Interview with Barbara Quick, author of A Golden Web & Vivaldi's Virgins
I'm absolutely ecstatic today to welcome author Barbara Quick to Pirate Penguin's Reads. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing her YA debut, A Golden Web, this past July and her lyrical prose captivated me so much that I had to interview her. Barbara has graciously taken the time to answer my questions and I hope everyone enjoys her insightful and clever responses.
When it comes to writing historical fiction, it’s crucial for any historical writer to separate fact from fiction. What type of research did Vivaldi’s Virgins and A Golden Web entail?
I did a huge amount of research for both novels, first finding everything I could in scholarly books about those times and places—and then going to Venice and Bologna, respectively, to do research in situ, digging around in archives, libraries, and museums. Absorbing the ambiance and architecture.
Because neither story had been the subject of a novel before the ones I wrote, I was working exclusively with facts. These became the architecture for the fiction—the conversations, the feelings, the daily events that history doesn’t record. The parts that must be channeled through the novelist’s imagination.
In the case of A Golden Web, which takes place 700 years ago, there were precious few threads remaining from the factual and/or physical world. But, still, I was amazed at the sources that could be sussed out with help from the librarians and archivists of Bologna. The Internet is also, as everyone knows, a wonderful resource, if used discerningly.
I never liked research when I was in school, but I just love it now! It’s a treasure-hunt for me, in which the driest sorts of documents—often in languages I can barely read—become windows that open on the most astonishing, intimate scenes in another time and place.
Both of your novels revolve around historical figures from 18th century Italy-what is it about the country and its history that captivates you?
Vivaldi’s Virgins takes place in 18th century Venice. And A Golden Web is set in 14th century Bologna. And, yes, I find Italy and its history and culture to be endlessly fascinating. Sometimes I wonder if I have some sort of genealogical link to Italy. When I started studying Italian, it seemed like the language was in my mouth already.
Italy is a small country and yet I’m quite sure I could spend a lifetime exploring it. I’m going to be in Milano, Torino, and then in Lucca, in a few days. (I’m tagging along with my fiancé, who’s a violist with the San Francisco Symphony, on tour in Europe now—I feel so lucky!) In Lucca, I’ll be doing some research for a screenplay I’m working on—a vehicle for George Clooney and Alec Baldwin (although they don’t know it yet!).
If there was someone thinking about buying any of your novels and you’re next to them-what would you say to convince them to buy them? (Of course, you can’t say you’re the author-that’d be cheating!)
That’s a hard question! I guess I’d tell them that the author started out as a poet—and weighed every word in writing her novels, wanting the language to be as beautiful as the story. Wanting very much to write novels that will take the reader inside a complete and convincing world. Wanting to write books that inspire and empower. That crack the reader’s heart open.
Well, novels are exactly like one’s children: writers care about them, worry about them, want the best for them—and desire praise for them—in exactly the same way. If I go in a bookstore and it’s not carrying my books, I feel it as personally and keenly as a mother whose beloved child has been dissed by a teacher or snubbed by a school. I know I shouldn’t feel that way—after all, it’s not personal. But I can’t help it. And I suspect that most writers are just as ridiculously vulnerable, when it comes to their books.
You’re able to speak quite a few languages! Did you learn them partly for research or just for the pleasure in learning?
I really love learning languages—partly, I guess, because I’m weirdly good at it. I hope that doesn’t sound too disgustingly conceited! As far as I’m concerned, whatever ability I have with languages is just some kind of accident of DNA: the way my brain is wired. I don’t feel like I can take any particular kind of credit for it—any more than a person can take credit for the ability to sit in full lotus position. (I can’t even sit cross-legged comfortably!)
But having a certain ability with languages been great for me as a writer! It means I can access research materials that aren’t available in English. And I can talk to experts, in other countries, who don’t necessarily speak any English at all. And, maybe most importantly for me, it means that I can feel like a traveler, rather than a tourist, when I’m in countries where the language is accessible to me.
I’m in Lucerne, Switzerland, as I’m writing this. On the Lufthansa flight, on the way over here, it came as a complete shock to me that I could dredge up the German I learned when I was 20 years old (about a thousand years ago!). It’s almost as if stuff we learn percolates in our brains, over the years. I’m speaking better German now than I ever did before. Isn’t that odd? (More like wonderful! It gives me hope since I want to learn some more languages :) )
It makes me hopeful that our brains are capable of much more than we think they are. Time travel, for instance! I think that all of us are potentially time machines. But I’ve strayed pretty far from your question—apologies!
The story of your inspiration for writing Vivaldi’s Virgins is simply amazing. Have you had any other similar experiences since then?
I’m glad you like that story. Did you read it on my web site? (I did. It's so intriguing!) I had the illusion of “hearing” A Golden Web as I wrote it—dredging it up from some dark place that seemed to belong to the collective imagination. Simply writing down what I heard and saw. Alessandra Giliani, the young heroine of A Golden Web, seemed to call out to me from that dark place. When my writing is going well, I feel as if I’m remembering, rather than creating something.
Writing novels or poetry is a pretty mystical process, really. A kind of wonderful madness.
