I have a thing for Italy. For its food and the sound of its language, for its chianti and soave wines, for the way people yell at you to eat more (I adore people who yell at me to eat more); for what I imagine is the quality of the setting sun in the countryside and the voices from piazzas in the city as heard from a balcony.
I was in Venice once. I was ten. It’s not a romantic story, although I did paddle a gondola. I need to go back. In the meantime, the next best thing is reading and vicarious travel and Barbara Lambert’s The Whirling Girl is one ticket to that chianti’d world.
In a nutshell: Clare Livingston, a botanical artist, has inherited a house and property in Tuscany from an uncle who leaves a cryptic message in his will.
A message that niggles and eventually works its way into the deeper spaces of her memory, to a place that touches on the painful, and seems so very incongruous with the quality of that setting sun…
She arrives in Tuscany, to claim her house, to wonder about the why of this gift, and with the idea of researching material for a book of flora (the descriptions of the images can be quite steamy) “Those stamens with their delicate stems… striations on the ovary at the centre of this cluster, and the almost-invisible hairs on the closed bud and on the poppy…“. But a distraction presents itself in the form of an ongoing Etruscan archeological dig and the people involved with it, which, ultimately, changes her life.
“…tagliatelle with seafood bathed in saffron, and a noble white wine from Montepulciano… a sorbetto of passion fruit.”
There is a most wonderful character in the form of Marta, a housekeeper, who is every matriarch that ever lived in any society. A woman who understands life, who has a whole lot to teach anyone who cares to learn.
There are unicorns. As metaphor anyway, insofar as representing that you either believe in something or you don’t; that not everything is provable. This is no small philosophy as Clare tries to unearth her uncomfortable past and to weigh the realities of the present.
Have I mentioned the humour? Lambert writes with a dry wit: “A word of warning, though. Never try to carry a fountain pen through airport security in Brazil. They’re terrified you’ll barge up into the cockpit and try to write a sonnet.”
Annabel Lyon calls this a fairytale for grownups and I agree. It has just that quality. It’s a book of revealing history, in relationships and in society, the things we search for, what’s left behind, and why. It’s also about a small slice of Italy, a place its author clearly adores. At its essence though, it’s a book about the importance of finding something to believe in—starting with yourself.
But enough from me… I’m thrilled to present, by way of Eleven Questions, Ms. Lambert herself… to whom I’m so very grateful for taking this time.
So, without further ado, the extremely bellissimo Barbara Lambert…
1. What literary character did you want to be as a child?
BL— Bagheera, from The Jungle Book — the first story I recall my mother reading to me (the Rudyard Kipling original version). And now, reminded what a thrilling character Bagheera is, I can’t resist quoting two passages. (Substitute “she” for “he”, and imagine a tiny girl becoming that glorious powerful creature):
“A black shadow dropped down into the circle … inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”
And here, “she” speaks for herself:
“I had never seen the jungle, they fed me behind bars from an iron pan till one night I felt I was Bagheera – the panther – and no man’s plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away; and because I had learned the ways of men, I became more terrible in the jungle than Shere Khan.”
2. What’s a favourite passage from any book, and why?
BL— I am currently reading the collected stories of Anton Chekhov, in 13 volumes, some already familiar to me (or so I’d thought), and many more that I’d never come upon. I remembered The Kiss as a brilliant “Chekhovian” example of a story in which nothing – and at the same time everything – happens. But I had forgotten the searing poignancy of the final sentence, summing up as it does the entire future of a young soldier, in one lethal blow.
“For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.”
3. Do you sometimes find themes in your work that you weren’t aware of?
BL— What an interesting thought. And looking over my answer to your first question, I’m wondering if those passages appeal to me particularly because in my own work I do seem to keep dealing with people who secretly picture themselves as capable of dropping down like black shadows, but who may never break the locks imposed by their need for safety, self defeat. Is this what The Whirling Girl is really all about? Art and archaeology, yes, and love and lies, as the jacket suggests: but at heart, the exploration of a character so imprisoned by secrets in her past, that in truth even I kept wondering, as her “Tuscan adventure” progressed, whether she’d ever be able to break free?
