Earlier this year, I was in somewhat of a reading slump, but then Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers cured it. Now I’m in somewhat of a reading slump, because nothing else I pick up can quite top it. (To be clear, this is a good problem for a book-lover to have.)

Vincent and Theo is the award-winning author’s extensively researched, loving tribute to the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh, one of the world’s most famous painters, and his brother, Theo, who supported Vincent all throughout his career – both financially and emotionally. It’s a remarkable story – and remarkably moving. If I were to recommend you read one book this year, no matter your age, it’s this one (officially marketed at the late middle-grade/YA crowd).

I interrupted Deborah’s writing and painting (more on the latter below) to ask her about the book and the challenges—and joys—it posed.

Jules: Hi, Deborah! Thanks for talking with me about Vincent and Theo, which I very much enjoyed and which broke my heart. It's quite the achievement.

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Deborah: Very happy to talk with you. I'm thrilled you enjoyed the book, and I'm so glad sorry ​I broke your heart. ​

Jules: I know you address this at the book's close, but for those who haven't read it yet, can you talk about first deciding that you wanted to do this research and tell the brothers' stories? 

Deborah:When I first came up with this, I had no idea what a tear-jerker the story was. I'd always loved Vincent van Gogh's art. He was part of my childhood. I read the Irving Stone novel based on his life, Lust for Life. The Don McClean song, "Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” came out when I was thirteen. And (this is a connection I just made) in my favorite album of all time—an album I listened to every single day of high school, Joni Mitchell's live concert recording, Miles of Aisles—she makes a reference to Vincent and the life of an artist (as opposed to that of a singer who is performing and people are shouting out songs for her to play): "Nobody ever said to van Gogh, 'paint a Starry Night again, man.' I mean, he painted it and that was it."   

I thought I knew everything about Vincent, but then I was in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in the summer of 2011, and I saw a mention of Theo. Next to a painting, it said something about how Theo supported Vincent. I was bowled over. I probably gasped. I had forgotten he had a brother, and I had no idea that Theo had supported him. I knew right away that I wanted to write a book about the brothers someday. I took some notes and wondered if I'd ever get to it. But by the end of the summer I realized the project I was working on wasn't going to come to fruition, and I decided, along with my editor, Laura Godwin, that the brothers would be my next subject. Little did I know how much work it would be.

Jules: I actually read your Author’s Note before I read the book, and I like how you talk about how the secondary sources threw you at first, because everyone has such strong opinions about van Gogh. But then your editor advised you to make it “your tour of Vincent.” Did that free you up in a way?

Deborah: Yes, I have a particular way of researching my historical people. I start with primary sources. I read letters, diary entries, autobiographies, etc. and hold off reading any secondary sources as long as possible. For Vincent and Theo I read the letters that Vincent wrote to Theo, Theo wrote to Vincent, and then the letters that Theo and Jo [Theo’s wife] wrote to each other. I read the condolence notes sent to Theo after Vincent died. I only consulted secondary sources to answer questions I couldn't answer, and then I tracked down their sources (going back to primary sources again). I do it this way, because I want to meet people on their own terms and not be influenced by what anyone else thinks about them.

That said, it was overwhelming! There was so much material and so much to say, and I had trouble writing the book. I sent my editor 90 pages of mess and then met with her in her office. I think of that meeting as my writing therapy session. She knew I was cowed by the topic, scared to write what I thought. She just looked right at me and said, "We want Deborah's view of Vincent. You've done all this research. Now tell us what you think." I must have looked unconvinced, so she went on. She said, "When I show visitors around New York City, I don't take them to the top of the Empire State Building. Is that wrong?" I shook my head, no. She said she gives her friends a tour of the city that is her tour, the city she knows and loves. That's what we want from you, she said. In that session—I mean, meeting—she gave me permission to write the view of Vincent, and of Vincent and Theo, that I wanted to write. 

Jules: I think that is such valuable advice for a biography.

