Mingling with abstract artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra first inspired Jan Greenberg to become an author. In the ’70s, her home was “a kind of middle ground for artists,” she says, after her husband, Ronnie, opened the Greenberg Van Doren Art Gallery. “Listening to them talk about their work fascinated me. And I also realized that they were taking big risks,” she says—abstract art wasn’t always accepted, and it could take the artists a long time to place their work in galleries.
“That encouraged me to write that first book,” she says. Published in 1979, A Season in Between is an autobiographical novel based on Greenberg’s years at Mary Institute, then an all-girls private school. “I began it just as an autobiography to share with my girls,” says Greenberg, who has three daughters. “I was lucky it was published.”
Writing about Mary Institute came easily, she says. “I could look at it with a great amount of not only distance, but amusement,” she explains. The book was part send-up of life at a private girls school and part serious—it was also about a girl dealing with her father’s illness and death from cancer. Like the main character, Greenberg’s father died when she was in seventh grade. Writing the book, she says, was “a way of getting some mastery of those feelings that I hadn’t explored in a long time.”
Six more novels followed, all for young adults. Then, as Greenberg’s daughters entered their teens, her writing took a new direction. As children, she says, her daughters and their friends were excited by the colorful, abstract art lining the walls of the Greenbergs’ Clayton home, painted by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella. “But when they became teenagers, they often made comments such as, ‘My little sister could do that,’” Greenberg says. “And I began to wonder what happens between childhood and adulthood that turns us off to new ideas.”
Inspired by the works around her, Greenberg collaborated with former editor Sandra Jordan to write The Painter’s Eye: Learning to Look at Contemporary American Art. “What I wanted to do was help young people begin a conversation about art,” she says.
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book was visiting studios and museums and talking to artists, Greenberg says. “What fascinated us was the way the artists talked about how their life and their work intertwined.” That interest launched a series of biographies (written for children) of artists such as Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock.
Researching the biographies took Greenberg around the world. “With novels, you really stay in the room, but writing nonfiction, you get out of the studio to interview your subjects, go to galleries and museums and go to where they lived and worked,” she says. “Each book is an adventure.”
Greenberg’s upcoming book, Ballet for Martha, describes how dancer Martha Graham, artist Isamu Noguchi and composer Aaron Copeland collaborated on the ballet Appalachian Spring, and will be published next fall. After that, it’s on to something entirely new. Greenberg says she’s now writing a mystery for adults, set in St. Louis. “I love reading mysteries,” she says. “I guess I’ve been doing so much research about artists, I’m kind of ready to just let it go and write.”
Is she done with children’s books entirely? “If a good idea comes to me for another children’s book, I’ll write one,” she says. “But right now I’m having fun just exploring.”