Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Saffron Crocus - an eye-opening YA novel by Alison McMahan - Murder, Mystery and Music in 17th century Venice

I am thrilled to introduce Alison McMahan, a novelist, biographer and playwright.  Her own biography is captivating. She grew up as an expatriate during the last years of Franco's Spain, an experience which has profoundly affected her writing. Her first plays were written for the convent school she attended in Tarragona (Catalonia) and produced by fellow students and nuns. Today she joins us to discuss her sensational YA novel The Saffron Crocus, a tale of murder, mystery and music in 19th century Venice.

MJN: Your latest release The Saffron Crocus won Rosemary contest and was runner-up in several other contests.  I know how challenging it can be to research those contests and coordinate the timeline around the editing and publication schedule.  How did you manage to pull it off? Usually there is a very narrow window of opportunity.

AM: Actually, I didn't coordinate the contests with my publication schedule. I'm a member of RWA, and I submitted the first three chapters to various RWA chapter contests. I would get feedback from the judges for each contest, rewrite, and submit again. I could tell my work was improving because I went from not placing, to placing, to winning these contests.
When the entire book was ready I submitted it for the Rosemary, the first year it was offered. It's a great contest, one of the few designed for books aimed at young adults. I judged for it this year and I was really, really impressed by the quality of the submissions.
I signed a publishing contract right before I found out I'd won the contest.

MJN: You spent your early years in Catalonia.  Tell us a bit about the Catalan identity, and how they differentiate themselves from the rest of Spaniards. 

AM: When I lived in Spain Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator that led the country for decades, was still in power. Catalan was a banned language and every effort was made to destroy the Catalan cultural identity. My Catalan friends spoke Catalan only at home, in whispers, in an effort to make sure their children would learn it. As a result I learned to understand Catalan but not to speak it.

My family left Spain right before Franco died but of course I've returned many times. With Franco gone Catalonia has taken its place as the financial powerhouse in Spain, the front-province in the country's relationship with the rest of the EU. In fact Barcelona sometimes feel more generically European than Spanish. But now Catalan is spoken everywhere, there is a Catalan TV station, movies and TV shows in Catalan, all the signs are in Catalan. The language and the culture has made a full comeback.

MJN: I wish more YA authors tried to incorporate valuable historical insights into their work.  Sadly, I see too many YA books in mass production that do nothing to enlighten or stimulate the young readers. How many lipstick-wearing vampires does the world need? I applaud you for writing something with an educational component.  There seems to be a pattern when it comes to YA historical novels featuring an adolescent heroine whose ambitions extend beyond the conventions of the era.  You want your book and your heroine to stand out. What makes Isabella unique?

AM: In 1630, when Isabella was five years old, Venice suffered an epidemic of the Pestilence, which we now call the Plague. Isabella lost both her parents in that epidemic, and almost lost the aunt that ended up raising her. Her aunt recovered from the plague but was a semi-invalid the rest of her life.

Many heroines (and heroes) start out as orphaned, as it is a way for the author to push their character out into the world and force them to take on challenges. But I deliberately chose to set my story in Venice in 1643 because I wanted Isabella to be part of a world in which everyone is recovering from a huge disaster. I lived in New York City for many years. I was out of the country during 9-11 but returned home immediately after and went through the recovery process with my friends and family. Some of that experience fed my writing of this book.

Isabella's entire world has been decimated by the plague. She is not the only one trying to make her way in a new world with new, amorphous rules. It is still hard for her to make her way. She does have a gift in her ability to sing, and she claims it.

MJN: I am fascinated by your experience as playwright.  I understand your plays have gotten staged readings in reputable venues.  What is the gap between a staged reading and an actual production?  Is it the blocking, costumes, having the actors off book?  

AM: A reading involves actors seated and reading their parts, with a narrator reading the action. The actors have usually rehearsed and deliver their roles with passion. For some of them, the reading might serve as an audition.

In a staged readings the actors don't learn their lines and there is a minimum of setting, but they will move around the stage, script in hand, so the writers and perhaps the director get an idea of the blocking. It helps the playwright visualize what the action will look like and it introduces audiences to the writer's work.

I started out as a playwright, wrote my first play at age 14, which was staged by my high school. I wrote plays into my twenties and a couple received staged readings at notable theaters like Playwright's Horizons in NY. But I quickly moved to screenplays and novels.

MJN: I imagine that your experience in performing arts provides you with meaty insight to make your protagonist Isabella believable. Obviously, you were born in a different era, and you aren't facing the same limitations as your heroine.  But I'm sure there are some emotional episodes from your own experience that you injected into her character.

AM: It is difficult for any artist to make it, that is, to make their living at it. In some ways it is harder today than it was in Isabella's time. Opera was just starting it's golden era then, and there was plenty of work for a good singer living in Venice. A soprano today has a much harder time.
It is easier for a girl to plan to have a career these days than it used to be, but there are still many stumbling blocks in the way for women artists. We have to be brave, be willing to make tremendous sacrifices, and persevere way beyond what most people have to do in their careers. It's easy to get discouraged. It's difficult to keep going. Luckily, we have the internet, and now that my novel is published I have the huge satisfaction of hearing from readers. I also really enjoy talking to kids at schools. Their reactions make me very motivated to finish the two companion books (a prequel and a sequel) for The Saffron Crocus.

1 comment:

  1. "We have to be brave, be willing to make tremendous sacrifices, and persevere way beyond what most people have to do in their careers." Agreed! And so very well said!