Friday, October 3, 2008

Interview with Barbara Quick

Last year we reviewed Barbara Quick's Vivaldi's Virgins. Recently we had the opportunity of doing an interview with her and we couldn't let it pass as we were curious about the story behind the book. Barbara Quick was really nice and provided us with really interesting information both about this book and her new one that will be released next year.

Hello Barbara and thank you for doing this interview with HT! As fans of historical fiction we are always interested in knowing where the ideas for the plots come from. Your last book, Vivaldi's Virgins, has an interesting and long story behind. Would you like to tell us more about why you felt compelled to write it?

This story chased me for about 18 years, Ana!

It all started with an engraving I bought from a street artist in Budapest. The engraving, which was entitled "Vivaldi," showed a young composer sitting at a keyboard, surrounded by what I took then to be angel musicians. I brought the engraving home and framed it beautifully. But it took me almost two decades to discover what it really meant.

I had written five other books before I heard somewhere that the composer Antonio Vivaldi was also a priest who taught in an all-girls' orphanage. This seemed like a fascinating setting for a novel (which it turned out to be!). I started doing library research--and eventually made my way to Venice, the site of the Ospedale della Pieta, where Vivaldi taught and composed in the early part of the 18th century.

It was only after the novel was well under way that I got my "Vivaldi" engraving out of storage and onto my bedroom wall, looked at it and realized, "Those aren't angel musicians--those are the orphans!" And it was as if the picture looked back at me in that moment and said, "Finally!"

With little known about Anna Maria dal Violin, how did you find her voice and built her life story? How much of it was based on research for the period and how much was your intuition speaking?

My first drafts of the first "letters" that my heroine writes to her mother--a person whose existence she can only dream of--were written for a completely made-up character I called Pellegrina. I imagined her as one of Vivaldi's favorite violinists, to whom he'd dedicated a lot of solos.

Well, then found a chapter in a book of academic essays (referenced in the bibliography at the end of my novel), highlighting the life of one Anna Maria della Pieta, one of Vivaldi's favorite violinists, to whom he dedicated nearly 30 violin solos. The outlines for Anna Maria's life nearly identically matched the life I'd made up for Pellegrina. So Pellegrina went out the door and Anna Maria came in.

I went to Venice again, met with the director of the Vivaldi Institute, Francesco Fanna, and was given a wonderful article written by the scholar Micky White, containing biographical details about all the female musicians who were contemporaneous with Vivaldi during his tenure at the Ospedale della Pieta. Using the seven or so factoids contained in the sketch about Anna Maria--when she was promoted, when she was put on a special diet of chicken, given an extra measure of oil, etc.--I was able to build an armature for the life of a flesh-and-blood girl growing up in a cloistered institution with the canals of Venice outside her barred windows, a girl who ate, breathed, and drank music every hour of every day.

Anna Maria was obviously a musical prodigy--and yet her promotions came much later than those of her cohort. And I figured, this girl must have been breaking the rules and getting into trouble. Why else would her promotions have been postponed?

Very soon after I started writing, the voice of Anna Maria--well, I don't want to say that it spoke to me. But I could hear her--or maybe it would be more accurate to say I could overhear her. I heard her speaking in whispers with other girls in the dormitories and hallways of the Pieta. I heard her voice as she composed her letters to her mother, desperate with the hope that her mother not only lived but would hear her and come to claim her.

Later, as Anna Maria spoke from the perspective of her fourth decade, I heard a different voice--one that reflected all she had learned. A voice filled with wisdom and a touch of irony and a great deal of compassion for the frightened and lonely girl she'd once been.

Do you feel your approach to the people and places you mention in your book to be different from other authors?

I would think so! I think every writer must have his or her own unique approach to the people and places they write about.

Two writers can write about the exact same thing and write completely different novels! I'm looking forward to reading the novel about the Pieta by a writer named Laurel Corona that's being published in November. The difference is not in the subject matter, but in what the writer brings to it. Writers have to dip into their own emotional well to find the resonance needed to create a convincing emotional life for their characters--you have to feel it when you write it.

