Hi Shaz and Emma, thanks for inviting me here today.
Your new book The Italian Wife is set during Mussolini’s time in power and the race to make Italy a self-sufficient country. What drew you to this point in history and did you make any surprising discoveries during your research?
I have always loved Italy. But it wasn’t until I heard about Mussolini’s extraordinary feat in the 1930s when he drained the Pontine Marshes, a huge malarial swamp, that it triggered a thrilling story in my mind. The reclamation was a massive undertaking and sparked fierce political power struggles, and into this cauldron of Fascist danger, I decided to place an idealistic but ambitious young woman. She is the only female architect working on the new town they are building on the drained land. I knew I had a dramatic and emotional story to tell as Isabella struggles to fight corruption. With the help of the official photographer, Roberto, she works to discover the truth about what happened ten years earlier to her husband who was one of Mussolini’s Blackshirt militia. It was an important and tense period of history that I feel deserves to be better known.
As for surprises, oh yes! It is one of the joys of research. I had no idea that under Mussolini’s dictatorship Italian men were excused from paying tax if they had ten or more children. Those poor wives!
Did you know how the book was going to go before you started the writing process or did the characters take over and change the direction of the novel?
I always start a book with a skeleton plot in my mind, but it has to have big holes in it to allow the characters to climb out and drag me off in unexpected directions. I had no idea that Isabella would get herself arrested and interrogated! Or that Roberto would risk everything by helping a farming family escape to the mountains in the dead of night. That’s what makes it exciting for me. I never know exactly what is coming next. But I always make sure that I know how a book will end before I start it.
I thought Isabella was a fantastically written character. Powerful and strong despite all she had been through. Do you think she would have been a rarity for that time?
1932 was a bad time for women in Italy. Mussolini had launched his Battle for Births scheme to increase the country’s workforce, so women were expected to stay at home and make bambini and cook pasta. Isabella is the only female architect working on the project and has to prove herself time and again to be better than her male colleagues if she is to survive. So yes, she is a rarity, pushing doors open for the first time. And it is this that makes her clash with Mussolini himself.
I found all the historical detail fascinating. Do you find it challenging to weave this detail alongside the main storyline?
No, Emma, I don’t. Because the historical details are very much part of the structure of my books. It is a crucial part of the framework that holds the plot together and creates the motivations that bind the characters to each other. Like most historical authors, I love doing the research but only use a tiny percentage of it in the finished novel, but having all those historical details in my head allows me to create that world on the page.
Who was your favourite character in the book and why?
Isabella. I love both her strength and her vulnerability. But I enjoyed writing little Rosa’s scenes most. They just flowed effortlessly. Especially in her confrontations with the nuns, where fear and defiance battle it out.
Have you any tips for aspiring writers out there and would you encourage them to write in the historical fiction genre?
I have three tips:
- Read, read, read and then write, write, write.
- Analyse what you read. Decide what works and what doesn’t work for you.
- Work out what it is you want to say, then keep that focus point in the front of your mind with every word you write.
Yes, I would definitely encourage any writer to write historicals. It opens up wonderful new worlds to you that are out of the reach of writers of contemporaries, and you learn so many fascinating facts in the process.
I have loved everything you have written and was wondering have you ever been tempted to use the time slip method in your books?
No, because I don’t enjoy reading time slip books myself. I find it frustrating when just as I get emotionally involved with one of the time periods and its characters, the author zooms off to a whole different set of characters. So no time slip from me!
With your books you have transported your readers to Russia, Egypt, the Bahamas, Malaya and Italy. Can you give us a clue where you plan to take your devoted readers to next and what the book is about?
Well, Emma, that is a closely guarded secret at the moment! Except to say it will be set in 1945. But anyone who follows me on Facebook and Twitter will know that I did sneak off last autumn on a trip to a totally different region of Italy. I’ll give you a clue ….. it has a volcano.