Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween! A treat for your bag tonight, interview with the author of The Mourning Emporium and The Undrowned Child- Michelle Lovric!

As previously promised, and as a special "Treat" on this day of Trick or Treats, I present my interview with the lovely Michelle Lovric, author of The Undrowned Child (see my review here) and The Mourning Emporium (see my review here).  If you haven't read them, you're missing out greatly!!

You recently did a “City-Pick Venice” evening with a number of authors (including one of my favorites Sarah Dunant), which was advertised as containing “Revelations, surprises or intimate confessions”. Can you share any that came out during your interview with Maxim Jakubowski?

-Actually I am yet to have my moment in the spotlight – it is on December 6th, at the Italian Cultural Institute in London. Just how intimate will those revelations be? Depends on whether my husband attends or not.

Would be lovely to see some Diary-of-a-Bookworm London followers at the event. It’s free, but booking is essential on

Baiamonte Tiepolo- the source of infinite evil in the Undrowned Child series- is based on an actual man and historical events surrounding him. Was he a starting point for the story, or just a natural pick for a villain of Venice?

-There’s no point in a baddie who’s bad just for the sake of it. The more visceral the motive, the more terrifying his depredations. For The Undrowned Child, I needed a man with a motive to truly hate Venice. He had to hate Venice as much as Teo and Renzo, my child characters, adore her. Now Venice being lovely Venice, it was very hard to find a Venetian who abhorred his city. So I had to look all the way back to 1310 to find Bajamonte, but I could never have dream up such a perfect set of reasons for a vendetta as his. His plan to kill the Doge and seize power was sabotaged first by a storm, then by the cupidity of his own men, also by a sneak and finally by an old lady in a nightie, who threw a mortar at the head of his standard-bearer. In the consequent shower of blood and guts, Bajamonte’s men turned tail and ran. Just to complete his degradation – Bajamonte’s house was razed to the ground, his crest deleted all over the city, his name associated with the devil, and he was sent into exile, the worst thing you can do to a Venetian. Oh, and finally the Venetians sent the secret police to murder him. So … in The Undrowned Child, Bajamonte’s ghost spends six hundred years marinating in his hatred deep in the waters of the lagoon before bursting forth to take revenge on the city that brought him so low. As you might expect, he doesn’t want Venice to die slowly, or simply.

Your books are steeped in many rich aspects of History. Has History always been a great love of yours? Or does your life in Venice and London spark you interest in history because they are both so rich in it themselves?

-As long as I can remember, I’ve loved big, fat, old history books. I love what’s inside them, their covers, their smells. (In fact there’s a character who slightly resembles me in my latest adult novel, The Book of Human Skin). Like the Bookworm, I read like a tornado. There’s almost nothing I won’t try. I love the research stage of my books. I always have an idea and a voice in my head, but research delivers so many wonderful gifts and opens up so many possibilities. Research gave me, for example, Butcher Biaisio, the 16th century Venetian child-eater. It gave me Syrian cats in Venice. It gave me Signor Rioba, the redoubtable statue who has traditionally shared his gruff opinions with the Venetians. For The Mourning Emporium, I enjoyed burying myself in books about the Victorian funeral industry. The plight of London’s homeless children is also heartbreakingly well documented.

Part of the novelty and fun in the Undrowned Child series comes from the many varying and unusual speech patterns. i.e. the mermaids who learned English from pirates and sailors or the circus master Signor Sargano Alicamoussa who is Venetian but then visited Australia and has a very hybrid vocabulary.
After reading an Abba blog article of yours on howlers (I was laughing so hard I was in tears!) it occurred to me language is obviously as intriguing to you as history. Where did that come from? Did you meet resistance from publishers or editors over using it the way you do in a children’s book?

-A very perceptive question! Yes, I absolutely love strangulated language. I adore the distortions of dialect, insults, proverbs, howlers. I love mistranslations. I am attracted to speech that goes for a delirious dance in the dark of the imagination before it staggers out of the mouth. In another book, I have explained my theory that foreigners sometimes speak the most perfect English, because they get more out of it than is intended in the dictionary or the grammar books, which serve only to limit or define.

I also find an endearing vulnerability in those who try hard to speak well and get it wrong.

The language of insult is very dynamic, like anything powered by raw anger. I’ve compiled books of Latin and international insults – again, these have served me well.

