Interview with MichelleShine
Part one – The background to the story
by Elizabeth Adalian MARH
It was in the ladies’ changing room at the gym that I first got chatting to Michelle, a dark haired woman in her middle years. I was struck by her integrity and sincerity. Later, someone pointed out to me that she was a homeopath. I was curious to meet a fellow homeopath in such an unlikely place and launched into deeper conversation with her when we next met. I learnt she was also a writer. Readers may be familiar with her textbook What About the Potency?. She told me that she has written a novel about Dr Paul Gachet. I remembered a famous painting by van Gogh called Portrait of Dr Gachet but knew nothing else about him.
It was obvious from the way she spoke that she was passionate about her subject and she infused me with such a keen interest I felt inspired to invite her to be interviewed for HIP. We discussed the book, and a little about her life, over glasses of purple-berried fruit juice in the gym café. It has been a privilege to interview Michelle, she is a gracious writer with a keen talent. Below is the first part of our conversation – the back- ground to the story. The second part – ‘The unfolding of the story’ – will feature in the next edition of the journal.
I understand you were a practicing homeopath for 20 years and then you gave it up to focus on your writing. Is that correct?
Kind of, but it was circumstances that forced the decision. In July 2009, my husband passed away suddenly and I didn’t have the emotional capacity to continue practicing, so I took on a locum. After a few months I had to make a definite decision. I was still paying for my rooms in a serviced office block as well as a remote receptionist. I couldn’t afford to continue doing that unless I went back to work. I wasn’t ready at the time, so I gave it all up.
I’d already completed the first year of a Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University, and deferred the final year, but went back to attending my critiquing group after only a few months of grieving, with the wonderful Nomads – fellow writers and students. When I returned, they had all begun working on their debut novels and cajoled me into starting mine.
I had an idea for a plot and made several attempts at writing a contemporary story about a modern-day homeopath, but the idea didn’t seem to want to fly off the page. Several years previously, I’d read The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy by Dana Ullman and became fascinated by Dr Paul Gachet; artist, friend and homeopath to many of the Impressionists, and the subject of one of the most expensive paintings in the world, Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent van Gogh. I found myself casually researching him for years and, one morning, woke up with the idea of transporting said plot to his world in mid-nineteenth century Paris.
I was recently reading an article about the writer, Alice Walker, in the Guardian. When questioned about her writing, she is quoted as saying ‘It’s often like following the thread of Ariadne, you never know which minotaur you’re going to find. But you often find one – or two or three!’ Can you relate to this in your case?
In Greek mythology a minotaur is a monster. My take on characters is that everyone is the hero in their own story and, as a writer, I believe it is vital to remain sensitive to that premise, whoever they happen to be.
That is very generous of you. Can you tell me about your research for this book?
Yes, as I mentioned previously, it all started with reading The Homeopathic Revolution by Dana Ullman, a book that lists all the famous people who have used homeopathy through the ages. I became interested in the fact that the Impressionists used homeopathy and started to seek out any information I could about their physician, Dr Gachet.
I began by scanning the Internet and what struck me immediately was how the French web pages venerated Dr Gachet, whilst anything written by an Englishman was of the opinion that he was a cheat and a fraudster, which is interesting when you consider the way homeopathy is treated here as opposed to the way it is embraced in France.
One evening I stumbled upon a programme on Sky Arts about Edouard Manet and, in particular, the painting Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. It’s such an extraordinary image of two clothed men sitting on the grass in the company of a naked woman who is looking, not at them, but challenging the onlooker with her stare. It is as enigmatic as the man who painted it. This set me on another journey, to find out as much as I could about Manet. I read several biographies but Rebel in a Frock Coat by Beth Archer Brombert was the one that influenced me most.
Consequently, Mesmerised (the title of my book) features Edouard Manet as one of the main characters, and attempts to unravel some of the mysteries that surround him. Dejeuner sur l’Herbe also features in the book.
Why do you think the English are so scathing about Dr Gachet in their write-ups on the net?
