Friday, 9 May 2014

Anna Interviews: Author Pauline Montagna

Hi, Pauline, how nice to have you visiting us here at The Review! Before we start things off, let’s get nice and comfy in The Review’s generous leather sofa. So, do you want tea or coffee? Do you have hot chocolate? If not I’ll have a herbal tea.    

Some chocolate cake? Or I do have a very nice apple crumble instead. I’m supposed to be losing weight, but a slice of virtual chocolate cake won’t do me any harm.

There, all settled then, so let’s start by you telling us a bit about yourself. I am especially interested in hearing how a French major ended up working as an accountant…

I’m not a professional accountant. I’m actually a bookkeeper, a skill I learnt on the job. But it is a sad and funny story. Back when I was in university in the 1970s there was very little offered in the way of career counselling. The so-called Careers Counsellors seemed to have only one function – to hand out application forms for the state and Commonwealth public services. (So different to today, but in a lot of ways I come from a different era.) Consequently, anyone doing a Bachelor of Arts was given two choices – teaching or the public service.

Having decided against teaching, I found myself accepted into the Commonwealth public service. I was given an eight page questionnaire about which department I wanted to serve in. Hoping to use my languages I asked for Foreign Affairs or Immigration. At the interview I was asked what I had been doing for the last few years. I answered, ‘Studying French’ and I was told I had a job in the Finance Section of the Department of Social Security. (I guess there is some similarity between the words France and Finance.) To demonstrate how good the public service was in fitting round pegs into square holes, I started work with an English Honours graduate. They were fortunate that I happened to have a good head for figures. (I’m one of those rare people who can do both maths and languages.) As you can imagine, I didn’t last long in the Department of Social Security, and only stayed long enough to save up for my first trip to Europe. However, when I got back I couldn’t settle back into a permanent position and soon began a career as an office temp, building on my accounting knowledge as I went. It has made me that strange hybrid, a practically-minded writer.

Most writers are also voracious readers. What is your favourite genre, and is there a book or an author that has a special place in your heart?

I can’t say I’m a voracious reader now. Between writing and old age, I tend to drop off to sleep if I try reading for pleasure these days. But I used to be one. I like all genres, but I tend to gravitate to writers rather than genres. I have set myself the task of reading all the British classics and my favourites so far are Jane Austen (of course), George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. I also like the writers of the mid-twentieth century like Robert Graves and Christopher Isherwood. However, my idols are Mary Renault and Ursula le Guin. If I could write like them I’d die happy.

I have recently finished reading The Slave, and I was quite intrigued by your choice of main characters. If we start with Batu, how did you come up with the idea of having a young Asian man as the male protagonist in a story set in 14th century Italy?

Well, that’s another story that goes back to my uni days in the 1970s. In second year French we attended lectures on French Literature in French. (My university was very progressive that way. By third year all of our lessons were in French as were our essays.) They were also being attended by a rather handsome Asian boy. Not actually enrolled in the course, he sat in regal isolation at the back of the lecture theatre. I was much too shy to approach him, but in my romantic imagination I saw him as a Laotian prince, driven out of his country by the communists, attending French lectures just to be able to listen to a familiar language. At the same time my history subject was Medieval and Renaissance Italy. As I indulged my fantasies the Asian boy found himself stranded in medieval Italy.

In contrast to Batu, all sharp angles and a prickly defensiveness, you’ve created little Aurelia Rubbini, a dutiful young girl who has been raised from an early life to do as her father bids her. I was very impressed by your description of Aurelia and am rather curious as to where you’ve found the inspiration for this woman, so very different from young women today.  So where did you find Aurelia?

As I mentioned earlier, I myself feel like I come from a different era. Aurelia comes from within me. I was raised as a dutiful little Italian girl. Unlike Aurelia, however, I was able to rebel, get an education and make my own life. Aurelia is the girl I would have been had I not had those opportunities.

Rather unusually for a historical romance, The Slave features a homosexual man, trapped into doing his filial duty with a woman he feels nothing for. How did you approach the development of Lorenzo?

Oh dear. Your questions are bringing out how much this book owes to my experiences at university. One critic did say The Slave was rather old-fashioned. I actually take pride in that because I’m no aficionado of what today is called historical romance and which I call erotica in long skirts, but back to our sheep as one of my French professors used to say.

As you can imagine, I was a naïve young girl, straight out of a Catholic convent school when I arrived at university. (I can remember my first thought when I got there was, ‘I don’t belong here. I’m just a little girl!’) University is where I learnt about adult sexuality. It was also the early days of gay liberation. As an arts student, by the time I got into third year, most of my friends were openly gay. It’s also the time of your life when you have the most fraught relationships. One is always falling in love with the wrong sort of person.  Lorenzo grew out of those experiences.

Of course, it isn’t politically correct to make the gay man the antagonist, but I tried to make Lorenzo sympathetic, despite the role he plays. As I was writing The Slave, I happened to hear an interview with the author, Nicholas Shakespeare, who said that a writer should love all their characters, even the bad ones. I took that to heart with Lorenzo and by the time I was finished, I think I did care about him the most.

Why set a book in 14th century Italy to begin with? What drew you to the period and the location?

Back to university! As I mentioned earlier, my university was very progressive, but the only units it offered in Italian history were Medieval Italian City States and Renaissance Florence. With my Italian background, you can imagine how eagerly I leapt at this opportunity and made sure I got in early on enrolment day to secure a place. I loved these courses, firstly because they gave me pride in my Italian heritage, but also because, although I was one of the youngest in the class, I had the superior background knowledge! I ended up setting the book specifically in the 14th century because I needed the Black Death to sort out my plot.

