Cherise Wolas on Her Many Career Paths
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. When I was growing up, my best friend was obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh. He even dressed as the painter one Halloween, with a bandage wrapped around his ear. He had books about Van Gogh. We would spend summer days looking at picture after picture. He’d draw sunflowers—and even self-portraits in the style of Van Gogh. Imagine a ten-year-old with a beard. My friend even insisted I sit through multiple viewings of Lust for Life, the 1956 film which starred Kirk Douglas as the painter himself. That was based on an Irving Stone novel of the same name. So we had to read that as well. All of which is to say that I thought I knew quite a bit about Van Gogh. But until I visited a special museum exhibit focused on Van Gogh’s years in London, I had no idea that the great impressionist painter and I shared something huge in common. It turns out that he, too, was a passionate reader—and, like me, was particularly in love with the works of Charles Dickens. At this exhibit I learned to look at his paintings in a whole different light and to see images from Dickens in places I had never thought to look. And recently I got to talking about the way a visit to a museum can change the way you look, read, and write with today’s guest.
WS: Cherise Wolas’ first novel was published in 2017 and her second a year later. She’s currently working on her third novel, but that’s hardly surprising. Cherise started early.
CW: I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I am the eldest of three sisters. From my earliest recollection, I was a reader. My very first stories were in crayon. I started writing stories in crayon with whatever words I was making up. And then eventually I got smart and then it was pencils, and then pens. Writing has always been something I’ve done. There has been very few days in my life from the time I was little in which I did not write something.
WS: Cherise liked to write tales of escape or revenge, but she also wrote about more morose characters.
CW: Well I remember Harvey. I was maybe 13 when I was writing this. Harvey is this old man, like in his seventies, and he wakes up one day and he’s in his bathroom and his face looks completely different. I think he looked younger and it goes through how he’s all alone. There was a lot of darkness, which I think is not unusual for kids. You don’t usually write the happiest happy stories.
WS: But it wasn’t just books that fueled Cherise’s more morbid imaginings.
CW: We grew up going to see museums, exhibits, whether it was in Los Angeles or New York or wherever we were. My first memory was we were standing in line on a hot summer day in a line of like thousands to see the Tutankhamen exhibit and being overwhelmed by how many people were standing at a museum to see something that had been buried for thousands and thousands of years. That so many people from all walks of life had gathered on the steps of this museum that I had never seen busy before to see these things that had been uncovered. And it gave me the sense of how the past is really always part of us, and if you’re lucky enough you get to see it.
WS: The exhibition was a turning point for Cherise.
CW: I think that was probably the first time I started thinking about death. You know, how would you want to die? Would you want to be buried in that? Would you want to be mummified? Would you want to be sent off into whatever other worlds there might exist with your gold and your, you know, all your sort of things. And then I moved away from death for awhile.
WS: But Cherise wouldn’t abandon these bigger questions completely. It would take many years, two careers—and one book in particular—before she returned to them through her first love: writing.
Cherise enrolled at U.C. Berkeley for college, eventually declaring a triple major in English lit, economics and film. But she didn’t know what her true calling was.
CW: Nobody said, “This is what you should do. This is obviously who you are.” And I then made strange choices, which sort of leads you . . . maybe it was always the path I was supposed to be on. Maybe it wasn’t. But I was in my second year of college at Berkeley and I was still writing all the time and I needed a place to live. I rushed for a house in the spring because it was less complicated. It was not my thing at all. But I needed a place to live. And in order to avoid the Monday night mandatory meetings, I took a photography class that met at that hour.
WS: One choice led to another.
CW: And somehow that spring I was writing all these short stories. I was taking a lot of photographs and I don’t know what I did or why my brain worked this way, but I suddenly put these things together and I don’t know if I wanted out of California. I don’t even know how I heard about it. But I suddenly put my stories and photographs together and I applied to NYU film school for the summer.
WS: It would prove to be a pivotal summer for Cherise. She immersed herself in a new and distinctly un-Californian way of life. When the summer program wrapped, Cherise convinced her parents to let her return to New York to attend NYU’s film school.
CW: But even all through, all through elementary school, junior school, junior high, high school, through Berkeley—and now through film school—I was writing short stories. Never, never thinking, “Oh, you know what, this is really what I should go do.” Get an MFA or an MA or whatever.
WS: This would become a theme for Cherise.