Did you know right off the bat that you wanted to construct the story as you did – in sections you call “galleries”?

Deborah: No, I didn't. After a year or so working on the project, I knew I wanted the book to have the feeling of art. I didn't know what I meant by that, so I kept thinking about it. Then about two years in, listening to an illustrator at a writing retreat talk about how he does his art, I realized I wanted the writing to essentially be paintings. Then, as I wrote and thought about structure, the idea of the galleries came to me. I wanted the book to feel like walking through a museum show. 

5.25 Vincent and theoJules: On that note, you also wrote in different styles throughout the book, trying to match the mood and tone of what was going in the brothers’ lives at that time. I almost didn’t notice this at first, but it’s not because you didn’t succeed in switching up the tone – but because it all flowed together so well. I love that you did this. It’s very ambitious. Did it feel like that to you?

Deborah: It didn't feel too ambitious. In fact, it freed me up in a lot of ways. For example, writing about Theo as a boy, using croquis (sketches), helped me to work around the fact that we know so little about him as a child, while at the same time explaining how an artist uses sketches. There were other moments, pieces that came to me as an impressionistic portrait or scene – like the one of Theo riding the train from Paris to Auvers toward the end of the book. Probably the biggest challenge was not overdoing it. As I revised, I pulled back a little – and changed some sections into more traditional narratives. 

Jules: I love the line “There is an entire Dickens novel in what Pa [Vincent and Theo’s father] does not know about Vincent’s life.”

Deborah: Thanks for loving that line. I cracked myself up with it – and it was nice to be able to laugh while working on this book.

Jules: I was really moved by Vincent’s relationship with his parents. I finished the book angry at his mother for not really understanding him and for shutting him out. There was that time he stayed in Arles, because his mother essentially didn’t welcome him home again, despite Wil [his sister] and Theo thinking it would be best.

Deborah: The family dynamics were endlessly fascinating to me. There were days when I had real empathy for Vincent's mother. Can you imagine how hard it was to raise him? And then to watch him floundering so, at that time period, in that society? I was able to forgive her a lot, but no, not that bit when she didn't take him in. That was so sad. I found myself angry at Anna, their sister. She seemed to have closed her heart to Vincent from the time they were in London together. The opposite of Theo! And the other two sisters were frustrated by him but don't seem to have closed their hearts – especially not Wil.

Jules: At least his father tried, and I think he understood that Vincent had a special talent.

Deborah: Oh Pa. What if he had lived longer and been able to see how Vincent's work progressed? I think he would have been so proud.

Jules: And then, of course, Theo. Like you when you were first inspired to write this book, I wasn’t aware the immense level of support he provided in every way. When I read that at one point in his life Vincent used less expensive paints and started painting thicker to make up for it, all in order to save Theo money (since Theo sent funds for his art supplies), my heart went kreeeeeack. It’s just incredible how every aspect of their relationship affected Vincent’s work in ways unknown to most people.

Deborah: Don't you find it kind of miraculous that Vincent and Theo were able to work on their relationship and keep it strong, in spite of their parents comparing them so much and Theo being the go-between for most of their adult lives? They really were such a unit, which is why I believe that Vincent was terrified to live without Theo and that's why when he saw how sick Theo was he … {spoiler} ….

Jules: Yes. Vincent may have known that “one is never truly alone if one has art,” as you wrote, but he needed Theo too.

I could talk about this book all day, but I guess I should wrap this up. One last question: You say in the Author’s Note that you are not an artist but “played with paints and got to know color” just for this book – to “get an inkling of what it feels like to be a painter.” Are you still painting?

Deborah: I don't paint with watercolors that often lately, but I just got a beautiful set of watercolors and I can't wait to use them. I do paint, but in a different way, almost every day. We have a Buddha Board set up in the living room, and so I use it when I need to think, or feel like creating, or just because. The difference is this: You paint with water. You paint something and then, as it dries, the image changes and ultimately disappears. It is, they say, the art of letting go.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.