It is finally time for me to share another author Q&A! It has been so long since my last one, but they are such fun to do. I love thinking of questions to ask and gaining a marvellous insight into a book that I have read.
I finally joined Netgalley in May, and the first book I was approved for was The Woman In The Painting by Kerry Postle (link to my review). Set in Renaissance Italy, it tells the story of the artist Raphael’s relationship with Margarita Luti, the subject of his painting, La Fornarina. I had a lot of thoughts about the book, so I was delighted that Kerry agreed to answer my questions.
Kerry’s answers are long and detailed, and although the Q&A mainly relates to The Woman In The Painting, she makes frequent references to her two previous books, The Artist’s Muse and A Forbidden Love. Without further ado, let’s get started!
- What made you want to become an author, and how did you eventually manage to achieve it?
To be a writer is a dream for many of us and I was no different. In my youth I talked about it a lot, wrote a few opening pages, sent off a few scripts and finished the odd article. But there were also people to meet, the day job to do, life to live. The dream persisted throughout it all, but the act of writing one of the novels that I’d been planning for so many years never quite materialised.
Until about five years ago, when two life-changing events happened one after the other and changed everything. First off, I had a health scare, shortly followed by finding myself the victim of a random act of violence in my place of work. Both experiences were instrumental in making me understand that if I wanted to write a novel I had to stop talking about it and start doing it. It was time to commit.
My first novel took about eighteen months to write, and it was hard work. But when I eventually finished it, I was elated. To finish was an achievement in itself, and it gave me a respect and understanding for anyone who has seen a novel through to completion.
The next step was how to get published. I read blogs, bought How to Get Published books, and eventually got round to buying the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. If you’re looking to get published, The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is the only book you’ll need. Buy your own or borrow it from the library. It gives you lists of publishers and agents. I simply worked my way through it, sending off a synopsis of my first novel and the first three chapters until one day I got a phone call from HQDigital, an imprint of Harper Collins. And that was it. The Artist’s Muse came out as an e-book.
Soon after I was offered another contract, and wrote my second novel, A Forbidden Love, set during the Spanish Civil War, which came out in e-book and physical format, followed recently by my latest novel, The Woman in the Painting, also out in e-book and paper form.
- Have you always liked art, and what inspired you to make it such a central topic in your writing?
Yes, I have always loved it, ever since studying Art History at a school in London over thirty years ago. However, although it is the central topic in my first and third novels, it was never my intention to make it so. Having said that, I hope that by placing art centre stage in two of my books, it will prompt readers to take a look at the artworks themselves.
The paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, mentioned in my first novel, The Artist’s Muse, are stunning, and give faces to the characters I write about. As for the novel itself, it looks at the relationship between Klimt, Schiele and their muse Wally Neuzil, and portrays their world through Wally’s eyes. And so, although the art is central to the novel, it is the human story behind the paintings themselves that fascinates me more.
The Woman in the Painting also looks at the relationship between an artist and his model, this time the Renaissance artist, Raphael, and his model Margarita Luti. It is inspired directly by La Fornarina, the portrait of Margarita that is on display in the villa Barbieri in Rome.
In both novels I sought to re-interpret the stories behind the paintings by viewing them in the light of the women’s experiences, Wally’s and Margarita’s respectively.
And that’s what links the art novels with A Forbidden Love, set during the Spanish Civil War: women’s experiences, in this case of war.
- Aside from historical accuracy, what factors helped to shape your portrayal of Raphael and the other renowned artists that appear in The Woman in the Painting?
Historical accuracy is more difficult to grasp than we realise. History is often as much interpretation as it is objective truth. It was essential, therefore, for me to re-examine the reasons for Raphael’s death in this novel, concentrating as it does on the last years of his life.
Raphael had a reputation for working hard, disease was rife, and early death was not uncommon at the time. However artists, art historians and writers alike have, throughout the centuries, enjoyed blaming Margarita Luti for Raphael’s death. Margarita is portrayed as sinful and seductive, and according to them, she robbed the world of a great genius with her wanton ways. This theory is clearly ludicrous, especially when she was more important to him than his peers cared to admit.
Recent x-ray analysis of the painting La Fornarina (Raphael’s intimate portrait of Margarita and the painting referred to in the title) suggests that this is the case, and I have used the possibility that Raphael and Margarita may have married to trace a genuine love between them.
Most of what I write has its roots buried deep in historical fact, however I like to develop character where history leaves a vacuum, or, at least, explore character to see how it responds to the historical details on which it is based. Even in a life as well documented as Raphael’s there is space for interpretation and invention. The animosity of Sebastiano and Michelangelo towards Raphael, for example, is well-documented, that is why I use it to explore the jealousy both men feel for their popular rival in art, but I have also extended it, in Sebastiano’s case, to affairs of the heart.
- I found Pietro to be a very interesting narrator in The Woman in the Painting. What made you decide to tell the story from his perspective?
When I first decided I wanted to tell the story of the girl in the painting La Fornarina I toyed with the idea of using Margarita as first person narrator. But I didn’t want to tell a simple tragic love story. That seemed too easy. And besides, historically, it would have been highly unlikely that Margarita would have been able to write.
But I still wanted to have a first person narrator. It gives a sense of immediacy to the writing, and pulls the reader into the head of another person.
I plumped for Pietro initially because I wanted a St Peter figure to complement Raphael’s Jesus. I wanted to weave in some Biblical symbolism, having my first person Pietro deny Raphael three times, and I did start the novel off like this. But it was only after a meeting of my local Proust reading group (more fun than it sounds), where we analysed lots of long sentences about jealousy and homosexuality, that I knew at last that I wanted Pietro to be more than just a symbol.
