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Author and art historian Bridgette Alexander on her latest novel ‘Southern Gothic’

Kam Williams
Author and art historian Bridgette Alexander on her latest novel ‘Southern Gothic’
Bridgette Alexander (Photo: Photo: Courtesy of Bridgette Alexander)

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 21, 1965, Bridgette R. Alexander is a writer and storyteller. Her books are: “Celine Caldwell Mysteries”; “Marked — The Worlds of Tyler Cain”; and “Princessed — Is Pink Really The Color For Me?” Alexander was an avid reader from a very young age. She loved her dolls, including Farah Fawcett-Majors, Cher, Charlie’s Angels, Donny & Marie, and Barbies. She was a prolific writer back then, too, and created many adventures.

Throughout her childhood, she watched television, including police and spy shows, entertainment and variety shows, and the occasional movie. When she wasn’t watching TV, she was reading, writing or carrying on conversation. She was a Buck Rogers fan, and in 1975, she wrote her first story about aliens that came to earth, creating spaceships that allowed her to travel to their homes.

Alexander is also a 19th-Century French Art Historian specializing in the racial and sexuality construction during the development of modern Parisian culture. She is also an independent curator and an art advisor.

Over 20 years her attention was devoted to the art worlds of New York City, Paris and Berlin. She used that experience to create a second career as the author of a young adult book series, the Celine Caldwell Mysteries.

Here, she talks about her latest novel, “Southern Gothic.”

What whetted your interest in writing, what whetted your interest in art history, and how did you come to combine the two?

Bridgette Alexander: When I started studying art history, I hoped to become an historian of ancient Egyptian art and an archaeologist. I’d spent most of my weekends as a teen at the Oriental Institute in the Education Department and in the archives reading and studying in an unofficial capacity with the Director of Education at that time. I would go to the Field Museum and study there as well.

Much, much later, long after college, I returned to the Field Museum and taught Egyptian Hieroglyphics to groups of children as an overnight workshop. I’d teach them the Ancient Alphabet and then instruct them on creating their own cartouche with their names. And then we’d spend the night near, or sometimes for the daring ones, in, an exhibit area of the tombs.

But, back to the point. It was much later when I changed my major to Modern Art. I was living in NYC and started studying at Columbia University. I learned I couldn’t actually major in ancient Egyptian art history in that department. I was taking a number of modern art courses, one particular course with Rosalind Krauss, and in her slide presentation of modern masterpieces she introduced the class to Edouard Manet’s Olympia, a painting of a reclining nude white woman and standing right next her a clothed black woman.

After that course, I took about six more classes in modern art ranging from feminism to theoretical constructs in modernity and, each time, Manet’s painting kept coming back to me. It happened so often, I knew it was telling me something … something more than the mere analysis the professors were so brilliantly laying out. For one thing, I couldn’t understand why so much had been written and discussed about Olympia, Edouard Manet’s seminal work, a painting so important it is what led him to be known as the father of modern art. Thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled about that painting and yet not one, real, honest mention of the black woman standing in it.

Years later, at the University of Chicago, I centered much of my graduate study around not only Manet and that painting, but around the life and world of the standing black woman, whose name was Laure, and around the thousands of African, Jewish and Arab female artists’ models in Paris during the Second Empire, which made up 60 percent of female artists’ models in Paris. I still want to write that story.

How did you develop the confidence to pursue your dream of a writing career?

BA: I have written and told stories since I received my first diary as a young child. Writing was a refuge for me, and a way to put my thoughts in front of myself. Writing never challenged my confidence, but was something I always needed to do, just as I live to tell stories. Before I was 23 and working at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a trader assistant, I already had the vivid sense that my life and work were my own. When my grandparents died and left me alone as a young adult, I was confident in my own decisions. I don’t mean to say that the path was clear to me. It wasn’t until much later, when I was a scholar of 19th Century French Art History living in Paris that I finally awoke to the art of writing as something I could pursue professionally. And it wasn’t until a few years after that that I realized that my writing had always been storytelling.

