Narrative Medicine’s Nellie Hermann Explores the Life of Van Gogh in The Season of Migration

Nellie Hermann, creative director of the M.S. in Narrative Medicine program, just published her second novel. A work of historical fiction, The Season of Migration explores the life of Vincent van Gogh during a mysterious and transformative 10-month period before he began to pursue a career in art.

The year is 1878, and van Gogh is adrift. He journeys to a mining town in Belgium to fulfill his dream of becoming a preacher. Struggling to become a man of the cloth, and, soon afterward, estranged from his brother Theo, van Gogh's serendipitous detour in the Borinage teaches him about the power and limits of faith and how to discover the divine not only in the gospel but also in the everyday.

Kirkus called the novel "finely wrought fiction," and The Boston Globe said that Hermann possesses "a nose for eloquence exceeded only by her chutzpah." The Season of Migration is a departure from her debut novel The Cure for Grief. Published in 2008, the latter was highly autobiographical contemporary fiction, a coming-of-age story and a meditation on early loss.

In the following interview, Hermann discusses her inspiration for her new novel, how she saw herself in her main character, and how she brings her literary skills to bear as a creative writing instructor in the Narrative Medicine program. She will also give a talk on The Season of Migration as part of the free lecture series Narrative Medicine Rounds on February 4, 2015 at Columbia University Medical Center.

What inspired your novel The Season of Migration?

The initial inspiration was an assignment for a class that I took at Columbia. While I was getting my M.F.A. there, I took a class taught by Simon Schama called Writing Narrative History. We had to write a true short story for our final assignment. I wrote about Vincent van Gogh. I basically wrote the non-fiction version of what ended up being my novel.

Why did you choose to focus on this particular aspect of van Gogh's life?

So few people – including me – knew about this time in the artist’s life. I was surprised to learn that he had tried to become a preacher and that at one point he was estranged from his brother. He and his brother had been so close the rest of his life that this moment without him felt very potent and important. It was a mysterious pocket of time that, as a fiction writer, I was drawn to.

To what extent did you research van Gogh’s life and this period in history in order to inform your novel?

For the story overall, I used a few landmarks in history. We know that there was a big explosion during that time; there were people at the event who witnessed Vincent trying to help the injured. Beyond that, I had to guess as to where it was and what he was doing and what he was thinking. I used as much as I could from the historical record and from what I read in biographies of van Gogh. I also had to step back from that research in order to invent what might have happened.

Your first novel was much more autobiographical. With your second book, to what extent do you see yourself in your portrayal of van Gogh?

While I was writing The Season of Migration, I had to almost delude myself that I was really writing about van Gogh. That is, I had to forget that, in my book, he’s a fictional invention rather than the real-life figure. And, given that my first book was very autobiographical, I was reveling in the idea that I wasn't writing about myself at all.

But now that my second book is done and I'm reflecting on it, I definitely see a lot of myself in my portrayal of van Gogh – specifically in how Vincent sees the world and finds inspiration. I encountered some of these very questions while writing my first book. What are the limits of language? How do you express what you see? What is our duty as artists to represent the world? All these issues that Vincent confronts are questions that I often wonder about.

Is there a connection between this novel and Narrative Medicine?

Not explicitly. In retrospect, I can think of ways in which the novel addresses what is part and parcel of my own thinking about creativity.

For instance, one of the things I was interested in exploring in the book was Vincent’s attempt to fit into a formally religious way of life. Ultimately, he remained religious, but he gave up formal religion and instead channeled his faith into his art. That fascinated me, and I think it's tangentially related to what I think of when I think of Narrative Medicine and what creativity can do for us. It can connect us with the world and empower us to explore these higher questions.

Can you tell me a little bit about the role of fiction in the Narrative Medicine program? What kinds of literature do the students write?

I teach the creative writing class in the program. In my class, I ask that the students write in all the major literary genres: poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. I try to introduce them to all kinds of literature and hope that something resonates with them. I hope that exposure to different forms of writing will spark the creativity within the students.