Art In Fiction

Still Raising Eyebrows after 150 Years feat. Lilianne Milgrom, author of L'Origine

May 20, 2021 Carol Cram Episode 26
Art In Fiction
Still Raising Eyebrows after 150 Years feat. Lilianne Milgrom, author of L'Origine
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Join me as I chat with Lilianne Milgrom, author of L’Origine, an intriguing novel about the creation and history of L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, one of the world’s most provocative paintings.


  • Find out why Courbet's L'Origine du Monde is still raising eyebrows after 150 years
  • The effect of the painting on Lilianne
  • Gustave Courbet and realism
  • How reactions to L'Origine du Monde are like those to a Rorschach test
  • Is the painting odious or empowering?
  • The Paris Commune of 1870 and its role in L'Origine
  • A reading from the novel
  • Advice for authors

Press Play now & be sure to check out L'Origine on Art In Fiction.

View L'Origine du Monde at the Musée d'Orsay.

A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement  by Barbara Abercrombie

Lilianne Milgrom's Website

Search for Awesome Art on Saatchi

Music Credits

Intro: Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson
Ad: Celtic Calypso, performed by Lunar Adventures; composed by Gregg Simpson

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Thank you!

Carol Cram:

Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I'm your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts.

This episode features Lilianne Milgrom, author of L'Origine, which centers around the painting by Gustave Courbet still considered one of the world’s most scandalous works of art. 

Internationally acclaimed artist Lilianne Milgrom was born in Paris, and grew up in Australia. She holds two degrees from Melbourne University and an associate art degree from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. She exhibits her artwork around the world and is the recipient of multiple awards.

Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast, Lilianne.

Lilianne Milgrom:

Thank you so much for having me. It's a delight to be here. Thanks, Carol. 

Carol Cram:

Thank you. I am looking forward to chatting with you about your new novel, your debut novel, L’Origine. It's the story of a painting that has been described as one of the most scandalous works of art. So can you tell us what the novel is about? I

Lilianne Milgrom:

I would be delighted to do so. The novel is about a work of art, as you say, but not just any work of art. This is a painting that once you see it, you will never forget it, even if you want it to.

Carol Cram:

That's for sure. 

Lilianne Milgrom:

And not everybody loves this painting and it's very contentious. And the reason it's contentious is that it is a painting, for those who are listening, who don't know this painting, by Gustave Courbet called L’Origine du Monde. 

It was painted in 1866, and it's a painting pretty much of a woman's exposed genitals and torso. And the reason it is so scandalous and groundbreaking is that before Gustave Courbet painted this, there were no explicit representations in art of a woman's vagina. Let's just say it as it is. So this painting I discovered at the Musée d’Orsay. It’s in their permanent collection.

And I discovered it sort of very serendipitously. I am an artist by profession, although I do write a lot for art magazines, so I love to write, but my profession is an artist. And I found myself in Paris about 10 years ago doing an artist residency. And I was just like in seventh heaven. Paris is my hometown. I was born there and I thought, oh, two months where I can just create anything I want to.

I was looking though for something that would maybe help me express how I was feeling about becoming a more mature woman and what that meant for my sexuality. So when I came across this painting at the Musée d’Orsay, it just knocked my socks off. And I talk about my adventures with the painting in the book, as well as the painting’s history and the reason the painting’s history is so amazing is that it was concealed for about 150 years. 

And it just pretty much in the late nineties became available for the public to see it in the Musée d’Orsay. It had a fantastically interesting, remarkable history. So that was what the book is about. It's about my journey and the painting’s journey.

Carol Cram:

Yes, and that's why it works so well because it opens with your journey and you actually going to the Musée d’Orsay every day to paint it because you have painted a reproduction of it. I was looking on your website. It's remarkable. And that was quite an experience, I can imagine. 

Of course you document that in the novel, and then you go right back to when Gustave Courbet painted it and follow the history of the painting all the way up until 1995. I'm surprised I don't remember seeing it because I've been to the Musée d’Orsay many, many times. My husband remembers seeing it. Hmm. I wonder what that says, but I actually don't remember seeing it, so the next time we go to Paris, I'm making a beeline to look, look for the Courbet. 

