The daughter of an abstract painter, author Alyson Richman thought she would become an artist herself.
But during her college years at Wellesley, “I fell in love with art history,” said the novelist, who will speak about her sixth book, “The Velvet Hours,” on October 26 for the Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Women’s Philanthropy and the YJCC of Bergen County.
Raised on Long Island, where she still lives, Ms. Richman said she has a “talent for telling the story behind the painting; the relationship between the artist and the muse.” Attempting to envision her perfect career upon graduation, she realized that “I would love to write stories about artists and the artistic process.” Sometimes wishes are granted. Ms. Richman’s novels largely have focused on that theme.
The inspiration for her first book, “The Mask Carver’s Son: A Novel,” which Bloomsbury published in 2001, grew out of her junior year abroad in Japan, where she was apprenticed to a Noh mask carver. “It’s an ancient form of theater,” she said. “The masks almost come to life on stage when worn by amazing actors.”
As a westerner studying the artistic tradition of another country — as were the Impressionists, who were influenced by Japanese art, she pointed out — she began to wonder when the Japanese began to study western art forms. “I got a grant on graduation to do this ‘reverse research,’” she said. From that came her first book, which her agent called “a very unusual first novel,” dealing as it does with a gay Japanese artist who travels to Paris at the turn of the century. “I’ve been writing professionally ever since,” she said. “I research and learn and hope the reader will take the journey with me.”
So far, she is best known for “The Lost Wife,” the story of a husband and wife who are separated in a concentration camp during World War II and reunited 60 years later at their grandchildren’s wedding. Her novels have been published in more than 15 languages.
“I’m excited to be cultivating an audience of readers eager to learn about a part of their history they might not otherwise learn,” she said, noting that the Jewish community warmly embraced “The Lost Wife.” That kind of acceptance can change a writer’s career, she added. The book is being adapted into a movie featuring Daisy Ridley, who recently appeared in a Star Wars sequel. “It’s wonderful to weave in important Jewish history, to make sure that people are learning about our culture and religion,” Ms. Richman said.
On October 26 she will speak about her newest book, which has its roots in some real-life mysteries. Centered on two women, the then elderly-courtesan Marthe de Florian and her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, to whom Marthe tells the story of her life, the story was inspired by the true account of an abandoned apartment in Paris. In 1940, after Marthe’s death, Solange locked her grandmother’s apartment before fleeing Paris in the face of German occupation. The apartment — and its gilded furnishings, including a painting by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini — was not unlocked again until 2010.
“A friend of mine in Long Island sent me an article about an apartment discovered in 2010, shuttered for 70 years,” Ms. Richman said. “It’s all true; the painting” — which plays a large role in the story — “was discovered.” Ms. Richman said that Solange, whose real-life history she uncovered during her research, named one of her sons Henry. He later became a pharmacist. In “The Velvet Hours,” Henry is the name of Solange’s pharmacist father. In addition — also as mentioned in the book — “love letters were found from Boldini.
“This really piqued my interest,” Ms. Richman said. It brought up so many questions. Why would someone close an apartment but ensure that its maintenance be paid for 70 years? “Who was the owner? How did she sustain herself? What was her relationship with her granddaughter? Why was it kept as a shrine?” Ms. Richman said she seeks not just to answer these questions but to uncover the world in which the events unfolded. “If you Google her apartment, you can see where I got a lot of clues,” she said, citing, for example, an Asian vase on the mantel. “I provide a back story on those objects.”
In the book, the author describes a woman who devoted herself to beauty. This is no accident. “The novel is dedicated to my late grandmother,” she said. “It’s an elegy to her. She sustained herself through beauty and art. [Things that are] elegant and lovely gave her a sense of sustenance. It’s the way she saw the world. She loved how those touches could make the world more beautiful.”
Family clearly is important to her. “My mother was a fine arts painter in her early youth,” Ms. Richman said. “My great grandmother was a wonderful writer of children’s books.” Perhaps, she suggested, “my own talent and enthusiasm come from her. And my daughter has the artistic gene as well.” She and her husband, Stephen, have two children.
Ms. Richman said the overarching philosophical question that guided her writing had to do with “the objects we collect over a lifetime. What makes them precious are the stories they contain and the ties they help us forge with others, rather than their monetary value.” She pointed out that she originally intended to name the book “A Woman of Shadow and Light.” Every life has both, she said. “How are we judged? Life is a great big puzzle, hopefully with more light than shadow. I explore how we have both of those shadings.”
While her books seem to attract mostly female readers, “I have received heartfelt emails from men as well,” she said. At her first book signing several weeks ago, “there were a lot of men in the audience. It’s a very feminine book, dealing with the rituals of beauty. But she doesn’t worry about who will read it. “I prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” She noted as well that the inclusion of an ancient haggadah and an old bookstore in her novel were deliberate, included to reflect “my love of books and bookstores.”
At the JFNNJ talk, Ms. Richman will discuss her writing process and the research it involves. She will also answer questions from attendees. The book is included in the price of the ticket.
Who: Novelist Alyson Richman
What: Will talk about “The Velvet Hours” and her writing process
When: On October 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At the offices of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Dr., Paramus
Cost: $20/person, includes book and light dessert
For information: www.jfnnj.org/velvethours