The mermaids were pure joy to write – I’d done a non-fiction book on sailors’ slang and superstitions, so I had all the language at my fingertips. Signor Rioba’s insults have a different period feel again: he’s a Morean transplanted to Venice in the 12th century. And, in The Mourning Emporium, Turtledove speaks the street slang of working (or thieving) class 19th-century London. So do the children who work at the Mansion Dolorous mourning emporium – though two children are from Glasgow and are rather stroppy, so I had enormous fun writing their dialect. I also have Scottish slang research archived – from writing an Edinburgh quack doctor and his Glaswegian assistant in my third novel, The Remedy.

After reading your blog on the Madonna’s and cats (sigh, I would buy that book), seeing pictures of your cats of the month on your site, pictures of your own beautiful cat, not to mention all your wonderful cat characters in the two books, I’m going to assume you are a consummate cat lover. Can you tell me about your cat? What in particular do you love about cats in general?

-Rose La Touche, currently sitting on the back of my chair, thanks you kindly for mentioning how beautiful she is. She wouldn’t mind if you did so again. Yes, I love cats. I love their pompousness, their beauty and the feel and smell of them. (Rose smells slightly of vanilla. I have known other cats who smelled of custard or jasmine.) But of course it is rude to be species-ist and generalize about cats – they are as individual as we are. Possibly more so. Because each cat has several personalities. You can never put your finger on who a feline truly is – they are so changeable. Rose will bite me for the same caress that made her purr the day before.

If anything, it is we humans who are alike in our ailurophilia. Look at the success of LOL Cats and many viral feline videos on You-Tube. Strangers from around the world are instantly united if one of them mentions their cat. Then they quickly cluster together and go off into a magical place I call “Cat World”, where everyone can talk about their cats without the least embarrassment or reserve.

Rose always checks out your Feline Fridays by the way, and wonders if you might consider a feature on her some time? She’s no mere cat. She’s a tea-rustling acrobatic dare-devil who is currently working on a fine-art installation in the medium of table-leg, varnish and sawdust. But she doesn’t do dressing up, I am afraid. Or, if she did, I’d have to send you the pictures from hospital.

Your rat gun (a kids toy that lights up and makes a racket) greatly amuses me, I can just picture you wiping it out of your purse on a lovely evening out in Venice. However did you come up with the idea of using this toy to scare off rats? And do the people of Venice mock your toy gun, or does everyone have some eccentric way of scaring off the rats?

-Well, the problem is that there’s one rat for every person in Venice. I have three or four personal ones, just for me. And if they know I’m alone, they wait for me outside my door at night. Yes, you might well ask why. It is very sinister.

I’m a vegetarian and don’t wish to kill rats, so I needed a weapon of minimal destruction. First of all I hand-made a kind of rattle, with tin toys inside. Then I found this souped-up Cadillac of a toy gun – red and white with bulbous bits and a silver trim. It emits a long-distance red laser dot as well as a terrible cacophony. If the noise doesn’t disconcert the rats, then the red dot annoys them, and they go away. As for pulling it out of my handbag, I consider it a perfectly elegant fashion accessory – I have some earrings that are almost as large and a lot more bizarre.

I read that your dad used to say “it was just as well that breathing was an involuntary activity as otherwise I would have died”, but then I read that you like to leave your home at 6 or 7 am in the morning and go to a coffee shop to write! Is this true? Because somehow this seems the opposite of lazy.

-My father also said that I couldn’t go to Europe when I was little because I was too lazy to cross the road. The sad thing is – he’s right. I am quite productive if you look at my word-counts, but I take only involuntary exercise, usually by accident, accompanied by a lot of lamenting. My new office at the Courtauld Institute of Art (where I am the new Royal Literary Fund Fellow) is up 98 winding steps in the west wing of a beautiful Georgian building. I am sure it is very good for me, but that’s not what I’m thinking as I walk up them.

What is an average writing day for you like?

-An actual day just to write – a longed-for, treasured rarity! Around writing a book, one spends at least as much time doing events, preparing events, designing websites, dealing with website-designers, answering fan-letters. … I have to get up very early to do any writing, before the actual working day begins. Evenings are for family. But weekends don’t exist. Saturdays and Sundays are just possible writing days to be snatched, if possible, from the jaws of other commitments.