So Gustave Courbet is, of course, famous for his realism. And so I can understand why you chose that painting, as you said, because it is so remarkable. But what is it about Courbet’s handling of the subject, his use of realism for people who aren't familiar with the work of Courbet? What can you say about that?

Lilianne Milgrom:

First of all, I want to correct something. When you say I chose the painting, actually the painting chose me. I really would say that because I, as an artist that I'm sort of a little bit ashamed to say that Gustave Courbet was not really on my radar. I wasn't like such a huge fan. I've heard of him, of course. And in art history, he's like, you know, one of the major artists that you learn about, and I wasn't that familiar with his painting either. I'd probably seen a slide in art history or whatever, but it just had so much, you know, like, um, erotic and negative sort of vibes around it that I didn't really think about it. 

So various things sort of appealed to me about it when I saw it in person. As an artist, first of all, I was totally stunned by how realistic it was, but not in the smooth, hyper-realist surrealist way that contemporary painters paint, where it really looks like a photograph. It's totally realistic, but with Gustave’s luscious deep brush strokes and the way that he used the pallet knife and he's actually known for painting flesh. His skin is just luminescent. That he's known for.

And you mentioned very correctly that he's a realist. Now, what do I mean by realist? He actually founded the school of realism. He lived by it. It was his religion. His raison d’être for everything he did in his life was about realism. He could not stand when anything, anyone was hypocritical. He could not stand when people were just, like, going with tradition, because just for the sake of tradition. He just believed that the contemporary artists of his time should paint what he sees in his own time, should paint what he sees around him, should paint the truth. 

And he certainly painted the truth with this painting because there is quite a substantial pubic bush there. So that's something that I think that we didn't make it clear at the beginning that I didn’t only see this painting, but what I decided to do with my residency in Paris at the time after I saw this painting was to request permission to become its official copiste. And when I asked for the permission right then and there, I was given a lot of strange looks because no one had ever asked to be the copiste of this painting. And I found out later why because it's a very difficult painting to paint in the public eye.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I was thinking that. Of course, you talk about that or you dramatize that in the novel, you know, people watching you paint this incredible painting must have been quite an experience,

Lilianne Milgrom:

But okay. So you said, what appealed to the painting from a painter's point of view? His painting is beautiful. It's bold. It's unapologetic. And as I continued through the exercise of being a copiste in the public eye at the Musée d'Orsay, at first, I have to say, I was fascinated, but also embarrassed. It was kind of embarrassing, especially when people were looking at me, you know, painting the details of the, you know, the vulva, and all this. It wasn't, it was totally out of my comfort zone. 

But the interesting thing is that as I went through the weeks of being a copiste, it emboldened me and it made me feel very strong as a woman. And I identified with the painting. So I really had this sort of metamorphosis within myself. I really found that I was proud to be a woman. It was like, you know, Je suis femme. It was just like fantastic feeling at the end. The painting really gave me a lot on many levels. 

Carol Cram:

That’s interesting. You said that because coincidentally, we are recording this podcast on March 8th, which of course is International Women's Day. And it's funny. I didn't even realize when we set the date and then actually last night when I was reading your novel and oh my goodness, what a fantastic coincidence, because I think I got to the point in the novel, towards the end when you talked about, and this is something I want to talk about, how artists and women said, well, let's reclaim this painting for feminism because of course, and I'm sure you can talk about this, Courbet painted it for one collector and all the way through its long history of collectors, it was men or single men that would buy it or solo men would collect it and hide it. 

Of course that's what your novel is all about over the 150 years. And then when it became out in the world, it's like, yes, this is a very female empowering painting. So yes, could you talk a bit more about that?

