Frequently Asked Questions
Will Stephanie come talk to my book club/art museum/school or other cultural event - or teach my writing group or at my local conference?
If I can fit it in my schedule, of course. I love speaking and teaching, so please reach out via my contact page and either I or someone from my team will get back to you about scheduling (and cost if applicable).
Is there really a movie being made of Oil and Marble?
Yes. Pioneer Pictures has optioned the theatrical rights to Oil and Marble and are currently developing it as a feature film. I wish I could say more, but for now all creative decisions are under wraps. But rest assured, the producers are brilliant and making amazing choices with the material. Check back regularly for updates. I hope to have announcements soon!
How much research do you do and how/where did you do it?
I do more research than I 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 preferred fiction to academics, so I left to get my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston.
I’ve read everything I can find on Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael 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, Leonardo, and Raphael. 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, Raphael’s drawings…
There’s a wealth of information on these three for anyone who wants to go read about it!
So if your fiction is based on all this research, how much of your novels are true/based on history and how much is made up?
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.
Do you ever make mistakes with the history?
Or perhaps you’ve found a mistake in my novel, and you want to tell me about it?!
Of course I make mistakes. Every historical fiction writer does. One of my personal favorites in Oil and Marble: in Chapter 1 of the original (I believe it’s been corrected in later editions), I referred to Milan as being in “Normandy.” That is OBVIOUSLY incorrect; it’s “Lombardy.” But I was planning a trip to northern France when I wrote the first draft so Normandy was on the brain and… well, my eyes just kept scanning over the error…
Then there are other choices that didn’t bother ME, but bothered readers. When I was writing Oil and Marble, I waffled about whether to include a reference to tomatoes. I knew they were a New World food, but tomatoes are such an iconic Italian food today, so… Oil and Marble began in 1499, 6 years after Columbus had returned to Spain from his first voyage to the New World. The Spanish Conquistadors likely brought tomatoes to Europe in the early 16th-century. The first WRITTEN reference that we have to tomatoes in Italy was in 1548… but as we all know, something usually exists BEFORE written record of it… I knew all of this when I made the decision to include a reference to tomatoes. But since the bulk of that novel spans the first few years of the 16th century, I made a conscious decision to include them for emotional reasons even though I knew it was probably a few years too early (the discovery of the New World was fast changing life and culture in Italy; I didn’t want to ignore the changes that were sweeping across the peninsula)… THAT was clearly a mistake; I hear from people all the time telling me how wrong I am to have included that tomato! They get very upset about it.
Although I’m certain I’ll make ERRORS again - typos or just not realizing something is anachronistic; there’s a lot of information and detail that sometimes slips through the cracks - I will try hard not to make the “tomato” choice again (or at least try to acknowledge the choice in the text next time - like saying it was a brand new food, just brought back from the New World or whatever…), just because it took some readers out of the story, which wasn’t my intention.
What inspires you to write about Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael? Or more broadly about art history?
I’ve loved art since I was a kid. Whereas other kids had teen magazines taped to their walls, I had Renoir and Raphael posters (Okay, I had some teeny-bop magazines, too. Michael J Fox anyone??)
But what drove me to write my first art historical novel was my obsession with Michelangelo. I haven’t been able to get that guy out of my head for 25 years, and even though I’ve now written two novels centered around him, I have to admit, he’s still in there, knocking around.
Plus, for Oil and Marble, specifically, I’ve always been shocked 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. Yes, their rivalry is well-known among art historians, but most 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.
For Raphael, I wanted to see Michelangelo’s Sistine story through a different set of eyes. We all know the story from Michelangelo’s point of view -- thanks to that section of The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone and the famous eponymous movie born out of it - but Michelangelo’s version isn’t the only version… Raphael was, in many ways, MORE famous than Michelangelo during his lifetime and yet, he gets lost to history. Plus, I get very frustrated by art historians (and art lovers) dismissing Raphael as having a personality and disposition as perfect as his paintings. The man was HUMAN. No human is perfect. Let him be HUMAN!
How long does it take to write a novel?
I can’t answer that question for everyone, just for me. And my answer is complicated:
Over 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 stories of Michelangelo’s rivalries - with both Leonardo and Raphael - have been rolling around in my brain ever since.
Over 10 years ago, I first pitched the story of Michelangelo versus Leonardo 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 the story that became Oil and Marble.
5 years before publication of Oil and Marble, I admitted to myself that I didn’t want to write the story as a screenplay, but 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, Oil and Marble? 20, 10 or 5 years. One of those is the right answer.
4 years ago, after Oil and Marble came out, I set out to write my SECOND novel, Raphael, Painter in Rome… but since it’s ALSO a rivalry story with Michelangelo, did Raphael take me 4 years to write… or 24 years?
How did you get your 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 agents who represented art historical fiction like mine and submitted my query to my top five choices. 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 might just listen.
I read you were a producer in Hollywood. What did you produce and who is the most famous person you’ve ever met?
I primarily produced talk television shows - The Alec Baldwin Show on ABC, Arsenio Hall for CBS, The Writers’ Room for Sundance (among many others). I’m the person who booked the guests (pitched them and convinced them to come on the show), did all the research for the guests, wrote the questions, prepped the hosts and guests, picked the videos and pictures, etc…
The question - ‘who is the most famous person you’ve ever met’ - comes up at nearly every event. It’s not my favorite question, to be honest. I’ve made a career as an interview 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: it depends on your perspective of the word ‘famous.’ For me, it’s probably Muhammad Ali. I was also personally excited by Andre Agassi and Kate McKinnon (I LOVED her rendition of Hallelujah after the 2016 election).
But others might be more impressed by Presidents (Obama, Clinton, Bush, Carter). Or maybe it’s Prince, Aretha Franklin, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Jerry Seinfeld. Keira Knightley… 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’s taught me that famous people are no different than anyone else. Just like Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael, celebrities should not be put upon a pedestal, but seen as regular human beings no different than 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 now writing the first draft, so here’s what I can tell you:
It’s still art historical fiction because I hope to be writing art historical fiction until the day I die. I’m obsessed with trying to understand the creative process and finding the humanity in the creation of art. For this third novel, I’ve left the Italian Renaissance (I need a gulp of fresh air before returning to Michelangelo… although I DO have plans to return). A quick glance at my social media will probably tell you that I’m a bit obsessed with French Impressionism these days so… Now, that’s all you get! You’ll just have to wait until the next one is ready for the world… So it’s time for me to get back to writing.