Friday, May 1, 2015

Turning Tables

Once in a while, I like to invite another author to guest post on my blog. This week, I pass the hat to Michael Schmicker, whose novel The Witch of Napoli came out earlier this spring to great acclaim. I loved it, and when you read this post, you will have a good idea why. Plus it’s always fun—especially with a historical novel—to see where an author got his or her ideas and how s/he transformed research into fiction. And with that, I retreat into the wings and leave the stage to Mike. If you’d like to find out more about him and his books, his contact information is at the end of the post.

From Mike

I had fun writing The Witch of Napoli.

The novel was inspired by the true-life story of Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918)—a middle-aged Neapolitan peasant woman who levitated tables and conjured up spirits of the dead in dimly lit séance rooms all across Europe at the end of the 19th century. Her psychokinetic powers baffled Nobel Prize-winning scientists and captivated aristocracy from Paris to Vienna. Her scandalous flirtations, her meteoric rise to fame, her humiliating fall and miraculous redemption, made world headlines at the time—when she died, she was famous enough to earn an obituary in the New York Times.

When you start with a life like hers, the story writes itself.

The fiery personality of my fictional heroine Alessandra closely mimics the real Palladino. Eusapia was hot-tempered, amorous, vulgar, confident—in a Victorian age where respectable women were insipid saints on a pedestal, stunted socially, sexually, intellectually, economically. She allowed strange men to sit with her in a darkened room holding her hands and knees and legs (“proper” women would have fainted or thrown themselves off a precipice if caught in that situation). She flirted and teased her male sitters, argued loudly, slapped an aristocrat who insulted her, flew at men who accused her of cheating (even when she did). Yet she was also extremely kind and generous to anyone in trouble, loved animals, gave to beggars. Her heart was large.

I did add a strong dash of Hollywood to the novel. Unlike the real Palladino, the fictional Alessandra is married to a sadistic gangster; she channels Savonarola, the famous 15th-century Dominican heretic burned at the stake; she falls in love with her upper-class mentor; she has a secret bastard; and the Catholic Church blackmails her. Pure fiction, all of it—but I like melodrama. Emotion and conflict create the beating heart of any gripping story.

Plotting was easy. I compressed 20 years of Palladino’s extraordinary life into a short 12 months but kept the factual arc of her controversial career intact. She’s discovered, tested, convinces Continental scientists her paranormal powers are real. England’s Society for Psychical Research (the novel’s fictitious London Society for the Investigation of Mediums) remains suspicious, invites her to England, catches her red-handed cheating. She returns home in disgrace. French and Italian scientists hang tough and demand one, final test. The winner-take-all showdown takes place in Naples. All true, by the way.

And those dramatic table levitations—surely they’re merely the product of the author’s imagination? Yes, some are. But others are slightly modified descriptions of spooky phenomena investigators actually witnessed at a sitting (she did hundreds, over two decades). Scientists today still heatedly debate whether Palladino was genuine or a complete fraud. She was caught cheating multiple times, yet she also produced, under extremely strict scientific controls, some of the most baffling and impressive feats of psychokinesis ever observed or photographed. Wikipedia owns the bully pulpit on Palladino but serves up a disappointing, simplistic dismissal of the best evidence for her genuineness, promoting instead a carefully curated collection of predominately skeptical experts and quotes. If there’s an afterlife, you can bet Palladino is fuming, fists raised.

My personal opinion? Palladino during her long career produced some genuine (though not necessarily supernatural) telekinetic effects. What do I base my opinion on? Primarily on parapsychological experiments confirming the reality of psychokinesis, which I describe in my nonfiction book Best Evidence; plus the exhaustive, 283-page Fielding Report published by England’s Society for Psychical Research, documenting the ten baffling sittings they conducted with Palladino in Napoli in 1908. Wikipedia whips up a whirlwind of speculation—from armchair critics who weren’t there—as to how Palladino might have cheated; I prefer the conclusion penned by the three veteran investigators who were actually there:

“With great intellectual reluctance, though without much personal doubt as to its justice ... we are of the opinion that we have witnessed in the presence of Eusapia Palladino the action of some kinetic force, the nature and origin of which we cannot attempt to specify, through which, without the introduction of either accomplices, apparatus, or mere manual dexterity, she is able to produce the movement of … objects at a distance from her and unconnected to her in any apparent physical manner.”

Somewhere, Eusapia is smiling.

You can find out more about Michael Schmicker at his website, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on GoodReads, Twitter, or Google+. The Witch of Napoli is available in print and for Kindle at

1 comment:

  1. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed your book, Michael, it was good to read this interview and see where fiction and fact departed. Thank you for inviting Michael, Lesley.


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