After stumbling across an old photograph taken in 1932, bestselling author and former PEN president Francine Prose knew she had found something. “The photo is of two women in a bar, and one is wearing an evening gown and one is cross-dressing in a tuxedo,” Prose said.
Prose began to research and write about the two subjects in the photograph. This soon turned into her latest novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.”
“This book started with a photograph and what I found out about the people in the photograph,” said Prose. “It takes place in Paris between 1924 and 1944, so I wanted to write about that time. Originally it was going to be a work of nonfiction and then a small novel, but it kept getting bigger and bigger.”
“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” will be released on April 22 of this year under publisher HarperCollins. On Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. in Sanders Auditorium, Prose will read from and discuss her forthcoming novel with Vassar students and faculty. Aside from the event, Prose will join the Vassar community as writer-in-residence for the spring semester. Beforehand, Prose served as a Visiting Professor of English at Bard College. At Vassar, she will attend classes, meet Vassar students and faculty, and read aspiring writers’ manuscripts.
“In the days that follow, she will be reading the work of the students in Senior Composition. I’m teaching that course this year and am very excited about Prose giving feedback to my students,” stated English Professor Amitava Kumar.
Like many of the writers she will work with at Vassar, Prose always knew she wanted to be an author. “I always wrote,” Prose said. “I wrote when I was in grade school, I wrote when I was in high school, I wrote when I was in college. And after I got out of college, I sent it to a former professor of mine and he sent it to his editor and the book got published!”
From college onward, Prose began an industrious career. She has since written nineteen novels and two picture books and has received numerous awards and grants—including the esteemed PEN Translation Prize in 1988 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991.
In 2009, Prose released a work of non-fiction titled “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.” Beyond Anne Frank’s story, Prose wrote about the process of the diary’s publication, as well as the history of the diary in schools.
“I reread “The Diary of Anne Frank” and it seemed to me that it has never really been talked about as a book of literature. As soon as I started writing about it I kept finding out more and more, and the book got bigger and bigger,” Prose said.
Prose’s work has earned her a wide array of recognition. She tackled the topics of obsessive love and sexual harassment on college campuses in her novel “Blue Angel,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000. Her novel “The Glorious Ones” was adapted into a musical of the same name, which was performed in New York City’s Lincoln Center in the fall season of 2007. Additionally, one of her other novels, “Household Saints,” was adapted into a movie.
While the inspiration for each of her books varies, Prose rarely deviates from her writing process.
“I write from the beginning to the end. I rewrite constantly and endlessly, and it takes me a very long time,” Prose said. “I spend a lot of hours a day working. But again, each book is different, so each book requires a different style and a different process and a different set of standards and a different way of thinking of it, so it’s hard to generalize from one piece of work to the next.”
Though Prose often finds inspiration in day-to-day events, she finds herself writing on specific topics at the request of publishing houses or fellow writers.
“I did a book about gluttony because Oxford University Press was doing a series on the seven deadly sins and they asked me which sin I wanted to write about,” Prose said.
Another time, for example, Prose’s friend was busy editing a series entitled “Greek Lives” and asked Prose to write for the series. This resulted in one of Prose’s two picture books, “Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles.” Within this book, Prose responds to the Italian baroque painter Caravaggio’s works.
As writer-in-residence, Prose will incorporate her experiences as a bestselling author into teaching Vassar writers. “Prose is a wonderful novelist as well as one of the best-regarded critics in the country. I think my students will get to learn from her not only about how to be better writers but also how to be better readers,” added Kumar.
Kumar’s English 306 Composition class is currently reading “Blue Angel.”
“It is a funny and cutting novel and deals with the drama of a writing workshop. It is also a satire about the academy. We are also reading portions of Prose’s “Reading Like a Writer.” I believe other colleagues in the English department are also teaching her work,” Kumar said.
“During her stay at Vassar, Francine Prose will be visiting other classes…her stay here will advance our own conversations about particular books but also about the profession.”
Prose will speak in Sanders Classroom’s Spitzer Auditorium (Room 212) on Wednesday, Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. The event will be free and open to the public.