Bring on the trumpets, pour out the Prosecco, here it is at last, my first author interview or what I prefer to see as a chat with a fellow bibliophile. Our first victim visitor is the wonderfully erudite and imaginative author, Michelle Lovric who is equally at home conjuring up fabulous YA novels as well as acclaimed adult novels such as The Book of Human Skin. Her latest children’s novel, The Fate in the Box, was published by Orion on 3rd May and it’s next up on the review pile and destined to be passed onto my daughter.
Michelle with Le Zitelle church, Venice in the background. It was a former haven for young maidens without dowries – there’s a story there!
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with all things Italian since I was a child and at 14 I started studying the language. I read French and Italian at university and had the opportunity to enjoy and relish the likes of Dante and Boccacio in the original language. Your love of Italy with all its vigour and vibrancy is evident in your writing. When and how did the love affair begin for you?
As a child reluctantly growing up in Australia, I always had a deep and passionate yearning for the old world, and for Italy and Venice in particular. I didn’t see Venice till I was eighteen, and then I experienced a jolt of love like a fork of lightning. I always knew I would end up living there, and that I would write about her. Even now, I find it hard just to relax in Venice. There is so much to say about her that I am forever scribbling.
Speaking Italian yourself, you must know the sensual joy of the language. I am sure even my face changes when I speak Italian. I love looking at the names on the doorbells in Venice – they are so beautiful in the writing and the uttering.
I particularly like talking to guards in Italian museums about the treasures among which they pass their days. They are not used to be chatted to, and they open up like flowers.
Yes, I agree, just speaking a few words of Italian makes me smile. Those museum guards always intimidate me a little though but that probably stems from the time I had a rather one-sided conversation with a Swiss Guard at the Vatican when trying to explain I was there to collect documents from one of the Vatican employees…friends in high… or low places depending on your viewpoint.
Prosecco pause to chat in private about my secret life as a Roman spy…
As my reading friends know, I have a penchant for stories which include a spark of magic and a dash of mystery. I think this stems from my voracious childhood appetite for authors like E Nesbit, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin – I missed Dahl first time round but caught up via my own children! Who were your favourite childhood authors and how have they influenced your own writing?
It sounds as if we have very similar tastes. I loved C.S. Lewis too, but my particular favourite was Joan Aiken. I recently reread all her books and loved them just as much as when I was a child. I love the way she uses slang. All of her characters have distinct voices. This is something that is very important to me. I create voice files for my characters – little sayings and favourite words or exclamations that help define their personalities on the page. I also like Joan Aiken’s tendency to show the weaknesses of adults, and the ways in which her child characters have to live with and overcome the problems or malevolence of their elders. There is also in Joan Aiken, as you say, that truly necessary ‘spark of magic and a dash of mystery’. The wolves in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are far more than hungry mammals. They have a sinister presence that speaks not just of carnivores but of a world of evil and savagery, which is often just outside our door.
I’d forgotten how much I loved Joan Aiken. My 9 year old daughter Eva had an extract from an Aiken book as a reading comprehension in school recently we’d she was smitten we had a rummage round the local charity shops to find it. Screams of delight when we found The Spiral Stair in Oxfam and it has now been passed around her classmates – we like to spread the literary love.
Eva is an avid reader and her teacher is very impressed with her creative writing skills. She’s keen to contribute more reviews to the blog but she’s quite a sensitive little soul. Do you have any tips for a budding writer and how to retain the sensitivity which, I feel, naturally accompanies a creative spirit whilst gaining a thicker skin when it comes to criticism?
How lovely to have a daughter who writes! That is to be cherished, and I am sure that you do. It is true that with an ability to write comes the issue of sensitivity. Writing comes from the same place as living. Writers need to have mighty hearts to accommodate and generate and transmit powerful feelings on the page. Mighty hearts are also the most vulnerable.
For your daughter, and for any young writer, I would suggest the same mental process I operate for myself. Criticism can be seen as a path to make your book better. It may seem a dark path, but it is a way forward. You absolutely cannot think of everything yourself, no matter how smoothly the writing comes out.
I share pre-published work with as many friends as possible, swapping chapters or whole manuscripts. I often have ‘boot camps’ at home in London or Venice, where everyone works quietly on their projects by day, with specific periods for sharing and reviewing.