If I ever do have the amazing luxury of a whole day to do nothing else but write, then I am FIERCE. I can write up to 10,000 words in one long sitting. Sadly, that does not mean 10,000 brilliant words. I spend at least as much time unpicking and refining as I do writing. So it’s probably just as well I don’t get to write all the time. A tsunami of words would engulf the world.

But every day is a thinking-about-writing day. Every day, more little notes go into the spiral-bound notebook. More fragments of dialogue. More tiny twists for the tail of the plot. Once I am into a book, everything is grist to its mill. Every traghetto ride across the Grand Canal; every bus trip in London. Every overheard conversation. Every stab of annoyance or laugh.

From what I’ve read you seem to have many similarities to Teodora: photographic memory, long love affair with Venice, bookishness, and a great vocabulary. Would you say there’s a little bit of you in all your characters? And do you have a favorite?

-Yes, Teo is a lot like me. You were polite enough to leave out the bad bits of Teo’s (and my) character: clumsiness, a sense of outsiderhood, impatience and a tendency to use insults that could cut a steel cable. When I’m writing, I’m method-writing – I’m inside my characters’ heads as long as I’m speaking with their tongues. So far, I’ve never had an editor protest “But X would NEVER do that!” I think that’s because the characters are fully formed for me. This is why they so easily travel across my books. Cecilia Cornaro, heroine of my first novel Carnevale, is still making guest appearances in The Book of Human Skin ten years later. Signor Alicamoussa – a star of The Mourning Emporium – is my particular favourite in my children’s books. I hope I will be allowed to write more of him. In my top drawer is a novel in which he plays the romantic lead in an art, archaeology and murder mystery set in London, Venice and the Fayum delta around the time of the Jack-the-Ripper murders. By the way, speaking of lovely words, in Italian, Jack is known as Giacomo lo Squartatore (literally, “the chopper-into-four-bits”) and I believe there’s a nightclub named after him somewhere on the mainland.

The books show you’ve done an obvious and spectacular amount of research. Did you have to research specifically for the books or are you more of a history fiend always collecting interesting facts and information?

-Each storyline sends me off in a different research direction. I love that. I’ve had adventures in libraries all over the world – Paris, New York and even Buffalo – but I also like to touch and feel and smell the places I write about. So in the last few years, I’ve been in convents in Peru and medical museums for The Book of Human Skin. I’ve been aboard ships, handled old drug packaging at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, sought out funerary antiques at fairs, and explored London’s Museum in the Docklands for The Mourning Emporium. I’m now reading about wolf and hyena anatomy, climbing towers, eating excessively rich French food, investigating hairiness and trying to involve myself emotionally in land-rights for my third children’s book.

Can you give us any hints or ideas what The Undrowned Child and The Studious Son will be getting into trouble over next?

-In fact, the third book goes deeper into the past. So it tells of a time before Bajamonte Tiepolo raised his ugly, ghostly head. But there was still baddened magic back in 1846, when Teo’s grandmother was a little girl. Talina is the most impudent girl in Venice, and has some unusual talents that bring down unusual troubles on her head. A beastly cohort claims an ancient right to Venice, and it will take Thaumaturgic tea towels, the denizens of a whole cat sanctuary and a potion called ‘If in doubt’ to put things to rights again.

Author Bio-
Michelle Lovric is the author of four novels for adults and two for children, all set in Venice.
The Remedy, her third adult novel,was long-listed for the Orange Prize. 
Her first novel for 9–12-year-olds, The Undrowned Child tells what happens when science meets baddened magic in Venice. Its sequel, The Mourning Emporium, was published on October 28th.
Her fourth adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, set in Venice and Peru, was published by Bloomsbury in April.  
She delivered the 2010 Venice in Peril summer lecture, about Baiamonte Tiepolo, the villain of her children’s books, and his hidden column of infamy; and reviews for various publications and runs writing workshops. She is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Born in Sydney, Michelle Lovric now divides her time between Venice and London blogging regularly on the Scattered Authors’ Society website An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and the English Writers in Italy website. Her own wonderfully interesting website is


  1. Enjoyed the interview! Happy Halloween!

  2. Thanks Judith, it helps when you get to interview super interesting people!
    Enjoy the night!

  3. This is a great interview, really good questions. I love the cat picy too.

  4. I love This book!A friend of mine lend it to mE AND IT´S SIMPLY WONERDFUL.