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INTERVIEW: Marina Fiorato, author of ‘The Madonna of the Almonds’

Friday, April 19, 2013

I have read and enjoyed every one of Marina’s books – she’s now one of my favourite authors. Her books all share a vividly described Italian setting, strong plots that illuminate some aspect of Italian history, alluring characters, and gorgeous covers. 

Marina’s fascination with Italy comes from being half-Venetian. Although she was born in Manchester and raised in the Yorkshire Dales, she studied history at both Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare’s plays.

She has also worked as an illustrator, actress and film reviewer, and has designed tour visuals for rock bands including U2 and the Rolling Stones.

She was married on the Grand Canal in Venice, and lives in North London with her husband, son and daughter (with lots of visits to Italy to research her books, the lucky thing!)
Her books are: 

The Glassblower of Murano (2008) 
The Madonna of the Almonds (2009) 
The Botticelli Secret (2010)
Daughter of Siena (2011)
The Venetian Contract (2012)

I loved them all, but I was particularly taken with story behind The Madonna of the Almonds and so that is the book I am interviewing Marina about:

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes - I think it really helps. Sometimes I’ll drift away from modern life and slip back a few centuries - I’ve had lots of good plot ideas from just daydreaming, so I fully recommend it 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Actually, no - I did when I was at school, then there was quite a long gap when I wanted to be a lawyer, vet, actress, artist! Then I came back to it when I had my son, and now I couldn't imagine being anything else

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
i was born in Manchester, England, and now I live in London. what I like best is hanging out with my family (husband Sacha, son Conrad (9) and daughter Ruby (7)) meals are a big thing in our lives - probably cos I’m half Italian - so either eating out or at home all together round a table is my greatest pleasure.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for 'Madonna of the Almonds'?
I was having a glass of amaretto di saronno - or two! - with my husband one Christmas, and I began to read the legend on the back of the box. it told the tale of Bernardino Luini falling in love with a young widow and immortalizing her as the virgin on the church walls in Saronno in 1525. So I had a hero, a heroine, a setting, and even a date, and set myself the challenge of writing the story.

Tell me how you went about researching and writing the book.
I was lucky enough to go to Saronno and actually stand in the little church that Bernardino had painted, and then go to Milan to look at the monastery he decorated there. It's remarkable that the same beautiful green-eyed, red-haired woman is all over his work. it was very useful to see her like that, painted over and over again as every saint and angel and Madonna, because it really gave my heroine three dimensions. I invited her down from the walls and gave her life as Simonetta di Saronno, the heroine of the book.

'The Christ Child Asleep' by Bernardino Luigi
How extensively do you plan your novels?
i usually do a page long synopsis, and then a chapter plan telling me what will happen in each chapter. So I usually know before I start exactly how the story is going to end, but sometimes the characters surprise you!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
If I'm in the middle of a book I sometimes will dream about the characters, and if they do (or usually say) something interesting I'll scribble it down when I wake. I always have something with me to write down wherever I am, otherwise the ideas just disappear like bubbles.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
My favourite animal is a giraffe, and I put one in every book. I discovered that Luini's son (also an artist)  had put two giraffes at the centre of his Noah's ark fresco in Milan, so I didn't have to figure out how to fit one in!

Where do you write, and when?
I write on my laptop, on the sofa in my living room. I work while the kids are at school, and stop while they're home. It's quite a good chunk of time to write, but it stops me overworking because it's a finite time.

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love it when I have an idea for a scene or some dialogue which I'm so enthusiastic about that I have to write it down so fast that my fingers can't catch up! I also like the editing process, when you have a strong first draft down and then can hone it.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I don't tend to get blocked because I know I have a limited time to write so I just write any old rubbish, because I know I can edit it. Just putting words down on the page makes the process less daunting - there's nothing worse than a blank page.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read a lot, watch a lot of telly, go to movies, talk to interesting people. There are so many stories to write if you keep your ears open

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Not really, except for drinking copious amounts of tea!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Thomas Harris, Alexandre Dumas, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Adams, Antonia Forest, Pamela Kaufman, Anya Seton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jilly Cooper!

Anya Seton

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Writing that makes you want to turn the page, that makes you want to read just one more chapter before you go to sleep.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
I think if you want to write, you should read. Read everything, good and bad, because you'll learn from both.

Tell me all about your new book.
I'm writing about all of Shakespeare's Italian plays, as if all the characters are real and are living at the same time in Renaissance Italy. Their paths cross and they meet each other, and Shakespeare himself is in it too. It's messing with my head a bit but I'm really enjoying it! 

Mary Anne commented on 18-May-2013 03:33 PM
Thank you for this interview, I have a favourite picture which I now know to be the bernardino luini's Christ child Asleep with the Madonna Whois Marina's Madonna of the Almonds. I love her work. The glass lower of Murano was the first reading I enjoyed immensely. She is a very talented lady
Mildred commented on 17-Sep-2016 05:24 AM
I began with the Venetian Bargain and will run to the library to gather the rest of your books!! From a family of doctors, I found the medical theme fascinating. My 17 yr. old grandson was in Italy last summer with Shakespeare in Rome and expresses an interest in medicine. Traveled to Italy many years ago, I discovered on my shelf a small brass winged-lion just today. Are you Christian?

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