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THE SECRET LIFE OF SUNFLOWERS
Based on the true story of Johanna Bonger
Vincent van Gogh’s Sister-in-law
BY MARTA MOLNAR
When auctioneer Emsley Wilson finds her grandmother’s diary, the pages are full of surprises. The first surprise is, the 100-year-old diary isn’t her grandmother’s. It belongs to Johanna Bonger, Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law.
Johanna inherited Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. They were all she had, and they weren’t worth anything. She was a 28 year old widow with a baby in the 1800s, without any means of supporting herself, living in Paris where she barely spoke the language. Yet she managed to introduce Vincent’s legacy to the world.
The inspiration couldn’t come at a better time for Emsley. With her business failing, an unexpected love turning up in her life, and family secrets unraveling, can she find answers in the past?
Q: What gave you the idea for THE SECRET LIFE OF SUNFLOWERS?
I saw an art documentary briefly mention Johanna Bonger, and I was instantly fascinated by her. I knew that Vincent van Gogh was not a successful artist in his lifetime, but I didn’t know just how bad things were. He only ever sold a single painting, to an artist friend. His brother, Theo van Gogh, was an art dealer, and even he couldn’t help. Then, after the brothers were both gone, Theo’s wife Johanna took on the task of bringing Vincent’s legacy to the world. Without her, we might have never seen The Starry Sky, or Sunflowers. It’s sad that hardly anyone knows her name and what she accomplished.
Q: What do you want readers to feel after reading your book?
Entertained! But also, I would love it if people came away inspired. Johanna and the book’s modern-day heroine, Emsley, have big goals, and they don’t let anything stand in their way. Keep going, keep trying. When I struggle with my writing career, I always tell myself, it’s impossible to put this much energy and work into something and not succeed. I think Johanna had the same philosophy. She put everything she had into her quest. I love “woman’s journey” stories. They give me that “if she could do it, so can I” boost of confidence.
Q: So, you’re talking from personal experience?
Definitely. I released THE SECRET LIFE OF SUNFLOWERS under a new pen name, Marta Molnar, because it’s different from what I normally write, but I’ve been publishing genre fiction for over 15 years as Dana Marton. It’s been a long and rocky road. It took me five completed manuscripts and 13 years of trying, before I finally broke into publishing with my first book in 2004. I just refused to give up. I kept submitting to agents and publishers, I kept taking writing classes, I kept writing after work, on my lunch break, at midnight. I had a dream, and I wasn’t about to give up.
Q: With decades of publishing experience, was publishing this new book easier?
Ha! Women’s Fiction is a new genre for me, so there was difficulty there. Also, I’ve never written anything dual-timeline. I’ve never written anything historical. I’ve never written anything based on a true story. Writing this book was a huge challenge, but once I learned more about Johanna Bonger, I wanted everyone else to know about her too. There were so many setbacks. I started writing her story over two years ago. I had to keep reminding myself that if she didn’t quit, I couldn’t quit either.
My agent submitted SUNFLOWERS to 20 publishers. The first rejection came in, the second, the third…the nineteenth, all a week or two apart, over several months. I felt as if I was being repeatedly punched in the face. I believed (and still believe) in this story so much! The rejections did a number on my self-confidence. And, of course, this was all going on during Covid. I felt like the world was falling apart at the same time as my writing career was falling apart. The last publisher held on to the manuscript for over a year. Finally, I realized that this book was never going to be published, unless I took matters into my own hand. I started a new pen name, created a brand-new author platform, waded into a genre that everybody says you MUST have a publisher for (Women’s Fiction), and released the novel myself.
Q: Since this is an indie title, with no publisher backing and no marketing department, is there anything readers can do to help others discover SUNFLOWERS?
Readers have already helped so much, and I’m incredibly grateful. Readers picked the cover from several options I posted on Facebook. About a dozen people offered to read the manuscript pre-publication and offered extremely valuable feedback. At this stage, any mention on social media would be tremendously helpful. Any recommendation or online reviews would be appreciated beyond words. I post on Facebook almost daily, so book information can be shared from there as well. THANK YOU in advance!
Q: What’s next for you?
Short term: holding my breath. The book is coming out in a week. And then readers will decide if I was right to believe in the novel or not. I hope people will fall in love with the story like I did. But no matter what happens, I’m not giving up. I’m already drafting the next book.
Marta Molnar is the author of the dual-timeline women’s fiction novel THE LIFE OF SUNFLOWERS about Vincent van Gogh’s inspirational sister-in-law Johanna Bonger. Marta is an avid art history enthusiast and a self-taught artist. She studied writing at Seton Hill University and Harvard University, lived around the world, then settled down in the Northeast United States where she currently writes in her version of Monet’s garden.
(The Secret Life of Marta Molnar: Marta is also the USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of over sixty novels of suspense, romance, and epic fantasy under the pen name Dana Marton. Writing as Dana Marton, she’s the recipient of the Rita Award, the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence, and was a quarter finalist for the BookLife Prize.)
Links to Marta’s website, blog, books, #ad etc.:
Marta is also raffling off a gorgeous Starry Night scarf on her website: https://martamolnar.com/contest
Thanks, Marta, for sharing your story with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!