerian Rebellion, the Suez Crisis, a political assassination, an underworld war, a massive anti-American riot, a strange romance between your hero and the most celebrated woman in France and a serial murder spree of great French artists.
But those thriller elements are not arbitrary. They’re there to serve the Van Gogh story, dramatize the birth of the politics of culture, and measure the impact of the mystery on a spectrum of international characters. In order for me to fully grapple with all the implications and ambiguities of my premise, they were essential.
It also involves coded messages left by Vincent. So is it fair to call it “The Da Vinci Code of Van Gogh”?
Well, that’s a catchy thing to say, and I've said it myself on a few occasions. But it’s also misleading. Aside from one character’s interpretation of what could be one symbolic message, and the fact that they’re both set in Paris and deal with a mystery involving a famous artist of history, the two stories really don't have much in common.
But, like that book, it wraps, within its fictional plotline, a body of authentic historical information: in your case, evidence for a Van Gogh murder, and a scenario for how it happened and whodunit?
Just how autobiographical is the story?
I would say it’s very autobiographical. Clearly, I was not a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter in 1955 France. But, as you pointed out, I lived there in that era. And everything my hero, Wally Boyd, discovers about Van Gogh came to me in much the same way, though I had to compress decades of detection into weeks, and sensationalized the circumstances in the interest of creating a fast-paced adventure.
How much of Wally Boyd is you?
Oh, I’m sure a lot. But he’s also Vincent, or at least Vincent’s soul mate: another failed-artist exile living in the light of France. And his original inspiration was an actual screenwriter I met as a kid in France.
Who was that?
Here’s the story: I was ten-years-old, living in Bordeaux, and my parents were hosting a cocktail party. As her date, my father’s French secretary brought along an American she’d recently met, who was probably in his late twenties and wore a beard -- which was unusual in those days. The man was very shy and seemed out-of-place in this company and he gradually gravitated over to my older brother and I, who were horsing around on the fringe of the gathering. We had a nice talk about baseball and what was going on in my beloved Pacific Coast League back in the States. Later, my mother told me he was a “blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter living here in exile.” I didn’t know what that meant but, as I learned over the years, the image of that man, standing in our living room, abandoned by his own country, had an increasingly powerful effect on me. For some reason I can’t explain, it’s haunted me.
And you never identified who he was?
Never, and I tried. So he must have been a relative nonentity, someone with maybe one or two poverty-row credits. Later, as a film critic, I went out of my way to meet and interview most of the more prominent Hollywood exiles of the ’50s -- people like John Berry, Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin -- but none of them could give me a line on who my phantom might be.
Were you able to borrow anything from those other blacklisted writers for Wally?
I think so. Berry and Dassin, even as elderly men, had a moral fierceness about them that I loved and tried to have Wally develop over the course of the story.
Yet you say elsewhere that the real model for Wally was your friend Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause and other Hollywood movies of the ’50s and ’60s.
Correct. Besides being a great writer, Stewart -- who is sadly no longer with us -- was also one of the world’s all-time most generous and inspiring mentors who helped me a great deal in this project and figures prominently in the last half of the memoir. But it wasn’t until I finished the novel that some of its early readers started noticing that Wally bore some rather striking similarities to Stewart.
Well, Stewart was never blacklisted and he was hardly an obscure figure. But he was the same age as Wally in 1955, he’d lived in Paris that year, and he suffered both recurring writer’s block and debilitating panic attacks (from his WWII experiences). He also came from a pioneering movie family -- his uncle, Adolph Zukor, founded Paramount. Curiously, he was also obsessed with a French historical mystery (the fate of Napoleon’s son) and spent years researching it. Wally’s sweet nature and air of innocence could also be viewed as pure Stewart.
Was this intentional or --?
Not at all. When this litany of similarities was pointed out to me, I was dumbfounded. As unlikely as that sounds, it’s true. I channeled Stewart without noticing it.
What about your heroine, Christine Delboy?
Christine is modeled after Catherine Deneuve. From both personal observation (I’ve interviewed her twice) and her unique status, during the time I was writing, as the symbol of France -- the latest in a long line of sexy-angelic goddesses that stretches all the way back to Joan of Arc and Saint Geneviève. I wanted my invented heroine to be a flawed version of that tradition, as well as a conglomeration of all the French characters of the real story who suppressed the Van Gogh letter T41b. “Delboy” was the name of our next-door neighbors in France.
What about the third member of your triangle, the mobster Luc Ruelle?
Luc grew out of my affection for The Third Man, a movie that works off the special friendship of a naïve pulp writer and a cynical international gangster. Since I shamelessly borrowed this relationship, Luc began his life as Orson Welles’ Harry Lime. But as he developed over many drafts, he gradually took on the form of Alain Delon. Delon is the handsomest man I’ve ever met, a true Apollo. But there’s also something incredibly hard and scary about him. Before he became a star, he served time in prison and was dishonorably discharged from the French Army while serving in their Indochina War. After he became a big movie star, he was infamous for his French mob associations and loyalties. A tough, dangerous, sinister, charismatic guy. That’s Luc.
