In the course of my two-week tour of several wonderful historical fiction blogs organized by Amy Bruno (highly recommended!), I was interviewed by Erin Al-Mehairi at Oh, for the Hook of a Book and Erin Davies at Flashlight Commentary. I’ve reproduced these interviews below:
Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Hi, Carol. We are happy to have you join us today at Oh, for the Hook of a Book! We are pleased to be featuring your book, The Towers of Tuscany. How has life been treating you in 2014? I know you live in Canada, have you been battling cold and snow like us in Ohio? Until this week, we thought it would never end. I am looking forward to spring finally arriving!
Carol: I’m delighted to be here! Life has been awesome so far in 2014. Up here in British Columbia we’ve had a very mild winter (unlike the rest of Canada) and as I write the birds are chirping and my magnificent magnolia tree is in full bloom. I live on a small island (Bowen Island) that is a 20-minute ferry ride from Vancouver – rather like the California of Canada!
Erin: That sounds just fabulous and inspiring. Shall we sit on the porch in some large rocking chairs with a cup of tea and chat? What kind of tea will you be having? I’m going for one of my favorites, Earl Grey, today.
Carol: I’ll have Chai tea if you have any; otherwise, I love Earl Grey as well!
Erin: Oh, yes, Chai. I like that too. I’ll pour you some. Let’s get started then with discussing your book and your life. I can’t wait to learn more.
Q: Your novel is about a female artist in 14th Century Italy. Who is she? Where or how did the inspiration for Towers of Tuscany ignite?
A: As far as we know, there were no female artists in 14th century Italy. We do know that nuns in convents illuminated manuscripts and artisans in northern Europe created embroideries and other textiles. But as far as history tells us, women did not work on the panels, altarpieces, and frescoes that adorned the churches and palazzos of the period. Mind you, painters of the period did not sign their work so even if a woman had painted, we would not know. Painting in the 14th century was done in workshops overseen by a master, and was very often a family affair. The painter (the maestro) trained his sons, worked with his brothers, and brought his nephews into the workshop. I got to thinking that a master painter who had a daughter and no son could well have trained her in his workshop. He would have done so in secret because it is likely that the local guild would not approve of a woman painting. Like fathers through the ages, Maestro Antonio Barducci adored his young daughter. When his wife died, he naturally taught his daughter and took her with him to fulfill his many commissions around Italy. I consulted with Dr. Efrat El-Hanany, an expert in the art of the period who teaches at Capilano University in North Vancouver, and she felt that the existence of a woman painter in the 14th century, while not likely, was certainly plausible. That’s all I needed to get going and invent Sofia!
Q: Tell us how you developed Sofia’s character? She is strong and independent in a time that was frowned upon. How did you formulate her personality?
A: Although woman during this period had virtually no political power, it is unrealistic to think that they were powerless. We didn’t invent strong women in the 21st century! Then, as now, women took care of their families, ran large households, played active roles in helping with the family business, and had influence over their husbands and neighbours. For example, a woman such as Monna Guiliana, the wife of Luca Manzini, the painter Sofia lives with in Siena, has tremendous influence over her husband, and Sofia’s sister-in-law Caterina is beloved and trusted by her husband. On the other hand, women definitely had fewer opportunities, particularly women of the upper classes. I started with the premise that strong, intelligent women had always existed and then thought about how they might have coped during a time that, thanks to plague, famine, and frequent wars, was harsh for everyone. I also think it’s important to remember that just because opportunities were limited for women in the middle ages (and even today in certain parts of the world), it is not necessarily the case that all women were meek and mild. Far from it! Bad things happen to my Sofia but often as a result of her own choices. She is definitely not a victim.
Q: What types of art did Sofia produce? I read about the altar pieces and panels, but did she produce painting of any other kind? Do you have any photos you can show us?
A: In the novel, Sofia also paints armor—tedious work that she loathes. In the first half of the 14th Century in Italy, the rise of the merchant class resulted in a great deal of surplus wealth which in turn facilitated an explosion in the demand for art. Panels, frescoes, and altarpieces adorned churches, chapels and civic buildings; private devotional panels and frescos were created for wealthy citizens; and banners, furniture, book covers, and armor were decorated with painted designs. I have an art guide that readers can refer to as they read The Towers of Tuscany. They can access the guide from my Web site at http://carolcram.com/art-guide/. My Author Notes also include links to pictures of the art that inspired many of the scenes in the novel.
