Greg Foley doesn't look like he belongs on a dust jacket. His "every-man" features defy the art community's love affair with eccentricity, and the first few sentences of his debut novel, The Clarity of Light, suggest a style that is comparably vanilla. But books should never be judged by their covers and this student of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and early Impressionism proves not only that vanilla can be edgy but that "unmarketable" subjects and poetic prose are still highly entertaining—especially when it comes to human nature.
This and other vast topics are directly and indirectly addressed in Light. Released last month after seven years of writing, tweaking and struggling for recognition, it is a sort of lost generation romance/tribute to traditional American literature that centers on a troubled ingenue named Nicole Coche-Dury.
Nicole is at once the most fragile, blatantly narcissistic woman on earth—at least through page 15. She is painted the kind of beauty who stuns a room, a spirited enchantress who craves constant validation and the adoration of all. The story begins with the end of her fantasy, one that involves constructions of love, loyalty and artistic passion. The action is noticeably, almost forcibly slow, but much like Nicole's character, the pace becomes more charming the more you read.
Having grown up just outside Paris, Foley returned after graduating from the University of Colorado to lead bicycle tours through the French countryside. It was there among the rolling hills and meadows of Provence (the stomping grounds of one of Foley's favorite painters—Vincent Van Gogh) that he began hatching an idea for a full-length novel.
"While biking through the areas where Van Gogh lived and worked, I had so many ideas for stories. The character of Nicole came very early on, and the story that developed is based on her," Foley said.
Light is accordingly filled with rich descriptions, and Foley admitted it was hard to balance the elements of setting and story line.
"The setting is almost a character in itself. It's just such an incredible part of the world, and I felt that a strong sense of place was important," he said. Part of the book's beauty stems from the texture of imagined cafes, country inns and museums, and the visuals are both offset and augmented by a few very unique devices.
The first, an original component as far as Foley knows, is the inclusion of excerpts from Van Gogh's personal writings.
"When I started this book seven years ago, I was reading a lot of Van Gogh's letters. I thought it would be fun to incorporate them into my work. He and Nicole have similarities, battles with some of the same demons, but I wouldn't sell this as anything historical—in some ways it is, but people can read his letters and interpret them how they wish," Foley said.
Foley also leaves Nicole's persona up for discussion. Critics have questioned his rather gutsy creation of a female protagonist, especially one so selfish and insecure, but Foley stands by her and the effect of her gradual, unconventional humanism. "She is based on real people—a mélange of women I've known in my life—but no one in particular," he said. "I wanted to create a character that had a lot of attractions but also a lot of flaws, someone who was not so easily likable but who would grow on you the more you understand her perspective." And grow she does, from a self-absorbed, ethereal girl to a woman whose inner beauty begins to catch up. Her struggles are our struggles (excluding setting, unfortunately), and Foley writes her life with lyricism, wisdom and wit.
Only weeks after Light's release, Foley, who lives in Hailey, is already at work on another book. He is busy with his newspaper job but manages to make time to write for himself ever now and then. He was modest and candid about the journey of writing and publishing a book, and like Van Gogh, he only hopes to sell a few copies.
"I'm a writer who appreciates all of the nuances of language and classical elements of American literature; I'm someone who explores relationships, emotions and the realities of life rather than relying heavily on unrealistic things that tend to sell," he said. "Not that I have it figured out, but you can't let the process get frustrating. You have to keep doing it, 'cause the fun is in trying."