Monday, April 16, 2018

History, Women, and Music - Interview with Alyssa Palombo

Last month, I saw a copy of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo. I got excited because I know her from Twitter and purchased the book, which I started reading that evening. Though I fantasy is my most read genre, I also love a good historical fiction. Alyssa's book swept me away. I really enjoyed the story of Simonetta Cattaneo as Sandro Botticelli's muse. After reading it, I picked up her other book, The Violinist of Venice, the story a woman named Adriana d’Amato who learns to play violin and becomes a lover of Antonio Vivaldi. This one also swept me away and because it spans so many years had a more epic feel to it.

I'm excited for her upcoming book about Katrina Van Tassel from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, being a lover of dark and creepy stories.

Since I enjoyed her stories so much, I asked Alyssa if she'd take time to do an interview from my blog and she graciously agreed!


1)  What inspired you to write about Adriana, Simonetta, and Katrina? Why was it important to tell their stories?

The answer to this question varies slightly for each character, so I’ll go in order 😊

Adriana: I think it is generally important for authors of historical fiction to tell the stories of people whose stories may not have been told or appreciated in their time, or by history as it has been written. Adriana d’Amato is a fictional character, but I found the lives of women in 18th century Venice fascinating: they had a lot of freedom in some ways, and were burdened by a great many restrictions in others. Too, as a musician myself, I am always interested in the lives of female musicians in the past. Adriana’s story takes place at an interesting time for female musicians: women could achieve great fame as singers on the opera stage, but female instrumental performers and composers were still mostly unheard of (save for within some religious institutions). I wanted to explore how this atmosphere would have affected this character I created, who is a passionate musician and learns to be a composer.

Simonetta: Simonetta Vespucci was an actual historical figure about whom we know very little, which is a shame because I find her fascinating (obviously, since I wrote a whole book about her!). One of the things that we do know is that she was known throughout Florence, and much of Italy, for her beauty. She was treated in a way that was not too far off from our own celebrity culture today: women copied the clothes she wore, and men waited outside her house hoping to speak to her or even just catch a glimpse of her. I found the parallels really interesting to explore as a writer. And, of course, she is supposedly the model for Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus. The artist-muse inspiration, and the stories behind great works of art, is another theme that I love to both write and read about (and which I delve into in The Violinist of Venice as well, of course).

Katrina: Katrina Van Tassel is also not a real historical figure, but she is a character in one of America’s best known works of literature, so she feels very real in a lot of ways. I’ve always adored “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but the sexist way that Irving’s narrator describes and speaks about Katrina always got under my skin. I wanted to take this story that I loved and give Katrina a chance to tell it her way. Turns out she had quite a story to tell!

2)  Your first two books were set in Italy, how did your visit help you research?

Visiting Venice was absolutely crucial to me in completing The Violinist of Venice. Venice is such a
strange and unique place; a city that floats on the water. I had to see it for myself to make sure that I could write about it in a convincing way. By the time I went there, I had done the research on the time period, Vivaldi and his music, etc., so seeing the city, experiencing how people moved around in, was the last piece of the puzzle. With Florence, it was immensely helpful to visit some of the exact locations that feature in the book, so that I could accurately describe them and place my characters in a firm space. I was also reminded (that research trip was actually my second visit to Florence) that art is just everywhere in that city, and that the period I was writing about – the Italian Renaissance – was the birth of all that. I let art and the love of beauty permeate my writing as I continued to work on the manuscript.

3)  How hard it is to write historical fiction when you don’t have lots of information about the figure you want to write about?

As I mentioned, there’s not a ton of information available about Simonetta Vespucci – in many of the books I consulted while researching she is quite literally a footnote. So it was quite frustrating to not be able to confirm some details for certain – where her wedding had taken place, for instance – but then at other times it was liberating, as I was free to choose the scenario I liked best out of a few possibilities, and fill in the blanks that history had left. When researching a little-known woman from history, one avenue is to research the notable men in her life or of her time period – in the case of this book, I read a lot about Lorenzo de’ Medici. And reading about the period generally – the everyday little details – can also help to give an idea of how people lived at that time, and how their world may have shaped them. So there are lots of ways in even if there isn’t a lot of information about the person you’re writing about.

4) What do you love most about writing historical fiction?

I’m a total history nerd, probably unsurprisingly, so I love being able to incorporate all the fascinating, weird, and unexpected historical information that I find and become obsessed with into my stories. I think historical fiction is probably as close to a time machine as we’ll ever get. I love being able to illuminate pieces of the past that may have been unknown to my readers, while also drawing parallels to our world today.

