We interrupt our regularly scheduled Deep Thought Thursday for this very special guest interview. Jennie Nash is the author of The Only True Genius in the Family, a novel that revolves around the lives of three generations of artists. It’s a fast, easy, and fun romp through the worlds of commercial photography, artists’ estates, graduate school, galleries, and more. I confess to waking up at 3:15 a.m. one morning to finish the last few chapters because I wanted to know the ending.
Alyson: Your story is full of creative people: painters, photographers, opera singers, bakers. What role do artists play in your real life?
Alyson: As in the real art world, there is a gray area that exists in your characters’ lives—between art and commerce. Claire, at times, feels like a sell-out because she “just” photographs food. She even says its her husband-agent’s job to “make her into a marketable brand,” a phrase that would only be uttered behind closed doors in the high-end art world. I’m curious as to how you researched the art world and where you learned your most valuable lessons.
Jennie: That’s a big question – and parts of it are hard! Let me answer the easy stuff first: I have a friend who worked in the Los Angeles. and New York art scenes for many years, and she helped me with some of the background information. She introduced me to an amazing art dealer, who helped me set up the arc of Bailey’s experience so that it rang true, and she introduced me to a photographic curator, who helped me set up the realties of Paul Switzer’s estate. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to watch a top food photographer in action during a photo shoot that involved hot crossed buns.
Now for the more difficult part of your question: the grey area between art and commerce. I don’t know an artist or a writer who hasn’t struggled to reconcile these two realities – the impulse to create objects of beauty and the desire to make money at it. Having to put a price on something you’ve created can be very troubling, and also, obviously, very necessary if you want to keep doing it as more than a hobby or a diversion. I am lucky in that I enjoy the commercial aspects of being a writer – the marketing, the blogging, the speaking. But the endless selling? Having to reduce a 300-page manuscript to a 10-second soundbite? Having to dream of being in Costco? That can be soul wrenching. I happen to be able to tolerate it. Not everyone does. Something that helped me very much in this regard is the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde. It’s an anthropological study about how art is more akin to gift-giving than it is to product-exchange. At any rate, I wanted to weave some of these ideas into my story, and so I gave Claire this real-life dilemma. She is making money at her art. She is becoming a “brand.” But she has lost the passion for making art for its own sake, and longs to get it back.
Alyson: Claire, your main character, has a crisis of faith about making art. I think this is common among creative souls. How can someone who doesn’t feel very inspired about writing or making art find the inspiration they need?
Jennie: Lack of inspiration, to me, is usually just a question of inaction – and that seems to often come from fear. Fear of failure. Fear of humiliation. Even fear of success. When asked where he came up with his songs, Willie Nelson once said, “The air is full of tunes; I just reach up and pick one.” What I love about that is the sense that it isn’t magic. It isn’t a mystery. But it does involve action on the part of the songwriter. I think that’s the key. You have to show up. You have to open yourself up to the possibilities. And then you have to give yourself permission to create.
Alyson: In the beginning, Claire thinks that genius comes like a lightning strike from god, but later embraces a different truth. Where do you believe genius comes from?
Jennie: Claire moves toward an understanding of genius that rings true for me, as well. I think a lot of people give up on art – and perhaps other things – because it didn’t come early and easily to them. And if you’re not a prodigy, the thinking goes, you’re nothing. Some people are clearly born with certain traits and abilities that would make them a good writer or a good painter or a good photographer, but it seems to me that genius always involves many other things, as well — talent, opportunity, luck, hard work.
Alyson: Claire discovers that her father learned to look more closely at the world and his surroundings by slowing down and allowing himself to take only one photograph per day. Do you have a daily writing practice? [Or, is this similar to your writing practice?]
Jennie: I wish my writing practice were this disciplined! It’s not. I tend to do a lot of thinking while I’m in the shower or driving my kids to school or running errands, and then I sit down and get it down on paper in a rush. It’s not very elegant, but it seems to work. I do, however, greatly admire people who have a daily practice in anything. One of my favorite books about writing is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Tharp teaches that creativity comes from habit, and she outlines a way to structure your life to allow for it. In a house with two teenage girls, structure and predictability is a distant dream, but I know that one day, my life will be more quiet. It will be interesting to see what happens to my creative habit when that time comes.
Alyson: I love that you recommended Tharp's book. It's is one that I recommend frequently and my readers need to know that it's not just for writers, but for all creatives. In fact, Tharp is, of course, a renowned choreographer.
I underlined a number of passages in my copy of the book. One of them is this thought from Claire: “The whole reason we pay attention to art or artists is that it gives us a way to get into someone else’s head.” Do you think this is true? And what do we do with that information that we have access to? How does it help the non-artists to know the answers?
Jennie: I do actually believe that, and I believe that it’s one of the things that makes us human. Art is one of the primary ways that we understand who we are and who we aren’t and who we might become.
Alyson: Who is the only true genius in the family? Or does it matter?
Jennie: The true genius is the person who found a way to speak in her own voice and the courage to speak out loud. So it’s the opera singer, the famous photographer, the painting prodigy, the mother in the middle who finally raised her camera and took a picture that meant something to her. It’s all of them, and for at least one powerful, bittersweet moment, each of them believed that they were the only one.
Alyson: Oh, wow! Okay, very interesting. I do hope people read the book. Here's that link again: The Only True Genius in the Family.