Friday, April 28, 2017

Drowning in the Light

As I mention in the introduction to my interview with Tiffany Reisz, historical novels—and, for that matter, history books and the research that gives rise to them—are a kind of time travel. As readers and writers, we can celebrate the allure of the past, including the thrill of immersing ourselves in situations, once common, that we probably don’t want to give up our modern conveniences to experience firsthand. Authors, too, enjoy certain advantages in writing about the past: plot twists that require serious explanation in the age of cell phones and DNA testing come into their own before the development of police forces, never mind chemistry labs.

But there remains, for authors even more than readers, that nagging question: did we get it right? And for those of us in the “business,” the prospect of answering that question, more than anything else, accounts for the attraction of time travel. To go back to our chosen period of history, to see it for ourselves, hear it and smell it, encounter the full range of possible behavior—but then, we hope, snap back to the present before we have to deal with premodern medicine, derogatory attitudes toward women and minorities, or even unwashed bodies—that is a novelist’s, a historian’s, or a reader’s dream.

The Night Mark raises a slightly different set of questions: What would it take for a twenty-first-century woman to give up the present entirely and choose to live out the rest of her life in the past? What kind of woman would make that choice? What does she lose, what does she gain, and what must she settle in herself before she can decide?

Tiffany Reisz is a self-aware and engaging conversationalist, and she tackles these questions head on. So take a listen—as always, the interviews are free—and ask yourself whether you would make the same choice her heroine does. I’m not sure I would. Love is great, of course, but so are antibiotics and electricity ...

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

So many people hope to find the perfect soul mate, but suppose you do, only to lose the person you love just as your life together is getting off to a beautiful start? Faye Barlow reacts by tumbling into a new marriage with her first husband’s best friend. After all, the bills pile ever higher, and her husband’s unborn child can’t come into the world without health insurance. The best friend is eager to help, but as time goes by, they both realize it takes more than need and a shared but unexpressed grief to make a partnership. Faye leaps at the chance to resume her career as a photographer, and as she travels around South Carolina’s coastal islands, her mourning finds an outlet and hope creeps back into her life.

In the old town of Beaufort, she encounters the legend of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who drowned as a young woman. Compelled to learn more, Faye finds a photograph in the town archives and discovers that the lighthouse keeper looked just like her first, lost husband. She feels drawn to the lighthouse, and while visiting it at night, she is literally pulled into the past. But the year 1921 poses many challenges to a girl from the future accustomed to buying her food in plastic packages from the supermarket, storing it in a refrigerator, and cooking it on modern appliances. No antibiotics, no traffic laws, no electricity on the island, no equal treatment for women or people of color. Yet there is the lighthouse keeper, with his resemblance to Faye’s lost love. Will she stay? Can she stay? And what difficult tasks must she perform before she has a choice?

In The Night Mark (Mira Books, 2017) Tiffany Reisz has created a beautiful tale of love, loss, and recovery when life seems to offer nothing but shoals—except for that steady, pulsing beam of light in the dark.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Alyssa Palombo

It’s no accident that Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was my pick for the Five Directions Press Books We Loved post in April (check the link for other great books we found). Due out next Tuesday, the novel came to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, but alas, I had no free space in my schedule this time around. I definitely want to interview Alyssa in the future, but for now, she has graciously agreed to this written exchange of questions and answers. Read right down the end for more information on her, this book, and how to find out more about both.

Your first book was on Vivaldi; this one looks at Botticelli. What draws you to early modern Italian artists?I’m certainly drawn to write about Italy specifically, as it’s a country I love and I find its history, political and artistic alike, so fascinating. As a musician I was inspired to write about Vivaldi at a time when I was experiencing something of a musical Renaissance myself and minoring in music in college. I often say, though, that Vivaldi chose me, as the spark for The Violinist of Venice came from a dream that I had, out of the blue, that became the first chapter of the book. With Botticelli—long one of my favorite painters—I was really struck by the true story of his artistic relationship with Simonetta Vespucci, and the fact that he is buried at her feet. It seemed such a romantic story in all the best ways that I knew I had to tell it. More broadly, as an artist myself, I am always passionately interested in the artistic process, whatever the medium might be.

