Discovering Vermeer: a writer–editor’s challenges


5:45pm, Wednesday 30 October 2019
Ferguson Room, upstairs at the National Library of Australia, Parkes Place
Light refreshments before and after; all welcome

Helen Topor will talk about the challenges of writing her first book, a 360-page, colour-illustrated, non-fiction work on the life and paintings of Johannes Vermeer.

One of the greatest challenges was being able to view all the works in person so she could write about them from experience informed by research. Other challenges included structuring the writing, finding the appropriate tone and title, and integrating the personal, travel and research elements into a coherent whole. To do this she had to muster a range of writing, editing and indexing skills to shape the book into an informative and attractive read.

The story

When Helen visits New York, the last thing she expects is to fall in love – with a dead man. Recovering from a painful divorce, Helen is wary about getting involved again, yet she agrees to travel with Peter, a man she’s met online. Peter is very much alive.

The object of her passion is the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame. Her interest is aroused when she experiences some of his works in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her desire for further encounters takes Helen and Peter to the Frick Collection, also in Fifth Avenue.

At the Frick, the painter of enigmatic women and luminous light touches her bruised soul so profoundly that she hides her confusion in the furthest corner of the Museum Shop. How can she explain a transcendent experience she herself doesn’t quite understand – and without Peter thinking she’s crazy?

Sensing Helen’s craving to know more about Vermeer’s life and his works, Peter suggests they travel together in search of the artist’s paintings: 35 in all. But more than one challenge lies at the heart of his wild idea. Although she longs for adventure and renewal, Helen’s desire for an authentic and joyous life collides with her fear of commitment.

The passionate quest tests both travellers as tensions and obstacles beset them. Their journeys of discovery reveal Peter’s deepest need; and Helen begins to make sense of the ‘New York madness’. Both become open to the healing role that art and love can play in life.

Helen Topor has been a member of the CSE since 1998 and served on the Committee as Publicity and Hospitality Officer, Public Officer and Committee Member. She is a member of the ACT Writers Centre, the Australian Society of Authors, and the Independent Scholars Association of Australia. The National Gallery of Australia Book Shop holds copies of her book as does the NGA Research Library.

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