Q: Of course it was unusual during this time period for a woman to aspire to anything other than producing male heirs, but have you come across other women from then that produced anything of artistic value?
A: There are no records of women painters in 14th Century Italy, but certainly women have produced art through the ages. Here’s a link to an article on Wikipedia about women artists. Famous examples include Helena of Egypt in the 4th century BC and Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century. As mentioned earlier, women also created illuminations and were active in the textile industries, particularly in northern Europe. For example, the famous Bayeux tapestry is an embroidery stitched by the needlewomen of Kent in England in the years following the Norman conquest in 1066.
Q: Did you do a lot of research for your novel? Did you find anything that surprised you?
A: I read quite a few books, consulted with some experts in the art of the period, and traveled to Italy where I spent a great deal of time looking at the art of the period and just wandering the medieval streets of San Gimignano and Siena. One of the coolest things I found in my research was a museum called San Gimignano 1300 in San Gimignano, the Tuscan city of towers where much of the novel takes place. This museum includes an incredible scale model of San Gimignano as it appeared in the year 1300. I took numerous pictures of the model so that when I returned home to Vancouver, I could imagine Sofia walking through the narrow streets and painting in her tower room. Here are some pictures of the scale model.
San Gimignano still has 17 towers, but in its heyday in the 14th Century, over 70 towers were jammed into the same space occupied by the town today. Here are some pictures of San Gimignano and the gorgeous Tuscan countryside.
Q: Medieval Italy seemed to be so vibrant with the arts, from art to music to writing. What are some of the favorite things you like from the time period? Did you put any into your novel?
A: I love the style of art of the period, particularly frescoes that showed secular subjects. The vast majority of the art of the period was religious. However, some painters were starting to depict architecture, daily activities, and regular people, particularly in frescoes. Sofia actually paints a view of the towers of San Gimignano at the end of the novel. Landscape paintings were extremely rare during this period; however, painters were starting to experiment and I wanted to make my Sofia one of those painters. Her painting is inspired by a real painting done by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the 1340s. Here’s a picture of it. Sofia’s painting would have been similar to this—very stylized and, in my opinion, just wonderful!
Q: You live with your husband who is a painter. Did he influence your book or assist you with the art elements in your book? It sounds like you both are a very creative team!
A: My novel was published in January; it’s now April and my husband Gregg has just made it to Chapter 10! He loves the novel and is incredibly supportive, but he is not a reader of fiction. That’s okay with me. It’s quite wonderful that my biggest fan is someone who doesn’t actually read my work—or at least takes his time doing so! When I was writing the novel, we discussed the art of course, but I was writing about a period with which he is not that familiar. He is a contemporary painter working in the tradition of surrealism and is most knowledgeable about painting in the 19th and 20th centuries. Readers can check out his work at www.greggsimpson.com On the other hand, just living for over 30 years with a painter is a major influence. I’ve watched him work, listened to him talk about his challenges with materials and getting the painting “right,” and spent many hours helping him catalog and sell his work. I also paint a bit myself. And really, the creative process is similar in all the arts—the frustrations and the joys.
Q: What other novels do you think you’ll write? Do you have any other strong women in mind or more books of an art history theme?
A: My goal is to develop a series of historical novels with an arts twist. Each novel will focus on a particular art genre—painting, music, theater, etc. My next novel (working title: Nocturnes) is about a six foot tall concert pianist and composer named Isabette Grüber. The novel opens in Vienna on March 29, 1827, the day of Beethoven’s funeral and follows Isabette as her career intersects with Schubert and Chopin and she copes with numerous challenges that threaten her livelihood, her passions, and perhaps even her mind. Stay tuned!
Q: What is the best way for you to spend a relaxing day without work or writing?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I live on a beautiful island and so to relax I like to go for walks in the forest and enjoy views of the ocean. I also enjoy doing community work as president of our local arts council (the Bowen Island Arts Council) and I love to travel and to plan trips when I’m not traveling. My next big trip is to Vienna, England, and Scotland in September. In Vienna I’ll do the last bits of research for “Vienna Nocturnes” which I plan to release in November 2014. I’ll also be researching my third novel which is set in Bath and London in 1809 and revolves around the theatre.
Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you best?
A: On my Web site at www.carolcram.com. Readers can sign up to receive my newsletter and leave comments on blog postings. Readers can also follow me on Twitter @carolcram and email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love corresponding with readers and will do my best to respond to emails and comments.
Erin: Thank you so much for coming by today, Carol. I appreciate so very much your time in answering these questions. I love books that speak to the art history of past time periods, and especially, I like books featuring strong female protagonists. Thank you for writing it!
Carol: It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Erin, and have a great day!
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Carol. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Towers of Tuscany.
The Towers of Tuscany tells the story of a fictional woman artist in fourteenth century Italy. As far as we know, there were no female artists in 14th century Italy. We do know that nuns in convents illuminated manuscripts and women artisans in northern Europe created embroideries and other textiles. However, women were not known to have worked on the panels, altarpieces, and frescoes that adorned the churches and palazzos of Italy during the period 1338 to 1348 covered by the novel. I was intrigued with the possibility that a woman could have been a painter, even if she had to do so in secret. I knew that painting in the 14th century was very much a family affair. The master painter (the maestro) ran a workshop where he trained his sons and worked with his brothers and other family members. I got to thinking that a master painter who had a daughter and no son could well have trained her in the painter’s trade. Like fathers through the ages, the father of Sofia, my heroine, adored his young daughter and so when his wife died, he trained his daughter as his apprentice and took her with him to fulfill painting commissions all over Italy. I consulted with Dr. Efrat El-Hanany, an expert in the art of the period who teaches at Capilano University in North Vancouver, and she agreed that the existence of a woman painter in the 14th century, while not likely, was certainly plausible. That’s all I needed to get going and invent Sofia!
Historically speaking, what research went into The Towers of Tuscany and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating material for the book?
I read quite a few books, consulted with some experts in the art of the period, and traveled to Italy where I spent a great deal of time looking at the art and just wandering the medieval streets of San Gimignano and Siena. One of the coolest things I found in my research was a museum called San Gimignano 1300 in San Gimignano, the Tuscan city of towers where much of the novel takes place. This museum includes an incredible scale model of San Gimignano as it appeared in the year 1300. I took numerous pictures of the model so that when I returned home to Bowen Island (near Vancouver, BC), I could imagine Sofia walking through the narrow streets and painting in her tower room. Here is a close-up of the scale model. Readers can imagine Sofia painting in a small room at the top of one of the towers.
Sofia is a painter. Are there any panels that inspired you while writing your narrative?
I love the style of art of the period, particularly frescoes that showed secular subjects. The vast majority of the art of the period was religious. However, some painters were starting to depict architecture, daily activities, and regular people, particularly in frescoes. Sofia actually paints a view of the towers of San Gimignano at the end of the novel. Landscape paintings were extremely rare during this period; however, painters were starting to experiment and I wanted to make my Sofia one of those painters. Her painting is inspired by a real painting done by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the 1340s. Here’s a picture of it. Sofia’s painting would have been similar to this—very stylized and, in my opinion, just wonderful!
You probably have many, but is there a scene that particularly stands out to you?
I think my favorite scene—and one of the most difficult to write—was the scene when Sofia rejects the life that Matteo Salvini offers her. Like many of my readers, I wanted Sofia to get her man and continue to paint. But like Sofia, I knew that as the wife of a nobleman of Siena, Sofia could not possibly continue painting. I’ve had some readers say that surely, over time, Sofia could have convinced Matteo to let her paint again and I suppose that could have happened. But for Sofia, the risk that Matteo would never allow her to paint again was just too great. She’d made the mistake once of marrying a man who turned into a tyrant. She could not afford to make the same mistake twice. Writing the scene where she refuses Salvini, then regrets her decision, then realizes that she is right was difficult. Sofia is a woman of the 14th Century. She would not think the way a modern woman thinks about freedom and self-expression. Such concepts would be foreign to her. However, Sofia is guided throughout the novel by her emotions rather than by her intellect. Her heart knows that she must choose a life of uncertainty and the constant fear of exposure over a life of security and ease.
This scene is pivotal because it dramatizes Sofia’s attempt to control her own destiny. Of course bad things happen to her (it’s a novel!), but she is definitely not a victim. For example, when faced with an abusive marriage, Sofia finds the courage to leave. And when she is returned to San Gimignano against her will, she combats despair by choosing to love her unborn child.
