Interview with Tonia Parronchi, Author of “The Song of the Cypress”

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!

carolines photo for book

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!

For more information have a look at the following links to websites, blogs etc
@toniaparronchi for Twitter


Fancy sailing at Christmas? Not unless it is in the Caribbean

I have always loved Christmas. I get a kick out of everything, from Frank Sinatra singing “Jingle Bells” to making a huge roast and eating far too much Christmas pudding.

Since Sunpenny released “A Whisper on the Mediterranean”, in September, I have had people asking me about our Christmas experiences when sailing. I am afraid to admit that we did not have any! The Mediterranean in winter is just about as bleak as the English coast and, for us, not very inviting. We are fair-weather sailors definitely. In fact, if Guido cannot set sail dressed in nothing more than a pair of beach shorts he is not a happy man. Although summer evenings on the Med can be quite fresh, especially during night sails, the days are scorchingly hot, just as skipper Guido likes it.

In early September this year we were invited by friends to go with them to the Isle of Wight on their power boat. As we sped out of Port Solent Marina, on a day so grey that sea and sky were the same glowering pewter, I repressed a snigger as I watched Guido’s face. We got thoroughly soaked with freezing spray and by the time we reached the Isle of Wight, all we wanted was a hot chocolate to warm us up. We actually had a brilliant weekend and the sun came out the following day but Guido will not be swayed. No power boats for him and no cold, damp conditions unless absolutely unavoidable.

Our Christmas is usually spent in our home in Tuscany. We light a big fire, which adds a glow to the room and is very handy for cooking meat and chestnuts, or for making the best garlic bread ever; toasting some bread, rubbing it with raw garlic, a sprinkle of salt and a liberal splash of olive oil. We eat a mixture of Italian traditional food and English goodies, if my parents come to visit with a case full of my favourite treats, mince pies and Christmas pudding,. An Italian Christmas lunch is an experience for the stout of heart. I remember my dismay on the first Christmas I spent here when my skirt, which had been loose before lunch, was so tight after three courses that I had to undo a button and we were only half way through! Here is what most Italian families sit down to; mixed crostini, tortellini in meat broth, pasta with a rich meat sauce, boiled meats with homemade mayonnaise, a variety of roast meats with potatoes and salad and then, just when you really cannot eat another morsel, on come the many different desserts to try – pantone, pandoro, panforte, ricciarelli …

Natale 2006 004

However, returning to the question of a Christmas aboard, which would probably have been very good for us, as it would not have been easy to prepare all those different dishes in the tiny galley and so would have saved our waistlines, the closest we came to it was the first year we bought our second sailing boat. Euriklea was in the pretty port of Santa Marinella, north of Rome, when we bought her. I was so in love with her that I encouraged Guido to take us to the boat every weekend when James had finished school. She was a Contest 40, sturdy and graceful with curving lines that looked like a smile bobbing on the water.

Alla fonda al Frontone

Inside, her woodwork shone with a mellow, honey glow and her compact galley was a dream to cook in, with so many small handy features to help the cook. I particularly loved the bread board which was a huge slab of wood that pulled out from above the drawers and could be reached from the table nook without anyone needing to stand up. I am easily pleased, maybe, but this boat was so cute!

Copia (2) di Digital Camera 340

In the winter though she was cold. We drove there on a blustery weekend in late December and I remember chatting on about calling friends and organising a New Year party onboard. When we arrived and started to stow our gear, I began to have second thoughts. I quickly turned on the small electric heater, grateful that we were not planning to do any sailing and could happily use the port’s electricity and water supplies. The boat soon began to warm up but no one felt like eating because the rough sea was causing the harbour waters to be choppy too and Euriklea was tugging restlessly at her moorings. James looked green and when our friends arrived for lunch they too quickly began to feel sea-sick. In the end I gave up on the idea of cooking and we went out to a nice restaurant, which did not move, and talked about holidays in some sunny spot. In fact, we were so taken with these sun-filled dreams that two weeks later our friends and us were holidaying in South Africa.

Christmas and boats are always tied in my mind because it was at Christmas time that we heard the wonderful news that our offer for our first boat “Whisper” had been accepted. That was our best Christmas present ever I think!