Lilianne Milgrom:

You see, I find it empowering. Yes. It definitely had that reaction when I was painting it and it stayed with me. I want to make a point that I find it beautiful. I find it empowering, but actually feminist art criticism is very critical of this painting. And as you mentioned, it's because of the whole male gaze that we know in art history. That's been maligned. 

My take is that everything has to be taken in context. This is not 1866 we are living in now. It's a very, very different world, but in 1866, Courbet painted it as a commission for actually a Turkish diplomat, Ottoman diplomat, but he didn't paint it so that people would ogle it or things like that. He painted it for this one gentleman, but the way he painted it, he just wanted to show a woman, that's my interpretation, exactly as she is without the piece of fabric over her, you know, hiding her genitals without the, the leaf, the fig leaf or the hand. 

So when it came out of hiding, so to speak, 150 years later, I think it was very misinterpreted. I've even gotten a lot of pushback. Oh yes. There was one art historian, a woman in Seattle, and she was doing a course on Courbet and I approached her and I said I'd love to sort of have a conversation about this. And she said, oh, that painting is odious. 

Well, I just was, like, flabbergasted. To me, there's nothing odious about it at all. You know, you can interpret it in different ways. I see it a little bit like a Rorschach. Some people see it as, you know, a mother, a woman they remember, they're giving birth or they remember lovers or they feel that she's wanton. Or, you know, that’s a Rorschach. It's like what you come to the painting with is what you're going to see. 

Carol Cram:

Well, because the name of the painting is L’Origine du Monde. What a great title. Oh my goodness. 

Lilianne Milgrom:

I know! The Origin of the World. Yes, yes. Let's face it.

Carol Cram:

Yes. And that's, that's exactly what it is. And also as a painting, which you mentioned earlier, it's remarkable. The way he does texture, just looking at the paint, I got a new appreciation for Courbet who is not a painter I know a lot about. I mean, I knew who he was in art history. I took art history, as well. And just the way he depicts the human body is unbelievable. 

Lilianne Milgrom:

Yes. You know, he faced a lot of flack for his painting. He made a lot of enemies in his life, and he was ridiculed. He suffered for his art, just like we think about when we think about these famous artists suffering for their art. He suffered for his art and actually he had a very sad ending to his life. And it was really because of his passion for his art and his passion for his beliefs that he actually, it just was very sad. I don't know. I fell in love with Courbet totally during my research. Just totally head over heels.

Carol Cram:

I could see why. And that's one thing I really enjoyed about the novel is learning a lot about Courbet, which I did not know and how you traced, you know, all the different things he did and his involvement in 1870 in the Commune uprising of 1870 in Paris. Again, something I didn't know a lot about. So can you tell us what that,  what he did that got him into so much trouble.

Lilianne Milgrom:

The Commune is actually, you know, still a sore point in France today. And especially in Paris, if you bring up the Commune, which was as you mentioned in 1870, it's a sore point. So basically, let's just set the scene very, very, very briefly. You've got Paris is under siege by the Prussians and Bismarck. And it is a very, very tough time for Parisians. Very, very tough time. So the government at the time was seated in Paris and they were, let's just say cowardly in a certain sort of way. 

Prussia was bombing Paris on a daily basis. People were starving. They were eating all the animals in the zoo. There were people lying on the street, dying and carcasses everywhere. It was horrendous. Every tree was taken down for wood. It was a bad time. So when the people heard that the government was, behind their backs, was negotiating with the Prussian government and sort of retreating, they went crazy and they got rid of their government. 

The government fled to Versailles and the people rose up in typical French fashion and created a commune where everyone was going to be represented. And Courbet was very much an activist. And he really believed in the common man. And because of course he was a very famous outspoken artist, they selected him to be in charge of defending and protecting Paris's beautiful art sculptures, beautiful public sculptures, public art, and also the paintings in the Louvre. 

So he says, oh, this is fantastic. You know, just what I wanted. And it's also my chance to promote my realist philosophy in art. But he was so passionate about everything that he unfortunately gave the speech one night in the commune saying, you know that Vendôme  column in the Place de Vendôme,  he says, we have to take it down because it shows, you know, how Napoleon's victories and he was against that. 