What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The scene described above was one of the most challenging to write, but another scene was when Sofia held her dying son and realized she had to leave him to save her daughter and herself. At that moment, Sofia also realizes that she has not been a good mother to her son. She resented and neglected him and now he is dying of the plague. It was tough to show her sorrow and her regret while still giving her a way to justify leaving her son and escaping the city with Antonia and Marcello.
What would you say is the central theme of the novel?
The central theme of the novel is the triumph of the creative spirit. In the modern epilogue, Marla purchases Sofia’s painting and returns it to exact location where it had been painted 700 years ago. Sofia does not survive because, of course, she could not live forever. However, her work does survive and one of her paintings helps a grieving woman find the strength she needs to care for her own unborn child in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. I believe in the healing power of creative endeavor—art, music, writing, theatre. When people are engaged in creating art, they are fully present and operating, I think, in the spirit realm. By that I mean that the act of creating something new that has as its central purpose the engagements of minds and hearts is one of our greatest pursuits as human beings. When we are creating, we cannot be destroying.
Sofia’s complex relationship with Giorgio isn’t ideal. How did you approach this aspect of her story and what do you hope readers take from it?
In the 14th Century (and in the 21st Century in certain parts of the world), many girls were not allowed to choose their husbands. I decided to play a bit with this convention and have Sofia’s father allow her to choose her husband, and then to have her make the wrong choice. Maestro Barducci, Sofia’s father, knows that Giorgio Corelli is not the right choice for his bright, headstrong daughter. However, Barducci’s weakness is that he is a very fond father. He is strict with Sofia in the workshop, but he really is incapable of denying her anything she really wants. When Sofia asks to marry Giorgio, Barducci gives his consent. Ironically, Sofia might have been better off in an arranged marriage, although we’ll never know. What we do know is that Sofia comes to regret her decision to marry Giorgio. At twenty years old, after four years of a childless and increasingly loveless marriage, she knows she has only herself to blame for choosing Giorgio over a life in her father’s workshop. I guess what I’m thinking readers may take from the story of Sofia’s relationship with Giorgio is that poor choices are nothing new. Many women marry the wrong guy and live to regret their decision. I also really wanted to make sure readers understand that Sofia is not a victim; she suffers as a result of her own choices. This doesn’t mean, of course, that she deserves to suffer, only that she has the capability to make bad choices and good choices, as we all do.
Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Towers of Tuscany and if so, what did you alter and why?
All the events in The Towers of Tuscany are fictional. Examples include the attack on the Delpino palazzo in San Gimignano, Sofia’s desire to go to a shrine on the road to Florence (I know of no such shrine), the attack in the woods on the way from San Gimignano to Siena (I don’t know if such woods existed), and Sofia’s viewing of the frescos in the Palazzo Pubblico (I don’t know if the public would be allowed into the palazzo to view the frescoes). The frescoes themselves certainly existed at the time Sofia viewed them. The beautiful Duccio panels that Sofia views in Siena cathedral and the works of art she refers to in San Gimignano are also real and still exist. All references to streets and places in San Gimignano and Siena are real. The tower across the valley from San Gimignano that Marcello takes Sofia and Antonia to escape the plague is also real. In the epilogue, the villa built on top of the foundations of the 12th Century tower also exists. The villa was built in the early 1800’s and is now a fabulous bed and breakfast that I stayed in. For the purposes of the epilogue, I made the villa a private home.
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I think I’d choose Francesco. While I love Sofia, she is quite a formidable, strong-willed character. I am very fond of Francesco. He is the only character who loves Sofia unconditionally and is completely loyal to her. If Sofia had lived, Francesco would have taken care of her. Fortunately, Francesco will take care of Sofia’s daughter Antonia. He will take her to Siena and see that she is looked after. And yes, I’m considering a sequel—what happens to Antonia in Siena? Does she meet her father Salvini? Does she grow up to be a painter?
Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in The Towers of Tuscany that sprung directly from your personal history?
