Over the last two-and-a-half months, I’ve traveled to 18 states, signed over 1,000 books, and put on 81 “shows” (where I do a reading and/or talk about my novel). I’ve spoken at book stores, museums, art galleries, libraries, historical societies, schools (elementary, junior high, high school and college), book clubs, senior centers, and even churches. (I’ll look back on the first part of the tour on this blog soon…)
Along the road, the same questions come up over and over again… so here they are. The top 10 questions asked while I’ve been on book tour (and their answers!)
How long did it take to write?
This question comes up at every event. And the answer is complicated:
20 years ago, I became obsessed with Michelangelo while studying art and Italian at the University of Pisa. That semester was the first time I’d seen the David in Florence, the Pieta and Sistine in Rome… And I fell in love. I started voraciously reading everything I could find on Michelangelo and the time period. The story has been rolling around my brain ever since.
10 years ago, I first pitched the story to my husband, while we were walking through Florence. I told him, “Did you know the Mona Lisa and David were both created here, in this city, during the same years? And that Michelangelo and Leonardo hated each other? They drove each other to create those masterpieces.” He said, “That’s a great story. How come I don’t know this? That should be a movie. Why aren’t you writing it as a movie?” So, I went home and started breaking the story, developing the characters, organizing all of my research… that’s when I committed myself to this story.
5 years ago, I admitted to myself that I really wanted to write the story as a novel. I’ve written fiction every day since I was seven years old, and I wanted control over this story. I didn’t want to “just” write the screenplay and have other people (directors, producers, actors, designers) fill in the rest. I wanted to create the whole world. So, I switched all of those screenplay notes and started the novel…
So, how long did it take me to write? 20, 10, 5 years. One of those is the right answer
What inspired you to write the novel?
My obsession with Michelangelo.
Plus, it shocked me that no one knew these two great artists were rivals. It’s like we study Michelangelo on one side of our brain, and Leonardo on the other, and we never bring the two together. When I look at the David, I think, “We wouldn’t have that without Leonardo.” And when I look at the Mona Lisa, I thank Michelangelo for his part in pushing Leonardo to paint her.
Their rivalry is well-known among art historians, but most people focus on a very specific part of their story — I talk about this in detail on this blog — and ignore that their rivalry helped push them to create the Mona Lisa and David, two of the most iconic works in all of history. I was sad that this story had been buried by history, and I wanted to bring that story to the surface.
Who do you like better, Michelangelo or Leonardo?
Impossible question, really. How can I choose? But I will try:
First, let’s admit my bias. I have a huge crush on Michelangelo. I’m mad, crazy in love with him. He’s been my hero for 20 years.
So, if Michelangelo has lived in my head as the hero for 20 years, then Leonardo has lived in my head as the villain.
But to write this book, I had to find a way to fall in love with Leonardo, too (if I wanted to write his story). It took me time, but I finally did. And I believe the book follows my journey with Leonardo — at the beginning, you can probably tell I’m not his biggest fan, but by the end…
I love them both for very different reasons. Nothing may ever trump the young adoration that I felt for Michelangelo, but I relate to Leonardo so much — as a fellow human.
Michelangelo created my favorite art in history; but Leonardo is arguably the more fascinating man.
How did you find a publisher?
I didn’t. My agent, Barbara Braun, did.
So how did I find my agent? I spent two years writing a query letter, researched the agents who I wanted to represent me and were likely to read my work, and submitted it to my top five. All five requested material, and I signed with my first choice.
I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any special insider relationships. I wasn’t famous. People say it’s impossible to break into the current publishing industry if you’re a debut novelist, but that’s not true…
But you do have to wait until you are ready.
I have 7 novels, all tucked into a filing cabinet. I would never send them out. This was the first one I felt was of publishable quality. Be hard on yourself. Write until you think you are good enough, then write some more. There are plenty of “good” manuscripts on the market. Don’t aim to be good. Aim to be great. Then, the publishing industry will listen.
How much research did you do?
More than I would care to admit. I think all my research makes me seem like an obsessive, crazy person. And maybe I am.
I have an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts (joint art history/studio degree) from Vanderbilt University; studied art and Italian at the University of Pisa; and even briefly attended a PhD program in Art History (with a focus in the Italian Renaissance) at Washington University, where I studied under one of the top Michelangelo specialists in the world… I didn’t last very long in the PhD program because I think I’m more of a spacey artist type than professor type, but I did go on to get my Master of Fine Arts from Emerson College in Boston.