CW: I just kept writing and I graduated film school and I went to work in the film business. And it was so completely not me. But I was a story editor and I was looking for material and all that sort of stuff. And then I went to law school, and all through law school I wrote stories. I worked in Los Angeles and then I took the New York bar and I came back here and I worked at a big firm in New York and then a slightly smaller firm. But all the while, I’m writing short stories. And then I had written a first novel as a lawyer and I left the practice of law specifically to revise that novel. This is just after Halloween and I take myself—it’s a freezing cold day—and I’ve taken myself to a hot yoga class and then I’m going to go see two afternoon movies because I never had time to do this as a lawyer. And I met somebody in one of the movies and before I knew it I had four male partners and we’d started a film company and produced movies and acquired movies and I was developing scripts, I was acquiring short stories and novels, I was working with screenwriters. That was the first time in my life that I wasn’t writing. And then I thought, “What am I doing?” I left law to revise my own novel. “Why am I doing this?” And I stepped away from that. And that day I went back to writing short stories.
WS: Finally, she found her way back to writing. And things began to fall into place.
CW: That’s how I met my husband, actually. I started writing short stories. There was a story of mine that had been published. I received an email just saying, “Love the short story, just wanted to say how much it affected me.” And I guess in about a week or two, we’ll be married six years. And we wrote 3,000 miles apart when this happened. And after that I didn’t look back. I revised that first novel. And so it was about five years in between the writing of that first, well for me, it’s like 10 million versions.
WS: Cherise spent four years writing The Resurrection of Joan Ashby and three years on The Family Tabor. As she started researching her third novel, Cherise came across one book that would have a huge influence on how she wrote.
WS: So I want to ask you how you first came across John Berger’s Portraits.
CW: About five years ago, I knew I was going to be writing the book.
WS: The book Cherise is referring to will be her third novel.
CW: I knew that it was going to be a character who was in Joan Ashby. The character I’m writing about is actually a character that Joan Ashby was writing about. And I thought confidently that all of my time in museums and galleries and reading, you know, Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New and seeing all this art and doing all that stuff . . . I thought that I understood what I was seeing. I thought I understood what I was seeing better than I realized that I did.
WS: Cherise remains a frequent museum visitor to this day.
CW: When you’re writing about an artist, it’s a very different thing than standing in front of a sculpture or a painting and you know, listening to what they’re telling you, or looking at and seeing brush strokes but not understanding anything around the social, the historical, the biographical. And I realized I did not have the language that I needed to do what I always love to do, which is learn, research. So I read a whole lot of books by major art critics. And in all the books that I was reading and all the articles I was reading, including every article about feminism and the lack of females in art and all this sort of stuff, I kept coming across the name John Berger and I’d read several of his essays. That’s how when
WS: Portraits is a book by John Berger, an art writer and critic. In a series of essays, he reveals the cultural, political and economic climate that surrounded many great works of art.
CW: At first it felt very overwhelming because it’s 502 pages. I’ve checked many times. But then I took it sort of essay by essay and I don’t know, it just, it makes you feel connected to something bigger. I assume that there are people who are amazed by writers, right? How can you put these words together the way you do? But for me, it’s also looking at how does a painter paint this incredible image that is either so lifelike, or not lifelike. It gets my mind churning, thinking in different ways, thinking about different things. Some of it makes it into the book, into whatever I’m working. Most of it doesn’t. But I think it definitely informs me as a human being. It makes me a better human being.
WS: Cherise loved learning about the stories behind the paintings. It was the same sense of awe she’d felt as a little girl visiting the Tutenkhamen exhibit.
CW: One of the reasons I’m so drawn to Portraits is because in his essays, John Berger makes real these names we may have heard of or never have heard of; paintings that we know because they’re famously named paintings—or we haven’t. And he makes them real. He makes the painters themselves real: who they love, where they live, what kind of house they lived in. And that’s what I always try to do. I never even call my characters characters because they’re so real to me that they’re really human beings, they’re their own people. The way for instance, that John Berger describes Van Gogh is not getting into whether he was schizophrenic or if he suffered from epilepsy. But the way there was absolutely no exterior, no hardened exterior to Van Gogh. And so everything that he was painting, he literally was feeling. So he felt the flowers. And so we’re seeing the way somebody sees these things from inside. And it all fits back into my own writing: the lightness, the darkness, trying to understand what a painter is putting on the canvas, the interiority that they’re trying to find, which is what I’m most interested in in terms of my own characters. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? How do you find that place of light within them?
WS: The way that painters brought life to canvas fascinates Cherise and it carries lessons she applies to life as well.
CW: When we think about light in art, in paintings, even paintings that have the light, it’s not our light, right? Where you can see through things. The light is paint and no matter how translucent, there is still an opacity to it. How are you able to bring things from up from the dark into the light when you’re using a material that’s actually solid? How do you make them very real? No matter how much we know or learn, there’s so much more and we never completely should believe that we even understand our own stories.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Cherise Wolas. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.