With historical fiction ever on our minds while we await Queen Catherine’s royal return (WHITEHALL comes back from hiatus next week!), we sat down for a chat with the amazing historical fiction author Alyssa Palombo! Alyssa is the author of The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi (currently available from St. Martins Press) as well as multiple short historical fiction pieces in Black Lantern, Novelletum, and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent a graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing, respectively, as well as a trained classical musician. You can sit in on our chat below and find Alyssa on Twitter at @AlyssInWnderlnd!
Hello! Thanks for joining us today! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thanks for having me! I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY, where I attended Canisius College and double majored in English and creative writing. I also had a minor in music and am a classically trained mezzo-soprano and have performed in different musical performances around the area. I’m a huge music fan as well and love going to concerts and shows; my favorite genre is heavy metal. I’m also an avid reader (which I’m sure comes as no surprise) and also enjoy traveling as much as I possibly can.
What inspired you to write The Violinist of Vivaldi?
Weirdly enough, it started with a dream I had. The dream was essentially the first chapter of the novel, and when I woke up I couldn’t stop thinking about it, or thinking about these people and what their story might be. I knew almost nothing about Venice or Vivaldi at that time, but I knew that I had to write this story. By the end of that day I had the first chapter written, and I kept on writing because I simply couldn’t stop. I did the research as I went, which meant that many things had to change over the course of the revising process, but it all worked out in the end. As I mentioned above, I do have a musical background, so that was very helpful throughout the process but especially in the early stages of writing; it was something I DID know a lot about going in, and so it gave me my way into the story and into the lives of the characters.
Your debut novel, The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi, is set in the 18th century, amid the passion and mystery of Venetian life., which you do an excellent job capturing Where you familiar with the location before beginning the book?
Like I said, I knew very little about Venice when I started writing, but I had always wanted to go there, and had always been fascinated by this idea of a city built in the middle of a lagoon with water for streets. I read a great deal about Venice and its history – from its founding to the present, though obviously I focused on the 18th century – during the course of my research, and I did eventually plan a trip there, before I started the third and final draft of the novel. I had been writing and reading about it for so long that I had gotten to a point where I felt I could not go any further without seeing it for myself. Venice is truly like no place else in the world, and that made it both exciting and intimidating to write about.
When writing historical fiction for a modern audience, what are some of the greatest challenges?
One of them is certainly finding that fine line around exposition and information about the time period. As the author I need to give the reader enough information to ensure that they understand the social, cultural, and economic norms and realities of this time and place they are likely not familiar with and how these things impact my characters, but I have to do it in such a way that I’m not simply dumping information on them and taking them out of the story. I like to think that I achieved this in Violinist, and I think that what was the most helpful for me in learning how to do it was simply reading lots and lots of historical fiction throughout my life and seeing how the masters (like Philippa Gregory, Sarah Dunant, etc.) do it.
Another challenge, and something that comes up often in discussions of historical fiction, is creating a heroine that modern readers can identify with and root for, without making her too ahead of her time in her attitudes. While feminism is a relatively new concept in world history, it came into being after years and years of women being discontented with their lots and their lack of rights. So while a woman in 18th century Venice may not have had what she would have called a feminist attitude – or even what modern readers would call a feminist attitude, perhaps – she may certainly still have looked around and recognized the injustices that limited her life and her choices and wished things were different. Adriana wishes that she could perform in public and also compose and have her work performed, and in examining the society in which she lived I did not find these to be unrealistic desires for her: women could perform as opera singers, and the female choir and orchestra of institutions like the Pieta performed for the public, albeit in a religious setting. So things were changing for women in music at that time, but unfortunately not fast enough for Adriana, who is aware of this and frustrated by it.
Any fun or surprising research tidbits you’ve found?
With all of the above said, I did find that women in 18th century Venice had a surprising amount of sexual freedom (thought not as much as the men, of course). One of the characters in the novel, Adriana’s friend Giulietta, has what is called a cisibeo, or a lover whose name was included in the marriage contract between husband and wife and with whom the wife was allowed to have a relationship. This was an actual practice among Venetian nobility at the time, which completely surprised and fascinated me.
What drew you to historical fiction? Any favorite books or authors in the genre?
My interest in history in general started at a young age. My dad is a big history buff, and he always impressed upon me the necessity of learning about the past and of learning from it. Growing up I read a lot of historical fiction like the Dear America and Royal Diaries series, and also historical novels by Ann Rinaldi. As a teenager I discovered Philippa Gregory, who is still one of my all-time favorite authors. Her novel THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL made me realize that I wanted to write historical fiction. Some of my other favorite historical fiction authors include Sarah Dunant, Kate Quinn, C.W. Gortner, Kate Forsyth, Jennifer Laam, and Stephanie Cowell.
My overall love of history makes it exciting for me to travel to another time and place within the pages of a novel – whether I’m reading it or writing it – but I also think what makes historical fiction interesting and powerful is the ways in which it allows us to reflect on how people and their hopes and desires really have not changed all that much over the years – people today still want love, happiness, money, power, etc., just as people have wanted those things throughout history. And I think that historical fiction also allows us to consider the ways in which we have progressed as a society over the years, and also how far we still have to go.
If we gave you a time machine, and told you that you could spend a week in three different time periods, which would you choose?
Narrowing it down to three is a tough one! But here are my choices:
- I would definitely like to go back to 18th century Venice and experience the craziness of Carnival (and perhaps meet Vivaldi!)
- Florence in the late 1460s or early 1470s to see the Renaissance really getting into full swing
- Vienna, Austria, the week of May 7, 1824, to see the world premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
What are you working on now?
I still have copy edits and pass pages to come in the next few months for my second novel, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli, which will be out April 25, 2017 from St. Martin’s Griffin. In the meantime, I’m working on drafting my third novel, which I don’t want to say too much about yet. But I am making a jump from Italy, as this novel takes place in New York State in the early 1790s. I am just loving working on it so far – it’s been maybe the easiest project to draft that I’ve ever worked on.
A big thanks to Alyssa for stopping by to chat and don’t forget to check out The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi!
Like most 18th century Venetians, Adriana d’Amato adores music-except her strict merchant father has forbidden her to cultivate her gift for the violin. But she refuses to let that stop her from living her dreams and begins sneaking out of her family’s palazzo under the cover of night to take violin lessons from virtuoso violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi. However, what begins as secret lessons swiftly evolves into a passionate, consuming love affair.
Adriana’s father is intent on seeing her married to a wealthy, prominent member of Venice’s patrician class-and a handsome, charming suitor, whom she knows she could love, only complicates matters-but Vivaldi is a priest, making their relationship forbidden in the eyes of the Church and of society. They both know their affair will end upon Adriana’s marriage, but she cannot anticipate the events that will force Vivaldi to choose between her and his music. The repercussions of his choice-and of Adriana’s own choices-will haunt both of their lives in ways they never imagined.
Spanning more than 30 years of Adriana’s life, Alyssa Palombo’s The Violinist of Venice is a story of passion, music, ambition, and finding the strength to both fall in love and to carry on when it ends.