Much of your supporting cast is made up of real-life characters like Art Buchwald and Olivia de Havilland. Was there any particular method to those choices?
Yes, and again it’s autobiographical. They’re people I knew from personal experience: people I had observed in the flesh, either from a distance in boyhood (like Picasso, René Coty and C. Douglas Dillon) or up close as a journalist (like John Houseman, Kirk Douglas and John Rewald). For a brief time when I was a kid, Olivia de Havilland lived in an apartment above us. I remember hearing her footsteps overhead.
So the novel is, in a sense, your own personal panorama of growing up in France in the ’50s?
The background is, most definitely. But the purpose was not so much to exorcise my childhood as to give the story a certain authenticity and texture it wouldn’t otherwise have -- at least for me personally.
Does Wally’s un-surnamed teenage helper, François, grow up to be François Truffaut?
You caught that? Very good. I thought that wink would be too subtle for anyone to get. I once had an enlightening conversation with Truffaut about his movie-mad young manhood in ’50s Paris. It so resonated with me that I couldn’t resist throwing a version of him into the story.
Hitchcock, though not a character, is also a presence in the novel. From one angle, it might even be viewed as a kind of Hitchcock movie, with its icy blond heroine and hero dangling from a national monument.
That was intentional. At one early point, Hitchcock was even a character in the story. I finally decided this was too much and pulled him out. But he was always a presence: as I wrote the final draft, I watched Vertigo over and over again.
I found it inspiring. First of all, because it’s as close to perfection as any Hollywood movie has ever come. But also because I wanted to steal some of its rapturous mood and that feel of an ultra-obsessive hero caught in a delirium of color and false history. Three times in the letters, Vincent refers to his condition as “vertigo.” “I have always had an unutterable horror of sitting on precipitous cliffs,” he says, “as I suffer from vertigo.” One of the more recent Van Gogh biographies is called Vertigo of Light. I love that.
Did you ever meet Hitchcock?
I never actually spoke to him but my wife and I were invited to the set of his last movie, Family Plot. It was on the final day of shooting and it turned out to be the last scene he ever directed. Later, we got to know Tippi Hedren fairly well and heard all of her Hitchcock stories. So I do have a personal connection of sorts.
Another icon of the 1950s you reference multiple times is the Classics Illustrated comic-book series.
Well, you have to be a baby boomer to even know about Classic comics. But they were a big deal in my boyhood -- I still have my collection -- and it seemed to me that Wally’s devotion to them could be a good shorthand way to establish where his sensibility is at the outset. They allow him to appreciate the great works of literature as pure story, translated into the simplistic visuals of close-up/mid-shot/long-shot (the grammar of film and comics being the same). Yet it is also a limited, even juvenile, way of looking at literature, and what happens to Wally in the story is forcing him to evolve beyond it.
Of the novel’s real-life recruitments, none plays a larger role in the story than the filming of Lust for Life. As you said, it’s the springboard of the story.
And it was my springboard into the Vincent story too -- what originally hooked me. It was also the largest single factor in the myth-making process and emerging superstardom of Van Gogh in the 1950s. One of the most significant and influential movies ever made.
Yet, according to you, its story, or at least its last act, is false.
It’s still a great film, a masterpiece.
You mention that, as a boy, you actually witnessed the Lust for Life film company at work in Montmartre.
I have a vague memory of walking past a milling crowd through which I could make out nothing but a couple of reflectors. My brother told me they were making a movie about the crazy painter who’d cut off his ear. It was the first time I’d ever heard of Vincent van Gogh.
In general, did you strive to make the background events of the story accurate as to time and place or did you feel free to invent?
I tried to be accurate, but there were plenty of instances in which I played fast-and-loose with real events. One was the anti-American rally in Cannes that climaxes the story. This demonstration actually took place in 2003 not 1955. Also, Nasser did indeed sponsor a “post-colonial” conference of third-world nations in the spring of 1955 but it took place in Djakarta not Cairo. Gachet Jr.’s induction into the Legion of Honor was also a few years later than I have it.
In creating a background of 1955 Paris, were there any sources that were particularly helpful, or was the “panorama” drawn entirely from memory?
Most of it is from either childhood memory or from my collection of newspapers, magazines, radio shows and other memorabilia of that era. But one source I do have to acknowledge is Stanley Karnow’s pitch-perfect 1997 memoir, Paris in the Fifties. It captures all the flavor and special glamour of that lost world. For me, reading it was like a journey back in a time machine.
A vintage guillotine displayed in the hallway of the Musée Carnavalet figures very prominently in your story. Was that real or --
That’s real. It’s long gone now but it was the museum’s most famous attraction in the ’50s. Karnow mentions it, and I distinctly remember seeing it.
Another wicked instrument that figures prominently in your story is the Ksar knife, which is used in a kind of Russian-roulette barroom ritual. Is that also real or did you make it up?