The descriptions of the Tuscany countryside and the streets and piazzas of San Gimignano and Siena all come from my own experience of them (but without the filth!). Otherwise, all the characters are from my imagination. One very small incident that does come from “real life” is when Sofia mentions that a rat gnawed a chunk of her hair one night while she slept. Readers may think of that incident as an example of the terrible conditions in medieval Italy, but I have four very dear friends who know otherwise. A few years ago, I went with these four friends who I have known since childhood, for a girl’s weekend away. We rented a lovely cabin on the beach near Sechelt on the west coast of British Columbia. One of my friends chose to sleep on the floor in the main room. She was awakened in the night by a rat gnawing at her hair! Needless to say, she was not pleased. I couldn’t resist putting that incident into the novel knowing that my four friends would get a huge kick out of reading it. And now everyone knows!
Okay, we’ve talked a lot about your book. Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would you describe your writing process?
I’d like to say that I sit down at 9 am, write until noon, have a light lunch, then write until dinner but unfortunately that is not true! I write in short, furious spurts—often in public places. I love to write in coffee shops and restaurants, and on the ferry. I live on an island off the coast of Vancouver, BC, and need to take a 20-minute car ferry when I want to go into the city. It’s surprising how much writing I can get done during the crossing when I have no Internet to distract me (so long as I leave my phone in the car).
Much to my husband’s dismay, one of my most creative times for writing when I’m at home is from 5 to 6:30 in the evening (right at our dinner time!) I am the cook in the family and have burned many a meal while writing just one more sentence. Fortunately, my husband is a painter and understands the creative process. He’s incredibly supportive (and sometimes rather hungry).
Two words: writer’s block. How do you deal with it?
I treat myself to a few days away in a hotel or resort in one of BC many scenic locales. I get easily distracted by the admittedly exhilarating activities related to marketing The Towers of Tuscany and so I am finding it challenging to work on the next novel. For example, this week I’m taking off to write in a sphere that hangs thirty feet in the air suspended between three trees. Here’s a picture of my sphere (more pictures at http://www.freespiritspheres.com). I hope I get lots of work done; I’ll be in there for about 48 hours.
Who are your favorite authors?
Jane Austen, hands down, followed by an eclectic selection that includes L.M. Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, Tracey Chevalier, Marion Keyes, and Maeve Binchy in addition to fun reads like Nora Roberts and Sophie Kinsella, historical fiction that helps me learn about a certain period while also delivering a great story (Follett, Michener, Alison Weir, Deborah Swift and so many more that I’m just discovering and haven’t had a chance to read yet), literary fiction by some of our wonderful Canadian authors (Ivan Coyote, Margaret Lawrence, Will Ferguson, Richard Wagamese), and lots more that I can’t think of at the moment.
What are you currently reading?
I’m just starting my three-day writing retreat so the only thing I’m reading are research books, including the biography of Clara Schumann because my next novel is about a female concert pianist and composer in 1830’s Vienna. When I’m actually writing (as opposed to editing), I don’t read much fiction. For some reason when I’m writing scenes and developing characters, I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s work. This is unfortunate, because now that I’m writing fiction full time, I don’t have nearly as much time available for reading fiction. And a good writer must read!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies?
I love to travel and when I’m not traveling I love planning trips. In the fall of 2014, I’m going to Vienna to do the final bits of research for my next novel (hopefully due out in November 2014) and then to Bath and London to research the third novel that is set in the theater in 1809. My daughter is then flying to London and we’re going to do a quick car trip through Scotland where maybe I’ll find even more inspiration! I also play piano, teach Nia dance (www.nianow.com), go for walks in the forest near my home on beautiful Bowen Island, and volunteer as president of the local arts council. Thanks to a great career as an author of textbooks for a major US publisher (Cengage Learning), I am now very blessed to have the freedom to pursue my new career as an historical novelist.
Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate?
Coffee most of the time because my husband makes the best coffee and he brings me a cup of fresh coffee most afternoons (I get the morning ones myself!). When I’m on my own, I drink tea simply because I don’t know how to make coffee as well as my husband does.
And finally, what’s next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy?
My goal is to develop a series of historical novels with an arts twist. Each novel will focus on a particular art genre—painting, music, theater, etc. My next novel (working title: Nocturnes) is about a six foot tall concert pianist and composer named Isabette Grüber. The novel opens in Vienna on March 29, 1827, the day of Beethoven’s funeral, and follows Isabette as her career intersects with Schubert and Chopin and she copes with numerous challenges that threaten her livelihood, her passions, and perhaps even her mind. Stay tuned!