So, whatever you are planning for Christmas this year, I hope you will have a joyful one and that the New Year will bring new adventure and much happiness.

Threadbare Christmas Trees and too many Baubles – Recipe for a Wonderful Christmas

Every year we put up our tree and Christmas decorations on 1st December. As we pull our, very tatty-looking, tree from its box, which has been repaired so many times with duct tape that you cannot see much cardboard, it has very little allure. Then the magic begins. The Frank Sinatra CD goes on and we all begin singing “Jingle Bells” with enthusiasm, if not talent. There is the inevitable argument about which to put on first, after the lights. I say tinsel, Guido says baubles. James agrees with me, as always, and the tinsel gets wrapped around.
Here is a snippet from “A Whisper on the Mediterranean” about the year when James was tiny and we got the news that our offer for the sailing boat, “Whisper”, had been accepted. That was probably the best Christmas present ever!

We both love Christmas and always put our tree up so early that we have to have a fake one, because the real thing would shed its needles long before the big day. Putting up the decorations this year with James “helping” was however proving to be quite a trial, although James was blissfully unaware of the chaos he was causing and was having the most wonderful time. It was 1st December and we were immersed in tinsel and fairy lights while James helped with the baubles, seeing how high they could bounce (I had grabbed the breakable ones away from him and already stuck them at the very top of the tree!), when the phone rang.
“Can you get it?” Guido and I called simultaneously, before both charging to answer. Guido got there first and I sank down on the settee to get my breath back. All at once my man’s face changed. Every trace of tiredness vanished and he turned to me grinning. The boat was ours.
James howled loudly as he got his foot tangled up in a length of tinsel and fell over. Guido laughed and started singing loudly as he swept up both baby and me and danced us around the room. There was no turning back now. It was time for this landlubber to start learning to sail!”

So, we have the tree covered in silver tinsel and now we start on the baubles. This takes a long time. We have so many and each one reminds me of a special place or person. So many memories caught in these gaudy little gewgaws. In general I prefer quite clean lines and unfussy decor but something happens to my sense of style at Christmas. I keep every scrap of ribbon, every small glitter-painted fir cone to reuse the following year. Those ornaments that have lost their hooks or are a bit broken are used below the tree to make a shiny puddle of colour. Then the kitchen gets decked in the remaining red tinsel, fake flowers, miniature snowmen and angels while the fireplace is transformed by ivy and berries. I am not happy until the house really glows with colour.

Xmas for blog (FILEminimizer)

My personal treasures are a large glass bauble decorated in red lace that James gave me after a school trip to the northern Christmas markets one year. As I find the best place to hang it I remember the anticipation in his face as he waited for me to unwrap the gift he had so carefully chosen. “Isn’t it beautiful Mum?” he had whispered and indeed it is, but not as lovely as his expression was. I also adore the small crib he brought home from nursery school. Inside were 4 clay figures that he had made. The tiny one painted pink and shaped like a star is obviously the naked baby Jesus. A bigger green star with pink blob on top is Joseph and the blue blob Mary. Just who the other misshapen object was meant to be no one remembers but into the crib they all go, with a light positioned strategically above to shine on the little scene.
What is it about Christmas that warms the heart so much? I know there are actually people out there who do not enjoy it, who moan about how tiring it is, how stressful. I cannot understand them at all. I love every second. I choose presents with care and love, not usually expensive things but items that I know will be special for the person I love. I am happiest when I can gather all my family around me and cook an enormous roast for us all.
This year, for the first time ever, my parents will not spend Christmas with me. They cannot travel anymore and we are unable to go to them this time. This is almost heartbreaking for me and things will just not be the same. Happily my brother and his wife will be with Mum and Dad and I will have James back with me after months working in America. In fact, his being home is my present this year!
I do not follow any particular religious doctrine but find the Christmas message, of love, peace and giving to others, very beautiful. If I could ask for a gift for the world it would be that everyone could be pervaded with this same feeling, at least for a short while.
I wish all my friends and readers just that. A Christmas full of happiness, calm and joy. Also, a lot of turkey and Christmas pudding, of course. xxx