It was entirely my invention. I came up with that idea early on -- back in the late 1980s when the project started out as a screenplay -- because I needed a uniquely visual way to show the development of the hero's confidence. “Ksar,” by the way, means “fortress” or “castle” in Berber.
What about your Algerian War subplot? Did you have any homefront memories of that national trauma you could call on?
I do have memories of it, but I don’t think I called on them much. We were living in Bordeaux when the violence started and I can remember the fear that swept through the city -- which had a significant Algerian population -- and being terrified that the Algerian rebels were going to sneak in our house some night and kill us in our sleep.
As part of that subplot, you dramatize a right-wing French plot called Operation Elba. Real or made up?
It was apparently a real event, though I greatly exaggerate how far it got before it was put down.
Also as part of the subplot, you have the CIA secretly feeding money to the Algerian terrorists. Did that really happen?
I don’t know. But I know the French believed it, and this belief was a major factor in De Gaulle’s special resentment of us in the ’60s. I’ve heard this from several credible authorities on the Algerian War and it’s also referenced in Leon Uris’ 1967 novel, Topaz. (In one key scene, a character summarizes how, “As you know, gentlemen, many Frenchmen believe America is responsible for Algeria.”)
Interesting that you should mention Topaz. It’s another, and one of the few, novels I can think of that reveals some previously unrecorded history in the midst of its fiction. Was it a model for you?
An inspiration, maybe. Not really a model. Uris wrote the book around the revelation that the French Government contained a high-level spy in 1962 whose actions affected the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But he didn’t name any real names or attempt to weave all the evidence for that supposition into the drama of his story.
Were there any other novels that inspired you?
Well, an obvious one is Josephine Tey's 1951 The Daughter of Time, in which her fictional detective sorts through all the historical evidence that Richard III was a monster and serial murderer, and eventually exonerates him. That book always scores at the very top of all the lists of the greatest mystery novels of all time. So, yeah, it was definitely a big inspiration.
Let’s talk about Wally’s process of detection. If I read the novel right, you basically have him solve the crime through the artistic process.
You read it right. He’s not, by any means, a great writer but he is, as they often say as a compliment in Hollywood, “great on story.” He understands and appreciates the special contours and intrinsic honesty of a truly great human story. So when he sinks into the Vincent story, he feels that, as attractive as it is to the world and to him personally on a certain level, it’s incomplete to the point of being dishonest. So he feels an overwhelming artistic compulsion to “complete” the story, and he goes through an agonizing trial-and-error and an odyssey of self-awareness to satisfy this compulsion.
And this “agonizing trial-and-error” is how Vincent himself described his artistic process.
He defined it as persistence and trial-and-error toward a vision he can’t quite define but sees and intuitively trusts. “Very often,” he says, “I do things wrong before I manage to do them better.” “Sometimes by error one finds the right road.” “What the devil do I care if I fail -- if I fail, then I’ll try again.” “Action contains its own reward.” And so on. He was very specific about this process.
And Wally’s process, and Vincent’s process, more or less mirrors your own with the story?
More or less.
How hard was it to cram your three decades of experience into Wally’s twenty-one days?
Not so hard. I just speeded everything up. And tried to create shortcuts by having Wally’s naïve and inexperienced Vincent obsession butt heads with the more smug and knowledgeable Vincent obsession of Christine, Rewald and Houseman.
What is your own screenwriting experience?
Practically nil. I was hired to adapt each of the two books I had written for the producers who bought their screen rights. I was hired from time to time to do a rewrite or polish of someone else’s script. None of it led anywhere remotely fulfilling. For me, it was as painful and frustrating and time-wasting as the cliché says it is.
But the novel plays like a movie. As I said before, a Hitchcock movie. Were you, in writing it, trying to fulfill some frustrated part of yourself?
The frustrated screenwriter? I don’t think so. I’ve never really had any ambitions to be a screenwriter. If it plays like this to you, it may be the influence of those ten thousand movies I sat through as a film critic. Probably, unconsciously, it’s the movie that this so-often-disappointed critic would want to see based on the material.
Did you ever feel you’d taken on too much? That the Vincent story was enough and didn’t need the Algeria subplot?
No. Algeria was such a huge part of the fabric of 1955 Paris that, without it, any novel that even halfway aspired to be a political thriller would be glaringly false. It also makes the story more epic, and more politically relevant to what’s going on today. The roots of America’s war with Islamic Fundamentalism are in the 1950s and, to a certain extent, grew out of expedient decisions made in the Cold War. I wanted the story to look at those roots, and for Wally, as part of his personal growth and rising political consciousness and veracity as an embryonic ’60s character, to see and understand that he was knee-deep in a wrong that was someday going to have disastrous consequences. The Algeria half of the mystery also allowed me to make the story a backhanded valentine to France -- which was important to me.
