Author Talk: October 19, 2012
Bestselling author Lauren Willig took time out of her busy schedule to interview author and friend Tasha Alexander about Tasha's latest book in the Lady Emily series, which is now in stores. DEATH IN THE FLOATING CITY takes readers to 19th-century Italy, where Emily is wrapped up in a centuries-old puzzle, the answer to which lies hidden in the tangle of tiny streets, canals, palaces and slums that make up the City of Bridges. In this interview, Tasha talks to Lauren about her witty and fearless heroine, singing gondoliers, and the best place to eat in Venice.
“Way back in the summer of 2011, Tasha invited me to stay with her in Venice while she was working on DEATH IN THE FLOATING CITY (because that's the kind of amazing and generous person Tasha is). It was ridiculously tempting, but I was under deadline on another book and had a research trip planned --- and, needless to say, I've regretted not going ever since. What could be more amazing than Venice with Tasha Alexander?
Since I couldn't be there, I've had to make do with grilling Tasha about the book instead.... If one can't have Venice with Tasha, I'd say Venice with Lady Emily is a pretty good substitute, wouldn't you? “ —Lauren
Lauren Willig: How did you happen to select Venice as the setting for the new Lady Emily mystery?
Tasha Alexander: I had wanted to go to Venice ever since I read BRIDESHEAD REVISITED when I was a teenager, and finally made it there on my honeymoon (thank you, Andrew!). After we landed at the airport, we took a water taxi to the city. We stood in the back of the boat, where there’s no roof and hence no obstruction of the view. When I first saw the domes of San Marco, I fell in love with the place and knew Emily would, too. Along with being stunningly beautiful, Venice is a dream for historical novelists because, structurally, it hasn’t changed significantly since the Renaissance. You could drop a 15th century Venetian in the city today and he’d be able to find his way home. And it’s an absolutely magical place, full of convoluted passages and hidden places—it’s as if it was designed for a novel. Add to that the rich cultural history, and you are compelled to set a book there.
LW: Does Emily's view of the city change, as the plot progresses?
TA: It does. To begin with, like any tourist, she is drawn to the unique beauty of the place. It seems so approachable, so easy to understand, until she starts to explore on her own and realizes its labyrinthine nature can turn frightening in an instant. Venice is full of narrow alleys and twisting streets that, by turn, either open into sunny squares or take you to a dead end. It’s impossible not to get lost. That can be romantic or terrifying depending on the circumstances. Emily experiences both.
LW: What enticed you to make Emily come to the aid of a childhood nemesis?
TA: To be perfectly honest, when I wrote my first book, AND ONLY TO DECEIVE, I had
Emily’s nemesis elope to Venice in the secret, secret hope that, someday, if I were lucky, I would be able to write a book in which Emily went there herself. I wanted an enemy to be her impetus for going because I like pushing my characters. We all have people we get along with better than others, and often a few people of whom, to be polite, we really are not fond. I liked the idea of thinking about how Emily would respond to a plea for help coming from someone who had always been awful to her.
LW: In addition to Emily's story, we also get a peek into fifteenth century Venice. What drew you to that time period, and was it a challenge to research?
TA: I studied at the Medieval Institute when I was at the University of Notre Dame, and as a result have a great fondness for early European history. The religion, society, culture, architecture, and art of Renaissance Italy make for an historian’s paradise, and I was eager to dive into researching it. On the one hand, it was much more difficult than working in the Victorian period, where I’m already well versed (ten years of academic research will have that effect). On the other, it was like a breath of fresh air to get to immerse myself in something so wholly different. I loved it.
LW: This is the seventh book in the Lady Emily series. Does this surprise you and is it still exciting to write?
TA: It utterly surprises me. When I wrote the first book, I didn’t dare hope it would lead to a series. As a reader, a good series is my favorite—when I like characters, I want to spend lots of time with them—and I feel the same as a writer. When I initially conceived of Emily, I wanted to explore how a young lady, comfortable in her upper class aristocratic world, would come to reject society and push for social reform. To do this accurately takes time. Much though we might like to think a Victorian (especially a woman) would look at the rules guiding her and reject them outright, this simply isn’t realistic. The Victorian period was full of eccentrics who were almost born pushing for social change, but for that sort of change to be wholesale it must have the support of a larger swath of the general population, people who gradually come to see it is right and necessary. That is what Emily is doing—coming to see the injustice in her world and starting to take action to stop it. As a result, she stays interesting to write.
LW: Tell me about the writing of this book. What was it like writing in Venice?
TA: Writing in Venice was absolutely magnificent. I was living in an apartment next to a palazzo where operas were performed every night, so I would hear the soprano and tenor come in mid-afternoon to warm up and rehearse, and then have the full music coming through my windows in the evening. Between that and the singing gondoliers who passed by almost constantly on the canal below me, I was surrounded by music. This generally was a good thing, but there was one day when I was moved almost to murderous rage after six straight hours of “Volare” from the canal. The food was magnificent—the produce and fish at the Rialto Market are to die for. I was eating tomatoes like they were candy—had forgot they could taste so good. And anytime I needed to scope out a location or find some inspiration, it was a short walk from my door. Sometimes I took my computer and sat outside a church or next to a canal and worked there. Writing heaven.
LW: Now the important stuff. What was your favorite place to eat in Venice?
TA: This is quite possibly the easiest question I have ever been asked. Thank you!
No doubt, Osteria Oliva Nera (http://www.osteria-olivanera.com) is the best, best, best place to eat in Venice. Exquisite food, exquisite wine, and a perfect atmosphere. Isabella and Dino, the owners, are fantastic, the kind of people you wish were your next-door neighbors. If you go, be sure to ask for Dino’s homemade limoncello…