Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Anglo-Italian connections in Diane Denton's novels

I have known Diane Denton for almost four year through the Historical Novel Society, and finally I am getting around to feature her marvelous works in my blog. Both her novels are set in the 17th century, a time where most women did not have much wiggle room in terms of vocation. Denton's mousy, introspective heroine Donatella is a spinster regarded with casual contempt by those around her.  At the same time, her status affords her certain opportunities not available to married women.

MJN: What appeals to me about your work is your determination to draw attention to forgotten figures from the past. In his day, Alessandro Stradella, the heartthrob of your debut novel A House Near Luccoli, used to be something of a rock star in his day, a star that got prematurely extinguished.  How many people outside of the classical music circle know about him?

DD: Thank you so much, Marina, for allowing me to guest on your blog. Sadly, not many outside of the classical musical circle know about Alessandro Stradella, but, at least there are a few more who have read A House Near Luccoli. Even among music scholars, unless Stradella’s life and work has been a specific point of study, there is little reference to him. Serious opera buffs may recognize his name from the highly romanticized and inaccurate mid-nineteenth century opera by Friedrich von Flotow, and Baroque ensembles in the US and around the world are performing his music more and more. I recently saw that Stradella’s Sonata in D Major for Trumpet and Strings was included in the soundtrack for the popular movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Many a rock star’s epitaph could say what Avvisi (hand-written newsletters) did at the time of Stradella’s tragic end: “in order to touch too high, he touched low.” In these days of hunger for celebrity news, especially based on rumors, scanty facts, and a fascination with seemingly self-destructive genius, Stradella’s story should be irresistible. Unfortunately, as you know, it’s easier to attract readers to names and events that are familiar, rather than lead them into unknown encounters and territories.

For me, the unknown and, especially, untried, as a writer and reader, invites my curiosity, challenges my intellect, and stimulates my imagination. It’s rather like walking into a room full of people familiarly talking and interacting, except for one person who is off on his/her own. I would be drawn to him/her, because I feel more comfortable with outsiders, couldn’t help but be curious about what sets that person apart, and suspect his/her story might be the most interesting of all.

MJN: Let's talk about the Anglo-Italian connections.  The English have always been fascinated by Italy.  Forester had set several of his novels in Italy - A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread. In your second novel, To a Strange Somewhere Fled, you actually have an Italian protagonist going to England.  On the surface it seems like the two cultures are diametrically opposite. When you think of England, you think of bland colorless boiled food and vitamin D deprived people.

DD: Well, the Anglo-Italian connection is my blood. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Italy and my paternal grandmother was a first generation Italian born in Canada. My maternal grandfather came from Italy to New York City and ended up in Chicago where he met my maternal grandmother, her family having come to the US from Nottinghamshire, England in the mid-nineteenth century. So I have been living with the two cultures all my life. Talking about this with my mom, it’s hard to know which side we identify with more—sometimes the mix confuses us, and sometimes one side balances the other. I constantly sway between expressiveness and reserve, and need to referee more than a few battles between my head and my heart. I wasn’t brought up isolated in either ethnicity, love Italian food and Italian customs, yet have never felt comfortable in big Italian family gatherings, my English reserve kicking in. My mom certainly didn’t have an easy time with the volatile behavior of my father, probably because her own father Pierino didn’t fit the stereotype of a hot-headed Italian. As I read somewhere, the trouble with stereotypes isn’t that they are altogether untrue, but they are incomplete, and—I add—meant to be contradicted. On the surface it does seem the two cultures are exact opposites, but the phenomenon of magnetism occurs because of repelling and attracting forces, and that could well be at play in the lure of Italians to the English and visa-versa. Following on your example of EM Forester, it’s also manifested in the plays of Shakespeare, the flocking of 17th century musicians to the court of Charles II, the grand tours of young English aristocrats, and the English Romantic poets who found Italy a place to give their muses and excesses full rein.

From an early age, England called to me, it was always a dream for me to go, and when the chance came I na├»vely—much more so than my fictional Italian female protagonist—took my ‘split personality’ there, where, as if the mingling of the two ethnicities in my genetics wasn’t enough to deal with, even as I blended in I experienced a great deal of alienation. To your point about the blandness of the English diet—my ex mother-in-law boiled and boiled and boiled the flavor out of vegetables and even fish, but the English were definitely open to foreign food. Indian and Chinese restaurants were everywhere, Pizza Hut was usually packed, and when an Italian manager and chef were employed at a local hotel, the natives were thrilled—and so was I, of course! A dose of vitamin D on those days that weren’t rainy was obtained by playing tag with the sun in and out of the clouds. Let’s put it this way: it was the best and worst of times. Even before I got a novel out of it, I knew it was integral to my life’s passage and don’t regret those sixteen years at all. Certainly I’ve found inspiration in the Anglo-Italian contrasts and will continue to do so in my writing again before too long, taking up the story of Christina Rossetti, the poetess sister of the Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, off-spring of an Italian father and half-Italian, half-English mother.

