Laurie Lico Albanese
In conversation with Laura Morowitz
Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood
Maplewood/South Orange Book Festival
Saturday, June 10, 1 p.m.
By GWEN OREL
Laurie Lico Albanese is inspired by intersections.
The Montclair author’s book “Stolen Beauty,” based on the story of Adele (prounounced A-dell-ee) Bloch-Bauer and her niece Maria Altmann. Gustav Klimt made a portrait of Adele that was stolen by the Nazis and later hung in a museum.
The court battle over the portrait, 40 years later, was the subject of the 2015 film “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren as Altmann. By the time it came out, Albanese was hard at work on her novel — which takes a very different approach from the movie.
Albanese’s book focuses not on the court case, but on Adele herself. Albanese had visited Austria, but though her friend and researcher Laura Morowitz had suggested Klimt as a possible subject, Albanese wasn’t feeling it.
Then she came across an article by a psychiatrist in an issue of Art & Antiques.
“He posited proof that Adele and Klimt had had a love affair. Now you have a story. You can have a cool painting, an artist, a time period — until you have conflict, with two people wanting the same thing, you don’t have a story.
“I realized I had a couple of triangles going on: Adele, her husband, and the painter, a secret love affair with a wealthy, married young woman. One hundred years later, you have Maria Altmann, her niece, and the country of Austria, both wanting the painting. It was something I could build a novel on.”
While writing the novel, Albanese realized there was a parallel in her own life: her Hungarian-born great grandmother had been born Jewish, and there was a portrait of her that vanished after her death.
Albanese will read from her book and discuss it at the Maplewood/South Orange Book Festival on Saturday, June 10. (Several other authors profiled in the Local will also appear, including Christina Baker Kline and Marina Budhos.) She appeared at the Montclair Literary Festival in April, and works as a teacher of writing. This summer, she will teach at Stonecrest at the University of Southern Maine, where she received her MFA. “Stolen Beauty” is her fourth novel.
Her writing is informed by her experience as a journalist, she said: She worked at The Montclair Times in 1999-2000. “That’s why I like to go and interview people.” Asked how she keeps from over-researching, she said with a laugh that she doesn’t: “What I do is accumulate books, and piles and piles. There’s a lot of looking at art. It’s like when you’re a kid and have to write a book report: you look it up in the encyclopedia, and smash it together. That’s what writing a book like this is like, but the second half is 100 percent your imagination.”
To keep her stories straight, Albanese literally taped timelines to her wall: The arc of Bloch-Bauer’s life. A World War II timeline. A Maria Altmann timeline.
World War II was taped across both, she said. “The way I put the book together, Maria has her honeymoon, Adele has her honeymoon. Maria has a rape scene — ‘strip for me’ — and it’s horrible. Klimt says [to Adele] ‘Take off your clothes,’ and it’s hot.”
Sena Jeter Naslund, author of the historical novel “Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette” and “Four Spirits,” among others, blurbed the book and praised the way Albanese’s “suspenseful story and the terrifying narrative of her niece, Maria, capture both fin de siècle Vienna and the rise of Nazism.” A review in USA Today, excerpted on the author’s website, also praised the weaving of the two stories, adding that the book is hard to read “without seeing ugly echoes in today’s headlines, with the clarion call of ‘America first’…” And the February issue of Cosmopolitan did a small review titled “Pictures Worth a Thousand Words” looking at fellow Montclair author Baker Kline’s book “A Piece of the World” and “Stolen Beauty” together.
In addition to timelines and books, Albanese said, she thinks it’s important to see and feel the settings for her work. “When I went to Vienna, a lot of what I was doing is getting atmosphere. I tell students, you can have a great idea, but until you can make [your characters] walk down the street, you can’t write a scene.” So, for her current novel, which is about Margaret Fuller, she knew that an affair had started between Fuller and a young man she met at the Vatican when he walked her home. How long was the walk? Albanese laughed: “Truth is, it was pretty far.”
Excerpt: ‘Stolen Beauty’
by Laurie Lico Albanese
I was a love-struck newlywed when Hitler came to Austria.
Outside, the Ringstrasse was streaming with cars, trams, and pedestrians in belted trench coats. Inside, we were waltzing and drinking French champagne. My dear friend Lily had just become engaged to a Catholic man, and the glittering ballroom was in full swing. Music was playing — it was Schubert — and men in bow ties were circulating with trays of crab cakes and miniature mushroom tortes. Someone toasted the happy couple. There was crystal, and dresses the colors of hyacinths and tulips. The dance floor was a blur of pastels.
It was a long time ago, but I can still see everything clearly.