When did you first hear about Simonetta Cattaneo? What made you decide to tell your story from her point of view?
I first came across her story – that she was the woman in Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus—when I visited Florence for the first time, about four years ago now. At the time I was finishing up The Violinist of Venice and getting that ready to send to literary agents, so I filed the story idea about Simonetta and Botticelli away for future reference. When I sold Violinist and got a two-book deal, I thought that maybe it was time to dig out that idea and run with it. I don’t remember consciously making the decision to write from Simonetta’s point of view; it seemed an obvious choice for the idea as I had conceived it, but also as a writer I tend to naturally gravitate toward first person.

Tell us about Simonetta as a character—that is, your Simonetta and how she relates to the historical person. Do we know much about the historical Simonetta?

There is not much information available about the real-life Simonetta, which was at times very frustrating but also freeing from a creative standpoint. I could shape her life in a manner that made sense to me, based on the few facts that we do know, one of which being that she was actually considered the most beautiful woman in Florence in her day. That—and the fact that she was Botticelli’s model for Venus, the goddess of love and beauty—is sort of the core of what we know about her, so as a writer I wanted to explore what such a celebration of physical beauty would be like for a flesh-and-blood woman. My Simonetta is well read and intelligent and wants to be appreciated for that. She doesn’t have any false modesty about her beauty, but she interacts with it in a way that I think is realistic: at times she uses her beauty and its effect on men to her advantage, and at others she is frustrated by that effect. No one is perfect or entirely consistent in their attitudes or feelings from day to day, so that she would do both felt genuine to me.

The man she marries, Marco Vespucci, turns out to be something of a disappointment. What kind of person is he?He is someone else we don’t know too much about historically (though he was a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who gave his name to the new world). In my novel, he starts out as someone Simonetta believes that she loves, as she understands love. But he is ambitious and more worldly than she, and wants to use their marriage to his political and social advantage—certainly not unheard of or even necessarily frowned upon in that time and place, but also not what Simonetta thought she was getting. Their relationship changes a great deal over the course of the novel, but I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers!

And of course, there is Botticelli himself. He and his painting are essential to the story, but in a sense he remains on the outskirts, because we meet him only through Simonetta’s eyes. How do you perceive his role and his character?In the novel, Botticelli is someone who—like the rest of those around her—recognizes and is aware of Simonetta’s beauty, but he sees beyond that as well, in a way that only perhaps one or two other characters do. He doesn’t want her to simply model for him but to truly understand and appreciate his artistic vision. He becomes first a friend to her in a way that none of the other characters are—her friendship with Lorenzo and Clarice de’ Medici, for instance, is rather different—and eventually that friendship develops into something more. I just loved writing the conversations and debates that Sandro and Simonetta have—in seeing him through her eyes it felt just like talking to a friend.

And I can’t let you go without asking about the Medici family, in all its glitter and glory. Do you have a favorite among them? Were they part of the appeal of this tale?I do! They’re all fascinating, but I really love Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, the mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano. She was a writer in her own right and wrote plays and poetry; she was also very active in the political life of Florence and would see petitioners and settle disputes. She even went on a diplomatic mission to Rome to arrange Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini. It was very unusual at the time for a woman to undertake such a task, which to me is just another reason why she is a very cool historical lady. They are such an interesting family overall, and they don’t appear in historical fiction nearly as often as I think they should, so that was definitely part of the appeal of writing this novel for me.

What are you working on now?My current work-in-progress is also set in Renaissance Italy, but it is very different from The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence in that it is rather dark and political. It is challenging me as a writer for sure and will be a lot of work to get just right, but in spite of and also because of that I am very excited about it!

Thank you, Alyssa, for talking with me today. I wish you all success with your writing and hope you will come back for a podcast interview next time around!