He said, this is not for the time we need to have something that is more going to be showing our uprising and the people, the common people. We don't want to have this huge column showing the victories of Napoleon. So they took it, the people in the commune and the sort of the regular people, they took him for a little bit too literally. And they lassoed the column and brought it tumbling down, crashing down to earth. Whereas he claims he said, let's just take it piece by piece and protect all the pieces or the friezes, the beautiful friezes, the bronze on it. But no, they brought it crashing down to earth. 

So when the commune didn't last very long, a few months, when the commune was brought to a halt by the soldiers, so then unfortunately for old Gustave Courbet was blamed single-handedly for having brought this column down and he had to flee to Switzerland and that's where he eventually passed away. 

So he was really quite involved in all this and he never wanted to, they were, you know, the 1848. He also was witness to what happened in Paris at that time. And there was a lot of bloodshed and he refused to take up arms. He said, you know, my paintbrush is how I'm going to say my feelings about this. So his paintbrush was his weapon.

Carol Cram:

Yeah. Yes. Well, he was considered a social realist, wasn't he? I remember reading that in Fine Arts 125! In keeping with the way that you showed the 1870 uprising, the novel really takes us on a wonderful tour of the 150 years of history, European history, because of course, you know, through the eyes of what happens to the painting, because the painting goes from collector to collector, but it goes through the First World War, the Second World War and up into modern times. 

So one thing I really enjoyed about the novel was your showing of social history, which is interesting because he was a social realist and the novel itself kind of mirrors, what, the kind of work that Courbet did himself in that you show all the social history of the period. 

I was fascinated by how you did all the research for this. Like, how did you know where this painting went?

Lilianne Milgrom:

Well, when I finished being a copiste and I came back home, the painting just wouldn't leave me alone. So I started, you know, delving more into it. And the more I read, the more fascinating it became. And you probably saw from my novel that my research was very in-depth. It took about 10 years to write the book.

Carol Cram:

I would imagine it did. I was going to ask how long it took. Ten years!

Lilianne Milgrom:

And do you know what? This is what happens when you're writing a book, as you know, that you're passionate about the ten years was a long time, but I never lost my interest or my passion in it. It's just something that you take with you as you write it. And if you don't have that, you're not going to be able to stick it out. I mean, you have to be passionate because it's a crazy, crazy journey being a writer, isn't it? 

Fortunately, French was my first language. So I read in French and English. And so a lot of the books about Courbet are in French because Courbet is not that well known outside of France. But in France, he's actually a household name. Everyone knows the name Gustave Courbet because he was a wayward son, and they love his laissez faire attitude. 

One of my motivations for writing the book was to bring his story and the story of this painting to English-speaking readers. So I did all the reading for you all out there, so you don't have to.

Carol Cram:

And we appreciate it. It was a remarkable accomplishment.

Lilianne Milgrom:

So I read, you know, hundreds and hundreds of online websites and literally scores and scores of books. And I also went to the Institut Gustave Courbet and went to his hometown. I mean, I really did the whole shebang because I just was driven, driven. There's not other words to say it. 

Only after I finished the book, did I realize that this book was an intersection of all my loves because at university in Australia, I majored in history, French history. And then my art, of course, I'm an artist by profession and then my writing. So everything just came together. It was the most incredible high.

Carol Cram:

And what you captured so well is not only the history of this actual painting, but you're also a really good writer because for each collector that the painting goes through, you have a whole kind of persona for these people. You have, you obviously you had to invent a lot of what was their feelings, but that's what makes the novel. 

It's not just a recitation of what happened to the painting by any means. You get really invested in these people, even though it goes over a very long period of time with many, many different characters, you really do capture what each of these collectors felt and thought and what they might've been like in their time. 

So how did you kind of breathe life into these collectors? 

Lilianne Milgrom:

Once I felt confident about the research and I really understood these people and I try to imagine how they would feel, this is what a writer does, you know, seeing this painting, how does that segue into what they are all about? 

