Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Conversation with Carmela Martino

I really enjoyed the ARC of Playing by Heart. You bring to life the lives of remarkable women, lives I imagined poorly in the past because not much is known except for the more famous ones like Mozart’s sister.
I’ve not heard of many women composers. Do you think there are more of these whose music is lost to history? Did you uncover any more gems?
Oh, yes, there have been many little-known but highly accomplished women composers through the years. A number of them are listed in one of the first books I consulted on the subject: Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. I recently discovered a newer book you may also find of interest: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer. Interestingly, neither book mentions Maria Teresa Agnesi, the composer who inspired my main character. I include a reference in the Author’s Note to Playing by Heart that does contain information about Agnesi: the 8-volume work Women Composers: Music through the Ages edited by Martha Furman Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman.
For specific examples, I suggest you look at the list of “10 Female Composers You Should Know” put together by BBC Music Magazine
(http://www.classical-music.com/article/10-female-composers-you-should-know ) It includes two female composers who lived in the shadow of famous male relatives, Fanny Mendolssohn, sister of Felix, and Clara Schumann, wife of Robert.
I read that you went to Italy for your research. Were you able to see the Agnesi villa? Or a representative one?
I have been to Italy several times, but I didn’t decide to write Playing by Heart until after my last visit. So, no, I didn’t research the novel there. Fortunately, I have been to Milan and seen the Duomo, so I feel I have a sense of the city. I was also able to see photographs and drawings of some of the buildings mentioned in the novel that I haven’t visited in person. I used those images as well as written descriptions to imagine what the Agnesi villa and the other palazzos referred to in the novel must have been like. Unfortunately, the actual Agnesi villa in Milan was destroyed during World War II.
Please tell us something about the class system in that period. I was fascinated at how hungry for a title the story-father, Salvini, was, and how easily he could become a nobleman. He clearly had the wealth, which I noted in your descriptions of their home, and their ability to hire tutors, carriage drivers, cooks, etc. Did it ever occur to Salvini that his highly educated daughters could become servants as well?
This topic interests me because India is a very class and caste conscious society and marriage above or below one’s station is considered highly inappropriate.
As I understand it, even if Salvini had not become a nobleman, his daughters would never have become servants. At that time in the Duchy of Milan, daughters from wealthy households had only two acceptable “career paths” as it were: marriage or the convent. (There’s an old Italian saying to that effect, though I can’t quite recall the phrasing of it now.) Any other choice, including getting a job, would have been considered scandalous. So, if Salvini hadn’t been a nobleman, he would have arranged for his daughters to marry men of the merchant class, or sent them to a convent. I believe the girls could possibly even have married minor noblemen. Maria Teresa Agnesi, the composer who inspired my character, is an example of this. She married a minor nobleman before her father’s nobility was officially recognized, and as far as I know, that fact didn’t cause any scandal.
We see the world through Emilia’s eyes. How did you develop her voice? Did you hear it clearly from the beginning or did you have to hone it? I would enjoy hearing your process on developing voice.
Developing Emilia’s voice was a great challenge indeed! I wanted her language to sound appropriate to the time, place, and her station in life. However, I didn’t want the voice to be off-putting for modern readers, especially teens. The challenge was compounded by the fact that Emilia’s native language is Italian and not English.
I’m a fan of historical fiction, so rereading some of my all-time favorites, including Pride and Prejudice, helped me tune into the voice I wanted to achieve, as did reading excerpts from several published travel journals written around that time. Since the story is in first person, I tried very hard to focus on how my character viewed her world. She’s a composer and lyricist, so I felt her voice would be somewhat poetic and strived for that in my writing. With the help of my critique group and the etymology section of the Oxford English Dictionary, I weeded out any words or phrases that weren’t appropriate to the time. I also interspersed Italian words to occasionally remind the reader that my character was actually thinking and speaking in Italian and not English.
This was a very Catholic book in that you depict the very sacramental nature of the lives they led, praying the rosary, hearing Mass, the artwork in their home, composing music for the glory of God, etc. It was refreshing to read a book wherein the religion of the characters isn’t ignored and actually plays an important role in the plot. How did you go about making these choices?
Carmela holding her book in her hand
for the very first time!
I did lots of research related to life in general during the Enlightenment, and religious practices in particular. One book was of immense help to me: The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God, by Massimo Mazzotti. The book reveals a great deal about the practice of Catholicism in the Duchy of Milan at that time and especially the role it played in Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s life and family. The Salvini household in Playing by Heart is modeled on hers.
I especially enjoyed the lack of 21st century anachronisms. Your story people ring true to their time and place. Is this something you had to work hard at, given the customs and mores of 18th century Milan?