About the Book

A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals in 15th-century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome, and well-educated. Not to mention he is one of the powerful Medici family’s favored circle.

Even before her marriage with Marco is set, Simonetta is swept up into Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici’s glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists, and philosophers. The men of Florence—most notably the rakish Giuliano de’ Medici—become enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable and fashionable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart most. Botticelli immediately invites Simonetta, newly proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Florence, to pose for him. As Simonetta learns to navigate her marriage, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a passionate intimacy, one that leads to her immortalization in his masterpiece The Birth of Venus.

Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence vividly captures the dangerous allure of the artist and muse bond with candor and unforgettable passion.

About the Author

ALYSSA PALOMBO is also the author of The Violinist of Venice. She has published short fiction pieces in Black Lantern Magazine and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing, respectively.  A passionate music lover, she is a classically trained musician as well as a big fan of heavy metal. The Violinist of Venice is her first novel. She lives in Buffalo, New York.

Connect with Alyssa Palombo


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Friday, April 14, 2017

New Jeans

I don’t buy clothes often—books, not shoes, are my luxury of choice. But even someone who works and writes from home has to update the wardrobe occasionally, if in a strictly proletarian fashion. Thus I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to buy a new pair of jeans. After an early success in which I added a sale item or two and placed the order in minutes, the process quickly went south. The normally reliable online retailer, patronized for years, had just upgraded all its computer systems days before a major late-season snowstorm took out the power, and two weeks and three phone calls later, I still don’t have the item I originally went online to buy. But the rest of the order arrived yesterday, so this morning, for the first time in years, I found myself struggling with a new pair of jeans.

Now, on the off chance that you only buy wool trousers and chinos, let me mention that jeans are not like other pants. Those you put on, and they fit or they don’t fit, in which case you keep them or send them back. Jeans ... grow. Each time you wash them, you have to stretch them out again, but that first try-on is brutal. I tugged and pulled. This was the same model and size I had in my closet. Had the manufacturer mislabeled the product? Had I put on that much weight? Should I have ordered a larger size? (Insert wild outbreak of denial here.) Then experience kicked in, and I remembered the drill: squats and bends, wriggles and twists—and behold, the jeans not only buttoned but zipped. A few hours later, they feel almost comfortable, if not yet cozy like the old friends hanging in the closet.

Of course, this post isn’t really about clothes. Book projects are like that, too. Start a new one, even with familiar characters, and it’s like struggling into that new pair of jeans. But do enough wriggling and writhing, twisting and pulling, and the book stops feeling like an alien object and starts to mold itself to your shape.

The Vermilion Bird is just about at that point. With a solid week of writing under my belt, twenty-three chapters (however rough) on the page, and two more sketched out to bring the book to its conclusion, I finally know where it’s going. And on Tuesday, in a flash of inspiration after re-reading the central third of the novel, it came to me what my main character’s inner conflict is all about. Specifically, what has made her so prickly and unlikable throughout the series that I have to convince some of my readers that it’s even worth picking up the new book to find out what makes her tick. (I promise: you will sympathize with her when you find out—and if you don’t, I will have put her in enough hot water that you will feel satisfied at having watched her squirm.)

Yes, I know: we writers are supposed to work on motivation beforehand—and I assure you, I did. But characters are people, too, and what I thought was driving Maria turned out to be only a symptom of her deeper conflict. So with enormous thanks to Ariadne Apostolou and Courtney J. Hall, whose questions and comments kept my virtual nose to the grindstone long enough to discover what my latest story is, I’m poised to finish my rough draft. And that’s when the real fun begins, once I’ve broken in that new pair of jeans.

Clipart no. 109537280

Friday, April 7, 2017

Catching Fleas

I’ve heard a story—perhaps you’ve heard it too, although it’s probably more an urban legend than reality—that the makers of Oriental carpets weave mistakes into their work, because only God is perfect. Frankly, this story always makes me laugh. Does anyone have to manufacture mistakes? I can make a dozen before breakfast without even trying, especially with a middle-aged memory working on my behalf. Which brings me to today’s topic: proofing.

