The Book of Human Skin, Michelle Lovric's astonishing fourth novel, is published next week. This dark yet witty story, taking the reader from Venice to Peru, includes quack remedies, Holy Anorexia, murder, love and bizarre bibliomania. Michelle Lovric explains how her relationship with Venice, a passion for historical research and her fascination with fanaticism combined to create a novel that, in every sense, gets under your skin
photo © Marianne Taylor
PJ: The Book of Human Skin, your fourth novel for adults, sees a shift in tone and themes. In Minguillo you've created a classic villain with no redeeming features. Was that a deliberate writing challenge you set yourself?
ML: Yes, it is a conscious departure from more decorous early work. I was interested not just in creating an embodiment of pure villainy but also in examining how essential a villain is to the reader's own satisfaction. I dared to make evil quite glamorous and funny in this book. The vile Minguillo addresses the reader directly. He cajoles, bullies, hectors, struts - because the reader's attention is the object of Minguillo's desire. He constantly monitors the reader's reactions to his foul deeds. I was equally interested in the reader. But to say anymore would give too much away!
PJ: Venice is always 'necessary' to your writing. In your previous novels, both for adults and children, Venice has a starring role. Here, I detect that Arequipa, skin, books bound in skin, religious fanaticism, as well as the idea of the villain, were all equally 'necessary' and demanding of your attention. How did you arrive at a point when you knew you might satisfy all these preoccupations in one book?
ML: Yes, Venice is necessary to my writing. But writing is also necessary to my Venice. I feel more worthy there when I am working; more tuned into the spirit of the place, less parasitic. Venice always feels to me as if she should be earned. I feel a definite duty towards Venice, a city weighed down with cliché and romantic misery by foreign writers who love to portray her as dead and drowning. That's not the place where I live. So I am determined to write her alive. Then Peru hit me - hard - on the writing nerve. I was on holiday there. Out of nowhere, that 'I-am-going-to-write-a-novel' feeling befell me when I visited the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa.
While travelling, I'd started reading about Spanish colonial rule; I'd been fascinated by the different shades of skin that resulted from the invasion, suppression, slavery and synthesis. I usually set my books in the early nineteenth century, and medical history is my research passion. So I started thinking about Napoleon's skin diseases, how his every itch made 10,000 men scratch, and about quack medical preparations for the skin: exotic New World ingredients like the milk of the extraordinary Candelabra Cactus, which I saw for the first time in the long drive up El Misti Mountain to Arequipa.
I was standing by the Zocodober fountain in the convent of Santa Catalina, and suddenly I envisioned a whole novel, binding Venice and Arequipa with South American silver and quinine. And that was it, my writing life prescribed for the next two years. I was back in Peru a few months later with a novel already drafted, and sixteen pages of questions prepared for the archivists and historians at Santa Catalina.
PJ: There are five first-person narrators each giving their version of the same events - Minguillo Fasan, the villain; Marcella, Minguillo's sister; Gianni, semi-literate, faithful servant to the Fasans; Dr Santo; Sor Loreta. Did these distinctive voices arrive fully formed or did you work to achieve their tone/vocabulary? How?
ML: Voices tend to arrive fully formed in my head. I am not musical. I am 'verbical' - because the little phrases that define a character must be in perfect pitch for me. Once I have a voice ... it's a bit like trapping a firefly in a wicker cage. You have to find ways to keep it alive. So I set up a file for each character, and tip into it little phrases that I come across, or invent. Sometimes they grow to be pages long, and sometimes the phrases grow into small plotlines.
PJ: Tell us about your fascination with fanaticism?
ML: I've often written about nuns. Convents, like ships, have that vital Hogwarts factor: closed communities with unusual and picturesque rules - and the added excitement of danger if you try to leave. Few nuns are fanatics. But I started writing this book not long after the 7/7 attacks in London, when I was conscious of a demonizing of Islam. It was as if Islam was the only religion whose adherents ever took a fundamentalist path. Yet there's nothing prettier about Christian fundamentalism, particularly during the Inquisitions and the periods of violent colonial acquisitions in South America. Fanaticism, by its very nature, remains the same. I wanted to write about that.
PJ: Where did Sor Loreta come from?