Some of my readers are children and I ask them to mark up my manuscripts in very specific ways, with wiggly lines under words they don’t understand, and a drawing of a cup of tea when they get bored and go off to have a drink, plus ticks and double ticks for places where they laughed. I do not see their wiggly lines or cups of tea as ‘criticism’ but as ‘advice’. I explain that it is my problem to come up with comprehensible words and not to let the plot sag.
So your daughter should share work with her literary-minded friends before putting it up on the website. That will give her more confidence.
In terms of technical help and exercises for young writers, there are quite a lot of tips on The Undrowned Child part of my website.
Thank you for those really useful tips, I love the idea of drawing a cuppa if they get bored!
Michelle at Acqua Alta Bookshop, Venice. A must-see when in Venice complete with resident cats and a staircase made of books!
And speaking of cats, what a beauty!
Photo Copyright Marianne Taylor
What’s the secret to successfully leading a dual life as both a writer of children’s and adult fiction. JK Rowling got mauled by some critics when she crossed over into adult territory. Have you remained unscathed? . Indeed, what’s coming next, Adult, YA or Breakout/Crossover? So many categories…
I was first published as an adult author – My first three published novels, Carnevale, The Floating Book and The Remedy, appeared before The Undrowned Child, my firsts for children. My most recent book, The Fate in the Box, is for children, but the one after that will be for adults. It’s called The Swiney Godivas, and is about seven Irish girls with some extremely interesting physical attributes and end up in Italy. It sounds like just your kind of book, Teresa, with your Irishness and love of things Italian. I hope so!
If anything, writing for children has improved my writing for adults. I have learned a lot about pace from my excellent editors at Orion. I have also tried to be a bit more concise (I always over-write, dreadfully. I have the opposite of writers’ block).
I am used to working in both adult and children’s fiction simultaneously, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. I will say, however, that the world of children’s books seems much kinder, warmer and welcoming. My experience is that adult writers tend to be lone wolves; children’s writers hunt in sociable packs and cooperate in all kinds of ventures, support one another and generally see other authors not as competitors but as colleagues. I enjoy myself more in the children’s world.
If I didn’t know better I would think you’d written The Swiney Godivas just for me!
I’ve heard other authors say that they avoid reading books similar to their own for fear of subconsciously plagiarising them. If that’s true they’re missing out on some spectacular reads. What do you read for pleasure?
I read everything – fiction and non fiction, with equal pleasure. But I’m impatient and can very quickly decide that something isn’t worth my time and is going to the charity sale. Sadly, this is what very often happens when I buy one of the current best-sellers. It is very frustrating that many of the very best books just don’t get the attention generated by mediocre writing that’s been given a good cover and a great publicity campaign or a spot on television.
At the moment, I am extremely impressed with Chris Cleave, Michael Chabon, and Nuala O’Faolain. And I am proud to belong to a collective of historical fiction writers called The History Girls, where each of us writes a monthly blog, usually about something amazing we’ve experienced in the course of our research. This interview could easily get overwhelmed by my raving about the quality of the writers in The History Girls. Suffice it to say we number Mary Hoffman, Celia Rees, Louise Berridge, Karen Maitland, Caroline Lawrence and Laurie Graham among us …
As a stay at home mum (such a sorrowful label!) I find social media an excellent way to communicate with fellow bibliophiles. Also, the blog offers me a creative outlet and it complements my interactions with my “real life” book group. Have you embraced social media in all its many shapes and forms?
I am a shamelessly compulsive emailer but I don’t do Facebook or Twitter. I do blog and read blogs, and in that way find some really fresh and interesting writing out there. I love writing my monthly blogs for The History Girls, and reading what my colleagues are up to in the libraries and stately homes and archaeological digs of the world. I make a point of updating my website once a month with news and reviews of my books: there is almost no point in a website unless you refresh it regularly. I also make new pages for each new children’s book. The latest are those for The Fate in the Box, which have just gone up.
Thank you for this conversation! You made me think, and smile.
And thank you, Michelle, for doing me the honour of being the first author to visit my blog…it’s only taken me two years to find the right candidate. I am really looking forward to reading The Fate in the Box and I know many of my bookish friends will be eagerly awaiting the debut of The Swiney Godivas. Arrivederci.