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Interview: May 18, 2007

May 18, 2007

Heather Terrell --- a litigator who has worked at some of the country's top law firms and Fortune 500 companies --- has published her debut work of fiction, which combines her knowledge of the law and her passion for the fine arts. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Terrell recounts the hypothetical question she was asked that sparked the idea for THE CHRYSALIS and describes the research she conducted on 17th-century artists and Nazi practices during World War II in preparation for the book. She also reveals some of her favorite art museums, discusses her writing influences and shares details about her next novel featuring protagonist Mara Coyne. What was the catalyst for you to write this book? What part of the story did you have first?

Heather Terrell: During the early days of my tenure at a large New York City law firm, a close friend and then fellow associate asked me a question. Would I ever decline to represent a client on moral grounds, even though the client had a solid legal basis for the position it wanted to advocate? Over the weeks that followed, her question stayed with me. Then, I came across an article describing the emergence of cases in which families of Holocaust victims attempted to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II. I did some research and learned of some inequities inherent in the law. I had an answer to my friend's question: If I were ever asked to represent a client in its efforts to keep artwork from a Holocaust victim's heirs, I hoped I would decline, even if precedent supported the client's arguments. This moral and legal quandary seemed an interesting backdrop for a book, and it formed the genesis for the modern-day storyline of THE CHRYSALIS. The other two tales --- the story of the painting's creation in the 17th century and the account of the painting in the Nazis' clutches --- followed.

BRC: THE CHRYSALIS takes place in three different times and places: modern-day New York, war-era Berlin and the Netherlands in the 17th-century. Throughout the book you utilize a third-person narrative, but you use the present tense when discussing the past and the past tense when discussing events in the present. This had a very subtle effect in enhancing the movement of the narrative. What can you share about this technique?

HT: I made the decision to utilize the present tense for the past scenes for two primary reasons. First, I wanted the historical scenes to feel timeless, and to me, the present tense conveyed that agelessness better. Second, I am intrigued by the idea that history and art resound in our everyday lives, in ways of which we may be unaware, and it seemed as though the present tense could bring the historical scenes forward in time to further that concept.

BRC: There are a number of storylines that are introduced in THE CHRYSALIS, not the least of which is the ethical dilemma that occurs when an attorney realizes that their client may have a firm legal position but a weak moral one. As Mara Coyne, an attorney representing an auction house, discovers in THE CHRYSALIS, there are no easy answers, and possibly not even a correct one. How much of you is in Mara, or is she modeled after someone you know?

HT: I did draw on my years as a lawyer to create --- hopefully --- a realistic world for Mara Coyne to inhabit, though I have never been confronted with a similar moral conflict. Otherwise, Mara Coyne is a work of fiction, though if I were ever "called to rise" in the face of an analogous ethical dilemma, I hope I would achieve her heights.

BRC: You have noted elsewhere that Johannes Miereveld is a creation of your own. Did you model Miereveld and his life after any known painters? Were Miereveld's experiences more common than otherwise for painters working in the 17th century?

HT: Johannes Miereveld is indeed a creation of my imagination, though my reading on the education, painting techniques, marketing and selling practices, and living habits of 17th-century Dutch painters in general informed his character and life. The biographical details of the unparalleled Johannes Vermeer were especially helpful given his Catholicism, though it affected Vermeer's life quite differently than it affected my fictional Miereveld. I attempted to model Miereveld's training and business practices on a typical painter in the 17th-century Netherlands, so I hope his experiences were fairly common --- though I altered certain aspects for dramatic effect or plot furtherance.

BRC: Another storyline of THE CHRYSALIS, which was fascinating and horrifying, was the looting of art treasures undertaken by the Nazis before and during World War II. Your description of the complex methods by which artwork was confiscated and later transferred to others was fascinating. What led you to this issue, and what were your primary sources in your research of it?

HT: I began to research the Nazis' methodical, large-scale plunder of artwork during World War II once I delved into the legal battles that families of Holocaust victims faced in trying to recoup the artwork. I needed to understand the Nazis' processes in order to comprehend how their looting affected the artwork's provenance and the parties' legal positions. When I started this research well over 10 years ago, however, a tremendous amount had not yet been written on this issue. So, I explored legal files and certain United States government's World War II records relating to the recovery, administration and disposition of stolen art, like declassified documents from the Office of Strategic Services Art Looting Unit. And then, some wonderful nonfiction books on the topic were published that served as excellent resources.