I laugh and cry and sometimes talk to myself when I write. I really think I go into another world, where I lose track of time and even lose track of myself. It's both wonderful and exhausting to write fiction--and it must look really weird to anyone who happens to be watching. (I try to keep myself in check when I'm writing at cafes, which I often do!)

We already know you have a new book coming out in 2009. The existence of your new heroine seems to be a point of controversy among some scholars. Were you already aware of that when you chose to tell her story? Or was it because of that that you chose her? And is there a story behind that book much like that behind Vivaldi's Virgins?

The new novel I'm just finishing up for HarperCollins children's division, A Golden Web, is about a young woman in Emilia-Romagna, in the northern Italian penninsula, in the early 14th century, who dreamed of going to medical school and studying human anatomy. Of course, this was completely out of the question for a female in the 1300s. So, in my story she disguises herself as a boy and rides off to Bologna with her nanny, who is also dressed in men's clothes.

I'd found the same little bit of information about this young woman in various different places on the Internet. And then, in Bologna, I was able to find quite a few articles that referred to her. One of these articles suggests that the whole story was made up in the 18th century.

Because the 14th century is such a very long time ago, and so much history and architecture have happened since then, it's not really possible (as far as I can tell!) to say one way or the other whether Alessandra Giliani lived and did what she did. The librarians and archivists I consulted with in and around Bologna wanted--just like I do--to believe that the story is based on fact, and that records of this girl and her family may have been destroyed by the Church, whose rules she so completely breached by doing what she did.

I "heard" her voice, just like I heard Anna Maria's voice--but I don't think I can really offer that as proof to anyone that Alessandra Giliani was the western world's first female anatomist. Even if someone is eventually able to prove that the story isn't factually true, there's still a huge amount of emotional and simply human truth contained in Alessandra's story. And all the historical details of the time and place--of medical practice and the craft of publishing before the printing press and student life at Europe's first university: these are all based on a great deal of meticulous research.

When so little is known about a person isn't it harder to imagine how she was and lived? Or does that give you more freedom to do what you want with her story?

That's a good point, Ana! In Vivaldi's Virgins, I felt a moral obligation to make the biographical outlines of Anna Maria's story conform with the pen-and-ink records of her life. Because these records are so sparse, though, I had plenty of freedom to imagine all the details of the story, as well as the cast of characters who interact with Anna Maria in the novel. Whenever there were facts available to weave in, I did that--as in the case of the novel's antagonist, an embittered and vindictive teacher named Meneghina. (There was a historical teacher of that name at the Pieta, contemporaneous with Anna Maria, who was stripped of her privileges for cruel treatment of students in her care.) There was a Marietta of the Pieta, too, who became an opera star, and this little factoid became the basis for the character in my novel who most often get Anna Maria into trouble.

The historical Anna Maria's rival for first violin was blind at the time of her death--and I only found that out after I created the character of Bernardina, Anna Maria's rival and, later, her student, who is blind in one eye. The facts and my own imagination seemed to do a dance together, with the lead passing between them. It all worked out very beautifully.

With the story of Alessandra Giliani, there was only the record--if it is a record--of a beautiful tribute to Alessandra written by her friend and fiance. So, of course, he became an important part of the story. I was gratified to hear from my editor, after she'd read my first complete draft, that she was shocked to learn from me that nothing is known about Alessandra's family. Her father, step-mother and siblings all play very prominent roles in the story. My editor, Rosemary Brosnan, told me that she'd been utterly convinced that they were also based on real people. Well, who knows? Maybe they are. Maybe, on some deep, mysterious level, I tapped into a part of the story that didn't survive in the archival records but still lives on somewhere in the ether.

Both your historical books have Italian heroines. Was that a coincidence or do you have an affinity for italian history? Can we expect more books set in Italy in the future?

