For 'Portrait of Julia,' Robert MacNeil paints art-full tale

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the return of a character and the return of one of our own.

The character is Julia, the heroine of the new novel Portrait of Julia. The author is indeed our own Robert MacNeil, longtime anchor and executive editor of the NewsHour.

This is his fourth novel and continues a story begun in his earlier Burden of Desire.

He talked with Jeffrey Brown this afternoon in our New York studio.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robin, welcome.

ROBERT MACNEIL, Portrait of Julia: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first, this character of yours, Julia, first brought to life some 20 years ago, right, in your first novel.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was she clanging around in your head all these years, demanding to come back?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yes, she — yes, I think so. She's been gestating for a long time.


ROBERT MACNEIL: To me, she's fascinating. She's — in this book, as it begins, she's a 28-year-old widow of three years from the First World War.

I grew up — in my first — I was born in 1931, 12 years after the First World War ended. And all my early childhood was in the sort of leftovers of that atmosphere from the First World War, the war to end all wars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that is so much of the context of this book, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: It is the — a new world beginning. Millions are dead.


JEFFREY BROWN: And it is a kind of modern world emerging, and these characters are trying to negotiate…


ROBERT MACNEIL: Yes. Trying to negotiate it, yes, when nothing is as it was — or nothing seems as it was.

For young women in the European countries, there are too few men, because a generation was lost in each of those countries, Germany, France, England in particular. America and Canada, where this is first set, come out of this more optimistic than the Europeans do.

In Canada, it even had — the First World War had a role in beginning to inspire Canadians to seek their own national autonomy away from the British Empire, because the tremendous losses of the First World War, 60,000 dead out of a total population of eight million, was just stunning.

And — however, they came out of it optimistic and seeking a new relationship with Britain. And that led the other dominions of the British Empire gradually to — and very gradually — to evolve into what is now the British Commonwealth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so Julia is a painter herself.


JEFFREY BROWN: And this is a portrait of Julia, and it is a literal portrait…


JEFFREY BROWN: … being done of her by a — an historical character…


JEFFREY BROWN: … that you turn into your character.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yes, I turn into your character, J.W. Morrice, a Canadian painter, with whom she had studied in Paris briefly before the war.

And he had painted a portrait of her then, nude, but reticent, which her husband, before he died, was so embarrassed by that he — that she had to keep in the cupboard in the bedroom.

But — and she thinks it's — it's a source of great pride to her that so accomplished a painter would be wanting to do her portrait again. But she uses the painting of the portrait to tell him a lot of what led up to why she's down there in the South of France.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you — you, the author, use painting and art…


JEFFREY BROWN: … as a way to tell your story, because a lot of this is about — and there are interesting — there are real characters in here, Matisse…


JEFFREY BROWN: … a lot of famous painters.


JEFFREY BROWN: But there's the issue of representation in art.


JEFFREY BROWN: There's a sort of modernism in art.


JEFFREY BROWN: There's a lot going on there.


JEFFREY BROWN: What interested you about — why the art…

ROBERT MACNEIL: I have always, from early childhood — well, teenage childhood. In my high school in Ottawa, Canada, there was — in the assembly room, where we met a lot, there was one of his, Morrice's paintings enlarged and reproduced.

And I looked at it almost every day of my high school years, and gradually I became more interested in — he, I think, is undercelebrated. And it wasn't my aim, but it would be nice if he were rediscovered a little bit, I think.

He was a very, very good painter. The French thought — in the turn of the century and up until 1920, the French thought he was one of two of the greatest North American painters. And, of course, North American — Canadian and American crowded Paris at the time, the center of world — of modern painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have a changing world after World War I. You have the world of art.


JEFFREY BROWN: These things, how did — you, as the novelist, but also I'm thinking of you as the newsman I know for many years, you're using some — you're grounded in some historical fact.


JEFFREY BROWN: And then what happens?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, what happens is, I think one of the lessons we learn in life — and it's an old lesson, but each of us has to learn it, if he does, individually — and that is that, in human relations, particularly sexual relations and so on, there — there is — the person you might most trust and feel most comfortable and easy with isn't necessarily the person your heart is going to fall for.


ROBERT MACNEIL: And dealing with that, it's an old story. It's the subject of many books over the centuries.


JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of great novels.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But it's individual to each character.

And in her character, she, trying to be the modern woman and trying to be very honest with herself about everything, which, in itself, is, to me, an interesting phenomenon, how honest can you be with somebody you love?

JEFFREY BROWN: What compels you to write fiction?

ROBERT MACNEIL: I don't know.

I mean, I had the itch long before I became a journalist. I thought I was going to be a writer of fiction. It didn't work out, because I was trying to write plays, and they weren't very good plays. And then I had to earn a living.

But it's — it's always remained there in the background. The — Saul Bellow said, fiction is the higher autobiography. And it's interesting where pieces of your own life and your own wishes or disappointments or hopes or anything come out in — as fiction, like that character Julia herself. Who is she and where does she come from?

I know where she came from. I was brought up during the Second World War. My mother was alone for five years. Canada was in the war for five years. My father was away at sea fighting the battle of the Atlantic. And I know what my mother went through, in terms of anxiety and hope and disappointment and fear and everything else.

So, while I was writing that story in a memoir of mine called "Wordstruck," it suddenly occurred to me — I remember going into my wife and saying, what would it have been like for a woman waiting for her husband to come back from France in the First World War, when everything was so much more constricted even than in the Second World War period? And this woman came out of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the woman is Julia. The book is "Portrait of Julia."

Robert MacNeil, thanks so much.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Jeff, thank you very much.