Interview: Victoria Strauss

Today I am pleased to present Victoria Strauss,  author of nine novels for adults and young adults. She is also well known for her work with Writer Beware, protecting writers from the many scam artists that prey on those who are eager to be published. I recently reviewed Color Song, her latest novel for young adults. We discuss the common elements of fantasy and historical fiction, and the historical anomaly of convent art studios.

You've written a number of books – contemporary, historical, YA, adult – but the common thread in all of your books is fantasy. Why fantasy? What pulled you in that direction?

I've always been drawn to fantasy, fairy tales, the bizarre and the surreal, ever since I can remember. As a child, I was crazy about Arthurian mythology, and and I read all the way through the Andrew Lang books, as well as an endless number of fairy tale compilations from other countries--one of the things that fascinated me was how the story tropes repeat themselves from culture to culture. Another favorite was E. Nesbit--I loved the way the fantasy elements intruded into the everyday, the way the children in the books have a secret magical world that only they can share. In my teens I graduated to fantasy and science fiction--Harlan Ellison, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton. These days I've kind of lost my taste for full-on epic fantasy, but my favorite books are still those that mix the real with the fantastical or the surreal.

In my writing it's the same. When I first started writing, I never felt the slightest impulse to do the conventional thing and write about my own experiences; instead I dreamed up a historical epic with fantastical elements. I guess what it comes down to is that ordinary life is what I live. When I read or write, I want to go somewhere else.

Does historical fiction fulfill the same function for you: taking you somewhere else? Color Song has only the barest whiffs of the fantastical, and even that is mostly in the backstory.

Yes. For me, fantasy and historical fiction have a lot in common, both from a reader's and a writer's perspective. Both create/re-create worlds that never existed/no longer exist, and can be experienced only through imagination. My fantasy worlds begin in invention, but they're also heavily researched and incorporate real-world templates and details. Conversely, my historical fiction begins in research--but I use liberal doses of invention to bridge the information gaps and dark areas that research just can't fill. I'm equally comfortable in both genres.

I originally intended Color Song to be more fantastical than it turned out to be, with Giulia hearing the voice of the spirit Anasurymboriel in dreams, just as she did in Passion Blue. But it quickly became clear to me that the story didn't need that kind of obvious supernatural element--and it was also too repetitive of Passion Blue. In the end, I decided just to go with Giulia's ability to hear colors--which could be the spirit's gift (whether or not Anasurymboriel really exists is ambiguous anyway), or could just be her own unique ability, unlocked by her discovery of her passion to paint.

Is your workshop of painter nuns based on historic fact?

Yes. It's based on the workshop of Suor Plautilla Nelli,who was the mistress of a painting workshop at the Dominican convent of Santa Catarina di Siena in Florence in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Plautilla's father was a painter, and may have trained her before she entered the convent at just fourteen years old, but she was largely self-taught. She mentored other nuns in painting, and her studio eventually became quite famous, with its works in demand not just for churches and monasteries, but for private residences. She appears to have produced a large body of work, but only a few of her paintings and drawings survive, including a beautiful fresco of the Last Supper that she painted for Santa Catarina's refectory (the refectory painting in Passion Blue is based on this). Plautilla was one of the first recognized female Renaissance artists, and is one of the only female painters mentioned in Georgio Vasari's famous seventeenth-century reference work, Lives of the Painters.

Was this studio what provided the creative spark for the duology? Or should I say series? Is a third book in the works?

I actually didn't set out to write about painting at all. I originally intended to write a novel about astrology--but in the research and planning process the story morphed away from astrology (though there's still a lot of astrology in Passion Blue) and turned into a story about art. I'm still not quite sure how that happened! --although I've long been interested in the practically forgotten female painters of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

However, I hadn't heard of Plautilla Nelli; she wasn't part of my college art history courses. I discovered her studio while I was researching, and knew immediately that this was the setting I wanted to use, not just for its uniqueness, but because I was fascinated by the tension between the rigid cloistering of the nuns and the paradoxical freedom that existed--for at least some nuns, though certainly not all--within the confinement of convent walls.

I don't have any plans for a third book. I'm not a natural series writer--the most I've managed so far are duologies, and I'm only able to figure out what Book 2 will be once Book 1 is done. At this point, I feel I've traveled far enough with Giulia. I want to move on.

I certainly got a strong sense of closure at the end of Color Song. So what are you moving on to?

I'm developing two projects and trying to decide which to commit to. One is a YA in a fantasy setting similar to Venice, about a poisoner's daughter (no similarity to Rappaccini) and what happens when a thief breaks in and accidentally exposes a dangerous secret about her birth that her father has kept hidden. The other is a fantasy for the adult market about the spiral of awful consequences that follow when a pivotal (like, intended to hold up the very fabric of reality) religious-magical ritual goes wrong due to human error, and the powers that be attempt to cover it up. I'm leaning toward the YA project, mostly because it would be shorter and take me less time to write, but the adult project is more compelling. On the other hand, another idea entirely may pop up...I don't know.

I don't like being in between books this way, and I don't usually have so much trouble deciding what to do next, but there's an ongoing family situation that's eating up a lot of my time and emotional energy and makes it hard to focus.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this with me, Victoria. I hope your situation resolves well.