ML: Sor Loreta is intended to show how fanaticism blocks out the light of change, how it glorifies itself in bizarre ways, how it seeks attention, how surprisingly tedious it can be in the midst of all the danger it can create. Another form of fundamentalism is anorexia - whether the modern version or the holy version espoused by Sor Loreta. A psychiatrist has told me that, among his patients, anorexics have the highest death rate. Like every fanatic, they are so utterly convinced that they are right. Sor Loreta's holy anorexia combines eating disorder with religious fanaticism. She modelled herself on Santa Catalina of Siena who threw herself into a boiling spa to disfigure her skin and thereby discourage future suitors; deprived herself of sleep and ate almost nothing, pushing twigs down her throat to help her vomit. Catalina insisted that her suffering, like that of Jesus, would save souls.
PJ: So, Sor Loreta was a way to reflect on how, fundamentally, some things don't change. Underneath the contemporary exterior anorexia still springs from the need to control?
ML: Today's size-zero models and actresses are rewarded with massive publicity for their almost unnatural ability to abstain from food. So that much has not changed. In the early modern period, thin-ness was not a sign of beauty. But women could show an advanced spirituality by demonstrating a supernatural control over their own bodies, manifested in starvation and flagellation. The self-torture of starvation above all drew attention. Fasting captures the public's imagination, now as then. Disempowered men have also used hunger-striking to make a point: the IRA and Gandhi, for example.
PJ: Which character did you most enjoy writing and which was the most difficult?
ML: I probably enjoyed Sor Loreta the most, because she is the most extreme. Once I was inside her mind, it was wicked fun there, like taking a holiday from sanity. Marcella's was the hardest, because she is a good person. It is hard to show goodness without telling. Really hard. I had to do more work on her than anyone, to endow her with humour and to stop her from being a pathetic victim.
PJ: Dr Santo says that skin is both 'the story and the storyteller.' Can you say a bit more about this?
ML: In a sense, we are all books bound in human skin. Our skin tells almost everything about us - our age, our emotional state, our truthfulness, our state of health. My characters live intensely through their skins - Santo, the doctor obsessed with skin diseases, is the self-appointed scribe of everyone else's cutaneous maladies, but powerless to deal with his own skin's hunger. Minguillo, my villain, manifests his evil in appalling pimples, and in his collection of books bound with human skin. He trades in The Tears of Santa Rosa, a quack medicine allegedly wept into bottles by Peruvian nuns and guaranteed to render the complexion luminous. Of course, it is a scarifying poison. Marcella, Minguillo's sister, suffers mutilation of her perfect skin at his hand. Sor Loreta scourges her own skin to a state of oblivious rapture, enabling her to commit crimes that she can honestly claim to have no knowledge of. Gianni, the tender-hearted servant, needs to learn to grow a tougher skin.
Skin can also be destiny - never more so than in colonial Peru, where the gradations of colour were minutely documented in the most picturesque language.
PJ:The book spans nearly 30 years. Five narrators over that period of time - how did you keep track?
ML:I don't think being organized detracts from creativity - quite the opposite. So I keep charts showing the years and the characters in tandem. I also chart the weather and the time of day. With my charts, I knew exactly how old Marcella was, and what season it was, when Minguillo started dabbling in quack medicine, for example. I find my charts are quite a creative stimulus. Sometimes an empty space on a chart will beckon a tiny linking side-plot that may be better than anything I could have planned.
PJ: You've mixed real historical figures with fictional
characters. Clearly from the notes at the back of the book historical research
and accuracy are important to you.
ML: I can't bear not to know things. For me, research doesn't feel like a chore but like satisfying my curiosity. And I like to go back to primary materials if possible - to handle household objects, fabrics, paper of my period. At an antique market in Venice, I even bought a disinfected plague letter from 1789, because in The Book of Human Skin, paper - the skin of our words - commits murder by transmitting smallpox.
I know some writers phone an expert and ask questions. I do indeed approach academics to check my final drafts, but only if I have read their own publications and double-checked myself against other texts. I adore the research stage of a novel. Everything is open: all bets are off. And research often delivers truth more exciting and unusual than one's imagination can supply. Another great thing about research reading: you can do a lot of it lying down. I am incredibly lazy, so this suits me very well indeed.