You have to remember that none of the Impressionists were revered in their lifetimes as they are now. Most of them found it difficult to make ends meet and few sold many paintings at all during their lifetime. Giving Dr Gachet a painting was the way that they paid for their homeopathic treatment and when he died many of these paintings came to light. His children wanted to sell them. The English question his right to ownership of these works and they denigrate the medicine he used to cure Alfred Pissarro, the brother of Camille Pissarro, when the allopaths failed to heal him. Dr Gachet and homeopathy saved his life.
Can you tell me some more about your research?
Whilst I was writing the book I went to Paris many times, walked the streets Gachet walked, went to visit the place where he lived, and where Manet lived, and where Victorine Meurent – the model Edouard used in the aforementioned painting – lived. I hung out in Montmartre, Pigalle, and the Boulevard des Italiens where many of the cafés were situated. I visited the hospital La Salpêtriêre where Gachet worked, as well as museums and galleries, especially the Musée D’Orsay which exhibits a wealth of Impressionist art. I also visited the Louvre, where the Impressionists would copy-sketch Michelangelo’s and other magnificent works of their forebears.
It’s strange because I’d actually written many scenes in locations that I hadn’t seen before and was convinced that I’d have to re-write some of them, maybe even all of them, to add authenticity to the sense of place. But, what was so amazing was that I didn’t have to re-write any of them. I discov- ered that everywhere I went was exactly as I imagined it to be, even down to a tree in the grounds of Salpêtriêre, which I’ve nicknamed ‘Gachet’s tree’. When you read the book, you’ll recognise it.
What is your impression of Dr Gachet as an artist?
He is not considered by connoisseurs to be as great as his peers: Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Henri Fantin-Latour, I could go on. However, he did have work exhibited at the Salon at one time and one of his paintings hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. His house in Auvers, where he entertained Cézanne and treated van Gogh before he shot himself, is open to the public, and many of his paintings hang there too.
On another note, would you like the book to be translated into French, or even a film to be made of the book, or are those ideas too ambitious?
I would love that, yes.
Tell me about your writing discipline?
When I wrote this particular book, my writing was my lifeline. It’s how I survived my grief. I had pictures of all the artists, photos of many of the places and an old map of Paris in a collage on a wall in my study. I had a whole stream of notes pinned to my desk. Apart from going to the gym to swim every day, I lived, slept, ate, and breathed this book. I became Dr Gachet. His life as I’ve depicted it – which was not without misadventure – was much more seductive than my own. Consequently, I wrote the first draft in six months.
I would like to ask how you decided on such a compelling title for the book?
The book’s working title was The Medical Detective, chosen because the homeopath’s role is to investigate each case in search of a curative remedy, like a detective but hunting for a cure. The title was misleading because it suggested a crime detective novel, which is a completely different genre. Mesmerised came about because Dr Charcot practiced hypnotism at La Salpêtriêre and this had an effect on Gachet. He mentions the word ‘mesmerised’ several times throughout the book.
I take it you have been ‘mesmerised’ by the topic since writing this book?
Yes, and it would be wonderful to think that others might be ‘mesmerised’ by it too!
Tell me about your visit to the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I understand you went there recently?
As soon as I walked in I was struck by this enormous portraiture of many of the artists I had written about in the book. It felt like these men, whom I had spent so much time with in my imagination, were welcoming me in and that was a
very emotional experience for me. And the exhibition was wonderful. Immersing myself in Manet’s work brings me joy. I stayed there for hours and I would have gone back there every day if only I had the time.
You draw a comparison between homeopathy and Impressionist art in the book. Could you expand on this?
At the time, both were rebellious. They both challenged old and accepted ways that were contrived in favour of attempting to mirror the true nature of what they saw before them.
Brombert B (1996) Rebel in a Frock Coat. Little Brown and
Company Shine M (2005) What About the Potency? A Comprehensive Guide to Homeopathic Potency and Dosage. Food for Thought Publications Ullman D (2008) T
The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. North Atlantic Books www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/ mar/09/alice-walker-beauty-in- truth-interview
Mesmerised by Michelle Shine will be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in September 2013. Serpentina Books will have a small number of signed copies available to purchase on a first come first served basis. You can pre-order yours by sending an email via the website at www.serpentinabooks.com.