Because France has beeen given a very raw deal in this country after 9/11 and its prescient refusal to go along with our war on Iraq. At the time I was writing, anti-French sentiment had never been higher. In Hollywood, French characters were just about the only politically correct nationality you could have for a villain. Even now, a script can’t say anything critical or satirical about Islam -- or, God forbid, China -- but it can heap all the abuse it wants on France. I didn’t want to be part of this hypocritical Gallophobia, and I would be too because France comes off very badly in my version of the Vincent story. I love France. It was my second home. I needed a track in the novel, separate from Vincent, that would lead Wally to an awareness that, despite all his many frustrations with the French, they are a great people, with an enlightened culture, a special and hard-earned moral perspective on the world, and a unique historical relationship with the United States.
Algeria is also not a subject that is entirely irrelevant to the Van Gogh story.
No, he mentions it a number of times in his letters. When he was down and out, he seriously considered joining the Foreign Legion and going to Algeria, which was appealing to him because he knew the light there would be even stronger than in Provence. Algeria was to his world what the Western frontier was to Americans in the nineteenth century: a place to escape and start over.
A state of mind.
Yes, and a dangerous one for France, as it turned out.
Van Gogh was himself quite a Francophile.
An incredible Francophile. He considered the French Revolution the greatest event in history. He thought French writers and French painters were by far the world’s best. He loved the French language and preferred using it in his correspondence, even with his Dutch relatives. He was obsessed, I think, with what you might call “the phenomenon of France.”
It strikes me that you were dealing with three exiles who each find sanctuary and personal fulfillment in the light of France: Vincent, Wally and yourself.
That’s exactly right.
Hence the title.
You got it.
The novel is not exactly a roman a clef but it finds an equivalent for just about everything that happens and everyone who appears in the real story. Except one. François Mitterrand. Why is that?
I suppose because he's such a huge name in modern French History I didn't want to overwhelm the novel by having a recognizable version of him be its arch-villain. He didn't really fit the piece. He was sympathetic to the Colons and a major hawk on the Algerian War but he was ostensiby a Socialist and, never as far as I know, took part in any of the Right-Wing coup attempts of the '50s. So my invention of Assistant Defense Minister Alain Brialy served the purposes of the novel much better.
Were you ever tempted to just forget the ’50s and contemporize the Wally Boyd detection story? Have him be some techno-hero who employs the wonders of the cyber-world to solve the Vincent murder?
Never. It was simply never an option. To do somrthing lik that would have totally violated the soul of the story, the many elements of which come together very specifically in the spring of 1955, and do not, as far as I know, reside in any data banks. Anyway, the idea of setting the detection of a mystery of the 1890s in the 1950s -- two eras which are both historical to us -- strongly appealed to me. It seemed an original concept.
Let’s talk about the companion book, The Mystery of Auvers, which is subtitled A Story of Obsession, Van Gogh Letter T41b and Art History's Greatest Whodunit. Is the obsession referenced there your own?
Partly, yes. It just seemed the operative word for so much of this story and the larger phenomenon of Vincent. His obsession to paint at the core of it. The obsessive effect his life and particularly the mystery of his death has had on people -- not just me but Antonin Artaud, Louis Anfray, André Souard, Irv Arenberg and all the family members and government officials involved in protecting his myth and covering up anything that might compromise it.
How did that the book about?
The first part, the journalistic account, I actually wrote back in 2004, after I finally felt I had the story down. But it's been tweaked and updated a hundred times since then.
It reads like a New Yorker or Vanity Fair piece, setting down the Mystery of Auvers and your explosive new take on it, but leaving your own participation completely out of the story.
Yeah, I wanted to contain the story solely within the boundaries of objective journalism and see what it would look like.
But you make up for the oversight in the second part of book in the memoir that you call “Vincent & Me.”
Once I had it down as journalism, it struck me that this was only part of a larger detective story in which I was a character. So, almost as an exercise, I wrote a much-condensed, first-person memoir of how I uncovered the story. Totally subjective, with all my angst and fears, and the many twists and turns that went into my thirty-year search. My intention at the time was to, at some point in the future nearer the end of the embargo, combine and expand the two stories in one traditional nonfiction book.
Which you didn't do.
No. By that time I had decided to make the novel the primary showcase of the story. But it occurred to me that if I put those two nonfiction tracts together as they were, it could be an interesting little companion piece to the novel, a kind of "making of" book -- the story of how I came to write the novel.
And you ultimately added a third track to the book, the "Operation Indigo" interviews. Why inspired you to add that testimony?
I thought to myself, you’ve presentied the story as journalism and memoir, why not go a step further and allow readers to experience it as a researcher? Let them see excerpts of my interviews with the story’s key sources. I don’t think that’s ever been done before quite like this and it could be interesting, and maybe instructive and fun, to allow readers to see the story from these three different perspectives.
It’s almost as if you’re challenging them to second-guess your creative process.
Yeah, I guess I am.
Your solution to the mystery is not directly lifted but logically deduced, constructed, from this testimony. You’re asking people to follow the same trail of logic and see if they can come up with a different conclusion.
That’s true, and I try to clearly establish that some of these people are shady characters, Algerian War criminals even, with a grudge against France. So you have to ask yourself, could there be an ulterior motive for what they’re saying? How much of this can I trust? And ask, on the other hand, how could they possibly know these intimate things if they weren’t telling some level of the truth? The questions that any interviewer or researcher must ask himself.
