Q&A With Authors Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk

Gina Buonaguro and Janice KirkToday, I’m talking to Canadian writers Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk, co-authors of The Wolves of St. Peter’s, The Sidewalk Artist and Ciao Bella. I loved The Sidewalk Artist when I read it in 2011 and when HarperCollins Canada asked me if I wanted to review their latest book, The Wolves of St. Peter’s, a historical thriller set in Renaissance Rome, I couldn’t say no. I loved that book too so I jumped at the opportunity to interview Gina and Janice for my blog.

Hello ladies!  I understand that you originally met in a French class and that not long after you decided to form your own author’s group. This year you’re celebrating 10 years of writing together, congratulations!

Thank you! We can’t believe ourselves that we’ve been writing together for more than a decade. 

  1. What is the hardest thing for you to deal with when it comes to co-authoring a book?

At this point in our writing career, it would be finding enough time to do all the research and writing we want to do! The minutiae of life can really get in the way.

  1. Where are some of the places you’ve traveled to for research?

We’ve both been to many of the locations of our books independently (Paris, Rome, Florence, Euganean Hills – although neither of us has ever been to Urbino, a key setting in The Sidewalk Artist). For the first time ever, we took a research trip together to Venice in January 2013. Gina spent a week there, while Janice stayed for a month. We did a lot of thinking about our next novel, a sequel to The Wolves of St. Peter’s. It was an excellent chance to soak up atmosphere while working on the plotting and characters.

  1. Is Italy your favourite country and if so, why? 

Yes, it certainly seems to be our favourite country to write about! Gina has an Italian background, which perhaps partly explains her attraction. Janice visited Venice for the first time about 15 years ago and fell in love with the place – she has gone back every other year since then, renting an apartment for a month at a time. Plus, the scenery in Italy is spectacular, the food delicious, and who wouldn’t love a place where you can start drinking wine before lunch?

  1. Was there anything in specific that attracted you to writing about Renaissance Italy for The Wolves of St. Peter’s? 

We wrote about Renaissance Italy in our first novel, The Sidewalk Artist, though it was basically by accident since the artist Raphael ended up being a major character. After moving to the World War II-era for our second novel, Ciao Bella, we realized we much preferred writing about a time and place further back in time. We strive to be as historically accurate as humanly possible, but it is nice to write about a period where no one is still alive to correct you. Plus, we already had a working knowledge about Renaissance Italy and wanted to dig into it deeper. There’s so much wonderful fodder for a great mystery.

  1. What was the most disturbing and the most interesting fact that you uncovered while doing research for The Wolves of St. Peter’s?

There certainly were a lot of disturbing facts we unearthed during the The Wolves of St. Peter's by Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirkresearch for The Wolves of St. Peter’s. The Renaissance is often quite romanticized, but essentially you would not want to live any other time and place than the developed world in the 21st century. One especially interesting fact came out of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The outhouses of the Renaissance rang with the sounds of dying newborns. That was because women had no access to abortion and had to resort to infanticide for unwanted babies. According to Pinker, the modern-day rates of abortion parallel the infanticide rates of the past. Whatever your views on abortion, that’s certainly something to think about.

  1. Who is your most endearing character in the book aside from Francesco?

That’s like asking which of your children you love the most! Anyway, we really enjoy The Turk, despite how despicable he is. Based on Silvio Berlusconi, he’s the guy we love to hate. We do love Dante the bat man as well as have a very soft spot for Susanna, who is just trying to make her way in this world so unfriendly to women.

  1. Can you tell us more about the next book you’re writing?

Our next novel is a sequel to The Wolves of St. Peter’s, the second of an envisioned trilogy, and it will take place in Venice, at a time when dowry inflation was skyrocketing. Patrician families were only able to marry off one of their daughters, and the only other respectable position for a woman was a convent. So the nunneries of the city were filled with women who didn’t want to be there, which certainly makes for fascinating social dynamics.

  1. Venice is one of the cities on my bucket list and I have a Pinterest board dedicated to it. What specific detail about Venice inspired you the most?

Boy this is a hard one – it’s a completely inspirational city. We touched on Venice in our first two novels but obviously not The Wolves of St. Peter’s, which is set exclusively in Rome. The sequel will take place during a Venetian winter, which is a very mysterious time in the life of the city. When we went there last January, fog often hung just above the canals, and several times we heard the aqua alta sirens, which warn about potential flooding. The streets were damp, and the churches were often as cold as a tomb. And yet in the shops and restaurants and cafes, there was much warmth and light. It was a wonderful contrast.

  1. What will you be speaking about at Kingston WritersFest on September 27th?

We’re really looking forward to this event. We’ll be talking about our coauthoring process as well as our research into Renaissance Rome about art, the Vatican, Michelangelo, Raphael, and the role of women.