As some of you know, I handle all the typesetting and proofing, as well as much of the copy editing, for Five Directions Press. I make my living the same way. And like most editors, I am a perfectionist. Show me a poster or an advance review copy, and my eye goes immediately to the extra space, the comma that should be a period or vice versa, the preposition that ends a sentence. I can’t help it. When I’m reading for pleasure, I wish I could turn off that inner voice commenting on faulty grammar or words that break across lines when they should not, never mind spelling and capitalization errors.

So it may come as something of a surprise that of all the parts that go into my job, proofing is the one I dislike most. Editing fiction is usually fun (if nonfiction not always—it depends on the topic), typesetting artistically satisfying, writing pure joy. But proofing demands intense focus on tiny, essentially arbitrary details. Worse, it’s so final. From proofing, a book goes to press, where any mistake that’s missed will remain visible forever. Small things, big impact—a classic prescription for stress.

Proofing is, of course, essential. Work riddled with errors brands an author or a press as unprofessional. But as an activity it is humbling, especially to a perfectionist. Proofing reveals the places where one’s eye skipped over the same mistake a dozen times before. In the novel I’m working on now, I read the file before typesetting, during typesetting, as a printed PDF after typesetting. I created an e-book and checked the formatting, although the error I have in mind would not show up in an e-book. Only when I went to investigate a problem the author identified—which turned out to be caused by her computer, but that’s another story—did I realize that I had assigned the wrong tag to one chapter opener, so that the pretty small caps that set off the first line everywhere else didn’t appear. This after going through the file about eighteen times to check specifically for typesetting errors: things like vertical justification (facing pages ending at the same place) and ladders (same word stacked two or three times at the left or right edge of a paragraph). I saw a thousand trees and missed the giant rock sitting smack where it should not be. That’s proofing.

One thing that helps, I find, is changing formats. Things I can’t see on screen or miss in printouts leap out at me in an e-book or the actual book. CreateSpace lets authors order bound proofs, which look exactly like the final output. I always insist on seeing the bound proof before I sign off on a book, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. In the past, I’ve found incorrect headers, photographs that printed too dark, tables of contents that didn’t match the chapter headings, authors’ names spelled incorrectly, and more—all this in articles and books that three to six people have read, sometimes more than once. We learn to read by recognizing patterns, to see words rather than individual letters. So faced with a page, the mind fills in the blanks, and nothing but kicking it out of its comfort zone lets the proofer see what’s really there or not there in place of what we expect to find. Then there are the errors no one could predict, like the cover that looked perfect on screen but developed a color mismatch or stray lines on export, visible only in the final output or when blown up to 600% in Photoshop.

And that is why I don’t worry about inserting errors in my work. Because hard as I try to root them out, they multiply like fleas, and there are always more to find. But as irritated as I become every time I finally catch sight of that giant rock, I’ve had to learn to chill. Because it’s true: only God is perfect.

Image: Clipart no. 109370633.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Dancing up a Storm

Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.

The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight.


Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theaters and their school operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsars’ household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scale—and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905—everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as children to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement thirty years later, safeguarded them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russia’s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy.

When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theaters faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October. Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits. 

Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theaters of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible. Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workers’ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.

Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets.

The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled.

Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, people’s commissar of education, convinced Vladimir Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed.

The rechristened state theaters continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalized the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Stalinist government and its successors realized that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.

The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet again became the touchstone of world dance—no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a workers’ paradise.

The democratization of Russian ballet—hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution—had ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down, and culture as a whole—poetry, drama, film—reflected these changes, but the exodus caused by the revolution acted as a significant stimulus to the modernization of the sometimes anachronistic art of ballet throughout the world.

Images: Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, 1910 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); The Bolshoi Ballet School in the 1920s (courtesy of Russia in Photos); The finale of The Flames of Paris, one of the “revolutionary” ballets, staged in 1932 (courtesy of Russia in Photos).

An earlier version of this post appeared on “Culture Matters” on March 20, 2017.