Monday, December 03, 2018

Interview with Carrie Callaghan, author of A Light of Her Own, a novel about artist Judith Leyster

In today's hyperactive world, it's a pleasure to read a historical novel that carefully draws you into the very different atmosphere of nearly four centuries ago. At the center of Carrie Callaghan's debut are two young women in 1630s Haarlem: Judith Leyster, a talented painter who became the first of her sex to belong to the city's artists' guild, and her art master's daughter and friend, Maria de Grebber, whose Catholicism sets her apart.  Carrie's A Light of Her Own was published by Amberjack in November, and for her blog tour, I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her characters, themes, and inspiration.

Why do you enjoy re-interpreting the lives of historical women in fiction?

Women’s stories have often been obscured or forgotten by history. For about two hundred years, no one knew Judith Leyster’s paintings had been painted by a woman, much less her. By reclaiming those stories and interpreting them for a modern audience, I hope I’m helping today’s readers think about all the challenges women have faced and overcome throughout time. And hopefully that’s inspiring.

What made you decide to tell the story from the viewpoints of both Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber?

This story started as an exploration into ambition and dedication. I realized quickly that for Judith to break through societal barriers, she probably had to make some sacrifices. I wanted to showcase the impact on her two closest relationships – her friend and her brother – and I liked the idea of focusing on the friendship. (An earlier draft did have Abraham’s perspective too, actually.)

How did you fill in the blanks in re-creating Judith’s life?

There are many blanks in Judith’s life. We have her baptism, marriage, and death records, as well as some legal documents and real estate transactions, but not much more than that. Given all the questions, I kept returning to her paintings. If you look at that amazing self-portrait, you see a bold, confident woman who is nonetheless trying to impress you, which suggests some vulnerability. I tried to channel that woman.

I always enjoy how good historical novels can depict the similarities we share with people living long ago as well as their differences from us, and you’ve definitely accomplished this in A Light of Her Own. Maria’s perspective – including her religiosity and sense of self-sacrifice – can feel particularly foreign to a modern reader. How did you delve into her mindset?

author Carrie Callaghan
I wanted to explore a character who had a lot of personal and religious pressure but few options to find forgiveness. Maria is very self-aware, so she notices every temptation to evil that flickers across her mind and every personal short-falling, but she also doesn’t have a support network to help her understand those failings. Her mother died when she was young, her father is distracted, and she has no other friends, because of the social restrictions of the time. Her religion is important to her, but it was illegal to openly practice at the time, so she didn’t have easy access to spiritual succor. It was hard!

In addition to the larger theme of women’s agency at a restrictive time, I appreciated all of the finer domestic details that made the setting feel real, like the hand-painted blue and white tiles around the floor of a house, baked goods of the period, and so forth. How did you research this aspect of the novel?

I had an excellent book that provided a lot of daily-life details, and then I also had the pleasure of scrutinizing all those beautiful paintings we have from the 17th century. I love seeing and writing details, so the world-building was one of the most fun aspects for me.

As you immersed yourself in the customs and society during the Dutch Golden Age, did you find anything that surprised you? Did you have any favorite discoveries?

Research is so delightful partly because it is a never-ending process of surprise. My favorite discoveries were the ones that illuminated how the embroidery around human life has changed over the years – how daffodils meant grief for a youthful death, or how napkins were viewed as a French affectation – but the deepest human emotions are unchanged. Those commonalities are why I love historical fiction. We get to learn all the varieties of human behavior in our similar yet unique worlds.

Since you’re both a book reviewer and a mentor to other novelists, you have a unique perspective on the publication and writing process. Do you feel your additional experience with the industry has been helpful and/or insightful for your role as an author? 

Absolutely. Writing and publishing are hard and deeply subjective. I appreciate the effort that people put into getting art out into the world, and I’m grateful to be part of a community that values stories and reading.

Thanks, Carrie!


Carrie Callaghan is a writer living in Maryland with her spouse, two young children, and two ridiculous cats. Her short fiction has appeared in Weave Magazine, The MacGuffin, Silk Road, Floodwall, and elsewhere. Carrie is also an editor and contributor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. She has a Master’s of Arts in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For more information, please visit Carrie Callaghan’s website and blog. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Goodreads.

During the blog tour for A Light of Her Own, we will be giving away 2 signed hardcovers of A Light of Her Own! To enter, please see the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on December 7th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

A Light of Her Own

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