Author Betsy Franco and her son, artist Tom Franco, are on the same wavelength. Frequent collaborators, they're given to finishing each other's sentences. And when they talk about art, it's in a shared language that's almost like shorthand.
Today, Betsy and Tom are discussing their latest project -- Betsy's new novel, "Naked" (Tyrus Books, $16.99, 240 pages), which imagines French artist Camille Claudel (1864-1943) in a 21st-century setting. Illustrated by Tom, the book is described as "The Time Traveler's Wife" meets "Midnight in Paris." Art's a family affair for the Francos. Betsy studied sculpture at Stanford University. Tom, a multidisciplinary artist, produces art events in Oakland. Tom's brothers, both actors, are the Oscar-nominated James Franco and Dave Franco. (Neither is here today; James, explains Betsy, is in Canada making a film with Seth Rogen, and David's in Germany with Vince Vaughn.) Sitting down in Betsy's cozy Palo Alto living room, it's easy to get a sense of their mutual interests. The house is filled with Tom's paintings, sculptures and framed illustrations, offset by photos and film posters featuring James and David.
Betsy, who is also an actress -- she played James' mom on "General Hospital" -- says that "Naked" is all about Claudel, who is perhaps best known as the mistress and muse of 19th-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The novel begins in 2008, when the 18-year-old Claudel finds herself magically transported to Stanford's Rodin Sculpture Garden.
Betsy's been on intimate terms with the place since it was installed in 1985; she first conceived of the novel at an event there a few years ago, when dancers performed a site-specific work that seemed to bring the sculptures to life. "That really started the wheels turning," she said.
At the time, she knew little about Claudel. But something about the artist piqued her interest. "I started looking up Camille, and it was just 'wow,' " she explained. "I almost felt that I was in communication with her."
In the book, Camille -- who calls herself Cat -- meets Jesse, a young drama student. The two artists form an intense attachment.
Writing "Naked" allowed the Ohio-born Betsy to draw on various experiences. After graduating from Stanford with an art degree, she started her career as a teacher; after her sons were born, though, she decided to stay home with the kids. Writing was an outlet -- one that became hugely successful. To date, she's published more than 80 children's and young adult books.
Eventually, she returned to teaching drama in local schools. She pays careful attention to the vernacular of teens and young adults; Jesse, she notes, was a character she created for an earlier book.
"Naked" is her first adult book. As she wrote, Betsy read everything she could find about Claudel. Locating the artist's work was a challenge, so she traveled to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Claudel's The Implorer. The bronze sculpture -- which many think was a self-portrait -- was in storage in the museum's basement.
After several requests to see the sculpture, she was ushered into a room and came face to face with the piece. "It's a full figure of a woman, and she's reaching out," Betsy recalls. "It was like she was reaching out to me."
Claudel, who died in a French insane asylum, remained in Rodin's shadow throughout her lifetime. As Betsy learned more about her, "I became very emotional about her story," she says.
"Nobody's done it," Tom interjects. "People have always talked about her in terms of how crazy she was -- things that have nothing to do with her art."
"But she was such a good sculptor," adds Betsy.
Tom, meanwhile, was busy creating the drawings used in the book and on the cover. "It's impossible to draw bronze sculptures," he says with a laugh. "It's not a 2-D medium." Thinking as a sculptor helped. "I just naturally go towards 3-D materials," he says. "It was an interesting parallel between working with the sculptures and Betsy's writing and then making it into drawings. Cool things happen when you cross through these different mediums."
For her part, Betsy says she's happy if "Naked" brings Claudel into the light. "I wanted to shape my own opinion of her," she says. "Everyone has their own opinion, and I have mine, too. In a way, this book was the perfect vehicle, because I didn't have to say, 'this is the truth.' Because I don't think anybody knows, really."