Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Interview with Barbara Quick, Author of Vivaldi's Virgins

I'm always on the prowl for novels with Italy as a setting, especially historicals. One of the best books I read this year was Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick. Needless to say, I'm very thrilled to have Barbara Quick join me as my guest today!

Welcome Barbara! I'm so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you.
Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you've penned in Vivaldi's Virgins?

On the deepest emotional level, this is a story about a young woman's search for her identity. The story takes place in 18th century Venice, in the Ospedale della Pieta, the foundling home where Antonio Vivaldi (also known as "the Red Priest of Venice"--il Prete Rosso--for his flaming red hair) was resident composer and music master for most of his career.

The novel's narrator and protagonist is Anna Maria dal Violin, based on a real person who was one of Vivaldi's favorite students (like all the foundlings chosen to be one of the famous figlie di coro, Anna Maria was named for the instrument she played). Anna Maria's story is told in two time-frames--through letters she writes as an adolescent to the mother whose existence she hopes to discover one day, and as a 41-year-old musician, fully come into her own identity, looking back at the events that determined the course of her life.

Why did you chose Italy as a setting for this novel?

The idea for the novel came from a tidbit of information I heard about one of the Italian composers--I didn't even remember which one at the time--who was also a priest and taught in an all-girls' orphanage. This struck me as a terribly interesting set-up for a novel. I was thrilled when I looked into the matter and realized that Antonio Vivaldi was the priest-composer, and that Venice would be the setting for the story. How beautiful--to go to Venice to do research for a novel!

Way back in 1988, I had the sense that my own destiny was somehow strongly tied to that place... or even that I had been there before--somehow! There was an inexplicable feeling of familiarity when I was in Venice for the first time, especially in the Jewish Ghetto. And there was a similar sense of familiarity when I first started learning Italian--the language seemed to be in my mouth already. In my blood...

As an historical author myself, I find that writing in this genre requires a lot of research. How did you conduct your research for Vivaldi's Virgins? What resources do you find most helpful. Internet? Library? Actual travel?

You're so right, Mirella--the amount of research required is staggering! I immersed myself in every scholarly source I could find on Vivaldi and his world, as well as books and articles on cloistered communities and the Catholicism practiced in 18th century Venice. I had to be able to inhabit the mind and eyes of a young girl raised in a cloistered institution--and not only that, but also to inhabit the soul of someone whose entire life was inextricably bound up with music.

A friend of mine who had an academic position at UC Berkeley allowed me to check out everything at the Music Library on her card--which meant I could keep these books and use them for a year. I cleaned out the entire shelf on 18th century Venice and Vivaldi. There was a lot of wonderful material--especially out-of-print books--that I wouldn't have been able to find anywhere else. Weird books that would probably be of little interest to anyone else--but for me they were solid gold.

I made three trips in all to Venice. On the first one, I just soaked up the atmosphere.

Barbara on a Ducati motorcycle with Roberto Condello, owner of the darling little hotel that was her headquarters in Bologna, the Hotel Porta San Mamolo.

On the second one, I made more concerted attempts (mostly unsuccessful) to get into various archives. The third trip was very productive--and very intense. I made most of the appointments I needed beforehand. I figured out what I had to say to get into the closely guarded archives.

Public library in Bologna, the Sala Borsa

I came away with the arcana that allowed me to reconstruct a convincing life for Anna Maria dal Violin--and to posit my own theory in the novel about the real story behind the career-destroying scandal of Vivaldi and the young contralto Anna Giro.

The Internet was, as always, essential to all of this. But I'm sure you know as well as I do how careful one has to be in sorting out reliable from unreliable information!

In the end, all of these resources--scholarly research, actual travel, and use of the Internet were essential to me.

Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a novel.

Well, that gets us to my fourth and most important resource: imagination. I didn't plot out VIVALDI'S VIRGINS or my forthcoming novel, A GOLDEN WEB. Rather, the stories seemed to simply bloom inside me. I heard the characters' voices. I saw their worlds. I felt their feelings. I honestly think it's a bit like being a schizophrenic--except I know that the voices I hear are coming from somewhere inside of me. I get very quiet--and I listen. And then I write.

I write with a fountain pen in a notebook. There are quite a few scenes in VIVALDI'S VIRGINS that are nearly word-for-word the same in my original handwritten version and the published book. This tends to be true for the most emotionally charged scenes--the ones that were burning inside my head, and I couldn't wait to get down on paper.

I did write an outline for VIVALDI'S VIRGINS--but only retrospectively, as I was writing the novel, so that I could keep track of the events unfolding in the book's two time-frames.

Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

Like a lot of women, I have all sorts of things to get done during the day besides my work. So I tend to write with little breaks for doing everything else--riding my bicycle to the farmer's market to get stuff for dinner, watering my garden, doing a load of laundry, singing Beatles songs with my son when he's downstairs and wants to spend time with me. (I'm the single mom of a teenager!)

When it's just too distracting to try to write at home, I hop on my bike and write at a cafe--at an outdoor one when the weather is nice, and an indoor one when the weather is cold. I call it "cafe prison"--and it works really well for me! I tend to sit and work for about two very intense hours at a time. Sometimes, though--when I'm on a roll--I'll lose track of time entirely and find that the day has turned into night-time while I've been immersed in another century.