After you finished writing A Golden Web, did you start to read books from the YA genre or were you already reading them?
These are great questions, Sandy! I read a few YA books at my editor’s suggestion before I started writing A Golden Web. And I realized that I didn’t want to write a novel that would only be appropriate for the YA audience. I just wanted to write a really good book that could be enjoyed by readers of any age. That’s what I tried to do with both Vivaldi’s Virgins and A Golden Web.
That said, it seems that young adult novels are defined more by what they leave out rather than what they contain. They shouldn’t be smutty, as far as the school boards and parents of the world are concerned. And they seem to often have relatively uncomplicated storylines, without a lot of subplots—although there are certainly exceptions. (The “Harry Potter” books come to mind…)
But a good book is a good book, no matter what age the readers are. The story, the characters, the setting should highjack the reader into another world. (So very true.)
Would you ever consider writing a contemporary novel or perhaps even working with another author?
My first novel, Northern Edge (which won the Discover Prize when it was published, but is—sigh—out of print now), takes place in the 1980s, in Arctic Alaska. The novel I’m working on now is a so-called mixed-time story, anchored in the present day.
Writing historical novels was kind of an accident for me. When I heard about the cloistered orphanage in 18th century Venice where Antonio Vivaldi was the resident priest and composer, the subject simply grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. For the longest time, after Vivaldi’s Virgins was published, I used to get annoyed with people when they’d refer to the book as a historical novel. I’d say, “It’s a literary novel that’s set in the past.”
Well, now that seems like a pretty silly distinction. I guess I tended to think of historical novels as being a genre akin to romance novels. But the truth is that there are a lot of top-notch literary writers out there now, writing historical fiction. Again, as with young adult novels, my hope is to write rich, evocative, and emotionally truthful fiction, no matter what the genre. My druthers would be to be remembered, if I’m remembered at all, as a literary writer…
In terms of collaborating with another writer, I’ve done this once on a children’s picture book, Even More/Todavia Mas, in collaboration with the artist Liz McGrath); and on a pop psychology book, The Commitment Dialogues, with psychologist Matthew McKay. Both experiences were really lovely! I could see collaborating on my screenplay—or on a stage adaptation of one of my novels. But I can’t imagine collaborating with another writer on a novel. It seems unlikely that two separate people could talk to the same muse at the same time without getting into creative trouble!
Your bio (which is extremely impressive) states that along with being a writer, you’re a dancer and a musician. Have you ever thought of using your own musical experiences and creating a story from them? (I’d certainly read a historical novel revolving around dance!)
Oh, I hope my bio doesn’t say that I’m a musician—because I’m not at all. I’m a good listener and a music appreciator. But the only instrument I play is the fountain pen! I am a trained dancer, although I came to dance, in a serious way, relatively late in life. I love every sort of dancing, but my most intensive dance experience is in the world of Brazilian dance. Maybe someday I’ll write a novel set in that world. I’ve certainly heard some fascinating stories from Brazilian friends… and Brazil itself is amazingly interesting and rich and evocative. I’m a bit intimidated by the complexity of the history and the culture. But who knows?
I have a book proposal on my desktop set in the world of the Ballets Russes, in turn-of-the-century Paris. But I haven’t done anything with it yet. It’s a little egg, waiting to be born.
My experience as the spouse of a musician with the San Francisco Symphony will, I have no doubt, provide a rich vein of material at some point in my writing life. For now, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open. I know much more about playing unfretted stringed instruments now than I did when I wrote Vivaldi’s Virgins. (I’m just beginning to study the viola myself!) If I ever get the chance to produce a second edition of that novel, there are a few telling details I might add…
What would be your ideal environment for writing?
Well, I probably have close to an ideal environment for writing. You can see a pretty accurate snapshot (plus some snapshots!) of my daily life by going to my blog. Writers need a place where they can be alone for some part of every day. They need to resist the pull other duties and distractions (in my case, checking my email, working in the garden or the house, talking or writing about my writing rather than doing it!).
Sometimes I think that jail or a convent would be the very best place to write. But then loneliness and despair would probably get in the way.
When I lived in Berkeley, I used to say I was going to “hair prison” or “café prison” to write. I’d sit under a hair dryer—or in a café—and I’d simply work, without any thought about other things. It’s actually harder, now that I live in the country, to create artificial writing prisons for myself. The garden calls. And, of course, when Wayne’s not at work, I want to spend time interacting with him.
Last but not least, if you were able to live in a fictional book world, which book would you choose and why?
Another great question! I have a certain romantic attachment to certain novels that take place in England just before the First World War—and maybe just a bit after. The world of Howard’s End and The Forsyte Saga—although I’d want to be one of the artistic, rebellious characters, not one of the stuffy ones.
I guess that I’ve lived in the fictional world of every novel I’ve written—that’s a given, isn’t it? I loved living in the musical world of 18th century Venice—and in Alessandra Giliani’s colorful, ardently felt world in and around medieval Bologna. That’s the best thing about being a writer: I get to live not just my life but also other people’s lives, in other times and places.
Thank you, Barbara, for the wonderful interview! I hope that you, my dear readers, will pick up one of her novels in the future--her writing style is beautiful :)