Monday, June 6, 2016

Interview with Donna Russo Morin, author of Portrait of a Conspiracy

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Donna Russo Morin to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her novel, Portrait of a Conspiracy.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Donna. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Portrait of a Conspiracy.
Thanks so very much for having me; it’s a pleasure to be here.

In Portrait of a Conspiracy, the first book in the Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy, a group of women artists who long to be a part of the astounding evolution taking place in the Renaissance, hone their skills together in a secret art society. When Florence erupts with violence—an assassination, an attempted assassination, and the retribution for both—the women are caught up in the deadly aftermath, hoping to save one of their own as the very challenge of it forces them to become better artists. 

Where did this idea come from? 
I always try to do something different with each book I write, to push myself and challenge myself. I had always wanted to do a trilogy, but, as always, my books are deeply rooted in historical fact. After finishing my previous book, The King’s Agent, I knew I wanted to write more about artists and their lives. There is no better place and time to do that than in Florence during the Renaissance. 

Add to that the Pazzi conspiracy—the assassination/attempt, which is all fact—I found my trilogy’s beginning.

What elements of the story are purely fictitious? 
To the best of my knowledge, there were no secret female art societies (though that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, merely that history didn’t record them). Therefore, the women’s involvement in the very true acts that took place are fictitious. And while many readers may think the facets of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s retribution are so egregious they must be fictitious, they are not. He didn’t simply just execute near to one hundred men, he did so in the most gruesome of ways.   

There’s a section in the back of the book which delineates this very question in greater detail.

Which of your characters do you feel you have the most in common with? 
All the women in the book are loosely based on women in my life, including myself. I am Viviana. Much of it was difficult to put down on paper. Nor did I shine some golden light on her/me; all my warts are there, saying what I should only think, rushing into things when I should think more first. But it’s was a challenge to keep the character real while creating a heroine, or one of many.

The novel has a lot of interesting thematic ideas. Which is your favorite? Which do you hope resonates with your readers? 
Most of all I wanted to pay homage to the power that is women united. I had been going through a very traumatic personal time, and if not for the real women, the women in my story are loosely based on, I’m not sure if I would have had the strength.

Women have a different bond than men; we are much more personal and intimate with each other. We can also be a bit catty to each other. Yet, when I think of the world we inhabit, I long for woman to band together to affect real change. Together we have that power.    

As a novelist, what drew you to this particular period?
There really have been two crucial pivot points in artistic evolution; one is the Renaissance. There’s no doubt in my mind that women were striving to be a part of it. The first truly recognized female artist came on the scene (and will be seen in the very last sentences of the trilogy) right at the end of the Renaissance. The ambition of these women, then, is set at the moment of its greatest challenge. With the political upheaval coinciding, it was just too rich a moment in history not to have set in this period.

What sort of research went into Portrait of a Conspiracy? What sources did find most valuable? 
I typically do at least six to nine months of academic research before beginning any book. And most times, only a quarter or so of what I uncover makes it into my book. But I like to immerse myself in the period…from what they ate, what they wore, to how they waged war. I do include an extensive bibliography in the back of the book; however, the two books I found most helpful are April Blood by Lauro Martines and The Montefeltro Conspiracy by Marcello Simonetta.

And, as with every book, I try to do some hands on research. I’ve learned to fence, to blow glass, archery (which I loved so much I know own my own bow), and dagger fighting. For Portrait of a Conspiracy, I took some painting lessons (I won’t disparage the art by stating that I ‘learned’ how to paint.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
You’re so right; there were many scenes I adored writing: when one of the women first encounters Leonardo, some of the scenes with Viviana and her sons. One that really stands out is when the women needed to paint a certain interesting part of a man’s anatomy; I had some fun there.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
This one is difficult to talk about without giving away some spoilers. Let’s just say it involves a particularly gruesome (though factual) torture and execution. But I’ve rendered it in the book in a very personal way. It makes the brutality taking place very personal, which, for me, was the only way to write it.

It was troublesome (and some readers have baulked at it a bit) because it was, in essence, a need for justice finding its way on my page where it didn’t in life. 

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
Absolutely. This book was cut by over one hundred pages from the first incarnation. I really wanted to portray more of the historical and political events unfolding behind the women’s story. But it is their story, and doing so would have detracted from it. 

I do plan on posting some of my favorite deleted scenes on my blog.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Portrait of a Conspiracy and if so, what did you alter? 
I actually think this is the first book that I haven’t had to make literary adjustments (though I will just a bit in the trilogy). Typically, I have only ‘played with time’ a smidge in my other books; bringing closer momentous events. These particular months, for that is all that the book spans, were indeed swollen with drama; I had no need to alter anything. I simple had my fictitious characters have relationships with factual characters. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? 
I know these women; the real one’s the fictional ones are based on. And oh yes, there have been drinks involved. In that case, it would absolutely have to be Leonardo da Vinci. I became fascinated with these years of his life, those before he completed the works that made him a legend. I would love to share a glass of Prosecco with that Leonardo.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Portrait of a Conspiracy, who would you hire? 
Since I’ve said that all these women are based on real women, I think it would be imprudent of me to pick an actor for each one. I will say that I would love to see Monica Bellucci (the ‘older’ actor from the latest Bond film, Spectre) in it. She was wonderful; so emotive. But I won’t say which woman she would play. 

Aidan Turner (from The Hobbit and The Tudors) would make an incredible (if better looking) Lorenzo de’ Medici. And, as a bit of an unknown, I’d love to see Colin Morgan (from Merlin and Doctor Who) play Leonardo da Vinci. He would have to change his hair color, but he has that wonderful ability to play a serious yet whimsical character who could hide the inner depths that belonged to da Vinci.

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
I’m finishing up the trilogy, of course, (just finished the edits with my publisher on the second in the trilogy while I’m writing the third). I do have another work at crucial point in a book’s genesis that is completely different from anything I’ve done before. And I have yet another that I’m just aching to write. I hope I can always answer yes to this question. 

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“A riveting page-turner unlike any historical novel you’ve read, weaving passion, adventure, artistic rebirth, and consequences of ambition into the first of a trilogy by a masterful writer at the peak of her craft.” - C. W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici and The Vatican Princess

“With her beautiful writing, detailed descriptions, and fascinating characters, Russo Morin has definitely made a name for herself in the world of historical fiction.” ― Pittsburgh Examiner

When a ruthless assassination rocks Renaissance Florence to its core, a secret sisterhood of women artists band together to save one of their own from the bloody reprisals. Illicit plots, mysterious paintings, and a young Leonardo da Vinci all have their part to play in this delicious, heart-pounding tale. This one had me yearning for the Renaissance all over again! - Kate Quinn, author of The Serpent and the Pearl

With elegant and atmospheric prose, Russo Morin paints a vivid portrait of beautiful but dangerous Renaissance Italy. This riveting book is filled with art, assassinations, retribution, and a sisterhood of fascinating women who inspire as well as entertain. - Stephanie Dray, author of America's First Daughter 

A 15th century Florence of exquisite art, sensual passion and sudden, remorseless violence comes vividly to life in Donna Russo Morin's new novel. Famous people from history such as Leonardo da Vinci are made dimensional and human in this suspenseful story, but the characters who are the most unforgettable are a group of women artists, driven by their own longings, who find courage they never knew they had as they struggle to survive one of the city's most harrowing periods. - Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown

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Donna Russo Morin is the award winning of author of historical fiction. A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, she lives near the shore with her two sons, Devon and Dylan, her greatest works in progress.

Website ❧  Twitter ❧  Facebook ❧  Goodreads

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