Interview: Priya Parmar, Author Of 'Vanessa And Her Sister' In Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar imagines what Vanessa Bell wrote in her journal when she and Woolf were helping to form the Bloomsbury Group, a gathering of London artists and intellectuals.
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Novel Gives Voice To Virginia Woolf's Overshadowed Sister

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Novel Gives Voice To Virginia Woolf's Overshadowed Sister

Novel Gives Voice To Virginia Woolf's Overshadowed Sister

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Next, a novel, "Vanessa And Her Sister" - that's what it's called. It's by Priya Parmar. And the novel begins in the winter of 1905 in the London neighborhood called Bloomsbury. A group of friends began meeting for drinks and conversation and talk which would last late into the night. And they continued to meet frequently, almost weekly, for many years - writers and painters, thinkers of all sorts, who came, eventually, to be called the Bloomsbury Group. Their clubhouse, at the beginning, was the home of the Stephen family - two brothers and two sisters. The women are better remembered than their brothers - Vanessa Bell, who was a painter, and the writer, of course, Virginia Woolf. Priya Parmar has written a novel about the group and, most especially, about the Stephen women. It's called "Vanessa And Her Sister." Priya Parmar joins us from London. Welcome to our program.

PRIYA PARMAR: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Your book begins with a drinks party which is the same way one of Virginia Woolf's novels begins. You are writing historical fiction. Was this a real party? Was it a prelude to the meetings of the Bloomsbury Group? Or is this fiction sort of borrowed from Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway?"

PARMAR: I did start it with a party because of "Mrs. Dalloway," but they did meet on the day that the book opens. They met on Thursdays. And this was their second get-together on that date.

WERTHEIMER: Now this is an epistolary novel of sorts. It's written in the form of Vanessa Bell's journal and salted with letters and postcards, many of which are not either to or from Vanessa Bell. Now we know that Virginia Woolf and her family and friends left behind volumes of letters, stacks of journals. Did you use those?

PARMAR: I did use all of that information. Vanessa Bell did not keep a diary, so this is entirely fictional. But I did use all of the primary material I could find to get an idea of their lives and their writing styles and just who they were. It was invaluable. They left behind huge amounts of correspondence. They wrote letters the way we write e-mail.

WERTHEIMER: I think it's fascinating that, given all of that stuff, all of those letters and whatnot, that you fictionalized a journal. I mean, you wrote in the voice of the one person in that crowd who didn't keep a journal.

PARMAR: Yes. So I had to work with all of the sort of the negative spaces that they left. And Vanessa is this really interesting sort of shadowy center of the group. She didn't leave behind a journal. So we just have the things that she wrote to be seen by other people. So I wanted to do something - I wanted to write something that would give you her sort of inner landscape. You know, Virginia's diaries are so famous, and her letters are so famous whereas only a very, very few of Vanessa Bell's letters are published. So her voice is largely unheard, and I was really interested in that.

WERTHEIMER: Did you have any concerns about writing historical fiction about relatively recent events about people who wrote so much about their own lives - that all kinds of people know all kinds of things about them and may not necessarily appreciate fiction about them?

PARMAR: I was absolutely terrified to do this. And I, you know, I went to Mount Holyoke to write about Virginia Woolf. It was a terrifying thing. Yes, their descendants are very much alive and they, themselves, write about Bloomsbury. So yes, it was a daunting thing. I did try early on to contact the family and tell them I was doing this. And through a very - series of events the letters never reached them. And it turns out that they heard that I was doing this, and they were trying to reach me. And they were writing an e-mail address I don't look at anymore. But it actually all worked out, and they have been wonderful. And Virginia Nicholson, who's a wonderful, wonderful writer, she introduced me to her mother. And, oh, it was just a magical day.

WERTHEIMER: Was there any part of it that they just said, wait a minute, you can't do that?

PARMAR: She was actually wonderful. Virginia Nicholson gave me notes. Her biggest note was that her grandmother would've used the word napkin instead of the word serviette. And so I was, like, OK. I can live with that.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness, how funny.

PARMAR: And since then she's been - oh, she's just been remarkable.

WERTHEIMER: Priya Parmar's new book is called "Vanessa And Her Sister." Thank you very much for this.

PARMAR: Thank you so much for having me.

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