I feel very honoured because my book, “The Song of the Cypress” was chosen to be read and discussed by a book group in Charleston, South Carolina. One of their members was staying at a hotel in the Valdarno in the summer and bought a copy of the book. She loved it so much that she got in touch with me and we have been exchanging e-mails ever since. (Thank you Laura, dear!) She proposed the book for her club and the result was that, once they had finished reading it, she sent me a list of questions that the group wanted me to answer. Below you will find my answers to their questions. Thanks so much to all of them, for their kind comments and for enjoying the book so much that they wanted to know more!
How long did it take to write “The Song of the Cypress”?
The book took me about two years but I did not write every day and there were months when we were sailing and I did not have access to a computer so I filled notebooks but did not “proper” writing.
What inspired the story?
This beautiful valley where I live is a constant inspiration. Once Fiammetta (the old wise-woman that the locals call a witch) established herself in the book, she took over and “guided” me! I wanted to take Annie, a damaged character, and let her find her true self through the healing power of nature.
You really brought Tuscany to life for me in the detailed descriptions. Why is nature such an important part of your writing?
Thank you. Beneath the easy flow of the natural world, the book is actually quite carefully structured – 4 seasons, 7 chapters in each, for the days of the month (I did not manage 365 pages for the days of the year but the thought was there!) – this was deliberate, to emphasize the impact of nature on everything that happens in the book.
I really did walk my dog nearly every day of the year as I wrote and I noted each change in the woodland around me, the plants, animals, bird calls etc, so that I could make the descriptions of the surroundings come alive and seem real. Living here, following the natural rhythms of life as much as possible, eating food that is in season and dressing for the weather, one is aware of nature in a way I never had been when working in London or living near Rome.
Is Annie based on you?
Annie is NOT me. I share one or two characteristics with her and I love short hair but otherwise she is not in any way a reflection of me, nor are any of my characters.
The only character who was based on a real person is Rita, who kindly shared her stories of life during the war, when she was a young girl, with me.
Why didn’t you use Italian heroes and heroines, in a book set in Italy?
I hesitated about using two foreign characters, English Annie and American Joe, as protagonists, in a book about Italy. However, there really are a lot of foreigners who are drawn to live here and the characters just appeared, fully formed in my mind so I went with them.
Joe was just too lovely to change in any way. Every woman should have a Joe! I loved watching films with Gregory Peck as a girl and think they influenced me when I wrote Joe.
I tried to make the local characters important too. I wanted to make them real, not caricatures. All too often I read things set in Italy where the foreigners seem to look down on the Italians and I dislike that. I live here and I love Italy. It is not perfect. Its politics stink (in fact I avoided any mention of that completely in the book) but it is where I call home and deserves my love and respect.
You never mention how old Annie is – why?
I deliberately did not give my characters surnames or ages. I did not want to limit my reader. I always identify with characters that I like in books and wanted to let my readers imagine the characters as they wanted, so Annie could be 22 or 32 or older, depending on what the reader wants to imagine.
It is very unusual to have a tree as a protagonist in a book. What made you decide to use the cypress in this way?
The cypresses here are so majestic and such a symbol of Tuscany. Their great age and seeming indifference to what nature hurls at them inspires me and I have written many poems about them over the years. When I researched them I found so many fascinating facts and legends that I then wove into the plot. In my first draft (of 7 chapters) there was no cypress at all. However, it was missing the mystical, magical element that I wanted. I also wanted a “voice” that was completely different from a human viewpoint, so that I could describe nature in a new way. I was stumped and left the book for a while. Then we went sailing in the summer and I remember sitting on deck, mesmerised by the rippling waves when suddenly the image of the cypress came to me and after that everything slipped into place.
Have you ever astral traveled, like Annie does?
I have never had an out of body experience or astral traveled but I have read about these things and see no reason why they cannot happen. I do believe that all things are connected and that, if we open up our hearts (through meditation or just being still in a place of great spiritual charge) we can sense the pulse of nature running through all things and maybe become part of it for a while.
Which is your favourite character?
Lots of people have asked me who my favourite character is. It is impossible to say because I love them all. They lived with me, in my head, for so long and seemed like real friends. I was a bit in love with Joe, felt very protective of Annie and of course was bowled over and completely under the influence of Fiammetta’s overpowering presence.
However, I am truly fond of Pietro with his quiet ways, gentle love of nature and his secret feelings for Fiammetta, so maybe he is my unsung hero.
The food mentioned in the book made my mouth water. Are the recipes Tuscan?
The food described in the book is all authentic to this region, for example the mushrooms that Pietro finds and Joe cooks for Annie. People here love to hunt for mushrooms. I am a bit wary because every year some people are poisoned but the porcini are really delicious. Food here is usually simple, using ingredients that are in season. I am working on a small book of recipes to give away with any purchase of The Song of the Cypress. It is a long process though, as I keep getting distracted by other projects!
What are you working on now?
I have just finished a humorous novel, set in England but with a very Italian protagonist, Leonardo Marconi, called “The Melting of Miss Angelina Snow”.
Frosty estate agent, the formidable Miss Snow and her most troublesome client, Mr Marconi get involved in a series of funny events while searching for Hal Snow, Angelina’s brother, who has gone missing when he falls into a windy-pit. Windy-pits really do exist and are so called because of the unfortunate noises they make when air rushes in and out of them! I just had to write about them once I discovered this delightful fact!
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