Historical fiction is my passion, as is the case for many other authors. On occasion, it is my privilege and pleasure to feature such authors on my blog. The following is an interview I recently conducted with Ms. Pauline Montagna. Sign up to be on her mailing list, and you can win a free book!
INTERVIEW WITH PAULINE MONTAGNA
Give us a short synopsis of your book.
The Slave tells the story of Aurelia, the sheltered daughter of Francesco Rubbini, a rising merchant with political ambitions. One day he returns from a buying trip to Venice with Batu, an Asian slave boy to whom Aurelia is inexorably drawn. However, her own needs and desires have no place in her father’s plans. In a bid to win a seat on the city council, Rubbini gains the patronage of the aristocratic de Graziano family by negotiating a lucrative marriage between Aurelia and their eldest son, Lorenzo, a man with a dangerous reputation. Batu insists on joining Aurelia in her new home for her protection, but his presence rouses violent emotions in Lorenzo that Aurelia cannot understand, and which bind the three of them in an inescapable triangle of love and hate. Though little more than a pawn sacrificed to the passions, ambitions and rivalries of the men in her life, Aurelia must find a way to mature into a woman who is true to herself and the man she loves, whatever the cost.
How did you come up with the setting? How were you inspired to write this story? How did you research your story before you began writing your book?
I’ve bundled these questions together because basically the answer for all three is the same – ‘The Slave’ came out of my own life. It’s what inspired me, it’s where I came up with the setting and it’s where I did the research.
Although I was born in Australia, all my grandparents and my mother were born in Italy and I grew up with a strong Italian identity. My mother was born in Basilicata, in a remote village on a hilltop far from the sea. My father’s people came from the island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany. At university I was eager to delve deeper into my background and leaped on the only two units of Italian history on offer, ‘Medieval Italian City States’ and ‘Florence and the Renaissance’, there I learned that the Renaissance didn’t just materialise as the result of a few coincidences sometime in the fifteenth century, but grew out of the culture of independent, progressive, mercantile cities states that began to emerge from the Dark Ages in Northern Italy, particularly in Tuscany, as early as the eleventh century. All of this went into the novel.
The actual story itself grew out of a romantic fantasy from my university days. In the same year I was studying Italian history a handsome Asian boy was sitting in on our French lectures in regal isolation at the back of the auditorium. I imagined he was an aristocratic refugee from Indochina just wanting to hear a familiar language. I was much too shy to approach him, but in my fantasies he found himself stuck in Medieval Italy.
So, basically, when it came to writing the novel, I already had all the background I needed and only had to research a few minor details as they arose.
Tell us about the characters in your book.
The central character is Aurelia, and in essence the novel follows her coming of age as she develops from a sheltered, naïve, dutiful daughter, to a mature, independent woman holding her own in a world far removed from the one she was born into. Time and again she has to find the strength to face circumstances her upbringing never prepared her for. When given the choice, she chooses a life of hardship with the man she loves rather than return to privileged but unhappy home.
Batu, too, has to come to terms with a new world. We learn little of Batu except for a few hints that he lets drop. He started life as a young warrior on the Central Asian steppes, but is captured and sold into slavery. We can only imagine what kind of abuse he suffers until finally the contents of the galley on which he is imprisoned are sold in the Venetian market place and he is taken into the Rubbini household. At first he is taunted and bullied by the household servants, but when he proves he can stand up for himself, he is not only accepted by his peers but becomes their leader.
Lorenzo, who himself is married to Aurelia against his will, is emotionally isolated from his family since the premature death of his mother which he blames on his father. His cool and aloof exterior hides a torment of anger, fear, shame and desire which occasionally is let loose on his young wife. Yet despite this they develop an understanding which protects both their secrets, secrets which, however, will one day come out with violent consequences.
Who is your publisher? Can you tell us about your publishing experience?
‘The Slave’ is self-published. When I first completed the novel I did try to find a publisher but getting published in Australia is extremely difficult, especially for an historical novel which doesn’t fall into any of the recognised categories. It’s not about anyone famous. It’s too romantic to be considered serious literature. It’s too authentic to appeal to the romance publishers. In the end I decided to go it alone. That was in 2005. Since then there’s been a revolution in self-publishing and online promotion, so I’m giving the book another chance.
Who designed your book cover?
As chief cook and bottle washer, I designed the cover. Since I’m no trained graphic artist, I work on the KISS principal. The cover image is from a painting by Gerard Dou which hangs in the National Gallery in Prague which I visited in 1998. I love visiting galleries when I travel and as souvenirs I always buy a few postcards of the paintings I’ve liked, so I now have a substantial collection. To tell you the truth I can barely remember seeing the original of this painting, but when I looked through my collection this one leaped out at me as the perfect image. Although it was painted after the period of the novel, it is exactly as I had imagined Aurelia, right down to the reddish hair. Just as Aurelia does ‘The Girl on the Balcony’ is looking out onto the world she longs to join but still fears.
Are you working on other projects?
I always have lots of projects on the go. It’s how my mind works, unfortunately. I would so love to be able to concentrate on one thing at a time!
Once ‘The Slave’ is up and running, perhaps I can finally get back to completing my magnum opus, ‘The Stuff of Dreams’, a four volume series on William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
What is your favorite genre?
To write or to read? When it comes to reading, I’m not one for genres, but rather for authors or periods. I have been collecting 19th century classics with the hope that one day I’ll get round to reading them. I also enjoy the novels of the thirties and forties, particularly George Orwell, Robert Graves, Graham Greene and Christopher Isherwood. And I love the historical novels of Mary Renault and Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy and science fiction.
As for writing, I think Historical Fiction will always be my first love, but I also enjoy writing in other genres.
What is your favorite quote?
I think my favorite quote is by L.P. Hartley – The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
I used it as the tag line of a website I once had called The Romance of History. Its remit was to stand up for authenticity in historical writing, be it romantic or otherwise. I had just published ‘The Slave’, which, although a romance, is true to the times especially on the subject of women’s lives and sexual relations and their consequences. However, I found it was being lumped in together with what the mass market publishers call Historical Romance, but which I can only call Erotica in Long Skirts.
My other favorite quote is by Douglas Adams – Don’t Panic.
What advice can you offer other authors?
I really can’t presume to give advice, as I haven’t found the magic bullet myself. It also depends on my state of mind. When I’m feeling negative, I’m most likely to advise you to do anything but writing. When I’m feeling positive, the best I can do is: learn from my mistakes.
However, if I must, I would say to any aspiring author, think carefully before you embark on a writing career. You will be laying yourself open to a life of constant rejection, from publishers if you go that route, and by the public if you follow me into self-publishing. You have to really love writing and have something you want to say. You will also have to be ready to devote as much time to promoting your work as you put into writing it.
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Pauline Montagna was born into an Italian family in Melbourne, Australia. After obtaining a BA in French, Italian and History, she indulged her artistic interests through amateur theatre, while developing her accounting skills through a wide variety of workplaces culminating in the Australian film industry. In her mid-thirties, Pauline returned to university and qualified as a teacher of English as Second Language, a profession she pursued while completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. She has now retired from teaching to concentrate on her writing. As well as The Slave, she has published a short story collection, Suburban Terrors.
Her website is http://paulinemontagna.net/