4. My theory is that we write what we need to learn. Not directly, of course, but on some, perhaps, subconscious level. So, if that’s true, what do you think you were “exploring” in writing The Whirling Girl? (Of course you may well debunk this theory.)
BL— It’s hard for me to separate out what I needed to learn as a person from what I needed (and need!) to learn as a writer. At first I was going to talk about archaeology, here, as I certainly did need to learn a lot about that fascinating discipline. But on reflection, what I most needed to learn was to trust my characters, trust their true natures I mean: not merely to allow those characters go the way they needed to go in the story, but to look really closely at what their story was: and also, not let them bamboozle me into looking away from some things they wanted to hide.
There is one particular episode in my central character’s background that she really didn’t want to look at; and for a long time I didn’t look squarely at it, either. I changed it, made it less creepy. I suspect that, subconsciously, I feared that readers would also find this episode a place they did not want to go. I have to thank my brilliant editor, Marc Coté, for catching me out on that, giving me the courage to write my complex character Clare as she truly was. What did I learn? Well, aside from what a huge mistake it is to try to appease readers, I hope I have learned to trust the true needs of my characters – and to develop the kind of ruthless bullshit detector that a fiction writer needs, to tell the truth.
5. We have to talk about the cover, from a Charles Pachter painting. How did it become “yours” … because it’s perfect.
BL— I’m so glad you think so. Choosing a cover (or just “okaying” one) is a crucial and hair-raising business. But I was lucky. Angel Guerra, of Archetype Design, has done many brilliant covers for Cormorant Books, and when my editor sent me a selection of Angel’s ideas I immediately fell for the detail he’d zeroed in on from Charles Pachter’s painting, “The Party”. There’s a theory that a book cover should not show images of people “full face” for fear or supplanting the reader’s own idea of what the character or characters might look like. (That’s why you see so many showing the back of someone’s head against an evocative scene of some sort.) But the secretive and dreamy and perhaps guileful expression on the face of the woman in the painting struck me as so revealing of Clare’s inner nature…. Plus the whole scene is so rich and compelling. I wanted to be at that party. I hoped that anyone who saw the book would want to be there too. So when I learned that Charles Pachter had given his permission for Cormorant to use the image, I felt very lucky indeed to have work by such an iconic Canadian artist grace my novel.
6. I’m interested in how characters develop. How do you get to know yours? Do you outline, assign qualities and give them strict orders, or do you allow them to surprise you en route? If the latter, can you share one of those surprises?
BL— I suspect that the process, if I can call it that, goes back to before I was school age, an only child on an Okanagan orchard, where I spent most of my time wandering around under the trees “imagining”. I didn’t realize I was making up stories – or that later in life the imagining process might lead to writing. The people in the adventures I made up were not pretend friends though. I never imagined myself as part of that gang of bold girls who swung through the jungle on vines to rescue captured princesses in Indian temples, or out-rode and out-shot bad guys in the wild west, or captivated the hearts of desert sheiks, generally by astounding skill with very sharp scimitars – leaving the whole veiled dancing thing to shadowy others. Though now I do recall that those adventures would often involve a delicious moment when — veiled, or crinolined, or meekly aproned — one of those girls would throw off the socially demanded bonds, and flash a hidden six-gun or scale a mountain peak to rescue the handsome man who’d somehow foolishly come a cropper, thereby winning his stunned admiration and love.
So now your question has made me wonder if what most interests me about the men and women who inhabit my adult imagination is whether they are also packing hidden six-guns so to speak, in the form of suppressed emotions, histories, desires: and whether they are going to turn those powerful forces on themselves, to subvert their own desires, or if they will manage to call on them, at last, to free themselves?
Certainly, as a writer, the moments when a character does burst the bonds of what I’d scripted are the most exciting moments. One example in The Whirling Girl involves the young Italian, Gianni, whose imagination frequently leaps beyond the practical. He runs a sanctuary for endangered species. Clare – who is trying to resist falling disastrously in love with him — has not allowed herself to take his elaborate and fanciful plans too seriously, till, unexpectedly, he makes up a poem for her — of the names of all the butterflies in Europe that have gone extinct. And she is sunk. So was I.