So you’re saying the witnesses could be lying?
I’m sure they are lying to a certain degree. I’ve done thousands of interviews as a journalist and I’m pretty sure every one of them contains a lie of some sort, if only by omission. No one tells the same story twice in the same way. People bend things to look good in the interviewer’s eyes and in their own eyes. That’s human nature and inevitable. It’s a selection process in which you pick through the testimony and choose what you think you can believe and create a synthesis of it.
But it’s still stacked in your direction, isn’t it? You asked the questions. You selected which portions of the transcript to put up.
That’s very true. But I don’t know how I can be any more open than this.
How do you feel about this nonfiction version? In relation to the novel?
Well, I think it was worth doing and it gave me a certain amount of satisfaction to do it. It says straight-out a number of things that are veiled or only hinted at in Exile in the Light and it gives the story these three additional perspectives from which it can be judged. But I also think it demonstrates the limitations of journalism and the vanity of personal memoirs. And I think it justifies my feeling that the only way to really come to grips with such an immense story, and deal with its shattering implications, and find what is, for me, the truth that is truer than the facts of its situation,was through an epic mystery novel with a large tapestry of characters and many points-of-view.
You indicate several times in this memoir that the immensity of the story you were pursuing scared you.
At times, it terrified me. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I had to keep questioning myself: Can this be true? How could anything like this possibly go undetected for a hundred years by that Mongol horde of Van Gogh scholars? How can you present such a case without coming off as a complete crackpot? Do you really want to deal with the controversy and animosity such an heretical take on one of the world’s most beloved legends might arouse?
But you came to terms with it?
In the novel. Viewed as history or journalism, I'm still uneasy with the story. As I wrote in the introduction to the nonfiction book, I share our era's general distrust for history and the prejudice with which it has been written. That's why I decided to present it in this layered form that, hopefully, will allow the reader to make up his own mind about the Mystery of Auvers.
Several of your sources expressed fear that talking to you might spark a deadly retaliation by the mafia-like faction of the French Secret Service known as La Main Rouge. To the point they didn't want their stories told while they were still alive.
Yes, that was the reason for the embargo.
Did you also share that concern?
Probably more than I indicated in the memoir. La Main Rouge had been behind the murders of God only knows how many African leaders in the ’50s and assassination attempts against De Gaulle in the ’60s and the Rainbow Warrior bombing in ’80s. During the Algerian War, they didn’t blink at killing the family members of European arms dealers they suspected of supplying the rebels. These were serious people. I had lived under a death threat once before and I had no interest in doing it again. If I were completely honest, I’d have to admit that the idea of holding the Van Gogh story until all those old warhorses of La Main Rouge had time to die off made a lot of sense to me.
Do you think they now have mostly died off?
I think so. I hope so.
When did you live under a death threat before?
In 1990, in response to a controversial story I had written in the newspaper, I received a hand-scrawled death threat that the Seattle Police Department believed was from an offshoot of the same gang of white supremacists that had murdered Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg. So they swooped in to protect me. They guarded my house. They followed me to work. They watched my daughter’s school. Fortunately, the gang was soon captured and my ordeal ended. But I’m here to tell you that the experience of knowing skilled and determined people are out to kill you is no fun at all. In no way did I want to be the Salmon Rushdie of La Main Rouge.
Is this why you didn’t use their name?
I did use it.
In the companion book, but not in Exile in the Light.
The name was not coined until 1956 -- a year after the novel’s setting of April 1955. It would have been historically inaccurate to use the name, La Main Rouge, in the Wally Boyd story.
But you allow yourself other historical inaccuracies in his story.
Not this one.
Getting back to the nonfiction book, I was surprised by the dramatic appearance of Kurt Cobain in the “Vincent & Me” narrative. So bizarre. So sad. And so ironic!
I agonized long and hard over whether or not to include that episode. It’s a subject I usually go to great lengths to avoid. But I finally decided it was vital to the story -- or at least vital to my motivations in the story.
Also your alliance with Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker. That too seems incredibly ironic, given that his fate would incorporate both a Van Gogh murder and Islamic fundamentalism -- two major aspects of your novel.
It shows a strange prescience on your part, I think. You had to go to considerable trouble to get to him and there was no reason to think he might help you.
That’s sort of true. At the time, I didn’t know a thing about him. He was not at all well known. I just had a feeling he would be the one member of the Van Gogh family who might look squarely at the Mystery of Auvers.
Prescience is almost a theme in the novel, isn’t it? Vincent’s remarkable prescience the characters so often acknowledge. Picasso’s prescience. Vlaminck’s prescience. So you experienced it too?
All the time. I was constantly finding verification for things I intuitively already knew to be true. I remember Robert Graves once saying that his novel, I, Claudius, was the product of a strange “confluence” between himself and the Emperor Claudius, and how he often felt he was actually collaborating with the Emperor’s spirit. He said, “I found out I was able to know a lot of things that happened without having any basis except that I knew they were true.” It was often like that with me.