If I can write five pages a day, I'm pretty happy. I write every day--and every night. I think I write while I'm sleeping, too--I often wake with a sentence in my head, just waiting to be written down! So I always keep my notebook and fountain pen close by.

What is the one obstacle you've had to overcome the most in order to become the most productive writer you could be?

Lately, I'd have to say that the Internet is my biggest distraction--and sometimes becomes an obstacle to getting my writing done!

I see lovely reviews of my novel on various web sites and blogs, and get emails from readers that I always want to answer. And I've been getting opportunities from places all over the world these days to do things connected with the novel. That's how I met you!

There's such an irresistible sweetness and validation in these communications that it's easy to get addicted to looking for them. About every writer I know compulsively checks their books' rankings on Amazon--it's so sick! That's one of the reasons why I rarely do my first drafts on my computer--I don't want to be able to access my email. (And I don't trust myself to have the self-control to turn off my Internet connection!)

What is your current work in progress?

My new novel is a Young Adult title that will be brought out by HarperCollins Children's Division in fall '09, although it will be of equal interest to adults. It's an absolutely beautiful story--also based on history--about a brilliant young girl in 14th century Bologna who was determined, against all odds, to go to the medical school and study anatomy. She grows up in a family that makes and illuminates books--so I learned a great deal about the technical processes of pre-printing-press book production and manuscript illumination--and the revolutionary phenomenon, in that century, of books suddenly becoming available to anyone who took the trouble or had the opportunity to learn to read. It was on a par with the revolutionary impact we've seen in our time of the advent of the Internet.

I'm on my second-to-last round of editng and rewriting now. The novel is going to be called A GOLDEN WEB. I spent three weeks in and around Bologna in spring 2007, doing research. I wrote this book faster than I've ever written a novel before--but I really think it's my best yet. I'm very excited about it!

Why do you write?

That's a really simple answer: I write because if I didn't write, I'd die. I wrote myself out of a terribly unhappy childhood and the tortured uncertainty of being a somewhat fragile and overly receptive and reactive human being. I write so that I'll have someplace to put everything I feel. I would explode otherwise--or maybe "implode" would be the better word. Writing is my solace, my glorious secret garden, my time machine, my escape pod. And just lately it's become my livelihood!

If I came to your house and saw your bookshelves, which books would I find there?

This is an embarrassing one! I've run out of shelves. A lot of my bookshelves are two-deep with books I've read and loved and books I want to read someday. I have a set of shelves in my so-called study (I never write there), which are filled with books I used for VIVALDI'S VIRGINS (all the books I bought rather than borrowed...). There's another set of shelves devoted to my research into the 14th century, the history of medicine, Medieval manuscript production. There are a bunch of screenplays on my night-table now, because my next project is going to be a screenplay!

Which authors most inspire you? Why?

Gosh--I've been inspired by so many wonderful writers! They've been my parents and my teachers and my siblings. I love Jane Austin and Tolstoy. I think Shirley Hazzard's books are amazingly beautiful. Jessica Mitford was a great mentor of mine--the first professional writer who encouraged me and (literally) nurtured me--she and her husband Bob Treuhaft would invite me and my then-husband for wonderful dinner parties when we were living on a sailboat and subsisting on cereal and grapes.

I'm inspired by all the writers I know who are struggling just like I am to write the best books they can and somehow make a living, too. Society doesn't make this particularly easy, as I'm sure you know, Mirella!

The writers I most love are the ones who craft their language with the greatest beauty: I'll take beautiful language over a lively but badly written story any day!

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

Thank you for asking that! I have a web site:

and also a MySpace page for VIVALDI'S VIRGINS:

I get an awful lot of really disgusting spam on my web site (I think it's because of the title of my novel!). But I love hearing from readers and they can write to me at
Barbara [at] BarbaraQuick [dot] com

(in case there are any robots reading now...).

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

There's a literary magazine called MiPoeisis that features me as the cover girl for their September 2008 issue. The issue features an interview of me done by the wonderful poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri. Her last question for me was something like, "Is it true that you've danced an entire parade in high heels?" I answered, "Yes, and I have photos to prove it!" Me and my big mouth--the magazine put a big picture of me in one of my Brazilian Carnival costumes right smack on the cover.

Actually, for a middle-aged broad like me, it was a pretty big thrill...

Vivaldi's Virgins has been sold for translation in twelve languages, but not yet Italian (oddly enough!). At a reading I did recently in Phoenix, Arizona, a lovely Italian woman came up to me and told me how much she loves my book, and that she felt it was her destiny to translate it into Italian! She's a native Italian speaker and a professional translator, and so--of course--I gave her my blessing. We corresponded for the next couple of months while she dropped everything else and created Il prediletto di Vivaldi (which had always been my preferred title in Italian for the novel). Luisa's manuscript is now making its way to different case editrice throughout Italy--and I hope I'll soon be able to tell you which one of them says, "Si, certo!"

Barbara, thank you for visiting with me and my readers today. I look forward to reading your next book. Congratulations on the tremendous success of Vivaldi's Virgins.

1 comment:

Winona said...

Gracious! Seldom have I read an interview that captured my imagination and hearth as Mirella's interview with Barbara Quick. I will be heading over to Amazon soon . . . I am new to blogging and visited a friend's blog to garner some blog sites for my own. So glad I did. I'm new to writing. At least to seriously writing. I have discovered a treasure at Historical Novel Review.

Winona Cross