BRC: You have been a litigator at two major law firms and for major corporations. Compare and contrast for us the similarities and differences between preparing for a trial and writing a novel. Now that you have done both, which do you enjoy more? While preparing for trial involves its own unique stressors, did you find yourself under your own self-imposed gun while researching, creating and writing THE CHRYSALIS?

HT: Preparing for a trial and writing a novel both require a vast amount of research and a painstaking attention to detail. I found the time pressures of a trial to be more intensive than writing THE CHRYSALIS, given that I drafted the book over a 10 year-period during the rare downtime in my lawyering schedule. While I enjoyed practicing as a commercial litigator, I must say I enjoy writing more. It allows me to pair my love of art history, history and archeology with the issues I find most intriguing in the law.

BRC: Do you paint? And do you have a favorite painter?

HT: No, I do not paint. Though I suppose that THE CHRYSALIS reveals my wish that I possessed those artistic gifts. As for favorite painters, I have so many. Of course, the incomparable Johannes Vermeer figures prominently among them, as do many Dutch Golden Age painters. I have such reverence for their use of light, their near-photographic attention to detail, and, most of all, the hidden stories beneath their deceptively simple scenes. That said, I adore many other painters from a variety of times and styles, such as Sandro Botticelli, Gustav Klimt, Frederick Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and most recently, Nuno Goncalves, a 15th-century Portuguese painter whose masterpiece The Adoration of Saint Vincent plays a role in my next book.

BRC: Part of THE CHRYSALIS is set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Is that one of your favorite museums? What others do you like to visit?

HT: The Metropolitan Museum of Art is indeed one of my favorite museums, in particular, its Temple of Dendur, as you can probably tell from THE CHRYSALIS. However, there are many superb museums I really enjoy: the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where I now live; the Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, which I frequented as a student; the National Gallery in London; the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands; the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. I could go on and on.

BRC: THE CHRYSALIS demonstrates your interest, and love, in fine art. When did you initially become interested in fine art and the sale and collecting of the same?

HT: When I was a very young child, my aunt would take me to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, to the Hall of Architecture in particular. And there, before the façades of architectural masterpieces from centuries gone by, I became entranced by the fine arts and began to perceive them as a window into the past. My interest in the business of art stems primarily from my research for THE CHRYSALIS when I was searching for the right setting. I became fascinated by the rarified world of high end art collecting --- the museums, auction houses, dealers and, of course, the purchasers --- particularly because they seemed cloaked in mystery.

BRC: You have indicated elsewhere that you are already at work on a second novel. Will your next, or any future, novel involve Mara Coyne? If so, do you plan to concentrate on writing a series of works featuring Mara, or do you have plans for writing a stand-alone work in the future?

HT: My next novel will definitely feature Mara Coyne. In this second book, a map is stolen from an archaeological Silk Road site outside of Xi'an, China. Mara, who now runs a business specializing in the restitution of stolen art, is hired to find it. The site's archaeologist claims that he unearthed a 15th-century Chinese map memorializing the voyage of Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He, an expedition in which he allegedly circumnavigated the globe decades before the famed European explorers. The search for the map forces Mara to unpuzzle an ideological, historical and legal riddle in a race with the Chinese --- who want to use the map for their agenda --- and the Americans and Europeans, who fear the ramifications of the revision of history. Woven into Mara's story is the tale of the gifted mapmaker who accompanied Admiral Zheng He on his voyage, and the narrative of the Portuguese mapmaker who sailed with Vasco da Gama. I have several other novels featuring Mara Coyne that I would love to write, as well as a few stand-alones.

BRC: Are there are authors who influenced your writing of THE CHRYSALIS?

HT: Given that novels of mystery and suspense constitute my favorite genre, it would be difficult for me to single out just a few authors as my biggest influences. Certainly many current suspense novelists such as Arturo Perez-Reverte and writers of classic mysteries like Agatha Christie have served as inspirations. And, I've been fortunate enough to receive positive feedback from some of my favorite thriller writers.

BRC: What authors, regardless of genre, do you read for pleasure?

HT: As I mentioned above, I just devour suspense novels, thrillers and mysteries. Outside of that genre, I always love Jane Austen, A.S. Byatt, Edith Wharton, Umberto Eco, J. K. Rowling and Michael Cunningham, among countless other writers.