How did you come to settle on young adult readers as your target demographic?

BA: I don’t think I’ve ever left my own young adult stage of life. It is such an incredibly beautiful, complicated and amazing time for most of us. We’re no longer a child that really needs momma and daddy, but also not quite a full-on grown person. It’s probably, and certainly it was that way for me, a sort of delicious purgatory.

How would you describe your new novel, “Southern Gothic,” in 25 words or less?

BA: Lady Macbeth meets the Gossip Girls for a day of art, crime and culture.

What was the source of inspiration for the book?

BA: “Southern Gothic” has many sources of inspiration. The book and the series represent a revisiting of my experiences in the art world. The historical material in “Southern Gothic” has a distant source in my husband’s old Scottish Presbyterian family in North Carolina. Religious groups and cultural sects in North Carolina during the 19th Century, like the Quakers, provided inspiraton, too. And raising my daughter helped me re-think daughters and mothers. The protagonist Celine and her mother Julia are one result of that.

How did you go about writing it? Did you create an outline to follow, or did it come to you as you went along?

BA: I don’t create an outline per se, however, I do have to create what I call “beats.” Writing to beats was not my creation, but a method I picked up from another writer, and I love it. I go through each action in the story and just write out the entire plot, subplot, character arc, everything … It all just gets laid out so splendidly. Even before I do that, the story starts to unfold in my mind as I create scenarios for Celine Caldwell to inhabit. Of course, the story sometimes changes when characters or plots refuse to go along with my plan. Eventually, I give up and let them live their own lives.

Your heroine, Celine Caldwell, is biracial and the plot involves a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. Did you consciously decide to have a non-white protagonist and to explore sensitive subject-matter?

BA: Yes, I did. I wanted her to be absolutely different from me. I thought about her as I rocked my own bi-racial daughter to sleep for afternoon naps. I thought about what her life could look like — a life of privilege, a life traveling the world at such a young age; a life navigating through social circles that I didn’t and couldn’t enter and, to a certain extent, didn’t want to engage with … I created a girl that could go in and out of that world of privilege and own it and see a lot of its ugliness.

On the other hand, Celine’s contact with the KKK is through reading old diary entries from a girl her own age who lived in the 19th-Century American South. I wanted Celine to see her life juxtaposed with that of someone living in dramatically different social conditions. I myself wanted to somehow experience a life that extreme right along with Celine. And throughout the book series, I attempt to continue that process.

In the second book, “Sons Of Liberty,” scheduled for release in the spring 2017, we’ll find Celine tackling a right-wing political organization as its tentacles reach into her private school while locking itself in a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creating total disruption in the name of “returning our country to its greatness.”

In book three, “Pasha,” a former arms dealer-turned-art patron is being honored by the establishment of the art world but, unfortunately, Celine Caldwell intercepts a Fatwa that has been issued against the newly-reformed art benefactor. Each of the twelve books in the series examines social and political issues, without being preachy or didactic. And the art, oh my God, I am so excited and thrilled about the art that’s featured in the series.

The art takes the reader through centuries of visual culture from American portraiture, French Heroism and French Orientalism to Modern and Contemporary Islamic Art. The series is a beautiful journey through art history that is both sexy and informative. I think that’s why my retail partners, Henri Bendel and Clarins, are excited — developing and reaching new readers in the way Celine Caldwell does is very appealing to them!

So, through this year, Henri Bendel and Clarins has partnered with Celine Caldwell Mystery Series to present fun and exciting book launch events at their stores across the nation. We’ve held a couple at the Chicago flagship for a packed house. People are falling in love with Celine Caldwell! If I may add, for more information on events and locations, please visit http://celinecaldwell.com.

There, you’ll also find our secret razzmatazz button for giveaways. We also have original music created for each book in the series. The music was created by Francisco Dean, a music teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. You can hear the music by watching the “Southern Gothic” book trailer at celinecaldwell.com. We’re also looking to option the series for television.