You felt you were psychically connected to Vincent?
At the risk of some ridicule, I have to answer that question yes. But then, doesn’t everyone feel psychically connected to Vincent? Isn’t that quality at the core of his phenomenon? We feel such heartbreaking sympathy for him. We feel so close to him that we can almost reach out and physically touch his beautiful spirit. We feel like we understand him, even if the cruel world doesn’t. He’s like a personal friend. And at the same time we also realize we don’t know him at all. He’s an unfathomable mystery. That’s his enigma. The Don McLean song, Vincent, wonderfully captures that paradox.
Did you ever feel that Vincent had come back to Earth to help you solve his murder?
No, I can’t say I ever felt that. But it would sure make a good episode of The Twilight Zone.
You’re married to a well-known romance author, Katherine O’Neal, who you freely admit played a large role in this project. What exactly was that role?
She planned and oversaw all the research trips. She came up with scenes and suggested plot developments and bits of dialogue. She read and edited more than a dozen drafts of each manuscript. And plenty more. It wouldn't have happened without her.
Did you ever consider giving her co-author credit?
I offered, but she wouldn't hear of it.
Let’s talk about this third level of your Exile in the Light experience, the website features. What made you decide to go to such lengths?
It started because I needed a place for this interview, which was extremely important to me. Then it began to grow on the idea that it could end up being the most substantive supportive website that any mystery novel has ever had. I'm not sure if it reached that lofty goal but there's definitely a lot of material there.
Why was this interview so important to you?
Because as a journalist I know how important the right questions are to presenting your position and how destructive a poorly handled interview can be. Given the controversy inherent in this project, and its potential to be misunderstood, I decided to have an experienced journalist do an interview that would have no holds barred but which I would ultimately control, and be able to change, or at least tweak, to make absolutely sure it presented my position.
What about all the other features? What is their purpose?
Each adds some new information or dimension or perspective to the Mystery of Auvers.
You spoke before about your desire to be open. Is that why you've included a rundown of all the possible suspects in a game of “Who Killed Van Gogh?”?
But, again, your run of logic through all those suspects leads to only one door.
I don’t know if that’s entirely true.
Come on, be honest.
All right, in the end, only one of those ten suspect-scenarios makes any sense to me. But I do think I examine the other possibilities fairly.
And, also in the interest of openness, you follow this feature up with a “wish list” of information you admit you don’t have.
Yes, these are things -- elements of the Mystery of Auvers -- I feel still need further investigation. Tracks where I met a dead end. Things that I’d be happy to hand over to someone in France or Holland -- someone in a better linguistic position than me to probe the fine print -- and let him spend a few months or years or decades of his life going at it.
Do you seriously think anything will come of that?
It certainly could. There are plenty of gifted armchair sleuths out there who might be able to find his way down one of these thorny trails into the Mystery of Auvers and latch on to some miraculous new piece of information. People are making new discoveries about Van Gogh all the time. The Lost Arles Sketchbook, for instance, in 2016. And Dr. Rey's notes on the ear mutilation, found that same year. Vincent is not a closed door by any means.
Yet you express doubt that Letter T41b, your smoking gun, will ever be recovered again.
I'm actually less sure of that now than I was a year or two ago. In 2018, after I'd finished everything, I had another private audience with various officials of the Interior Ministry in Paris. This time I found them nothing but cordial and helpful. A whole new generation there with an entirely different attitude. They were very interested and totally open to the idea of finding the letter. So who knows?
What about Adeline Ravoux, who is such a crucial figure in the story? You mention that you were in contact with some of her descendants. Was that a complete dead end?
Adeline had no children and neither did her younger sister Germaine. But there was a third sister, Olga, who was born two years after Vincent's death and after the family had left Auvers. She did have children and her descendants have some of Adeline's letters from the Auvers period, but nothing that pertains to Van Gogh. That information came to me, by the way, from a researcher in England who tracked it down after seeing the "wish list" on the website. So you see? Putting it there was not just an empty gesture.
Let’s move on to your memoir of growing up in France in the 1950s. This is basically a nostalgia piece, right? Why did decide to throw it in?
I just felt a need to express it. It made me feel good to write it. But it’s also, in a way, another perspective on the story, and another part of my full disclosure. I mean, this is my past! This is the filter through which I view the Mystery of Auvers. And it has influenced how I’ve processed the information and assembled it for you.
It strikes me that, at the same time you’re stacking up all these nonfiction elements to support your fiction, you’re also making a case that there is no real difference between fiction and nonfiction. That all writing is subjective.
I didn’t consciously set out to do that. But you’re probably right. I mean, it’s sort of a theme in the novel, isn’t it? At several points, Wally doesn’t know if he’s pursuing the literal truth of Vincent or creating a fiction that is his own truth -- and ultimately decides there may be no way to ever make the distinction.
And you have the psychiatrist, Dr. Thiers, tell Wally that a biography invariably says more about the biographer than it does about its subject.