MJN: Your maternal grandmother was a concert pianist in Chicago during the 1920s. What an exciting era to be in the performing arts, especially in a city like Chicago! Tell me a little bit about her repertoire. 1920s was a very turbulent time all over the world. Did the external environment affect your grandmother's performance style?  

DD: What I know of my maternal grandmother, Marion Allers-DiCesare, is through the memories and adoration of my mother who was only ten years old when her mother died. My grandmother received her entire musical education at the Illinois College of Music, which was established in 1900, graduating when she was eighteen but continuing there as a teacher. My mom managed to rescue the 1924 faculty booklet from family records in danger of being discarded as clutter. It states that Miss Allers’ pupils idolized her, “she made an extensive study of Expression (voice training, breathing, recitation, dramatic training, impersonating, dialect, etc.) and was very “clever” as “Pianist-reader and Monologue entertainer” who “became known throughout the city”, and was “original and versatile.” My mom remembers her repertoire included Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, and, also, popular songs from the twenties. Because my grandmother was not only a talented pianist but, also, a versatile entertainer, she was approached by Ziegfeld, who was from Chicago, to take part in a European tour. Her family wouldn’t allow her to go as “good girls didn’t travel alone or do things like that”. Who knows what career opportunities were missed and whether the disappointment contributed to her suffering a nervous breakdown. She had several offers of marriage she turned down. Then, in her thirties, my northern Italian blue-eyed grandfather, attractive, cultured, charismatic, and a bit of a scoundrel—not unlike Alessandro Stradella—came on the scene when mutual friends took him to see her perform at the Chicago Civic Opera House. This time she defied her family to marry him—unaware he was still married to a woman in New York City—finding excitement but also hardship in her decision to do so, because, besides being a bigamist, my grandfather was an unreliable provider financially and often absent, engaging in dodgy real estate deals with the gangster element in 1930’s Chicago. After my mom and her eldest sister were born, her parents split for a while, but then got back together and had two more daughters, my mom’s youngest sister only four when my grandmother died from breast cancer at the age of forty-six.

MJN: I am feeling uneasy about asking this question, but how much of yourself is there in Donatella?  I'm not implying that she is 100% autobiographical, but she is so well-rounded and so meticulously crafted, I sense she is your psychological child.  Perhaps, she's not your spiritual twin, but rather a literary child. 

DD: I think initially, when I “discovered” Alessandro Stradella, I wanted to truly “meet him” and Donatella was my way to do that. He reminded me, especially in his musical brilliance and recklessness, of a pivotal encounter I had had in real life, which I had to be very discreet about. Perhaps I felt that through inventing a scenario where a woman like me could have such an experience was a safe way to explore it more fully and, it may seem strange to say, more actually. The autobiographical aspect of Donatella is manifested in her resistance, regret and longings, insecurities, hesitation, isolation, and her potential as a loving, artistic creature. And, of course, her love of cats! As many writers know, something can happen as a narrative takes shape: as we control we lose control and learn as much as we reveal. After traveling with her for two novels and over five years, I will almost steal a line from Wuthering Heights to announce that Donatella is more myself than I am. So I guess that might make her my literary guru, someone I may refer to again, if not in my writing, than certainly in the moments of my life.

MJN: You have a gift for illustration.  In fact, you've illustrated some of your own literary works.  Tell me how your brain processes the multi-media.  Do you envision an image first, and then describe it with words, or do you start off with words and then translate them into images?  

DD: I’m as visual when I write as when I draw and paint. I see words visually, not just as letters put together, but the way they are arranged in a sentence or paragraph or on the page, like brushstrokes—or pointillism—individually coming together to create a complete and cohesive picture. I hope that makes sense. Images certainly have inspired my writing. As an example, I saw a photograph of the French writer Collette sitting in her garden reading when she was a young woman and so my short story The Library Next Door was conceived along with the illustration I did for it. And regarding the covers for my novels, especially To A Strange Somewhere Fled, the illustration came out of the writing—Wroxton Abbey, the oak tree, Donatella and how she is dressed. Most of the time it is rather like the chicken and the egg, impossible to say whether the image or the words existed first—certainly, one inspires and supports the other. Images help me fill in the story, flesh-out the characters and settings, and words generate images in my own and, hopefully, the reader’s mind. I really don’t think you can write visually if you can’t think visually, but like the historical in historical fiction, it all has to be a seamless integration. I also find taking a break from writing to do artwork relaxes me, especially my mind; it takes me into a less conscious place creatively, probably because I am less possessed by it.


  1. Thank you so much for the great questions, Marina, and for hosting me on your blog! XO

  2. This circularity does happen! "...Donatella is more myself than I am. So I guess that might make her my literary guru, someone I may refer to again, if not in my writing, than certainly in the moments of my life."