I am, I admit it freely, completely obsessed with Italy. I have such an affinity for the language, the culture, the people, the food. When I went to Venice for the first time, I felt sure that I'd lived there before. When I started learning Italian, it was in my mouth already. People have always said that I look Italian--and I've begun to believe that I must be. Maybe I had an ancestor who sailed across the Adriatic Sea from Venice to Bucharest, where my maternal grandfather was born. Someday I'd like to have my DNA tested and find out.

Thank you so much for doing the interview. It was very interesting to learn the story behind your books and about your writing process. Anything more you might like to share with us? When can we expect your next book to be found on the bookstores?

Really, it's been my pleasure, Ana! I'd like to encourage your readers to visit my web site where they can read more about Vivaldi's Virgins, see (and hear!) a book trailer, and download a podcast of music from the novel. They can also see two slideshows of my pictures from Venice at

I'm really excited about all the foreign editions of the novel that are being published! The Spanish, Hebrew, Dutch, and Russian editions are already out. There are eight others in the works, including a Greek edition coming out in January. A lovely native-born Italian woman I met at a reading I did in Phoenix took it upon herself to make an absolutely brilliant translation of Vivaldi's Virgins into Italian, all on her own. I'm hoping--both for her sake and mine--that we'll see her translation picked up by a publishing house in Italy this year. It drives me crazy that, with 12 translations, there isn't one coming out in Italian yet. Vivaldi is practically an industry in Venice!

A Golden Web, the novel about the young anatomist, will be available in fall 2009. I'm so looking forward to sharing that novel with readers--it's such a beautiful and inspiring story for anyone who has dared to do something that everyone else says is impossible.


  1. Barbara, thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. It was a very interesting interview.

  2. What a great interview. I will be getting the book tomorrow!!! Barbara Quick spoke of things that are hauntingly familiar to me.

    thanks again

  3. That was a great interview. I love Vivaldi's music so I think it's a must that I check out this book :)

  4. Wonderful interview! I really enjoyed this book.

  5. I live in Qld and I have had to order this book. They had never heardof it so I suggested they get a few in since the author was featured here.

    Jane - again
    Ps will take 10 - 14 days grrr

  6. That's interesting. My library has it . I wonder what differentiates the books that are ordered in some libraries rather than others.

  7. This is Barbara here, the author of VIVALDI'S VIRGINS. I want to thank Ana again for her thoughtful interview--and to ask all of you to let me know whether your local bookshops and libraries are carrying my novel. The whole question of distribution is a great mystery to me! My personal intuition is that you--the avid readers of the world (and mostly women!)--are the sole determinant of whether a book rises to the top or evanesces into obscurity.

    What do you do when you really love a novel? Do you lend your copy out to friends? Do you buy multiple copies to give as presents?

    Now that VIVALDI'S VIRGINS is available in this beautiful paperback edition, I hope it will be accessible to a much wider assortment of readers. Write to me here, on Ana's blog--or at my web site: Barbara [at] BarbaraQuick [dot] com

    Dodging the robot spammers,

  8. Whilst I would very much love to buy all the books I read, I don't have the budget or the space and so I am a library kind of girl.

    I remember looking a while ago and found that my library didn't have your book, but they do now.

    It is sitting there waiting on the hold shelf for me to go pick it up in the next couple of days.

    Thanks again for your time Barbara. It was a very interesting interview to read.

  9. Interesting interview, thank you! I snapped up VV in hardcover via Amazon when it first came out, as I love anything set in Venice. Wonderful book!

    I noticed also that another book on the Pieta (the one by Laurel Corona mentioned in the interview) is coming out soon. Rosalind Laker's novel about the Pieta was recently re-released as well (the something Mask, I haven't read it since the 80s). Vivaldi is in the air! But I agree with Barbara -- the same milieu/subject can be treated completely differently by the same writer.

  10. Whoops, I meant by DIFFERENT writers.