Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Empress of Tempera

I’m delighted to welcome musician and author Alex Dolan to Thoughts in Progress today to talk about his recent release, THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA, and his music.

THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA explores the thrilling and seductive world of art, as well as the effects it has on the beholder. Much like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, which inspired a bevy of extreme reaction, Alex's page-turning thriller explores the effects, mental and culturally, of art on societies and individuals. If you're a mystery fan, you won't want to miss this one! 

Good art can make a person cry; great art can make a person kill. 
          Paire Anjou came to New York to be an artist, but thus far has only achieved an artist boyfriend—the enfant terrible of the art world, Derek Rosewood. On her way to his show, where his controversial paintings will be on display, Paire sees an older man on the sidewalk, looking into the window of the Fern Gallery, gazing intently at a painting, and sobbing. As Paire approaches him, the man stabs himself in the chest.
          The painting that inspired the suicide is a one-off for the gallery — the last-known surviving work of a dissident Chinese artist named Qi. An empress, dressed in red, sits imperiously and stares out at the viewer. Paire is but one of the people who stare back, joined by hundreds, from around the world, flocking to the Fern Gallery to observe and obsess over the Empress. The empress inspires lust and panic, rage and greed. When Paire starts digging into the backstory of the painting, and its artist, she unravels a tale of profound betrayal and a vengeance that spans generations.
          She also sets in motion the painting's final heist, a swirling morass of bribery, theft, and murder, drawing Paire deeper and deeper into the underside of the art world, where the greatest works inspire the most vicious of crimes.

Please join me now in giving a warm welcome to Alex as he joins us to answer some questions. Welcome, Alex.

What drew you to write about the art world and a painting?

I’m the son of two painters, so I grew up around art. I’ve always wanted to write a compelling story that would make readers feel the way I feel about it. I adored Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and I hoped to bring the visual arts to life in fiction the way she brings music to life in that book.

How did you go about doing research for this book?

The book mashes up traditional fine arts, such as painting, with street artists. Since I was less familiar with street artists, I had to do more research on them. These artists fascinate me because they’re able to take advantage of larger spaces, whether it’s an open outdoor space or the side of a building, and their creations can play with different kinds of media (for example, one artist, Olek, works largely in crochet). Depending on the circumstances, guerilla artists may also have to break the law to install their work. I thought it would be interesting to contrast that world with the more traditional institutions of the fine arts.

Several street artists and subject experts helped give me a sense of what it takes to pull off a guerilla installation—everything from how one would go about planning it, to the materials required and the process involved. I even learned how to make wheat paste.

Share one fascinating thing you learned while writing this book.

I walked into the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco and found out about an artist named Rudolf Bauer. The Guggenheim Museum in New York (the one that Frank Lloyd Wright designed) was originally built to house the works of this artist—and yet, the average person has never heard of him. The reason is because the Guggenheim family had a dispute with Bauer, and they boxed up his work and hid it in the basement of the museum for decades. Essentially, they purged him from memory.

The story reminded me of the significant role class plays in America. The idea that someone with wealth and means could erase someone from history terrifies me, especially because we see examples how people abuse privilege every day.

While I didn’t want to write Bauer’s story, I wondered what would happen if a wealthy family obscured a prominent artist, and then what would happen if one painting from that artist suddenly resurfaced, and dredged up all the hatred and feuding from the past several decades.

You've recorded four music albums, tell us a little about those and do you incorporate your music into your stories?

Sure. I was a French Horn player for about 15 years before I moved into rock as a singer-songwriter. As a musician, I loved both the performance and recording processes, but I’m reminded of the recording process in particular when I write. So much thought goes into this thing you can hold in your hands, and it’s very satisfying for me to be able to point to a finished product at the end of the process and share it with people. Storytelling, like music, is something that is a communal experience, and I love being able to create something that helps me connect to people.

I don’t incorporate much music into my writing, but I think my musical background informed a few things. Writing lyrics taught me the economy of words, and made me think more about how the language I’m choosing for a book. I’ve always loved writers like Nabokov and Murakami who like to play with language, and tried to write in a way where readers can have fun with the words themselves in addition to the story and characters.

Are you currently working on a new project (book and/or music)?

I just finished a third book that revolves around the profession of moirology, or professional mourning. It’s something you can find in many places around the globe, but hasn’t really broken into the United States. The book presupposes that someone has started a cottage industry in the U.S., where the wealthy can pay mourners to make them seem more lovable in death. The main character is a young man who has become the most successful mourner in New York.

Alex, thanks for joining us today and answering these questions. The world of art is fascinating. But, now you have me curious about professional mourning.

For those who aren’t familiar with Alex here’s a bit of background on him.

Author Alex Dolan
Alex Dolan is the author of The Euthanist. He is the executive committee member of the San Francisco Bay Area's Litquake festival, and a member of the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors program and Sisters in Crime.

In addition, he has recorded four music albums and received his master's degree from Columbia University. 

For more on Alex, his writing, and his music, visit his website.

Thanks so much for dropping by today during Alex’s visit. Is there a special painting that speaks to you when you gaze upon it?


  1. Dark, and intriguing. Art speaks to so many of us, but some of what it has to say isn't pretty. Thank you both.

  2. Hi Mason and Alex - what a fascinating sound book and author! I'm sure each of your books will teach us something ... and that's what I like when I read ... being entertained, while being educated and being given thought provoking ideas. Fascinating about Rudolf Bauer's work being hidden ...

    Then your French Horn ... how talented but the great thing is you're making the most of those talents ... and have led me off to look at other interests...

    Cheers to you both - Hilary

  3. Sounds like a fascinating book. I think many artists were smudged from history in that manner.
    The author and I share more than a name. I started with trumpet before moving into rock as a guitarist.

  4. What a fascinating story! Those parts of history that we don't get to read about can be so very interesting. And weave in the art, and you have a really intriguing story! Thanks for sharing.

  5. we use word tempera for painting tube colours here in my language

  6. Congrats to Alex! Sounds like one of those books I'd definitely learn a few things from!

  7. Scary to think how someone could be wiped from existence even today.

  8. That is a very intriguing story line! I'd like to read this book.

    I'm a musician too, and I understand how through music, you can touch someone very deeply.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.