Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s second book, The Frame-Up (HarperCollins), takes a magical premise – that the subjects in paintings are secretly alive in a world behind their frames – and turns it into an utterly charming page-turner for young readers that packs in friendship, family tension, a thrilling art heist, and even some sly art education. One main character, Mona Dunn, is the subject of a famous portrait by Sir William Orpen. The other is her new friend Sargent, who was named by his father after artist John Singer Sargent. Set in a contemporary world of cellphones and Harry Potter, many readers will recognize themselves in young Sargent, a shy and talented aspiring artist himself, who’s spending the entire summer at his father’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. McLeod MacKnight’s novel shines a spotlight on this real-life gallery, which boasts a world-class collection, including works by Dali, Delacroix, and Matisse (to name just a few). McLeod MacKnight spoke to Q&Q about how the paintings in the book drew her in, the idea of creations living on apart from their creator, and the real magic of the Beaverbrook.
What drew you to the particular paintings you chose – and of course, especially, to Mona Dunn?
It was actually kind of a torturous decision because I’ve been going to the Beaverbrook for years and years, and so I always had my favourites. But they couldn’t all be characters in the book. I chose paintings that I love; for example, San Vigilio, Lake Garda is one of my all-time favourite paintings by probably my favourite artist, John Singer Sargent. And if you’re going to write about the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, you have to have Santiago El Grande, because that’s what everybody goes in to see. And from the very first time I saw Mona Dunn, I always thought that she really was the twin to “the other Mona.” I call the Mona Lisa “the other Mona” now. [Mona Dunn] is just as mysterious looking – this beautiful young, golden girl surrounded by darkness. I was always obsessed with the look on her face. What was she really feeling? I knew she had to be the main character from the get-go.
The role of art and creation is very important in the book. How do you relate to the creative act?
I have dabbled in painting, but my paintings are pretty much dreadful. And I love to sing but I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But I’ve always looked at the creation of art, in whatever medium, as having a very mystical quality. The idea that at some point when you’re writing, the work kind of takes over. Several times during the book I almost had the feeling that I was taking dictation.
Do you picture your characters living on apart from you like the characters in the paintings?
I talk a lot about that when I go to schools. Recently I was in a room with 100 kids, and I said, “Now there are a hundred versions of this book because you’re all seeing it in a completely different way.”
Mona and Sargent each have their own complex relationships as young people, on both sides of the frame. [Mona is unable to leave her frame and Sargent unable to enter.] What did you want to explore by showing us two very different young people’s emotional lives?
Children have very complex inner lives, just like adults; they just have less experience. So it was very important to me to not shy away from complex issues [including divorce and alcoholism]. Mona has this image of what Sargent’s life is, and then discovers it’s not quite the same as she thought. And Sargent, in the reverse, has this idea that Mona must have a very easy life, and not have any problems.
You grew up in and live in New Brunswick. We don’t necessarily think of New Brunswick as an obvious destination for visual art. Why was it essential to you that The Frame-Up takes place in the province?
It never occurred to me to put it anywhere else. The collection really is spectacular, and a lot of people don’t know all the things that are going on there. I’ve been really heartened though because the Beaverbrook and I collaborated to develop an audio guide based on The Frame-Up. You can actually hear Mona Dunn talking to you about the paintings. It’s nothing like the docents’ tour, but it’s really fun. The gallery is a miraculous place that exists in this small city, and art lovers need to get here.
What do you hope young readers might take away from The Frame-Up in terms of thinking about art and creativity?
My biggest hope is that at the end of reading this book, kids will be inspired to pick up their pencils, pens, markers, paints, or whatever and do something themselves. And also ask their parents to take them [to see art]. In a perfect world, every reader would eventually get to Fredericton, but really there is amazing art everywhere and if this book helps encourage a love of art and looking at art in a different way, then my job will be well done.