And I really put myself in their shoes, but I think without research, you really can't do that all that well. But I think that, I mean, I've always loved writing, as I said, and this, this novel, actually, at first I thought I was going to write a creative nonfiction, but then I said, no that is too restrictive because I really wanted to bring these people to life.

Just as you say, there was the most incredible eccentric characters who own this painting. So I, you know, you just don't want to give that up to nonfiction. I wanted them to talk and to dance and to make love and whatever.

So I think that just putting myself in their shoes and really, really thinking about them as individuals and as people looking at this painting and why did they want it? It's just an, it was an amazing journey as I keep repeating. It just was wonderful. It wasn't that hard. I just really could imagine their lives. I just totally inserted myself into their past lives. 

Carol Cram:

I'm glad you made it a novel rather than nonfiction, because I was thinking when I was reading, this could be creative nonfiction, but it's not, it's better than that because of that extra layer that you put in, of making it a novel, but is based in fact. 

So it was such a great read. You just can't stop turning the pages because you want to know where's the painting going to go next. Who's going to see it next. What else is going to happen in the world? There's the First World War. There's the Second World War. It's just, it's a wonderful kaleidoscope.

Lilianne Milgrom:

That's a good word. Yeah.

Carol Cram:

That's the word that came to mind is kaleidoscopic. There's a good word.

Now, of course, as you say, you are an artist and I noticed that your style of work tends to be quite realist. I was looking on your website, I suppose that might've been one of the reasons that Courbet did appeal to you is that is the style that you do. So why realism?

Lilianne Milgrom:

I would that say I'm a figurative realist. Yes. I've always had the ability to translate what I see onto canvas. And that's sort of one of the natural artistic abilities that I had and I sort of like ran with it. But what's really interesting is over the past year, especially I've gone totally different. 

I've used multi, mixed image media, uh, printing, um, I've used like, you know, pasting and stencils and loose brushwork. And I don't know if it's something to do with the whole Coronavirus and being at home and not having the focus that one needs when one paints something realistic, because a painting can take months to create and I just didn't have the concentration. I just didn't want to do it. So all these other things came out and I haven't actually gone back to my realist style for the last year. So I don't know where I'm going with all this. It's really an interesting process,

Carol Cram:

But that's what makes being an artist so exciting. It's fascinating to me what this year has meant for creative people. I think a lot of people have gone in different directions because we've had the time. We've had the mental space that you don't normally get when life is back to normal, I wonder what it'll be like when we get back to normal. What will normal be?

Lilianne Milgrom:

Yeah, that's the million-dollar question, right?

Carol Cram:

So another great thing that you put into this novel was references to many of the famous artists of the various periods. So you've got a Picasso, you've got Andre Masson, you've got Monet. He has a cameo appearance. So that was very interesting. I really enjoyed that. Particularly Andre Masson of course, who was a surrealist. What was the role that he played in the novel?

Lilianne Milgrom:

He had a really interesting role because as I mentioned, the painting was hidden by the collectors over this almost century and a half. And the last collector who was Jacque Lacan and Sylvia Bataille, the famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Sylvia Bataille was his wife. Andre Masson was her brother-in-law and you've got this painting of a woman's exposed genitals. And she was a very, very outspoken and liberal woman, but she was concerned that her cleaning lady or children would see it. So she thought, okay, I want some sort of cover over this. Some sort of, like, panel to cover it that so we can still have it on the wall, but it needs to be covered. It's not for everybody. She realized that. Okay. 

So she asked Andre the brother to create a panel and he did something very, very brilliant, which I talk about in the book. But basically he did a very loose, almost a landscape, a sort of etched in wood in natural world. And when you look at it, you think, oh, it's a sort of an unfinished, very loose landscape, but when, you know, what's behind it, he actually created landscape out of the curves of L’Origine beneath it. And also he did some sort of, like, put some bushes where the strategic places. So it's very clever and that's what he did. And that's how he played it, his own cameo part in this novel.

