A Conversation with Marina Fiorato

Monday, May 11, 2009

Q:  Could you tell us a little bit about your personal and professional background, and when it was you decided  to lead a literary life?

A: I was born and educated in the north of England and at university I studied history. I then rebelled against my parents’ academic background by going to art school and entering the film and music business! I began by generating onscreen graphics and I was lucky enough to work on films like Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie and Proof of Life with Russell Crowe. I shifted into rock music and worked with U2 and the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, but when I became pregnant with my first child I took maternity leave. It was then that my old life found me again, and it was after I had my son that I had the idea for the story for Glassblower. I wrote the book while I was on leave and never returned to my job. I think I had been trying to be something I was not, and then, when I had a child of my own, ideas of heritage and my Venetian origins became enormously important. My old interests had found me with a vengeance—it was like being tapped on the shoulder by my past.

My old interests had found me with a vengeance—it was like being tapped on the shoulder by my past.

Q: Is there a book or author that inspired you to become a writer?
A: I grew up reading Pamela Kaufman’s books about Alix of Wanthwaite and her wonderful earthy writing and sense of period really inspired me—she invokes the sounds, sights, and even smells of the past so well! In more recent writing I love the prose of Thomas Harris. In the Florentine section of Hannibal I think he really manages to evoke the beauty but also the brutality of Italy at the same time. It’s a modern tale but so Renaissance in spirit.

Q: You studied history at Oxford University and the University of Venice, where you specialized in the study of Shakespeare’s plays as an historical source. How has your education influenced your writing?
A: I studied a lot of Shakespeare in school and was inspired by both the language and the sheer drama of his storytelling. I’m like a magpie when I write; I steal shiny bits of the work of my betters and weave them into my own prose! There is so much Shakespeare in The Glassblower of Murano, from pieces of plot to direct quotes. I was particularly inspired in this case by The Merchant of Venice, which is one of the plays I studied in detail for my master’s degree, but I also lifted a plotline from Romeo and Juliet. There’s even a quote from The Tempest in there somewhere. At least I steal from the best!

Q: Do you scrupulously adhere to historical facts in your novels, or do you take liberties if the story can benefit from the change?
A: I do try, as far as possible, to be reasonably accurate — I think because of my training in historical research that any blatant inaccuracies would really jar. If push came to shove, though, I would sacrifice total accuracy for the cause of the story. It’s not my job as a novelist to create a piece of historical documentation. What I’d like to think is that my books might serve to interest people in a certain period or character, and serve as a jumping-off point for them to then go away and research their interests from proper historical sources. My historical hero, Corradino Manin, is fictional so I wasn’t bound by the constraints of writing about a real person; that gave me a certain amount of freedom. The context, though, the world in which he lives, does have to be accurate. There are real historical figures in the book, like Louis XIV, but as they tend to be marginal there is not the obligation to feverishly research them.

"I love the way glass is such a shifting entity. In many ways it has as many faces as Venice itself."

Q: Are there any parallels between you and Leonora? Can you tell us a bit about your own travels in Venice and experiences with glassblowing?
A: There are a number of parallels between myself and Leonora, mostly to do with our heritage. Like her, I have a Venetian family. I was actually lucky enough to study at the University of Venice for six months and I lived on the Lido, taking the vaporetto into Ca’ Foscari every day, which was wonderful. While there I remember taking a tourist trip to Murano, where I saw a glassblower make a tiny, perfect crystal horse in about sixty seconds. I remember that it seemed like a miracle, and the episode stayed with me; in fact it’s included in the book when Giacomo makes a glass horse for the young Corradino. I returned to Venice years later to get married, in a little church on the Grand Canal. The whole wedding party was in eighteenth-century dress, which was fabulous, and we took boats out to the islands for the reception. It was unforgettable.

Q: You’ve mentioned that one of your favorite blown-glass windows in Venice is at Ca’ Foscari, a palace on the waterfront of the Grand Canal. What do you see when you look at that window, in particular, and all blown glass, in general? What is it about Venice, blown glass, and the process of glassblowing that you hoped to reveal to your readers?
A: There are hundreds of beautiful windows on the Grand Canal, but Ca’ Foscari has a special resonance for me because of studying there. Originally a palace, Ca’ Foscari is now used as a university and stands in a particularly beautiful bend of the canal; what fascinates me is that the window itself is as beautiful as what you can see through it. I like the way that these windows also tell the story of Venice’s history—they are a wonderful hybrid of western and eastern design and exemplify Venice’s identity, a republic standing astride two empires.

Blown glass fascinates me because, like most great crafts, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve a good result. I used the word miraculous in the book and I think it’s deserved. I love the way glass is such a shifting entity. In many ways it has as many faces as Venice itself, and I think that nature of changeability, of having many faces, is what I wanted to reveal about the city. Glass begins life as a powder which becomes liquid, then solid; there’s only a very short window to work with glass before it hardens, and it takes a true artist to do it. Incredible, too, that such beauty comes from humble sand—true artistry from a quintessence of dust.

Venice is so unchanging; it’s essentially the same place architecturally as it was in the seventeenth century. There are few places in the world about which one can say this, because most cities have changed to accommodate roads and sprawling suburbs. But because Venice as a “character” was the same then as now, I thought it would be really interesting to take a look at ideas of heritage and continuity of a particular Venetian family, with a peculiar creative genius. I was interested in whether or not a skill like glassblowing is passed down in the same way that, say, facial characteristics are. Is glassblowing in the Venetian DNA? Are these skills built into the Venetian genome, and how much does the city itself create artists by a kind of osmosis which has nothing to do with the century they are in? These are the kind of questions which interested me.

** Reprinted here by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.**
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