10. Are the canines in your Facebook banner photo real wolves?

The dogs in our author photo are Tamaskans, a type of husky from Scandinavia. Our photographer friend owns them, and we thought they would be a perfect addition, given the title of the book. It was quite the photo session at Fort Henry getting them to cooperate!

Thank you very much Gina and Janice for this wonderfully interesting and informative interview. I look forward to meeting you in person at your book signing event at Chapters Kingston on Saturday, September 28, 2013 (between 12:00 – 3:00 pm)!

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. StedmanBook Review
Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author:  M.L. Stedman
Publisher: Scribner
Released: July 31, 2012
Pages: 352
ISBN-10: 9781451681734
ISBN-13: 978-1451681734
Stars:  4.5

“On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.  A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below.” 

From the opening lines of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, I was captivated by her sumptuous prose and engrossed in her exceedingly genuine main characters, Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel (Izzy) Graysmark. We’re introduced to them on a life-changing day before Stedman backtracks to Tom’s life eight years earlier and reveals how he became a lighthouse keeper, where he met Isabel and what brought them to this place.

I love stories that are set on or near water and there’s always been something mysterious and romantic about lighthouses, that je ne sais quois being something that Stedman was able to articulate in a most alluring fashion.  I wanted to know how a marriage could survive in the isolated confines of an island lighthouse on the coast of Western Australia in the 1920s which is why I chose to read this New York Times Bestseller.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  I could smell the ocean breeze, taste the salty air, feel the rhythm of the waves, and see the way the light was magnified from the lighthouse’s lens over the water.  The romantic nature of Tom & Izzy’s island life was palpable.  I fell in love with the story and didn’t want it to end.

Their newlywed life on Janus Rock in 1922 is at first idyllic as inquisitive Izzy enjoys discovering everything there is to know about her new home and her husband’s job.  “On the Lights, you account for every single day.  You write up the log, you report what’s happened, you produce evidence that life goes on.”  A lighthouse keeper must keep not only a spotless station, but faultless records, as it’s a government appointed position that is held to the highest standards. After four years at war where “right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some,” Tom seeks peace and simplicity and can’t believe that this lovely young woman is happy to live alone with him on the islet where the supply boat (helmed by Ralph and Bluey) only arrives once a season and shore leave to Point Partageuse is granted only every other year.

Tom and Izzy are blissfully happy and it’s not long before they try to have a family. As is often the case for the most deserving parents, this couple is unfairly dealt emotional blow after blow as Izzy suffers three miscarriages over several years.  When one day a small boat washes up on their shore carrying a dead man and a perfectly healthy baby girl, we completely understand why Izzy, in her grief, chooses to make the decision to keep the baby and raise her as her own. She begs Tom to bury the man and to stay silent so that they can give Lucy the life she deserves.  We can’t blame her for her argument and feel great empathy for her when her choice comes back to haunt her in the most dreadful way.

A couple of years pass and one day Tom, Izzy and Lucy are together on the mainland visiting Izzy’s parents who are ecstatic about their new granddaughter, when they hear about a haunted woman named Hannah Roennfeldt whose husband and baby daughter were lost at sea and who couldn’t be anyone other than Lucy’s biological mother.  Tom realizes that he’s met Hannah before and his guilt over keeping their secret becomes so unbearable for him that he makes a decision that almost destroys his life. However, all the lines between right and wrong are blurred as we find justification for both Izzy and Tom’s sins while at the same time feeling great compassion for Hannah.

This is a wholly satisfying read in every sense.  The protagonists’ character development is flawless and secondary characters are decisive, if not fully realized.  The Light Between Oceans is intellectually, psychologically and emotionally captivating and asks some very tough questions. How can we live with ourselves if we keep shocking secrets?  How do we rationalize our choices in an unfair world?  How can you make a decision in which everyone loses?  Is the best mother always the biological one?

Equally quixotic and tragic, M.L. Stedman has succeeded in delivering a masterpiece of a debut novel with The Light Between Oceans. I can’t thank Simon & Schuster Canada enough for sending me a copy of this book to review! It’s a must read and I greatly anticipate reading Stedman’s future work.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxBook Review
Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Headline Review
Released: May 17, 2007
Pages: 277
ISBN-10: 9780755334803
ISBN-13: 978-0753308446
Stars:  3.5

I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award).  Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.

I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago.  “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.”  The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s.  It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets.  The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.

Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.

At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty.  Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…”  Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it.  In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told.  We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had.  Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated.  When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.

We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead.  Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone.  Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.

In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union.  One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby.  Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”

Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax.  All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation.  While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.

This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.