5) Why do you think it’s important to write strong, independent women, especially ones who lived during times when women were supposed to be submissive?

There have always been women who yearned and worked for change – that is how change has happened, after all, and it’s important that we remember that. Women have changed the course of history many times over, and we shouldn’t forget that.

It’s important to acknowledge that a woman writing in the 21st century can never completely set aside her modern lens; can only imagine what it would be like to live without the rights that we have today. But I try to narrow my focus somewhat and zero in on what is important to the women I am writing about. I think it’s important to show that women – that people in general – were not all that different in the past compared to today. We still want many of the same things, have the same goals and ambitions and desires, enjoy the same things, etc.

6)  Who is your favourite character you’ve written so far?

Charlotte Jansen, who is Katrina’s best friend in The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel. She isn’t in the original “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; she’s a character that I invented. She’s like me in a lot of ways, and in other ways is a woman I wish I was more like. She also has some…interesting abilities, which is cool and was very fun to write. I love and feel connected to all my characters, but Charlotte just has a special place in my heart.

7) How much research do you do for your novels?

As much as I need, and sometimes more! There’s a lot that I learn along the way that never makes it onto the page, but the more understanding you can have of a person/place/time period, the better. I read a lot of books related to my subject, of course, and also look at paintings from the period (portraiture is great for getting a feel for clothing and hairstyles) as well as maps. Primary sources such as letters have been tough for my Italian novels, as I don’t read Italian fluently, so I’ve had to rely on translations that I’ve found in books. I did have some primary sources in the forms of Vivaldi’s music and Botticelli’s artwork, of course! And whenever possible I travel to the location where my books are set and see the sites, visit museums, speak to tour guides and docents, etc. And there’s always those things you can find with a quick Google search – though that often leads to falling down lots of rabbit holes!

8) What’s your writing process?

I write whenever I can make the time – weekends, evenings after work, my lunch break. I’ll take a day or two off here and there to make sure I don’t get burned out, and I find that a little time away from a project can help me come back to it with a fresher perspective. Once I’ve got a first draft, I send that to my agent for her notes, and she gives me her feedback and we usually discuss over the phone. Then I’ll fill in whatever research holes still exist and do a round of revisions before sending on to my editor. Then she and I will continue to work on it together.

9) What are you currently working on?

I’m currently doing more research for my upcoming fourth novel, which I can’t say too much about yet 😊 I’m making another research trip for that in a couple months, and then I’ll be revising this summer to get it in to my editor by my deadline. I did a ton of research up front for this one (and it’s also about a period/historical figure I already knew a lot about) and yet there is still so much more I need to know! It’s my most ambitious project yet – there are two narrators, one a man (who is an actual historical figure) and one a woman (who is fictional). It’s different from my first three novels in that it’s got a lot of politics and is rather dark, and also hews extremely closely to actual historical events. That’s all I’ll say for now!

10) Are there any historical figures you hope to write?

I’d rather not name names, since I don’t want to commit to anything, so to speak – there’s no telling if a project will work or not until it’s underway. But I will say that there are a couple ladies of Italian history that I’d love to write about, and the project I am considering for after book four is turned in is about a historical woman, one not well-known but with a connection to someone very famous.

11)  Since we like the same music, I have to ask, what are you listening to now?

Yay, I love this question! 😊 I’ve had Nightwish’s Decades pretty much on loop since I saw them live last week – hearing some of the older songs live gave me a whole new appreciation for them! And speaking of Nightwish, I’m also LOVING the new Auri album, which is Tuomas Holopainen and Troy Donockley’s side project. It’s just gorgeous music; I’m not even sure how to describe it: maybe a touch of Nightwish mixed with folk-rock and classical music? I’ve also had Evanescence’s Synthesis in pretty heavy rotation since it came out in November. Lastly, I’m very much looking forward to Kamelot’s new album, which will be out April 6 – I love the two songs they’ve released from it so far!

Thank you, Alyssa, for doing this interview. It was lots of fun!

Don't forget to pre-order your copy of The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel! I can't wait for this one!

About the Author

ALYSSA PALOMBO is the author of The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, as well as the forthcoming The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel. She has published short fiction pieces in Black Lantern Magazine and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing, respectively. A passionate music lover, she is a classically trained musician as well as a big fan of heavy metal. She lives in Buffalo, New York.

Find her online at her website, Twitter, and Instagram.