7. “Tonight a man who believed in unicorns would take Clare Livingston to a wedding that had happened seven hundred years before.” – The Whirling Girl has a distinctly ethereal feel at times, the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, the heat, mysterious doings, the unicorns! Okay, the last is merely an in-joke between characters, but so appropriate in this enchanted tale. In the acknowledgements, you refer [tongue in cheek?] to long hours in a hammock… My question is this: how much effect did place have on the style and tone of the novel? [In other words, what would have been different were it not for that hammock…? Be it real or metaphoric.]
BL— I think place had everything to do with the style and tone of the novel. But there’s nothing metaphoric about that hammock. On my initial trip to Tuscany, day-long explorations of the countryside almost always ended with me settling into the gently gently-swaying netting outside the 500-year-old mill house where we stayed, in the valley below the ancient hill town of Cortona. Journal in hand, I’d begin to record the day’s adventures; and even then — well before I began conjuring up a novel set in that countryside — as I drifted off into a sweet rocking snooze, “she” began creeping into my thoughts – someone who (unlike me) might never have to leave this enchanting setting, Now who would she be…? Many pages of my Tuscan journals are tinted grassy-green where the book slipped from the writer’s hands and the scent of flowering lime trees drifted in, spinning magic in my dreams.
But as to unicorns, I must protest. The young man (Gianni) really did believe in them: as a symbol, at the very least, of the possibility — if we humans put all our energy and belief into imagining the seemingly impossible – that we can, by practical effort, save our expiring world.
8. What was it about Etruscan history that compelled you to write this book?
BL— The Etruscans played no part in my original concept for the novel. But the longer I spent in Tuscany, on succeeding trips, the more fascinated I became by this puzzling race that once ruled almost the whole of Italy, and who — after their conquest by the Romans — disappeared almost completely from the historical record. When their culture did come to light again, little by little, it was mainly through the contents of their underground tombs. But what a culture! The twelve hilltop cities of the Etruscan League were architectural dazzlers looming over countryside made fertile by brilliantly engineered irrigation schemes. At the society’s peak, Etruscan merchant ships dominated the surrounding seas, bringing back riches to their avidly-collecting families. Indeed, it’s thanks to their love of finely-crafted objects that we know so much about Greek society of the same period; for the majority of the famous Attic pottery in museums around the world, with those finely-painted and detailed scenes, were discovered in Etruscan tombs, part of the furnishings the wealthy intended to take along to the “after world”. Those same tombs give us proof that Etruscan women were powerful and literate (a unique combo in ancient times) and stunningly dressed and be-jewelled (we are talking about the “elites” of course; though tomb frescoes do portray the clothing and accouterments of many levels of society in fascinating detail). The Etruscans were avid lovers of food and wine and dance, too, as so many frescoes reveal.
Yet here is a conundrum. This was a culture deeply steeped in religion and a sense of fate.
It was this split mind-set that particularly intrigued me, in relation to my novel. The Etruscans believed that their civilization would last just ten generations. And indeed that was almost exactly its span before it was swallowed by the Romans. How did one thing work upon the other? Did a priestly assurance that it would all end (and when) spur on the vibrant and uncannily beautiful art objects of every sort that they created: even the most every-day utensils packing a wallop of intriguing design? Did this ominous foreknowledge set them free to live with an artistic intensity not seen again until the Renaissance? Or is this theory “a load of codswollop!” (as one of the characters in the novel kept declaring, though in the end he got edited out)? In any case, an aspect of comparable tension between two very different cultural traits seemed to seep in and enrich what I came to know about my central character, Clare: an artist, and idealist — living an undermining life of secrets and lies.
9. Marta is a favourite character, a sort of inherited housekeeper. She doesn’t have a lot of ‘stage time’ but, in her own way, is essential to the quality of life on the Tuscan property. This is true of so many matriarchs, especially those in patriarchal societies. What drew you to this quality? How is she different from Clare? And… how did she come to have her own blog on your website where she so passionately discusses tradition and food?