I wanted Pietro to be complex, with complex relationships with both Margarita and Raphael. He could show the power Raphael had on others, as well as allow the reader to observe the burgeoning relationship between Margarita and Raphael through the eyes of a jealous lover.
- Pietro displays a lot of negative traits, but always seems aware of the hurt that his actions cause. How would you describe him as a character?
I would describe Pietro as human and fallible, as well as highly intelligent. The negative traits he displays come as a result of his jealousy, in the main, and can also be explained by the negative way he has been treated by his father and society. His behaviour is admittedly despicable much of the time, but Pietro isn’t completely devoid of redeeming features and eventually he does see the light.
As for being aware of the hurt he causes, this is because he is all too aware of the hurt that he himself feels at the innumerable snubs and jibes made in relation to him. Pietro suffers and inflicts suffering because he is a bitter young man, who comes to learn, albeit too late to save the ones he really loves, that joy comes from goodness and the simple things in life.
- How significant a role would you say class divisions play in The Woman in the Painting?
Now you’re talking! Class divisions have been significant in every one of my three novels. It’s to do with wanting to call out inherent injustice in society, whether it be in late 19th/early 20th century Vienna, Spain in the 1930s, or Rome during the Renaissance. It’s about the haves and have-nots, the use and abuse of power. Yes, you could say that class divisions fascinate me.
- Forbidden romance seems to be a recurring theme in your books. What is it about this theme that appeals to you as an author?
I know why you say this (because I can’t deny that forbidden romance has been a feature of every novel I’ve written). However, I think that relationships are what are at the heart of each of my books, relationships that challenge society, and as each novel has been historical I believe that this has dictated forbidden romance as a theme.
Each romance has been forbidden in the sense that they’ve not been allowed, by law, by society, and in each novel I’ve explored the mores of the time and placed my characters in opposition to them. For me that means my characters have more obstacles to overcome, and hopefully that makes for a more exciting, challenging reading experience where the reader senses the unfairness of a particular situation.
- How would you describe your writing process? How long does it take you to write a novel from an initial idea?
My writing process is constantly changing.
For my first novel, I opened a Word document and tapped out as many words as I could every day. It was a word count exercise until I got to about 90,000 words. I then went back, removed most of the research, developed the characters, made sure I wove threads throughout, moved chapters around, read each line out loud to check for the musicality of the words… and then I read it again and again, editing and re-editing until I couldn’t do it anymore.
For my second book, ‘A Forbidden Love’, I drew out a general structure so that I could see where the changes/ obstacles/ flash points were, annotating it so that I had a broad overview of the general story. I then wrote chapters in a Word document to fill out, but not necessarily in order.
As for ‘The Woman in the Painting’, I wrote this freehand in a notebook first, then typed it up, editing as I went. This turned out to be a much quicker way of working for me – no idea why – and so I’m hoping to write my fourth novel the same way.
Although I’m keen to plan more before I start. Some writers just begin and allow the writing to guide them, and my natural inclination is to do the same, but after having finished three books I see the importance of having a rough idea of where you’re going.
As for how long it takes me to write a novel from initial idea to completion, it takes from eighteen months to two years, depending on the amount of research to be done, although I would take much longer if I didn’t have writing deadlines set by the publisher.
- Are there any books you have enjoyed recently and would recommend to others?
As far as fiction goes, I’ve recently finished ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles. It’s charming, innocent, and a book for our confused, unprecedented times. The basic plot is about a Russian who has to live out his life in a hotel room. He can’t leave the hotel, can’t hold on to most of his possessions. He’s a prisoner who serves his time and makes something of it. He thrives, through the books he reads and the relationships he develops, creating a world that is rich, beautiful and hopeful. It’s funny, full of wisdom, encouraging the reader to celebrate being alive. I’ve not experienced such peace after reading a novel in years. It really is perfect for now.
In terms of recommending books for prospective writers I would recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft’. It has lots of really useful writing exercises to help you find your voice and play with language.
- Do you have any writing tips for aspiring authors?
I do, and here they are –
- JUST DO IT. Try writing an hour every day, or try setting a word-count goal, say 500 words a day, and see how quickly this builds up.
- Don’t worry too much about each sentence to begin with – focus on the story and getting it down.
- Be inspired by books you love. Make notes on what you’re reading, record what you find good about them. If it’s a page-turner, analyse how it does that. If it’s boring and repetitive, make a note of that too. Look at how novels start – do they engage you? Why? Why not?
- See if you can find a friend who likes writing too, or see if there’s a local writers’ group you can join. Support is important for an aspiring novelist as writing can be a lonely path to follow. You might feel self-conscious telling people you’re a writing a novel, but you are, and you need others with whom you can talk about it.
- Get the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.
- Finish what you’ve started. Don’t give up.
- And enjoy it!
And that is everything! There was a lot to glean from that Q&A; I was especially taken by what Kerry had to say about historical accuracy, first person narrators, and her writing process. While I was reading The Woman In The Painting, I had lots of thoughts on Pietro, so it was great to get the author’s perspective on him.
Since receiving her answers, I have bought The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It has been recommended to me before, but hearing how it has helped Kerry really inspired me to get it at last!
What did you think of Kerry’s answers? Did you find it fascinating to find out more about her experience as an author? Let me know in the comments!