That’s right. The biographer also goes through a selection process that’s made to satisfy his own logic, intuition, background experience and inner needs.
How does your tribute to Fons Rademakers fit into the scheme of the website?
Fons, as you know, was a great Dutch filmmaker who was the instigator and spiritual father of my Van Gogh project. I gave him that credit in the “Vincent & Me” part of the nonfiction book. But it nagged at me that he deserved more. So I included the profile, which I also really enjoyed doing.
I suppose you could say it’s also self-serving. It gives you credibility and establishes you as a link between two great Dutch artists.
Boy, are you cynical.
No, I think it fits in perfectly with what we’ve just been talking about, with disclosure. From the beginning, this man’s personality and sensibility have clearly had a huge stamp on how you perceived the mystery.
I can’t deny that.
The rest of the features on the site call upon your skill as a long-time professional critic.
The next one is a rundown on what I consider the ten essential books for anyone who wants to investigate the Mystery of Auvers. Books that, in some way large or small, managed to see through the smokescreen the Gachet family blew around the death of Van Gogh. Books that influenced my assimilation of the Mystery of Auvers with their insight, original research or more inquisitive sensibility. I have since added two more books that have come out more recently to directly argue that Vincent was murdered, and deduce that Dr. Gachet or his son was the murderer.
A conclusion with which you disagree.
Well, I think the Indigo interviews smash that theory. But I also think both Gachets played a big part in what ultimately happened. So I'm not particularly hostile to those books.
You follow this with a listing of the twenty-five people in history who you feel have, other than Vincent himself, created the Van Gogh phenomenon. How does this relate to the Mystery of Auvers?
I suppose it gets back to that idea that there is no unvarnished “truth” about Vincent van Gogh. In the years I researched him, I was struck again and again by how his reality -- what he is to us today -- was molded by the subjective needs and personal vision of certain critics, biographers, art dealers, friends and family members. I decided to make a list of them and try to show how they specifically influenced the phenomenon. I don’t believe anyone has ever done this before.
How would you describe the next feature, the one you call “Auvers as Culture”?
It’s a critical roundup of all the Van Gogh movies, TV shows, plays, novels, poetry, music, kitsch -- everything I could find. All the cultural manifestations of Vincent van Gogh. Reviewed en masse. No critic has ever taken on this task before, and since I’d experienced so much of it over the years, I thought I’d give it a try. And, of course, my opinion of these works is another filter through which I am viewing the Mystery of Auvers, so you can consider this shotgun-review as another part of my full disclosure and another perspective on the novel.
How could you possibly absorb so many works?
Well, I couldn’t, not all of them. I didn’t get to all the hundreds of television shows that have some sort of Vincent theme. Almost every sit-com of the past half-century has had one.
I saw one just last week. An episode of Modern Family called “Starry Night.”
There you go. And I don’t have it. But I reviewed the important things. The major biopics I’ve watched many times each. And I’m still working on this. The undertaking is ongoing.
I notice that the art you’ve selected to represent each of these categories -- which, by the way, include comedy, animation, new technology and even religion -- is the genre’s use of the painting Wheatfield with Crows.
It’s my playful way of suggesting that Auvers and the wheatfield are the cornerstone of the myth all these forms are celebrating. It really is “Auvers as Culture,” as much as it’s “Vincent as Culture.”
You also use Wheatfield on both book covers and as part of the heading-art of most of the features on this website.
How could I not? It’s the most haunting painting of all time, and the symbol of Vincent’s death and the hold it has over us. No project ever had a better or more ready-made logo.
And the final feature of the site -- which you top with your own photo of the actual Auvers wheatfield -- is your guide to the Van Gogh pilgrimage sites in Holland, England, Belgium and France.
Yes, over the years, I’ve journeyed to every station of the Van Gogh Trail, some many times. In the course of this I’ve sampled the few guide books that cater to Van Gogh travel, none of which I can recommend. I’ve done a fair amount of travel writing in the past: in fact, I’ve filed travel features from every continent, including Antarctica. So I figured I would do a guide that would be geared to Van Gogh travelers who are more specifically interested in the Mystery of Auvers.
So, all told, you’re viewing one fantastic story as fiction, journalism, memoir, research transcripts, a parlor game, a wish list, nostalgia, a filmmaker profile, three critical essays and a travel piece. Did I miss anything?
There's also maps, an atlas of the Auvers crime scene, a visual synopsis of Exile and a couple of other things..
Okay, you also view the story as geography. That's all together quite an undertaking.
As you say it, it sounds bizarre. Like I just couldn’t let the story go, which I suppose is true. But then, there aren’t many stories out there which would be suitable for such a multi-faceted exploration. So it was an opportunity.
And you must have felt you were uniquely qualified to grab that opportunity and explore the story from all these different angles.
You’re right, I did. I had done most of these things before, with some success. I’d written a bestselling novel. I’d written a bestselling personal memoir. I’d written a bestselling work of investigative journalism. I’d been a professional critic for a major daily newspaper for thirty years. I’d done thousands of reviews and interviews and profiles and tributes. I’d done travel writing. I'd never done any cartography, which will be obvious from the maps. But, otherwise, yeah, I was qualified for the job.
