We writers love our books—and then they leave us. Adored projects, like The Possibility of Lions, go off into the world and find their own lives, their own friends. It’s what we want for them, just like we want it for our children, and yet their success leaves a gap in our lives. One that can only be filled by ANOTHER BOOK.
Libby Mosier, teacher, blogger and author of My Life as a Girl, understands this very well, as she demonstrates in her recent blog about her new novel, Ghost Signs. She tagged me and several other writer friends, knowing each of us would be eager to answer some key questions about our next books.
What is the title of your book?
It’s called The Merchants of Light and it’s about the Tiepolo family, who were a whole tribe of wonderful painters who lived in Venice in the 18th century. Venice at this time Europe’s biggest art market and a mecca for artists, students, dealers, critics and tastemakers, swindlers and forgers. It’s a world of art!
Where did the idea come from?
My husband Michael Alford is a painter and muralist. Tiepolo is the undisputed master of the classical Baroque style of decorative painting — think clouds, gods, cupids, richness— and Michael has often used his work as a reference and inspiration.
Looking at Tiepolo’s paintings over the years, I began noticing that the woman at the center of the action, whether it was the Virgin Mary, or Cleopatra or Venus, always seemed to be the same woman: a languid, full-bodied blond wearing a string of pearls. This holds true across Tiepolo’s 50-year career. This set me thinking: Who is this woman? Was she a “real” woman—by this I mean an individual, an actual living model —or just Tiepolo’s fantasy or some kind of ideal?
The novel grew from these questions, but in the course of writing it became something much more. The Tiepolos lived at a pivotal moment in the evolution of art and also at a time of enormous changes across Europe. Their story, which is largely factual, is framed by another real-life story from the 20th century that tells how a Monuments Man saved their greatest work in the aftermath of World War II.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction. Is art historical fiction a genre? It should be.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in the movie?
Kate Winslet as Cecilia—she is earthy, carnal, passionate, highly intelligent and just a little bit tricky. Mark Ruffalo as Tiepolo—he is a man of action, not words, but deeply emotional, faithful and devoted to his work and family. He sees no contradiction between these two loves. He’s not conventionally good looking, but once you know the kind of man he is, you want to pounce.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
(Thank you for not using the term “elevator pitch.” It always sounds like a form of motion sickness.) In 18th century Venice, a brilliant family of painters rise from poverty to become the greatest artistic dynasty of their time.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
This novel is heavily researched—my first ever experience of writing in a historical vein. That took about a year and I loved every minute I spent in the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Art Library, in galleries and online where I was astonished at how much good information—and by this I mean art historical and historical academic information—could be easily accessed. My first drafts are disgraceful, always. I hand wrote this one in about six weeks just to find out what wasn’t working in the plot. After that I went back and revised my event structure before starting a new draft.
What other books would you compare the story to within your genre?
I’d like to think this book can be compared to historical works by the writers I’ve been studying while writing it. I am a fan of the kind of historical fiction pioneered by Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker, one that assumes that the past was normal to the people living in it and so doesn’t make too much of the trappings of antiquity, doesn’t get bogged down with weird archaic dialogue or long descriptions of tableware and the like.
The writer who I looked at most when writing this book—and the one I would love to be compared to— was Beryl Bainbridge, specifically her historical works and above all The Birthday Boys. It’s an account of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic, told in the voices of each of the five men who perished. It’s a masterwork of economy and compression. You can see that she researched the story deeply—and the Scott expedition must have a library full of books written about it— then she found a way to tell it swiftly and sharply and with new insights. The Birthday Boys is a wonder: everyone writing historical fiction should read it.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’ve read a lot of books about painters and painting, as you might imagine. Though some are entertaining, I have never run across even one that really tells what it’s like to live in a painting family. Writers tend to get mired in sentimental ideas about the conflict between the artistic life and the domestic, as though the two are at odds. That’s a Romantic notion, one that belongs to the 19th century. Tiepolo and his family would not have recognized it.
I wanted to write a book about the day-to-day realities of life as a painter in the 18th century, before these ideas of family vs. art gained ground, when there was a whole class of artists who earned their daily bread by putting brush to canvas. I wanted to demonstrate how the people we artists love make a place for themselves in our imaginations and shape our art. And I wanted to show how women exerted a strong influence on life and culture even during a time when their public role was limited.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
An insider’s view of Venice. Casanova before he became the famous seducer. Painting as painters see it — the technique, the inspiration, the business. How to win at gambling, 18th century style. Enlightenment pin-up boy Francesco Algarotti and King Frederick the Great, in love. Saving civilization without firing a shot: How one man rescued a Tiepolo’s masterpiece from the ravages of World War II. Plus Ingrid Bergman.