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Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Claudia Chidester about her career, why her mother’s life inspired her to write,, and the work that went into the book Trusted Eye.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am passionate about art, writing, education, non-profits and absolutely love research. I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, lived my high school years in Guadalajara, Mexico, and have been in Texas for the majority of my life after a decade in Massachusetts. Having a multicultural background, including New England vs. Texas, makes me aware of the potential for different perspectives on most experiences. I am also a product of two artists, one with a sense of humor and the other not so much, so my character straddles those traits.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I was at a holiday party at an artist’s home in 2011. Someone mentioned that 2013 would be a watershed year as the centennial for the 1913 New York Armory show. They exhibited the controversial ‘modern’ art from Europe.
I realized that 2013 would also be the 100th anniversary of my father. He was an artist, a painter, who lived most of the twentieth century in three different countries and had an exciting story. As my father transitioned from being a classically-trained artist to becoming a successful abstract modern artist, it seemed relevant. I’d always wanted to do something to put together a biography and art book of his work and have a show of his paintings.
All three came together in June of 2013 when we exhibited his work at Baylor University and launched the book at the opening near his actual birthday.
When did you take a step to start writing?
It came about when I was reading my mother’s letters and diaries and found the many accounts and arcs to be captivating. So I vented one day to some friends about my frustration in how to make this into a story, and they suggested I take a writing workshop. Only then did I really start to learn the craft of writing and build my confidence.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Trusted Eye?
Working on my mother’s story was reignited during a strangely serendipitous trip to Milwaukee, a city literally across the country from where I am. My sister and I traveled there to attend an art show of my great grandfather’s graphics at the Museum of Wisconsin art. We had an extra day for sightseeing and were told the Milwaukee Public Library was a spectacular example of 19th century gilded age architecture and worth seeing. They had a temporary exhibition titled “Wisconsin Women Artists.”
Our cousin yelled across the hall, “Is there another Virginia Hammersmith who painted in Wisconsin?” We had never seen this painting before, but I had seen preparation drawings of it in a portfolio and recognized it was hers. I knew I needed to write her story at that moment, primarily since the painting is now owned by the famous Milwaukee Art Museum. At least one curator thought it was exemplary.
After four years of work, Yale had flunked her final painting, and her parents felt it imprudent to pay for her to return to Yale, redo the class, and complete the fifth year. They thought she wasn’t a serious artist. Her story needed to be told.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Trusted Eye?
The biggest challenge and fun was the heavy research needed to explain various events and people she encountered. I wanted to make a book, not for the pure historian but accessible to any reader. Also, I tried hard to keep the story in the third person and as distant and objective a biography as possible so as not to appear autobiographical or a vanity publication.
I inserted mini-bios for the less well-known but captivating characters to keep it factual but compelling. I also inserted a few sections of vivid memories of my mother to attract anyone who might yearn for a personal perspective.
What was your research process for Trusted Eye?
When I semi-retired in 2006, I started reading her letters and diaries. The diaries were nearly illegible with squished handwriting and ink that bled through. Still, they were packed with exciting events and observations. I hired a transcriptionist to make them easier to understand. I emailed her the pdfs of the pages, and she returned a word document I could read, edit, fix, and index.
Unfortunately, our mother was a terrible speller. The sheer quantity of names and events was confusing, so I built a database that I could search on to keep everything straight. I indexed the people mentioned in her diaries, letters, photography, and guestbooks, not realizing it would help with the book one day. Researching was that much faster when it came time to write. I could quickly find a letter or a page in the diary.
For background on the people and events such as helping the Jewish Underground, I subscribed to four databases of newspapers. I used to teach at the University of Texas and still had access to the interlibrary loan services and the journal databases. I wouldn’t have been able to do as thorough a job without access to such resources.
How did you plan the structure of Trusted Eye?
While indexing her writings, I noted her most poignant quotes that made me laugh or reflected best her character. Those became the titles of the chapters that exemplified her key struggles, whether Yale art school, working as a translator, being a curator, or dealing with our father’s infidelity. The book is really her writings and photography, and I just stitched them together with paragraphs of backstories.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Trusted Eye need?
The editor, to me, is the most crucial piece, just before design. The production manager of the book, knowing what kind of editor I would need, introduced me to an editor she knew well. He freelanced with the University of Texas Press, was incredibly efficient, and knew history and art. He worked on both my books. I had no problem getting back my work completely redlined since I trusted him and would learn from him. He rarely messed with my content, just tightened everything beautifully.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Attend workshops to get into the habit of accepting feedback and be encouraged. They make you stretch your artistic instincts. Once you are inspired, set up a schedule to write consistently according to your own creative time clock. Then stay in your chair. Whether every day for a couple of hours or once a week for five hours.
Can you give me a hint about any other books you’re planning to write?
I am on my eighth re-work of my memoir, but I think I am getting closer.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Absolutely. I am very proud and feel incredibly blessed that I had such a fantastic team to get me through both books. They are all vital: my friends who read drafts, the editor, the design team, and the printer. And, of course, the readers.
Pop all your book, website, and social media links here so the readers can find you:
LinkedIn @Fontaine-Archive and @claudiachidester
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