From an interview with Patricia Vigderman about her book, The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner:
What kind of research did this book require of you? And how long did it take to finish, beginning from the first time you had the idea to explore Isabella Gardner’s life and her collection?Read the entire interview.
The book has an associative structure, and that’s also the way I do research: one thing leads to the next. The beginning, of course, was the museum itself, a strange and beautiful place that I found very appealing and also frustrating. Isabella Gardner’s will required that nothing could be altered, no object moved or painting rehung, so its unchangeable idiosyncracies can make it seem frozen in time, as if she had no flexibility in imagining the future. Then when I began reading different biographies of her I noticed how much they, too, were products of their own time. So I began looking for things from her time, to lead me back into her world, to women’s place in it, and to a developing curiosity about the art and civic development in post-Civil War Boston. I was also lucky to have access to the Harvard University libraries, and I found myself hunting down documents and books that no one had looked at for decades—a guidebook to Japan from the 1880s, a collection of unpublished letters, memoirs of energetic but now forgotten women. So, my research was both serendipitous and purposeful, and I let it go on for several years, not knowing exactly how it was all going to fit together.
The Memory Palace doesn’t quite fit into any particular category. Described as “equal parts biography, memoir, philosophy, and detective story,” it crosses genre boundaries to make an entirely unique book. Could you talk about how you came to this blended form?
Indeed, the real labor was finding the form for the book — how to shape the material to reflect the way it had entered and affected my writing life. I would say that the book is personal in that it is my voice that carries the research. It’s not about me, but I wanted very much to share my pleasure with readers—my pleasure not just in the art, but in creating my own nineteenth-century world, my own relationship with the historical characters I was discovering. I realized early on that what I had was a quest narrative: I was looking for Isabella. But in coming at her from many angles I was also creating an Isabella who suited my own purposes. In a way, I was trying to find a biographical form that felt honest rather than authoritative.
The Page 69 Test: The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner.