Thursday, April 24, 2014

Interview with Carol M. Cram, author of The Towers of Tuscany

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Carol M. Cram to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, The Towers of Tuscany. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Carol. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Towers of Tuscany.
The Towers of Tuscany tells the story of a fictional woman artist in fourteenth century Italy. As far as we know, there were no female artists in 14th century Italy. We do know that nuns in convents illuminated manuscripts and women artisans in northern Europe created embroideries and other textiles. However, women were not known to have worked on the panels, altarpieces, and frescoes that adorned the churches and palazzos of Italy during the period 1338 to 1348 covered by the novel. I was intrigued with the possibility that a woman could have been a painter, even if she had to do so in secret. I knew that painting in the 14th century was very much a family affair. The master painter (the maestro) ran a workshop where he trained his sons and worked with his brothers and other family members. I got to thinking that a master painter who had a daughter and no son could well have trained her in the painter’s trade. Like fathers through the ages, the father of Sofia, my heroine, adored his young daughter and so when his wife died, he trained his daughter as his apprentice and took her with him to fulfill painting commissions all over Italy. I consulted with Dr. Efrat El-Hanany, an expert in the art of the period who teaches at Capilano University in North Vancouver, and she agreed that the existence of a woman painter in the 14th century, while not likely, was certainly plausible. That’s all I needed to get going and invent Sofia!

Historically speaking, what research went into The Towers of Tuscany and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating material for the book?
I read quite a few books, consulted with some experts in the art of the period, and traveled to Italy where I spent a great deal of time looking at the art and just wandering the medieval streets of San Gimignano and Siena. One of the coolest things I found in my research was a museum called San Gimignano 1300 in San Gimignano, the Tuscan city of towers where much of the novel takes place. This museum includes an incredible scale model of San Gimignano as it appeared in the year 1300. I took numerous pictures of the model so that when I returned home to Bowen Island (near Vancouver, BC), I could imagine Sofia walking through the narrow streets and painting in her tower room. Here is a close-up of the scale model. Readers can imagine Sofia painting in a small room at the top of one of the towers.

Sofia is a painter. Are there any panels that inspired you while writing your narrative? 
I love the style of art of the period, particularly frescoes that showed secular subjects. The vast majority of the art of the period was religious. However, some painters were starting to depict architecture, daily activities, and regular people, particularly in frescoes. Sofia actually paints a view of the towers of San Gimignano at the end of the novel. Landscape paintings were extremely rare during this period; however, painters were starting to experiment and I wanted to make my Sofia one of those painters. Her painting is inspired by a real painting done by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the 1340s. Here’s a picture of it. Sofia’s painting would have been similar to this—very stylized and, in my opinion, just wonderful!

You probably have many, but is there a scene that particularly stands out to you?
I think my favorite scene—and one of the most difficult to write—was the scene when Sofia rejects the life that Matteo Salvini offers her. Like many of my readers, I wanted Sofia to get her man and continue to paint. But like Sofia, I knew that as the wife of a nobleman of Siena, Sofia could not possibly continue painting. I’ve had some readers say that surely, over time, Sofia could have convinced Matteo to let her paint again and I suppose that could have happened. But for Sofia, the risk that Matteo would never allow her to paint again was just too great. She’d made the mistake once of marrying a man who turned into a tyrant. She could not afford to make the same mistake twice. Writing the scene where she refuses Salvini, then regrets her decision, then realizes that she is right was difficult. Sofia is a woman of the 14th Century. She would not think the way a modern woman thinks about freedom and self-expression. Such concepts would be foreign to her. However, Sofia is guided throughout the novel by her emotions rather than by her intellect. Her heart knows that she must choose a life of uncertainty and the constant fear of exposure over a life of security and ease. 

This scene is pivotal because it dramatizes Sofia’s attempt to control her own destiny. Of course bad things happen to her (it’s a novel!), but she is definitely not a victim. For example, when faced with an abusive marriage, Sofia finds the courage to leave. And when she is returned to San Gimignano against her will, she combats despair by choosing to love her unborn child.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The scene described above was one of the most challenging to write, but another scene was when Sofia held her dying son and realized she had to leave him to save her daughter and herself. At that moment, Sofia also realizes that she has not been a good mother to her son. She resented and neglected him and now he is dying of the plague. It was tough to show her sorrow and her regret while still giving her a way to justify leaving her son and escaping the city with Antonia and Marcello.

What would you say is the central theme of the novel? 
The central theme of the novel is the triumph of the creative spirit. In the modern epilogue, Marla purchases Sofia’s painting and returns it to exact location where it had been painted 700 years ago. Sofia does not survive because, of course, she could not live forever. However, her work does survive and one of her paintings helps a grieving woman find the strength she needs to care for her own unborn child in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. I believe in the healing power of creative endeavor—art, music, writing, theatre. When people are engaged in creating art, they are fully present and operating, I think, in the spirit realm. By that I mean that the act of creating something new that has as its central purpose the engagements of minds and hearts is one of our greatest pursuits as human beings. When we are creating, we cannot be destroying. 

Sofia’s complex relationship with Giorgio isn’t ideal. How did you approach this aspect of her story and what do you hope readers take from it?
In the 14th Century (and in the 21st Century in certain parts of the world), many girls were not allowed to choose their husbands. I decided to play a bit with this convention and have Sofia’s father allow her to choose her husband, and then to have her make the wrong choice. Maestro Barducci, Sofia’s father, knows that Giorgio Corelli is not the right choice for his bright, headstrong daughter. However, Barducci’s weakness is that he is a very fond father.  He is strict with Sofia in the workshop, but he really is incapable of denying her anything she really wants. When Sofia asks to marry Giorgio, Barducci gives his consent. Ironically, Sofia might have been better off in an arranged marriage, although we’ll never know. What we do know is that Sofia comes to regret her decision to marry Giorgio. At twenty years old, after four years of a childless and increasingly loveless marriage, she knows she has only herself to blame for choosing Giorgio over a life in her father’s workshop. I guess what I’m thinking readers may take from the story of Sofia’s relationship with Giorgio is that poor choices are nothing new. Many women marry the wrong guy and live to regret their decision. I also really wanted to make sure readers understand that Sofia is not a victim; she suffers as a result of her own choices. This doesn’t mean, of course, that she deserves to suffer, only that she has the capability to make bad choices and good choices, as we all do.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Towers of Tuscany and if so, what did you alter and why? 
All the events in The Towers of Tuscany are fictional. Examples include the attack on the Delpino palazzo in San Gimignano, Sofia’s desire to go to a shrine on the road to Florence (I know of no such shrine), the attack in the woods on the way from San Gimignano to Siena (I don’t know if such woods existed), and Sofia’s viewing of the frescos in the Palazzo Pubblico (I don’t know if the public would be allowed into the palazzo to view the frescoes). The frescoes themselves certainly existed at the time Sofia viewed them. The beautiful Duccio panels that Sofia views in Siena cathedral and the works of art she refers to in San Gimignano are also real and still exist. All references to streets and places in San Gimignano and Siena are real. The tower across the valley from San Gimignano that Marcello takes Sofia and Antonia to escape the plague is also real. In the epilogue, the villa built on top of the foundations of the 12th Century tower also exists. The villa was built in the early 1800’s and is now a fabulous bed and breakfast that I stayed in. For the purposes of the epilogue, I made the villa a private home.

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 think I’d choose Francesco. While I love Sofia, she is quite a formidable, strong-willed character. I am very fond of Francesco. He is the only character who loves Sofia unconditionally and is completely loyal to her. If Sofia had lived, Francesco would have taken care of her. Fortunately, Francesco will take care of Sofia’s daughter Antonia. He will take her to Siena and see that she is looked after. And yes, I’m considering a sequel—what happens to Antonia in Siena? Does she meet her father Salvini? Does she grow up to be a painter? 

Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in The Towers of Tuscany that sprung directly from your personal history? 
The descriptions of the Tuscany countryside and the streets and piazzas of San Gimignano and Siena all come from my own experience of them (but without the filth!). Otherwise, all the characters are from my imagination. One very small incident that does come from “real life” is when Sofia mentions that a rat gnawed a chunk of her hair one night while she slept. Readers may think of that incident as an example of the terrible conditions in medieval Italy, but I have four very dear friends who know otherwise. A few years ago, I went with these four friends who I have known since childhood, for a girl’s weekend away. We rented a lovely cabin on the beach near Sechelt on the west coast of British Columbia. One of my friends chose to sleep on the floor in the main room. She was awakened in the night by a rat gnawing at her hair! Needless to say, she was not pleased. I couldn’t resist putting that incident into the novel knowing that my four friends would get a huge kick out of reading it. And now everyone knows!

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would you describe your writing process? 
I’d like to say that I sit down at 9 am, write until noon, have a light lunch, then write until dinner but unfortunately that is not true! I write in short, furious spurts—often in public places. I love to write in coffee shops and restaurants, and on the ferry. I live on an island off the coast of Vancouver, BC, and need to take a 20-minute car ferry when I want to go into the city. It’s surprising how much writing I can get done during the crossing when I have no Internet to distract me (so long as I leave my phone in the car). 

Much to my husband’s dismay, one of my most creative times for writing when I’m at home is from 5 to 6:30 in the evening (right at our dinner time!) I am the cook in the family and have burned many a meal while writing just one more sentence. Fortunately, my husband is a painter and understands the creative process. He’s incredibly supportive (and sometimes rather hungry).

Two words: writer's block. How do you deal with it? 
I treat myself to a few days away in a hotel or resort in one of BC many scenic locales. I get easily distracted by the admittedly exhilarating activities related to marketing The Towers of Tuscany and so I am finding it challenging to work on the next novel. For example, this week I’m taking off to write in a sphere that hangs thirty feet in the air suspended between three trees. Here’s a picture of my sphere (more pictures at I hope I get lots of work done; I’ll be in there for about 48 hours.

Who are your favorite authors? 
Jane Austen, hands down, followed by an eclectic selection that includes L.M. Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, Tracey Chevalier, Marion Keyes, and Maeve Binchy in addition to fun reads like Nora Roberts and Sophie Kinsella, historical fiction that helps me learn about a certain period while also delivering a great story (Follett, Michener, Alison Weir, Deborah Swift and so many more that I’m just discovering and haven’t had a chance to read yet), literary fiction by some of our wonderful Canadian authors (Ivan Coyote, Margaret Lawrence, Will Ferguson, Richard Wagamese), and lots more that I can’t think of at the moment.

What are you currently reading?
I’m just starting my three-day writing retreat so the only thing I’m reading are research books, including the biography of Clara Schumann because my next novel is about a female concert pianist and composer in 1830’s Vienna. When I’m actually writing (as opposed to editing), I don’t read much fiction. For some reason when I’m writing scenes and developing characters, I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s work. This is unfortunate, because now that I’m writing fiction full time, I don’t have nearly as much time available for reading fiction. And a good writer must read!

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I love to travel and when I’m not traveling I love planning trips. In the fall of 2014, I’m going to Vienna to do the final bits of research for my next novel (hopefully due out in November 2014) and then to Bath and London to research the third novel that is set in the theater in 1809. My daughter is then flying to London and we’re going to do a quick car trip through Scotland where maybe I’ll find even more inspiration! I also play piano, teach Nia dance (, go for walks in the forest near my home on beautiful Bowen Island, and volunteer as president of the local arts council. Thanks to a great career as an author of textbooks for a major US publisher (Cengage Learning), I am now very blessed to have the freedom to pursue my new career as an historical novelist.

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate? 
Coffee most of the time because my husband makes the best coffee and he brings me a cup of fresh coffee most afternoons (I get the morning ones myself!). When I’m on my own, I drink tea simply because I don’t know how to make coffee as well as my husband does.

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy? 
My goal is to develop a series of historical novels with an arts twist. Each novel will focus on a particular art genre—painting, music, theater, etc. My next novel (working title: Nocturnes) is about a six foot tall concert pianist and composer named Isabette Grüber. The novel opens in Vienna on March 29, 1827, the day of Beethoven’s funeral, and follows Isabette as her career intersects with Schubert and Chopin and she copes with numerous challenges that threaten her livelihood, her passions, and perhaps even her mind. Stay tuned! 

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Carol M. Cram has enjoyed a great career as an educator, teaching at Capilano University in North Vancouver for over twenty years and authoring forty-plus bestselling textbooks on business communications and software applications. She holds an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carol is currently focusing as much of her attention as she can spare between walks in the woods on writing historical novels with an arts twist.

She and her husband, painter Gregg Simpson, share a life on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada.

Website  Blog  Goodreads  Facebook  Twitter

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Format: Paperback & eBook
Publication Date: January 23, 2014
Released by: New Arcadia Publishing
Length: 386  pages
ISBN-13: 978-0981024110
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check Out all the Stops on Carol M. Cram's The Towers of Tuscany Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, April 14
Review at Historical Novel Reviews
Tuesday, April 15
Review & Giveaway at Kinx’s Book Nook
Thursday, April 17
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Friday, April 18
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Guest Post & Giveaway at Just One More Chapter
Monday, April 21
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Excerpt & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Tuesday, April 22
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Guest Post at Kincavel Korner
Wednesday, April 23
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Thursday, April 24
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, April 25
Review & Giveaway at Words and Peace

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