Definitely. One of my pet peeves when I read historical fiction is when the characters’ actions and attitudes aren’t true to the time and setting. I think being the daughter of Italian immigrants who came from a small rural village was a great help. Despite being born in the 20th century, my parents grew up without electricity or telephones. My mother told me stories of doing laundry in a stream, cooking meals in a fireplace, and taking bread to be baked in the village baker’s oven. Her family’s traditions and beliefs were more in tuned with those of past centuries than with modern times. I think exposure to those ideas—and visiting her village myself as a girl—helped me better relate to what life might have been like in 18th-century Italy.
PBH is a very clean book even though it is romantic. There wasn’t one heaving bosom! Please tell us how you developed the romance and if 21st century attitudes crept in your earlier drafts.
Well, the greater challenge was to avoid the “heaving bosoms” often found in stories—both fiction and true—set in 18th-century Europe. From what I’ve read, much of the upper-class lived rather licentiously at that time, especially in the Republic of Venice. However, based on what I read about the Duchy of Milan and in Mazzotti’s book, the girls in the Agnesi household lived sheltered lives, so I used that as the foundation for the depictions of romance in my novel.
Your formal training is in mathematics. Do you play any musical instruments? Your depictions of the music really capture the spirit? I’m fishing for tips J
I’ve always loved music. When I was six, we moved into a house that had an old upright piano in the basement. I used to pick out simple tunes on it, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I longed to study piano, but that wasn’t one of the instruments my Catholic elementary school offered for instruction. Instead, I studied the clarinet. I played clarinet in high school marching band and orchestra, but haven’t touched it in decades. I never lost my desire to learn piano though, and even considered studying it as an adult. But I never did.
To connect with my character Emilia, I tapped into the longing I’d felt as a young girl wanting to learn how to play the piano. I imagined that Emilia had a similar longing to play the harpsichord. And after she suffers a terrible loss, she turns to composing music for consolation in the same way I sometimes do with writing. Emilia is a singer, too. I could relate to that since I sang in our church choir during my teen and young adult years. I used to make up my own songs, too, though I never wrote them down. In a way, writing Emilia’s story allowed me to indulge my fantasy of being a keyboard musician and composer.
That's really lovely. I know that PBH came about because you were working on a biography of the older sister, Maria Gaetana Agnesi and became interested in the younger one’s life story. Are you close to finishing those projects? I, for one, would love to see picture book biographies of these amazing women.
At this point, I wouldn’t attempt a biography of composer Maria Teresa Agnesi because too little is known about her. I do have a solid draft of a biography of her older sister, mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and a publisher has said they’d be interested in seeing a revision based on some specific guidelines. Working on that revision is high on my to-do list right now.
Your first book, Rosa Sola, has a new edition. Please tell us how you went about it.
Rosa, Sola was originally published by Candlewick Press in hardback only. When the book went out of print, I got the rights back. After researching self-publishing and cover design, I hired a designer to create a new cover and a professional formatter to format the book for both ebook and print. I added a “Discussion Questions” section for classroom use and self-published the new edition in paperback and ebook format in 2016. That edition won a Catholic Press Association Award in the Children’s Books category.
Thank you for your time and for writing such a wonderful book that will be an inspiration to girls everywhere to follow their calling. Is there anything else you would like your readers to know?
Thanks so much for this opportunity, Vijaya. Your questions really made me think!
Readers might like to also know that I’m currently working on a short story set in the same world as Playing by Heart that I plan to give away to my Creativity Newsletter subscribers. The monthly newsletter includes updates about my publishing news and writing classes as well as creativity tips. I invite readers to subscribe to the newsletter via the box in the right sidebar of the home page of my website: www.carmelamartino.com . They’ll also find a link there to my last newsletter if they’d like to read a sample first.
Readers can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Those links can be found in the left sidebar of the same page.
Finally, if readers are looking for other engaging young-adult books that feature Catholic characters and themes, I encourage them to visit the CatholicTeenBooks website. A number of our books, including my own Playing by Heart, are recommended reads in the Virtue Works Media TOTALLY Feminine GENIUS (TFG) Generations Book Club™ Guide:
http://catherinecgilmore.com/virtue-mentoring-for-teen-girls/

 Some linkylove:

6 comments:

Mirka Breen said...

Fantastic, and long overdue. Hard for young readers in the west to imagine a world where one had to hide their identity in order to follow their calling.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for hosting this interview, Vijaya, and for such thoughtful comments.

Vicki Hammond said...

Terrific interview, Vijaya.
This sounds like a wonderful read. I will have to add it to my "to read" list as well :)

Johnell said...


The book sounds fascinating. What a great topic. Thank you.

Vijaya said...

I love how this book emphasizes listening to the calling you have and then doing it. I hope you all enjoy this gem.

Pooja Roy said...
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