BL— Marta has always felt to me to be a downright gift. I don’t know where she came from. She just plonked herself down in the novel and everything she said or did felt right, what a gift indeed. So really, all I can say is that this is what drew me to her, and that through her I felt the novel was able to connect with some essential qualities of Tuscan country life. Also, thinking it over now, I liked that she was so much the opposite of the members of the quasi-aristocracy whom Clare, for better or worse, shortly becomes involved with. But how is Marta different from Clare? Perhaps, not very. They both have their shifty aspects, don’t they: and Marta’s canniness is certainly match for Clare’s secretive nature.
As to Marta’s blogging career: Not long after the novel was published, I was out walking – feeling a little blue, because I’d spent so long on the novel, and I just plain missed being in Tuscany. For that matter I missed the whole process of being immersed in the writing. I started thinking of an early scene, the one where Marta Dottorelli first appears, with a bag of nettles that she’s gathered by the roadside on her way. Marta starts making a pot of nettle soup. She insists that Clare sit down and eat it, which Clare is dubious about…. And as I walked, suddenly a voice popped into my head. “Don’t make me have to tell you how you got that wrong!” Marta’s voice. Complaining that not only did I, the author, know nothing about making nettle soup, but that I knew nothing nothing nothing about her life, and had absolutely no business trying to trap her inside a novel, and that she had not the least intention of staying there. Well. I rushed home and channeled that voice, setting up a blog (starting with her recipe for Nettle Soup) where right off the bat she sets things right about what life on a Tuscan farm is like, and how I have got everything wrong not just with her life but with Clare’s life. And since then, every now and then, a new recipe of hers appears, often with seasonal descriptions of her life, and always with something snarky to say about “that writer”. There are a number of her recipes up there now, at: http://www.barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/161-Tuscan%2BRecipes/subject/11
10. Which do you find harder to write… the first sentence or the last? What was the first scene [you wrote] of The Whirling Girl? And did you always know how it would end?
BL —Often a story starts for me with the final sentence popping into my head. And the question: Okay, so who is this about, what’s been going on? But with everything I’ve ever written, by the time I get to the end, that sentence has to go. The first scene I wrote of The Whirling Girl involved Clare driving up the Italian autostrada to Cortona to the property she’d inherited from her uncle. It gave me a huge amount of trouble, draft after draft. There seemed to be so much information I had to get in, right at the start. Eventually I somewhat resolved this by starting with her uncle’s obituary instead. But (a confession) when I do readings, now, from the start of the novel, there are still a few bits that seem superfluous, which I chop. As to whether I always knew how the novel would end — yes. But, in this case, not just the final sentence got cut, but – in a very last-minute edit — the final several paragraphs. A Wow moment.
Pasta or Pizza? Pasta
Chianti or Coffee? I refuse to choose.
Ocean or Lake? Lake (if it can be either Trasimeno or the Okanagan)
Thesaurus or Dictionary? Can’t live without either but the Thesaurus comes more frequently into play.
Primary or Pastel? Can I go with some rich in-between shades, like for example (quoting from the novel) terra rosa, ultramarine, moonglow, raw umber…?
Salmon or Steak? Salmon.
Poetry or Song? That’s tough. But I’ll have to say “song”.
Theatre or Film? Theatre.
Canoe or Bike? Canoe.
Cherry or Eggplant? Well I live on a cherry orchard, so…! On the other hand, I hear Marta’s got a bumper crop of eggplant this summer. I wonder…!
Florence or Rome? Florence.
Matilda’s Menu for The Whirling Girl
Zuppa di Ortiche (Nettle Soup)
Spiedini al Limone (Skewered Meat in Lemon Juice)
Melone di Vino Dolce (Melon with Sweet Wine)
Barbara Lambert’s novel The Whirling Girl was published in the fall of 2012. Her previous work includes A Message for Mr. Lazarus (2000) and The Allegra Series (1999). She has won the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction and The Malahat Review Novella Prize, and been a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize and the Journey Prize. Lambert is currently editor of Dr. Johnson’s Corner, an online gathering place for writers too in love with their own words. Further information about The Whirling Girl and Lambert’s previous work is available at: www.barbaralambert.com .
The Whirling Girl is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!