I’ve read everything I can find on Michelangelo, Leonardo, and the time period (ANYTHING, even if it’s not very good. I don’t care. I read it anyway). I’ve crawled in the backs of library stacks to find rare old documents, been on a pilgrimage to see every Michelangelo on public display in the world (I’m missing one: the Crouching Boy in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg), lived in Italy and traveled back there to try to understand the country, its people, and history…
As far as the original sources go, Giorgio Vasari (the father of modern day art history) wrote biographies of all of the great Italian Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Leonardo. And he was nearly their age; he knew Michelangelo during his lifetime. That’s where we get many of the timelines, titles of works, stories dating back to their lifetimes. Michelangelo also hired an assistant to write a biography of him; the artist basically dictated it, so parts can be considered an autobiography. There are also Michelangelo’s letters, his poetry, Leonardo’s famous notebooks…
There’s a wealth of information on these two for anyone who wants to go read about it!
How much of the novel is true?
The research is all real, but I did take artistic liberties to tell a better story. There’s an Author’s Note in the back of the novel that explains some specifics, and I’ve written about my general outlook on the question on this blog.
Overall, I used real history as the foundation for the novel; I tried not to write anything that could NOT have happened. Yes, I made up moments to add more spice to the plot, but other moments (which may seem made up) are based on real stories or legends from history.
Oil and Marble is absolutely a work of fiction, but I have tried to remain true to the foundation of historical fact and certainly to the emotional TRUTH of the characters. But yeah, I imagined a lot of the story — because as a fiction writer, that’s my job. To fill in the holes when history is dark, and to make history human.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer/write a novel?
I wrote my first story when I was seven years old, sitting at my parents’ kitchen table overlooking Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was called “Horty the Hog Goes to School.” I’ve written fiction every day since. I literally cannot imagine NOT writing. It’s what I do, whether anyone reads it or not. I write novels and screenplays, poetry and flash fiction. I have many novels tucked away (no I won’t show them to you)…
The question for me isn’t when did I decide I wanted to be a writer, but when did I decide I was ready to be published? And that answer came from my husband. He read my work and told me I was crazy not to publish it. He convinced me that this story was worth sharing…
Who do you picture playing Michelangelo and Leonardo in the movie?
Well, first, it’s Hollywood. This decision won’t be up to me, but as along as people keep asking…
Michelangelo has to be an unknown actor, doesn’t he? Some up and coming kid — because that’s who Michelangelo was at this time. He also should be in great shape. Cut. Like a boxer. The guy carves marble every day, all day. He’s buff.
But Leonardo should be an icon. Some great actor we all know and love. I’ve always had three different ideas as my starting points…
Robert Downey Jr. You know, Iron Man. He’s funny and eccentric. Handsome and beloved. He could play the serious side, and the lighter side. He’s complex enough to pull it off.
George Clooney: The classic icon version. Freakishly good-looking and charming. Adored. The ultimate famous-guy, which was Leonardo, too. Also with enough wit to pull off the Master from Vinci.
Johnny Depp. Come on. He’d do something, fun, wouldn’t he? He’d be the eccentric, awesome version of Leonardo. The unexpected side… If Leonardo had to choose, THIS is who he would pick, I think.
While working in Hollywood, who is the most famous person you’ve met?
This question comes up at nearly every event. Not my favorite question, to be honest. I’ve made a career as an interview booker/producer by being overtly unimpressed by the people I meet. If I’m impressed, I might make a fool out of myself (and my shows/hosts) and then never get hired again…
BUT, people do ask it. ALL the time. So here’s my answer.
That depends on your perspective of the word famous. For me, it’s probably Muhammad Ali. Others might be more impressed by Presidents (Obama, Clinton, Bush, Carter). Or maybe it’s Prince, Aretha Franklin, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise… And how can I leave out the inimitable Maya Angelou?
I suppose I’m lucky to have met a lot of famous people but only because it has taught me that famous people are no different than anyone else. Just like Michelangelo and Leonardo should not be put upon a pedestal, but seen as human beings, just like you and me.
What’s your next novel about?
Well, I’m still writing it, so it’s not ready to be exposed to air (I like to say it’s still locked away in the tupperware for now). BUT, I’ve already completed and organized the research, broken the story, developed the characters, and am almost finished with the first draft, so here’s what I can tell you.
Number 1: It’s still art historical fiction because I hope to be writing art historical fiction until the day I die. I am obsessed with trying to understand the creative process and finding the humanity in the creation of art.
Number 2: It’s still set during the Italian Renaissance. Not because all of my novels will be set during the Italian Renaissance — I have many more stories set outside of this time period that need to be told — but because I am not yet finished with the time period. Yet.
Number 3: Oil and Marble was primarily set in Florence. The next one is primarily set in Rome…