10 Questions for Elle Newmark

One of the perks of doing blog tours, I think, is getting to “meet” the authors, eve if it is via email. Elle Newmark, author of The Book of Unholy Mischief (my review here), was gracious enough to answer a few questions I had about the book and her approach to writing.

MF: Was there anything in particular that prompted you to write this particular book?

EN: I had been searching for a novel idea, and one night I watched The Name of the Rose. As you probably know, it’s about a mentor/student relationship between a medieval monk, his novice, and a book. I went to bed with that movie in my head and woke suddenly at 4 a.m. with a foggy notion about a chef, his apprentice, and a cookbook.

My subconscious had substituted a chef for the monk because my father was an Italian chef and I grew up in a family where food was a centerpiece of life. When a writer grows up with a chef, food as metaphor is inevitable. I didn’t yet know what adventures the chef and his apprentice might have, or what mystery the book might hold, but that evolved into The Book of Unholy Mischief over 3 years of writing and many, many drafts.

MF: What drew you to Venice and this particular time period?

EN:Venice is a gorgeous and mysterious place. My main character says: “The water still whispers tales of death as it laps against decaying palazz. Men in capes still appear out of the darkness and dissolve back into it. Venice has always been the perfect setting for secrets, seduction, and the melancholy thoughts of the poet.” Venice is unique. And the early Renaissance was the perfect time for this tale because it was the beginning of man’s emergence from centuries of intellectual darkness. The printing press had recently been invented, and knowledge of all types (including much that was deemed “heresy”) was becoming more available to the general public. Great thinkers discovered that the earth moves around the sun at the same time that you could be put to death for saying as much. Forget the Alamo; remember the Inquisition. The combination of Venice along with the political/social/religious turmoil of the early Renaissance presented a huge tapestry of colorful people, places, and events. I found it irresistible.

MF: What kind of research did you do in the process of writing this book?

EN:Both research and personal experience informed the writing of this book. I visit Italy often because I have family there—in fact I have cousins named Luciano and Francesca who allowed me to use their names—and I have always considered Venice to be Italy’s most intriguing city. I did months of historical research, using libraries and the Internet, reading loads about the people who lived in Venice in 1498, what the politics were like, and how a kitchen might be run in the palace of the doge. I did further research into the odd little details like whether or not they used a paring knife or whether the common folk wore underwear. That stuff is harder to find. But it was only by being in Venice that I discovered how the damp night air felt clammy on my skin, how the Rialto market smells of fresh vegetables, how the greedy gulls swoop and cry, and how a gondolier’s oar cuts through a sluggish green canal like a stiletto. When readers call this book evocative, I believe they’re responding to my personal impressions of Venice.

MF: Did any of your expectations about the time period change during the process of writing?

EN: Oh, yes. I didn’t realize how much political clout the church had in those days. In 1498, the pope was Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) a rich Spaniard who bought the papal throne—and it truly was a throne. He wielded as much military muscle as any king, and he was ruthless. Italy was not yet a unified country, and the papal states were as rich and powerful as any other kingdom. A corrupt religious leader with sweeping political power is an insidious combination; it leads to no end of outrages and intrigues.

MF: I enjoyed all the evocative descriptions in the book, especially those of food… what kind of food experiences did you draw on writing this? Where did you get the information on the dishes you described in the book?
EN: As I mentioned, my father was a chef, and I fondly remember him stirring pots like a mad alchemist, defying gravity with one-handed omelette flips, and presiding over the annual family ritual of making ravioli from scratch. There was always something festive and almost magical about the preparation of food in our home. My mother was also a good cook, and I know our way around the kitchen as well, but the dishes I describe in the book were concocted for their metaphorical value. I tried to invent dishes that would illustrate whatever concept I was trying to get across. For example, the soufflé illustrates the beauty of a moment, the fleetingness of time. Veal is innocence, a black sauce is death, soft cheese is comfort, etc, etc, etc.