Carol Cram:

That's fantastic. Where is that panel? Is that still around, Andre Masson’s version?

Lilianne Milgrom:

Yeah, it's still around, but. In the Musée d’Orsay, they don’t exhibit it with the panel. 

Carol Cram:

That would be sort of interesting to see.

Lilianne Milgrom:

But then everyone would want to slide the panel. Yeah. It would be actually next to it, perhaps. Yeah. Yes, exactly.

Carol Cram:

I enjoy that. I always loved seeing other artists being referenced in, in novels that are inspired by the arts. 


Time for a Short Break

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And now back to the show.

Carol Cram:

So I asked in my email to you whether you'd like to do a short reading from L’Origine?

Lilianne Milgrom:

Yes. So I, I had this idea that because like I said, the painting is not known all that well. So my first paragraph in this whole book actually describes in words, paints the painting in words. And so I thought I would read the very first paragraph so that your listeners can really visualize the painting. And then I'm going to skip to World War II and read a short part of a chapter then. 

Carol Cram:


Carol Cram:

And I will have a link in the show notes for this episode to have a look of what the painting looks like. Yes, we definitely want to have a look at it.

Lilianne Milgrom:

So this is the first paragraph from the prologue and the prologue is basically my own adventure with the painting. 

Paris, Winter 2011, the Orsay Museum. 

It stopped me dead in my tracks. Granted, I was in Paris, but nonetheless, this wasn't something you'd expect to see in one of the most celebrated museums in the world. Prominently displayed on its own dedicated wall and hanging at eye level was a realistically rendered, X-rated, peep-show perspective of a woman's exposed genitals. Not a fig leaf in sight. The parted thighs drew my eye toward the riotous pubic bush just left of dead center. The vulva was split asunder by palette-knife slash of scarlet. A shadowed ravine divided the buttocks into two creamy rounded orbs and only a single breast, crested by a blush-colored nipple peeked out from beneath rumpled sheets. No face, no legs, no arms. Just lady bits.

Carol Cram:

It just occurred to me too, as you're reading that. Another thing I enjoyed was how you talked about how he uses paint, you know, the slash of the palette knife and, the way, you know, he would put in a shadow and a mottle, the skin. I'm not a painter myself, but I do paint. And I think listeners who enjoy painting or paint themselves were really like that element of the novel. 

Lilianne Milgrom:

You know, a lot of the reviewers have mentioned that too, that they felt that only an artist could have written certain parts of this book because I really get into, you know, what it takes to paint and what an underpainting would look like and why you use a certain color. And it's very exciting to me. And I think I impart that. I hope.

So now we're jumping. As I said, it was hidden and we're into the collector who was a  Hungarian collector. 

So we're jumping to Chapter 20 

Budapest, Summer 1944

Ferenc tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. Sweat filmed his deeply lined forehead and trickled down inside his color. He flinched involuntarily as the thump of heavy boots from the floor above was followed by the clatter of breaking china and the thud of overturned furniture. He clenched his fists to control the trembling. He longed for a cigarette and fought the urge to search the pocket of his jacket that, once so beautifully tailored, now hung gracelessly off his spare frame and bore a yellow star stitched onto its lapel. 

The two crisply uniformed SS officers standing at attention by the entrance to the main drawing room could have passed for fresh-faced farm boys—until one looked into their eyes. Flat, sinister, and cold. Any shred of humanity long gone. The skull-and-bones insignia on their caps and the winged eagle on the buckles of their gun belts glinted malevolently in the filtered light. Through the French doors and beyond the garden that had long since stopped blooming, smoke rose from the bombarded city smudging the pale anemic sky. A mortar shell exploded in the distance, a sound so familiar that Ferenc barely flinched. 

