Courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s
- What inspired you to write The Orphan’s Song?
A few years ago, I was in Venice on a book tour. My family traveled with me, so I’d race home from events to nurse my son, kiss my daughter before she went to sleep, and relieve my husband of caring for two jetlagged toddlers under three. One night my event ran late, and by the time I left the bookstore, the wind was brutal, the city flooded with aqua alta—high tide. I splashed toward what I hoped was my flat on the Alley of the Incurables, turning down one narrow cobblestone corridor, then another.
At last, I saw three words chiseled on a massive building’s stone facade—Ospedale degli Incurabili. Hospital of the Incurables. I’d been curious about this name all week, but suddenly, I had to know: What was this place? Who were the Incurables? I circled the compound and, eventually, three more deserted Dorsoduro alleys led me home. But long after my children were tucked in, I was still thinking about the Incurables.
Research revealed that the Ospedale degli Incurabili—which now houses a fine arts college — was originally a hospital and orphanage for foundling children, dating back to the fifteenth century. For hundreds of years the Incurables took in orphans and raised them to be musicians. The Incurables became one of the original music conservatories, whose musicians drew audiences from around the world — and each one of its students had been abandoned as a child.
A novel had come knocking.
- Are any of the characters based on real-life historical figures? How much of this novel is true to history and how much is your own invention?
The maestros featured in the novel — Antonio Vivaldi and Nicola Porpora — are two of the famous Baroque musicians who really did teach at and compose for the ospedali. The orphan characters are my own invention, though many of their names are plumbed from ospedali records. The girls were known by the instruments they played: Laura of the Violin, Giustina of the Angel’s Voice, Olivia of the Oboe.
Violetta’s character is in some ways rooted in my daughter (intelligent, focused yet dreamy, full of longing), and Mino’s character is rooted in my son (generous, funny, open to all manner of mischief). Both my children are musically inclined.
- The novel is told from both Violetta’s and Mino’s perspectives. Was one voice easier for you to write? Why or why not?
At first, The Orphan’s Song seemed like Violetta’s story. I didn’t even intend to write from the split perspective, but when I started outlining the story and made the choice to give half of it to Mino, I remember having to sell this idea to my editor. She wasn’t sure Mino’s side could be as endearing as Violetta’s. I suppose her feedback felt like a challenge, so I poured myself into Mino’s story in the first draft. As it turned out, his chapters came out far more easily than Violetta’s, whose interiority I had to dive deep into in subsequent drafts to get right. Mino wears his vulnerability openly, and Violetta cloaks hers — and though I relate more to Violetta’s style, it was somehow more difficult to get onto the page.
- What kind of research did you do to write this book?
I went back to Venice and spent ten days with Venetian historians, musicians, and caretakers of the former orphanages. I visited all four of the original ospedali and half dozen museums that now house the paintings once hung in ospedali apses. I attended a different Venetian performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for each night of the week. I tried on Carnival disguises in dusty shops and brought a few of the best masks home. I fell more deeply in love with Venice than I imagined possible.
Back in Los Angeles, I took violin lessons and became a constant patron of the LA Philharmonic. I explored the music and research libraries at UCLA, reading Casanova’s memoirs and Vivaldi’s musical theory. I bought Venetian cookbooks and stirred a lot of polenta, a ruby-hued Spritz in hand.
- What’s your favorite thing you learned about Venice? What do you think your readers should know about the city?
Nearly every fascinating detail I uncovered felt intrinsic to Violetta and Mino’s story. First, that masks were worn by most of Venice’s population most days of the year — not just to masquerades, but to shop for fish at the market, to call on the Doge at his palace, to drop into a bookshop and pick up the latest Montesquieu novel.
Add to this the fact that it was considered gauche to be seen out with your spouse. Masked men went gambling with masked mistresses; masked women went to the opera with masked beaus (the Venetian term for these boyfriends/servants was cicisbeo.) Some of my favorite anecdotes feature a gentleman out on the town, having a gay time with a masked woman, only to realize at the end of the night, when he raised her mask for a kiss, that the lady was his wife.
It’s not a stretch to imagine the number of illegitimate pregnancies that resulted — which led to the increased necessity for orphanages. Venice did not just feed and house these orphans. They taught them the most useful Venetian trade: to play and sing music for the church.
