Betsy Franco—and let’s get it out of the way right here: she’s the mother of actor, writer, and polymath James Franco—was in New York City for three days this May presenting her debut adult novel, Naked (Tyrus, Nov.), at BookExpo America, where she signed 150 galleys for booksellers in a 30-minute autographing session. But the other goal of her visit was to see The Implorer, the Camille Claudel sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I wrote the Met and asked if I could see it, even though it’s in storage,” she says. “They told me I could if I got there before 4:30 p.m.”
Franco’s interest in this obscure artist relates directly to Naked, which is narrated in alternating chapters by Claudel (1864–1943) and Jesse Lucas, a student at Stanford University during the 2008 summer session. The book has elements of magical realism—Tyrus in its promotional materials touts it as The Time Traveler’s Wife meets Midnight in Paris. The opening scene has Claudel, in the persona of an 18-year-old girl who calls herself Cat, emerging naked from the Auguste Rodin outdoor sculpture Meditation after Lucas touches it, in a sculpture garden on the Stanford campus, on his way to class one night. Franco weaves the tragedy of Claudel’s life with the fictional Cat’s attempts to find her way back to where she belongs. Along the way, Cat and Lucas—who’s also searching for his path, contending with an abusive father and the demands of his performance art class—meet and fall in love.
It’s a fantastic tale of love, loss, and reconciliation. Franco says that she was compelled to write it by some force beyond herself after discovering Claudel and her art. At the time, Franco wanted to write a novel set in the Rodin Sculpture Garden on the Stanford campus—a place she’s loved since it was installed in 1985.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to work,” she explains. While researching Rodin’s life and art in the hopes of inspiration, her best friend, an English professor, suggested that she look up Claudel, Rodin’s mistress and his muse, because, her friend said, “she’s part of the story.”
After following up on the suggestion, she remembers thinking, “Wow, this is it; a lot of these sculptures were inspired by Camille. Maybe I could write a story about her.” Claudel, a talented sculptor in her own right, died in a French insane asylum in 1943, 30 years after she was committed there, and 50 years after her tempestuous love affair with Rodin ended.
Franco talks of several incidents that occurred as she embarked upon the project in 2008 that strengthened her resolve to focus on telling Claudel’s story: she attended a student performance at the Rodin Sculpture Garden, during which dancers moved among the sculptures, as though they were the statues come to life; she was contacted, via Facebook, by a young Frenchwoman, Camille Bocquillon, who was named after Claudel. Naked is dedicated to Bocquillon, who worked with Franco (though the two have never met in person) on creating Cat’s voice as a native French speaker communicating in English.
“There’s lots of serendipity and synchronicity here,” Franco marvels. “Something was pushing me to write this book. It was all so fortuitous. This book has a life of its own.”
When an art curator at the Met took Franco down into the basement storage area to view The Implorer, Franco was holding a 1884 photograph of Claudel. Describing Claudel repeatedly as “very intense,” Franco confides, “It’s like she was desperate to get through to me. I know this sounds crazy, but finally, I just had to talk to her and say, ‘Have patience, I promise I’ll do my best in getting your story told and your art appreciated.’ ”
While Naked is Franco’s first adult novel, she’s written more than 80 children’s books for both the trade and educational markets for over 30 years and has also compiled and edited numerous collections of poems written by teenagers. Franco’s first YA novel, Metamorphosis: Junior Year, which was published by Candlewick in 2009, tells the story of an angst-ridden teenage boy who writes poems about the students and faculty at his high school, comparing them to figures in Roman mythology.
“It took me a long time to come up with a woman protagonist,” Franco says, discussing her writing processes. “Camille was the first woman I’ve written in the voice of; usually the voice that comes out of me is a young man.” Franco initially ascribes this to the fact that she raised three sons: James, the movie star, writer, and poet; Tom, an illustrator, whose drawings are featured on the cover and in the interior of Naked; and David, an actor. “I know a lot about their culture, the way [young men] talk,” she says. When I started writing in Camille’s voice, it scared me at first, because it was a woman.”
She says that her three sons bear much of the responsibility for her having become a published author in the first place. Franco, who now lives in Palo Alto, Calif., grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the daughter of an oral surgeon with artistic inclinations and an art gallery owner. She graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in studio art. “I kept painting after graduation but I didn’t know how to make a living as an artist,” she says. Her husband, Doug, whom she met in a college drawing class, launched and ran a nonprofit for women and children in developing nations after getting his M.B.A. from Harvard. (Doug died in 2011).
When James, her first son, was born in 1978, Franco left a full-time position teaching history and government at a private school in Palo Alto to work out of her home. “I couldn’t teach at the same time [as raising James, Tom, and David]; it would have been 24/7 kids,” she explains. “And I knew I had to be creative; if I wasn’t creative, I’d feel really crazy.”
Also, she says, she could not continue to paint with young children in the house, because oil paints “were like poison.” So she decided to write children’s books—first as a freelancer for educational publishers, and then books under her name for the trade. “I took all the energy I’d put into painting and used it to write. It was an experiment. And it worked” she says. “See the lights in the dark and see the dark in the light. That was about painting, but it was also about writing. Just put a little texture into it. Everything they taught me about painting at Stanford just all transferred over into writing.”
When asked about whether she’d consciously set out to write an adult novel with Naked, Franco shakes her head, saying that she likes to “break all the rules and then find out what the rules are,” especially when it comes to writing in a new genre. It was only after writing Metamorphosis that she took a workshop on how to write fiction for YA readers.
“I don’t think in terms of genres too much,” she says. “When I write a book, I don’t think about why I am doing it; I don’t wait for inspiration. I just sit down and write every day.” She usually works on “at least three projects” at a time, so if one “isn’t working that day,” she can “just go on to the next one.” Franco discloses that she is currently working on two novels—one for YA readers, the other for adults. The YA novel, The Awakening of Sarah Brown, explores a young woman’s sexual coming-of-age; the other novel, Norwegian Wood, was inspired by a painting she created while still in college. “I always thought I would write a book about it,” she says. “I’ve had a photo of that painting near my desk for decades. A novel for adult readers finally came together, many years later.”
But Franco turns the conversation back to The Implorer—the physical evidence, not just of Claudel’s existence, but of her artistic genius. “It was like a reunion,” Franco says about seeing the sculpture. “Camille Claudel needed somebody like me. Everyone in my family is so lucky: we’re able to use both our right brains and left brains. We can create, but we can also just get it out there.”