You must also feel qualified to express an expert opinion on the Van Gogh psychology.
Actually, I don't. .
After reading everything that exists on or by him, after being steeped in his life for decades, you must have a bottom-line “take” on the man.
There is no bottom line on him. That’s the problem with all the biographies, especially that latest one that goes on for a thousand pages in its quest to be definitive. The authors want to “explain” Vincent and they can’t. He escapes them. He’s much, much more than the sum of his parts and even his individual parts are beyond capture.
You don’t get off that easily. I think a succinct opinion does come through in Exile in the Light and the work that supports it. Why be afraid to verbalize it?
All right, forced into this, I would say that Vincent van Gogh was a man with many contradictory qualities and a family background in art who had a gnawing vision he couldn’t quite define and no particular gift for perspective or proportion. In the process of finding a way to express that nebulous vision, and in hopes of earning a living and gaining the approval that every man needs, he discovered that the work itself -- the pursuit of the vision -- could give him a larger satisfaction than fame or money, and a total escape from the demands of daily life. So he became addicted to that work. Like any addict, he would do anything to keep his high, and in his struggle to keep that daily high he revolutionized painting, created some of the glories of modern art and established a personal and artistic mythology that has no comparison in all of history.
What about his illness?
It’s just one more mystery about him that will likely never be solved. As you know, I tend to agree with those who think he was, to a certain degree, faking it so he could keep painting and not have to get a job. Obviously, he did experience some devastating symptoms but I think they fit into a pattern that was unlabeled in Vincent’s time but we now call “panic syndrome.” I also think he vaguely understood that this was his problem.
He uses the word “panic” again and again in the later letters. He speaks less about his madness than his “fear” of his madness. He tells of how the chaos of a starry night could terrify him: like staring into a meaningless abyss. In St-Rémy, he wrote that the intense emotion raised in him just by looking at a cypress tree was enough to incapacitate him for weeks. The disorder of nature made him, he said, “a coward.” The term “existential panic” was coined for just that emotion.
And painting was his way of giving order to the disorder of nature.
As it is for all artists. And in St-Rémy, I think he finally figured that out. That’s why the menace of his St-Rémy work gave way to the serenity of his final work in Auvers.
And also why he was in no mood to kill himself in Auvers.
For what it’s worth, that’s my two cents on the guy.
Your layout for this interview contains a picture of you from the rear as you’re staring at a Vincent painting in 1987. Is that --
Yes, the moment my twig was bent, miraculously captured on film. I stumbled upon that photo a year ago. Fons Rademakers had just led us into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on that bitter cold day in January. I stepped right up to the first painting I saw in the gallery, one of the Sunflowers, and my wife stepped back and snapped the picture.
So you’ve been actively chasing the Van Gogh Mystery for... how long has that been?
Has anyone ever suggested that there might be something slightly demented in that level of obsession?
It’s been suggested. But then I’m guilty of exaggerating that obsession in conversations like this. It was always just one of a hundred things I was balancing in my life. It was always there but only dominated my attention from time to time.
Assuming they notice your work anytime soon, how do you think the Van Gogh Foundation will react to it?
Of course, they’ll hate it. They’ll want to burn me at the stake. My guess is that they’ll either denounce it in a few curt words or just ignore it completely. Probably the latter. It doesn’t exist.
I understand the current leadership has not closed its mind to the idea of a Van Gogh murder. That they have a “let’s wait and see what other evidence emerges” attitude.
But I have a feeling they’ll close their minds very tightly to this particular murderer. I can’t blame them. I’d certainly be hostile, were I them.
Maybe they’ll just smile and say: “It’s only a novel.”
I’ll take “It’s only a novel.” “Only a novel” works just fine for me.
You’ve danced around this question a lot, but at the end of this trail, don’t you feel you’ve conclusively solved the murder of Vincent van Gogh?
I think I’m able to make an extremely strong case for what might have happened and why. But the death of Vincent van Gogh will, and I think should, always remain a mystery.
Yet when I asked you for a one-line description of Exile in the Light, you said: “Blacklisted screenwriter in ’50s Paris solves murder of Vincent van Gogh.”
Well, he does solve it, in that he finds his own truth in the pursuit of that mystery -- which is my personal truth. Yours might be different.
It seems to me the case you make is overwhelming.
But there’s room for doubt -- and I do leave the door to that room open.
Only by the merest crack.
That's your opinion.
You just don’t want the responsibility that goes with saying: “I’ve solved the Mystery of Auvers!”
Or the grief.
Yet you've written a nonfiction book to go with Exile in the Light. So you must, to some extent, want -- and even need -- to be believed on that level.
You know, I really don't. The writing of the novel has completely satisfied all the impulses that bound me to the Mystery of Auvers for those thirty years. If you choose not to believe the novel's admittedly sensational backstory, that's fine with me. But you still might enjoy the novel.