Over time — who can explain it, other than magic? — these orphan musicians became virtuosos who made vast amounts of money for the church, attracting the most illustrious Baroque composers as their teachers (Vivaldi and Porpora, among others). By Violetta’s day, orphan girls like her were the most famous musicians in the world. Wealthy patrons travelled from all over Europe to see them, yet they were allowed no freedom outside the orphanage walls.
Who wouldn’t ask for more?
- You write so beautifully about music and singing. Are you a musician? What role has music played in your own life? Why did you decide to write a novel about musicians?
I regret never having learned to play an instrument or read music as a child, but I studied ballet for twenty years, so music is physically ingrained in me. I’m married to a musician and we are raising two musicians. In our house lately, we play Beethoven’s string quartets at breakfast, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra on the way to school, Bill Withers at dinner, Stephin Merritt when we’re swimming, and Lee Morgan when the kids are falling alseep.
My six-year-old daughter Matilda has a killer singing voice. She loves Morrissey and Michael Jackson. My five-year-old son Venice (yes, after the city) is interested in song lyrics, particularly what love means in every context. He’s been teaching himself to play “Eleanor Rigby” on our upright piano. We have guitars scattered around the house and make up songs about what we’re doing.
When I wrote The Orphan’s Song, I listened to Vivaldi’s sacred concertos, Handel’s arias from the baroque opera Giulio Cesare, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perhaps the most recent genius to build a bridge between sacred and secular music.
George Harrison said “there’s an inner music every soul possesses,” and in some ways I think what we love about those we love is the fundamental music of their souls. The Orphan’s Song is about music because Venice is about music, especially in the eighteenth century. But the idea of writing about music appealed to me for many ineffable reasons — lovers whose bodies harmonize. The dissonance of emotional pain. The universal language and ethereal nature of music. How it only requires your body to make. It’s the art form all the others use to explain themselves.
There is a conjuring quality to music, a call to spiritual action. Certain musicians generate a swirling atmosphere of eros they can’t have planned beforehand. Something essential derives from and is ignited by music, as if we spring from and return to it.
- You’re known for your New York Times bestselling young adult books, including Fallen, which was recently released as a major motion picture. Why did you decide to write an adult novel? What was different about the writing process for you? Has anything about this next step surprised you?
One gets to go through the existential shift of becoming a mother but once. When I got the idea for the Orphan’s Song, I had very recently had two children in very close proximity. I was interested in the same topics I’ve always been interested in: sex and romance, family and relationships, how all these things come together to inspire identity — but in young adult fiction, sex and babies are “issues” as opposed to aspects of a life. I wanted to explore the kind of sexuality that naturally leads to babies, marriage, and family without becoming cliff’s edges in the story. My characters haven’t gotten any older, but in the Orphan’s Song they’re able to inhabit different stages of life than in my previous books.
- While The Orphan’s Song is set in Venice in the 1700s, Violetta is in many ways a woman of our time. What do you hope contemporary readers will take from her story?
At the start of the novel, Violetta faces a false dialectic: choosing love or forging her own path. She thinks that to be with Mino means giving up on the dream of a celebrated life, where public adulation might fill the hole made by growing up unwanted. Mino, on the other hand, always want to fill that hole with family. He would sacrifice just about anything in service to those he loves. Though he’s reluctant to confront it, he understands Violetta’s dilemma. He’s a musician and Violetta’s biggest fan. He takes on her dilemma as his own.
Like many women, I’m confronted with a similar dilemma every day. For a piece of every day I’m Violetta. I close the door to my office and I’m not to be disturbed. Then, when my block of writing time is done, I swing open the door, throw back my head, and I’m Mino, delighting (usually) in the demands of family life and love.
- Did you know from the beginning where Violetta and Mino’s relationship would lead, or were there moments that surprised you? Without giving anything away, did you always know how the story would end?
I had a vision for the climax of the novel, but I always leave a lot of open space for my characters to rebel against my plans. When I got to the ending, the action looked fairly close to how I had imagined it, but I couldn’t anticipate how it would make my characters feel. In other words, I knew what they would do, but not what it would mean to them, and that made all the difference.
- What’s next for you?
Three prostitutes solving a mystery on the frontlines of the Civil War.