SS-Obersturmbanführer Adolf Eichmann, brought his weasel-like face unnervingly close to Ferenc’s. “Wo sind die anderen, Herr Hatvany?” he asked in a soft, velvet voice that barely concealed the rage and revulsion that Ferenc knew lurked just below the surface. “Where are the rest of them, Mr. Hatvany?” They had been going back and forth in this manner for the last half hour, and Adolf Eichmann’s patience was wearing thin. With no forewarning, Eichmann flung an outstretched arm across the polished sideboard, sending crystal goblets and decanters shattering to the floor. Ferenc leapt as cognac sprayed his shoes and the cuffs of his trousers. His heart pounded erratically in his chest, but he looked straight ahead and stood his ground amid the shards. This too shall pass; this too shall pass.

Adolf Eichmann flicked a tiny droplet of cognac off the swastika-emblazoned sleeve of his metal-gray uniform and sighed. “You people are all the same,” he said reproachfully, as if nothing were amiss. Clasping his manicured hands behind his back, he turned away from Ferenc and spoke to a point two feet in front of his elongated nose. “You take us for fools, Herr Hatvany? Most unwise,” he added, giggling at his own joke like a schoolgirl. He pointed at the paintings and sculptures that the Waffen-SS unit had begun stockpiling haphazardly in the far corner of the room. “Do you really expect me to believe that this sorry hodgepodge of artworks is the full extent of your collection? Come, come, Herr Hatvany,” he said, laughing snarkily at the terror he saw mounting in the baron’s eyes. “I have it from informed sources that your collection is as extensive, if not more so, than the Herzog collection. And that one is on its way to Berlin, where it belongs. So, I ask you once again—where is the rest of it?”

Ferenc licked his lips. “Herr Obersturmbanführer, I assure you that what you see is the entire collection. I have always kept my art at home, close beside me. Your discerning eye can surely appreciate the value of what you see here.” He pointed an unsteady finger at the stacked paintings. “That's a Tintoretto . . . and there’s a Renoir, and next to it, the Ingre and the Céza—”

“Ruhe!” shouted Eichmann, silencing Ferenc. “I don’t need a Jew lecturing me.”

Carol Cram:

Thank you so much. That really took me back to that scene. That was a very fraught scene and also true. Actually, it did happen. It was heartbreaking, but extraordinarily well done. Thank you so much. That really gives a good flavor to how you marry the reality with fiction.  

One thing I love to talk about with my guests on The Art In Fiction Podcast is the writing process itself and questions that focus on the writing process. So one of my goals is to inspire other authors. What's one thing you learned from writing the novel that you didn't know before?

Lilianne Milgrom:

I've been thinking about that. And I think my answer would have to be that the hardest part starts when you finish the novel.

Carol Cram:

Interesting. So what do you mean by that?

Lilianne Milgrom:

So it took me ten years to write it and then, okay, you finished it. You've written the last word. Now what? No one's going to come knocking at your door. I'm sorry. And sort of say, oh, this brilliant manuscript, I'm going to take it and I'm going to send it out into the world and make, you know, make you famous and have everyone read it. It doesn't happen that way. 

And I was really stunned at how much work and effort it's taken and it's still taking, because if you're passionate about your story and that's why you should write a book. If you really need to want your story to get out there, it's not going to be good if it's just sitting at home. So you have to, whether it's within your comfort zone or outside of your comfort zone, you have to be its protector, its voice, and you just have to get out there and you have to have a thick skin.

So the process starts with okay, getting it out there to agents. All right. So, well, this is after, you know, having it edited and having, you know, your beta readers and all this sort of thing. So when I was more or less confident about what I had, I did write a kick-ass query letter, I have to say, because I did get a lot of nibbles. All right. So, but I got a lot of rejections because of something that you yourself mentioned you liked in the book, which was the fact that it's a hybrid personal essay memoir of my adventure with the painting. And then it goes and tells you the entire incredible story of the painting. They didn't like that. It had to be either, it had to be either a historical fiction or nonfiction, or it had to be a memoir or it had to be a first person.

And I knew what I wanted with this book. Well, I got so many rejections saying, if you could only change it to this or that, you know, we want to take another look. Well, eventually I did get an agent and then I moved on from that because I found that that wasn't good for me either. You lose a lot of control when you get an agent, because once a publisher picks it up, you don't even have control over what the cover looks like or anything like that. 