MF: Do you have a favorite character or scene?

EN: I like all my characters for different reasons. I like Luciano’s earnestness and the chef’s integrity, but I also like the truthful depiction of Guiseppe as a bitter drunk. I sympathize with Francesca’s dilemma about whether to follow her heart or her head, and there’s a horrible charm about the suave sophistication that covers Landucci’s murderous nature. Also, I am fascinated by the notion of a pope who was a jovial sociopath. I don’t think characters necessarily have to be likable to be interesting.

MF: What do you hope that readers will get out of the book?

EN: First, a good read. I love to hear from readers who tell me they did not want the book to end. Second, the message that we should honor our own uniqueness by thinking for ourselves. Follow no one blindly. Question everything.

MF: How did you become a writer; was it something you’ve “always” wanted to do?

EN: Yes, it was something I always wanted to do. As a child, I was a bookworm, haunting the dusty, one-room library in our neighborhood. I practically lived there. By the time I got to college (as an English major, of course) I devoured novels and secretly wrote little stories. I thought it would be really cool to write a whole book, but I didn’t think I could. It seemed too big. John Steinbeck is the author who really got me questioning how novelists do what they do. Of Mice and Men devastated me, and I put the book down wondering how ink on paper could make me sob with despair. How could I mourn a fictional character? And how does a writer, who is not present in the room, force me to turn the pages obsessively? I wanted to learn how to do that. I took creative writing classes and attended workshops. Then I found a group of talented writers willing to read and critique my work. But most important of all, I kept writing. They say it takes ten thousand hours to really master something. That’s a lot of writing, but it sounds about right. I wrote for almost thirty years before I published The Book of Unholy Mischief.

MF: Do you have a particular place or method when you write?

EN: When I work in my studio, I like to be comfortable. I sit in a cushy chair with my feet up on an ottoman and my MacBook Air on my lap. I don’t want an achy back getting in the way of my thoughts. But I also like to write outdoors and in foreign places. A certain sense of displacement seems to kick my creativity into high gear. Perhaps that’s why I started writing my first book when I lived in Europe.

As for method, I start with a concept and a few characters (whose life histories I write simply for my own information) and then I begin writing the story. After a while, I need to stop and make some sort of outline so I don’t get lost, but the most important thing is to keep writing. I allow myself to ramble on and on; I write truly terrible first drafts so that I have something to work on, which is much less intimidating than a blank page.

MF: What are five books you love/would highly recommend?

EN: OMG only five? There are so many great ones, but I’ll give it a shot.
1. Sophie’s Choice (a masterpiece)
2. The Book Thief (because Death as the narrator is brilliant)
3. People of The Book (Gorgeous writing, wonderful characters)
4. Wicked (Clever!)
5. Bonfire of the Vanities (satire doesn’t get any better than this)

MF: What can we expect from you next, if you are willing to share?

MF: My next book is a tale set in India. I spent all of last March in India, researching, and once again, my experience enriched the writing. The title is not yet decided, but the story involves two love stories, one hundred years apart, both set against the backdrop of war. An American woman, Evie Mitchell, accompanies her husband to India with their young son. He is going there on a Fulbright Fellowship. Evie hopes the shared adventure will bring them back together. Their marriage has been strained every since he returned from WWII, and she imagines the color and pageantry of India will distract them.

However, they are quickly caught up in the trouble surrounding the imminent partition of India between Hindus and Muslims. Violence begins, and they cannot flee. They are forced to remain in the small, fictional village of Masoorla. Stranded, Evie discovers a packet of letters hidden in a brick wall of her colonial bungalow. The letters hint at a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen in 1857. Intrigued, she embarks on a mission to uncover the Victorian story. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India, and into the dying society of the British Raj. It also exposes her husband’s dark secret and challenges everything she every believed about the man she married. This book is due to be released in 2010.

Thank you so much for your time! You can visit Elle on her webpage.

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