Prolific writer Michelle Lovric has just published a new novel for children, Talina In The Tower. She talks here about the endless magic of Venice, inspirational egrets, the difference between writing for children and adults and the joy of blogging
PJ: Another new children’s book out! Tell us something about it.
ML: Talina in the Tower is set in Venice in the late 1860s. It’s an historical fantasy about a city invaded by semi-magical beasts, the Ravageurs. These hyena-like creatures think they have a claim to Venice, and seek a bloody revenge against the Venetians. My heroine is Talina, the most impudent girl in Venice. There is also a large cast of talking cats, loquacious rats and other opinionated creatures. I guess the theme of the book is ownership. Who owns a city? Can you own another creature? What can a child own? With all these questions of identity and proprietorship, there is also an element of shape-shifting. It is set 30 years earlier than my previous children’s novels, The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium. It is much shorter than the previous two books and, I think, quite a lot funnier.
PJ: Is Talina officially a prequel to your other two books – I notice that Professor Marin features?
ML: No, it’s not officially a prequel as I was asked to write a stand-alone and shorter volume this time. But … Venice is a tightly knit web of families and places: in my mind there is also a temporal web joining the people in my stories. So my Venetian characters leak in and out of my various books. Cecilia Cornaro, my portrait painter, has now appeared in three of my adult novels, at different stages of her life, sometimes as the lead, sometimes as an accessory. So I’ll confess there is a family tree buried in a file on my computer that links Talina by blood and marriage to the characters in The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium. And yes – it was great fun to write the elderly Professor Marin as a romantic young man this time. Also, we also have a glimpse at the young boy who will become the delicious Sargano Alicamoussa, a circus master who is himself a refugee from the adult novel that’s in a drawer.
PJ: Talina is passionate about many things including egrets – are they a particular passion of yours?
ML: I have always loved egrets: they are the embodiment of pure visual grace. Yet they also have a comedy element: their outsize star-shaped yellow feet and the way they tuck their lovely necks into an Sbend to fly. We had a devastating acqua alta in Venice in 2008, and the egrets started to appear on the Grand Canal after that, like a consolation prize. Now we see them often as they fish from our jetty – just below my study – at high tide. I always think it will be a good writing day if I see an egret - something I’ve blogged about.
ML: I have written three children’s books since my last adult novel, which was The Book of Human Skin. But I am deep into a new adult novel, about hair. Children’s books tend to be contracted in pairs, while adult books are more often one-offs: this is one explanation for the proportion. I also enjoy writing the children’s fiction very much. All my books being set in Venice, with Venice a character in them. I find the city perfectly adapted for fantasy fiction for young readers. Just walking around the city, one is already halfway to a dream. The imagination engages rapidly. The other thing about Venice is that she is very funny. The Venetians have a wonderful sense of humour, and the city herself plays tricks on you. The unexpected is lurking around every corner.
PJ: Do you think you’ll ever run out of new material about Venice?
ML: Never. The city is like a Tardis. Every street, every house opens up with yet another story. The problem is limiting yourself to using only those stories that further your plot, and not just stringing together a decorative necklace of anecdotes.
PJ: For you, what’s the difference between writing for adults and children?
ML: I don’t find an enormous difference. Obviously, one leaves any hardcore perversion outside the door when entering the world of children’s writing. I write for the 9 – 12 age group, and so I avoid sex and drugs. That’s not a burden: it’s not where my writing feeds anyway. I’d find it much harder to avoid fanaticism, crime, jealousy, greed, ambition and adventure, all perfectly permissible in children’s literature. I do struggle, sometimes, with vocabulary. I don’t dumb down for children, however. I try to introduce unfamiliar words in a friendly way. I have a small team of child-readers who check my manuscripts and dutifully point out any words that they don’t understand, or cannot understand within the context they are presented. With their help, I am learning to contextualize any difficult vocabulary much more dextrously. This is a skill worth having for adult novels too.
Writing for children has taught me a lot about pace. There is so much competition for a child’s attention that you have to keep their fingers hovering above the page by means of action and suspense. I have become much more disciplined about longeurs in my adult writing now.
PJ: How do you balance writing time with publicity work? You had a busy time last year, including being filmed in Venice for the TV Book Club’s episode about The Book of Human Skin?
ML: For the last year, I have felt as if I have been living my life in sky-writing - everything larger than life, and scarily public. I heard an American finance expert recently summing up the attitude of investors: ‘You can keep the cheese. Just let me out of the trap.’ Having a book ‘out there’ presents some of the same dilemma … the cheese is wide coverage, reviews and good sales. The trap is losing your privacy and spending so much time on publicity that you no longer have time to write. You can control the nature of your ‘exposure’ much better when you write your own script – a reason why I love writing blogs.
Blogs are good for another reason, too. The normal life-cycle of a novel is a long one – two or three years. Blogs are quick. You can write them and post them the same hour: instant gratification and, usually, instant and gratifying feedback.
PJ: So you also blog regularly?
ML: I belong to two blogging communities of writers – The History Girls and The Scattered Authors Society, both of which also operate thriving private communities that are incredibly supportive and nourishing. But blogs are – obviously – unpaid. And the squeeze comes when you are writing blogs in time that rightfully belongs to a contracted book with a deadline. Literary websites have concentric readerships, so each blog needs to be completely different, so as not to bring on a yawn every time a reader sees my name. I shall probably write about 30,000 words worth of blogs for Talina in the Tower – half a children’s novel. It’s a sobering thought.
PJ: Talina can read 2 books at once, one eye on each. How do you manage to read so much as well as write?
ML: I read very fast. For many years I made my living as an anthologist, so I had to get through vast amounts of verbiage to find the very desirable nutshells. I loved every minute. I am also a consultant editor for The Writers’ Workshop. You need to read quickly for that work too, especially being conscious that aspiring writers are waiting anxiously for your opinions and advice. Reading fiction is a refreshment when you are tired from ‘putting out’ creatively, and absolutely not a chore.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
ML: At the moment I am reading the wonderful A Sea Change by Michael Arditti, purely for pleasure … and a stack of non-fiction books about dolls and hair for the current WIPS. I have just finished reading fantastic children’s novels by my fellow History Girls, Theresa Breslin and Katherine Roberts There is a sad gap in my reading, however: now that I don’t do anthologies any more, I really miss reading poetry regularly. I feel almost shy approaching a poem these days.
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