The Slave lives and breathes 14th century Italy. You have, however, been somewhat ambiguous as to where exactly in Italy we are. Is there a special region that has inspired you?

I didn’t set The Slave in any specific city because the story was entirely made up and I didn’t want to be held down by the circumstances in any one particular place. It’s a generic city state and could be anywhere in northern Italy where the city states flourished - Tuscany, Umbria and Lombardy. I had considered calling The Slave an historical fantasy, but I thought that would lead readers to expect my characters to have magical powers!

The historical setting in The Slave is beautifully described. Clothes, interiors, traditions and foods – they all come to life. Please tell us a bit about your research – how does one go about recreating an era from so long ago?

I’m so glad to hear you say so, Anna. I think that is because so much of what I describe comes out of my own experience, my own upbringing and my travels in Italy. As for the historical context, it was mostly based on what I learnt back in university, so when it came to writing the book, I just had to brush it up. For the more specific points, I tended to do the research as the need arose. The internet was a good place to start, but I also did a lot of reading in our state library.

In The Slave, the annual feast of the local Madonna plays an important role in that it allows Aurelia to escape the constraints of her normal life to breathe somewhat more freely out in the country. What is the background to the feast of the Madonna? Have you ever participated in a similar celebration?

The culture of the village Aurelia visits is based on that of my mother’s native village in southern Italy where every village has its own Madonna festival. These festivals are so important that the emigrants from those villages continue to celebrate them in their new countries, so I grew up knowing the importance of the Madonna. When I was in Italy last year, I happened to be in my mother’s village in time to participate in two such celebrations. One Madonna is purely Christian, celebrating a miracle attributed to her centuries ago. The other, though, the Madonna of the Grain, is much older and has its true origins back in pre-Christian times when it was the festival of Ceres, the goddess of the grain. There are two precessions for this Madonna. In the spring, her statue is carried to a mountain-top chapel. At the end of summer it is carried back down to the village church. This symbolises the grain being buried in spring and sprouting in summer.

I happen to know that not only do you write about 14th century Italy, you also have a large on-going project set in 16th century England, and more specifically about William Shakespeare. What similarities do you see when writing about these two historical periods? What challenges do they have in common, and what are the fundamental differences?

For me the difference is not as much in the period as in the type of book I’m writing, or, to be more exact, the type of people I’m writing about. As the people and story in The Slave are entirely invented, I could do what I liked with my characters, as long as I kept it true to the period. With this new project, I’m writing about people who actually existed so I have to keep to the known facts about their lives. Fortunately, so little is actually known about Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe that I do have a lot of scope for invention.

Both here and in The Slave, I’m a stickler for accuracy and authenticity. Although The Slave began as an adolescent fantasy, I did not tackle it as a novel until I discovered that a slave trade did exist in the period, thus making it plausible for Batu and Aurelia to meet. For my new project, I have to be even more sure of my facts. I’ve often been held up for weeks because I have to find out exactly what was happening on what day so that whatever I might invent still fits into what we know actually happened. Fortunately, although we know very little about Shakespeare himself, so much research has been done around him that such information is actually available.

Finally, have you considered writing a follow-up to The Slave, or do you feel that you’re done with Aurelia and Batu?

I had originally planned a very different ending for The Slave which would have given me scope for a trilogy, but I was persuaded to change my mind. The new ending closed off those possibilities. But I think it’s probably for the best. I have lots of other projects I want to tackle.

Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us, Pauline. It has been a privilege to have you with us today. Best of luck with The Slave and your future writing endeavours!

Thanks, Anna. It’s been a pleasure. You wouldn’t have another slice of that chocolate cake, would you?

*********See this post for info about a giveaway!*********


  1. I find it interesting that several authors I have seen interviewed share my accidental career in accountancy. I never intended to work with numbers, words and pictures were my world, but hey it pu a roof over my head and fed my kids...

  2. Nice to learn a little bit about Pauline. Thank you Anna

  3. I enjoyed reading about Pauline's life and writing, having read Anna's previous article about Pauline's novel. I wonder about the title, 'The Slave', though. There's another (famous) book with that title; it's written by Isaac Bashevis Singer. But it's too late to change it now... Back to our sheep. Pauline says, "I can’t say I’m a voracious reader now. Between writing and old age, I tend to drop off to sleep if I try reading for pleasure these days. But I used to be one." That made me think. If she went to university in the 1970s, she can't be much older than I am. I still enjoy reading, but I must admit that if I listen to an audiobook before bed, I invariably fall asleep. But, generally, getting older does seem to give me more time for reading. Anyway, thanks, Anna and Pauline, for an excellent interview, and that virtual chocolate cake sounds delicious!

    1. Yes, Kate. I know about the other book called The Slave, but there is no copyright on titles. However, it did cause some confusion once. I donated a few copies to my local library as they were pushing local artists, or so I thought. However, after some months of waiting to see my books on the shelves and several brush offs I wrote to the chief librarian about it. He thought I was talking about the book by Chaim Potok (sic!) and wrote a very long email saying that the donor of a book had no say in what the library did with it. I was so exasperated, I told him to keep the books as one day I'd be famous!

    2. With (at least) two other authors having already published books called 'The Slave', I'm surprised that you didn't want to make your title distinctive, Pauline. For example, 'The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window' is unique, memorable, and provides an instant hook. You must have had your reasons for choosing a less distinctive title. Perhaps it will become clear when I read your novel!

    3. There's only one. The chief librarian got it wrong.