PJ: Have you ever thought of being a career historian, or would that be less fun?
ML: Fiction gives you a more liberated lifestyle, if also more insecure, less well paid and more emotionally draining. And you never feel you are entitled to a holiday, of course. But a wholly academic life does not appeal to me - I'd be no use at the politics or paperwork. I can't do meetings. But I love editing other people's work, and being a part small workshops - anything that involves close scrutiny of the written word.
PJ: You had an established career as a publisher/book designer and creator of anthologies - what made you turn to fiction?
ML: I had always been writing fiction, but I never had the time to refine it or the confidence to think it might be published. About 12 years ago, my anthology Love Letters became a New York Times bestseller and ran into lots of foreign editions. So I could afford to take a risk. I allowed myself seven weeks off work, went to Venice and wrote Carnevale, my first novel. If it had been a terrible failure, I'd have just taken a holiday in Venice. No great loss.
PJ: Is there still a 'day job' or is all your time spent on fiction?
ML: I am writing fiction nearly all the time now, but I also edit manuscripts for The Writers Workshop and some of my old packaged books are still reprinting, so I organise that. I blog on writing issues for the ABBA and English Writers in Italy websites. I am also spending a lot of time on performance things, which are much harder for me than writing: talks, school visits, lectures, interviews. I'm doing the annual summer lecture for Venice in Peril on June 1, for example, and also Edinburgh this year.
PJ: You go frequently back and forth between Venice and London - how do manage to hold onto your writing, especially when you are in the midst of, say, the first draft of a novel?
ML: Given all the other stuff writers have to do, I am always grateful to be allowed the time to actually write, so I'm usually instantly and happily engaged. I dislike airports and aeroplanes so if I'm in them I try to live in another world - my book or someone else's.
PJ: Writing for children is a recent development - how did that start?
ML: An editor friend of mine, visiting me in Venice, said, 'Someone's got to write THE novel about Venice for children. And obviously, it's got to be you.' And I whimpered, 'I haven't got the first clue! I write for adults! I write telephone directories - novels THIS thick; historical novels with medical themes, you know, sex and drugs and minuets.' She replied calmly, 'Give it 2 hours.' Two hours later. I'd written the whole outline of the story and the first twenty pages of what would become The Undrowned Child. I realized that there were so many fantastic details about Venice that I'd never been able to include in my adult novels, because only children would really understand them. Suddenly I had a chance to write about the 16th century Cannibal Butcher who made stews out of children, the vicious seagulls who are just obviously spies for some axis of evil, the striped poles that are clearly the tentacles of a monster. And, unlike with my adult novels, no one reined me in when it came to writing about Venetian cats.
PJ: Can you tell us about the book you'll next be working on?
ML: I am just finishing my second novel for children, which is called The Mourning Emporium, a follow-up to The Undrowned Child and it's another fantasy adventure set in Venice. But this time my child protagonists end up in London in time for the funeral of Queen Victoria. It's got a full complement of mystical beasts such as vampire eels and winged Syrian cats. My villains are, unusually, Australian. Being born there, I feel entitled to write bad Australians. I hope to continue with the children's books, though I also have another idea for an adult novel - having done skin, I am now very interested in hair.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
ML: A whole lot of Italian history books about Bajamonte Tiepolo, who conspired to kill the Venetian Doge in 1310. After his defeat, his house was razed to the ground and a column of infamy erected in its place. That column has an afterlife as interesting as the body of Eva Peron. I've been campaigning to get this column dragged out of the dusty storeroom where it's been confined for a century - for reasons no-one can remember - in time for its 700th anniversary of the conspiracy in June.PJ: What would you say to someone about to embark on a first novel?
ML: Don't mistake wanting to be a writer for wanting to write something you feel passionate about. Only the latter will get you through a book. Be aware that you may be working on this for two, three, five years. You may have to do ten drafts before it is ready to show anyone. You may have to show it to a dozen people. Each of them may want new drafts. If you sell it, your editor will want new drafts. Then you have to go through copy edits, page proofs, publicity. You have to love your idea enough to live in peace with it and see it through all those incarnations.