So I decided to go the self-publishing journey, and that was a lot of research. That was months of research. So I did that for a long time. And then when you're self-published, what do you have to do? You have to promote your book. You have to get out there, you have to write letters, you have to write emails. You have to talk on wonderful podcasts like this one. And I've been on the most fantastic events. Two weeks ago, I was a guest on Evenings with an Author at the American Library in Paris. That was a fantastic evening. 

So that was, but I just was mentioning the process from having an agent to dropping the agent, just self-publishing. And now I've been picked up by a publisher who wants to re-release it in September. So that is a lot of work, a lot of work, and you're not doing the writing, you're promoting.

Carol Cram:

It is, it's an incredible amount of work. That's interesting. That's the same thing happened to me with my first novel. I chose to self-publish it and then it got picked up. So I think good advice for authors is follow your passion. I liked when you said that you decided not to go with what the agents asked for. You knew that what you had was what you wanted to say. You didn't want to change it so good for you.

Lilianne Milgrom:

Because look, let's think about it. You've got a painting painted in 1866. How are you going to get a modern reader to be interested? And I knew that my story, my sort of, like, serendipitous introduction to this painting and what happened to me with this painting would be the exact right way to get the reader invested in the story of the painting itself.

Carol Cram:

So anything else that you would like to say to authors about writing?

Lilianne Milgrom:

You know, I will say yes, I do, because I wanted to say there's so many obstacles that do come along when you're writing and I had it here, like the obstacle of finding the time, finding the motivation, doing the research. But I think the greatest obstacle, at least for me, was self-doubt. You have to overcome that. 

And it wasn't even that I said to myself, okay, I'm going to overcome my self-doubt. I was so passionate about the story that I didn't really, I didn't really have to address that, but I wouldn't have to talk myself out of that quite often. You know, it's something real. And I wanted to recommend a book for writers, um, that help, that sort of like helped me along the way. And it's called A Year of Writing Dangerously. Have you heard of it?

Carol Cram:

Actually, I'm not sure I have, but anyway, that looks fantastic. Fantastic.

Lilianne Milgrom:

And I'll send you the link, but it's A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement from Other Writers Famous and Not So Famous by Barbara Abercrombie. So you just like flip it open and each page is a different little snippet of a writer's journey, of a writer's feelings of, and a little quote. I would just sometimes be so down about myself and it's this never going to happen. I'm not good enough. And I would sit down and read a couple of pages and I really felt better. So I would really recommend this book. 

Carol Cram:

Well, thank you. I want to look at that because you're right. Self-doubt is probably the hardest thing to overcome. You can learn technique, you can work hard, you can do a lot of reading, but you have to believe that you can do it. So thank you for sharing that. And thank you for sharing that book. Because that sounds fantastic. I'll put the link in the show notes. 

Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Lilianne. This has been such a pleasure.

Lilianne Milgrom:

Thank you. And thank you to all your readers and all the writers out there. Salut.

Carol Cram:

My guest has been Lilianne Milgrom, author of L’Origine listed in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction at

Be sure to check the show notes for links to more information about Lilianne Milgrom, Gustave Courbet, and L’Origine. You’ll also find the link to Saatchi Art where you can search for the perfect piece of art for your home or office. All purchases come with a 7-day money-back guarantee. 

Please follow Art In Fiction on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to The Art In Fiction Podcast and give it a positive review or rating wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks so much for listening!


What L'Origine is about
Why "L'Origine du Monde" is so scandalous
Artist Residency in Paris: becoming a copiste
Courbet and realism
What's appealing about "L'Origine du Monde" from a painter's perspective?
The painting and feminist art criticism
Courbet and the 1870 Commune Uprising in Paris
Researching and writing the novel
A kaleidoscopic novel
Famous artists in "L'Origine"
Reading from L'Origine
What's the hardest part of writing a novel?
Final advice for writers