WeekEND Reading: Carmela Martino talks about her gorgeously written historical fiction, PLAYING BY HEART, tenacity in publishing, being excited about what you write; math and music, and the little-known Agnesi sisters, and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

Sweeping historical novel set in 18th century Milan features bright, spirited girls well ahead of their time. 

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Carmela Martino completely transported me to the historical landscape of Italy where girls were destined to become ‘only’ a wife/mother or join the convent. Oh, but the Salvini sisters, Maria and Emilia, have so much more they want to do with their lives.

Emilia, ‘the second sister,’ wants nothing more than to marry a man who loves music as much as she does. Her sister, on the other hand, really desires to take the veil, but her father has insisted she become a scholar–her brilliant language skills are second to none (she has mastered seven!) and her math and astronomy studies are fearless. In fact, he hopes her skills land their large family in noble status.

Every character in PLAYING BY HEART has a strong desire to become something: a mother, a musician, a nun, a nobleman. Their desires are often incongruent with the 18th century culture of Milan. 

I found the writing lucid, the characters well developed, and the story straddling the YA/adult genre. Martino is a gifted storyteller that made the reading of PLAYING BY HEART an absolute joy. While PLAYING BY HEART is billed as a YA historical romance, I didn’t see it as that at all, but more of a determined (and bright) young girl searching for satisfaction in a life she wants so desperately.

Please join me in welcoming Carmela to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Carmela, I so loved this book. I found it inspiring but awed by its roots in history. Maria and Emilia Salvini, the sisters depicted in PLAYING BY HEART are based on actual sisters who lived in 18th century Milan: musician and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi (1720-1795) and mathematician and linguist Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). Can you tell us a bit about how you came to ‘know’ these sisters?

Carmela Martino: First, off, let me say thanks so much for hosting this interview, Leslie, and for your insightful review of Playing by Heart.

I came to know the Agnesi sisters in a rather roundabout way. Even though I have an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. I was appalled that there’d been no mention of 220px-Maria_Gaetana_Agnesiher in any of my math classes or textbooks. Maria Gaetana was a woman I could have looked up to as a role model had I known of her. After reading about her in that article, I began researching her life with the goal of writing a picture book biography to inspire girls who might be interested in math.

As I learned about Maria Gaetana’s life, I was again appalled. This time, because of all the misinformation about her, both in print and online. For example, the current Wikipedia entry states that her father was a math professor. This is false. Pietro Agnesi came from a family of silk merchants. He never taught math. He never even worked in the family business. It seems some writers assumed that the only way Maria Gaetana could have come by her math skills was by learning them from her father. I set out to write a biography of Maria Gaetana that would set the record straight and introduce people to this extraordinary woman, not only her scholarly accomplishments but also her work for the poor. During my research, I also learned about her sister Maria Teresa’s extraordinary musical talents. I’d never heard of her either, even though she’d been one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera.Anonimo,_ritratto_della_compositrice_e_clavicembalista_maria_teresa_agnesi

After Candlewick Press published my middle-grade novel, ROSA SOLA in 2005, I submitted the picture book biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Maria Gaetana’s own writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Maria Gaetana’s personal life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by how both Maria Gaetana and Maria Teresa had struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness. And that’s how I came to write PLAYING BY HEART.  Unfortunately, even less is known about Maria Teresa’s life than about her older sister’s. But I was able to track down a music professor at the University of Chicago who is an expert on the music of 18th-century Milan and he helped me immensely.

I still hope to eventually find a publisher for my biography of Maria Gaetana. Meanwhile, I’ve created a website to help dispel some of the myths about her and her family. The page about Maria Teresa includes a YouTube video of one of her music compositions being performed.

L.L.: And yet PLAYING BY HEART was a hard book for you to write and sell. Like the sisters in the story, you were determined. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Carmela Martino: The amount of research required for this novel was rather daunting. I needed to understand the culture of 18-century Milan—the politics of the time, social standards, clothing, food, music, etc. The few primary documents I found were written in Italian. I have difficulty reading modern Italian, let alone Italian as it was written in the 1700s! I guess I really was determined, as you say, because I stuck with it. I ended up heavily fictionalizing the story of the Agnesi sisters to give me more freedom. I changed the family name to Salvini, and originally called the novel The Second Salvini Sister. It took me about 2 ½ years to get a solid draft. In September 2011, I sent that manuscript to the Candlewick editor who had originally suggested I write the novel. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

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You can imagine my disappointment, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know rejection is simply part of the process. I continued revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. I was encouraged when the manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to PLAYING BY HEART. The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. The contest successes meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel. The feedback I kept hearing was that PLAYING BY HEART was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for an online conference that included pitch sessions with editors. One of the editors was from Vinspire Publishing, a small press that looked like it could be a good match for my novel. With nothing to lose, I pulled PLAYING BY HEART out of the drawer and pitched it. The editor liked my pitch and eventually bought the novel.

L.L.: Which brings me to genre. As a writer, is this something we should concern ourselves with, or is it purely a marketing device?

Carmela Martino: That’s a great question and I’ve heard conflicting answers. I tell my writing students it’s good to know about the market, but that shouldn’t necessarily determine what you write. I believe the most important thing is to write the story that calls to you, that excites you. One of the biggest mistakes I see my students make is to choose their writing project based on what they think will sell. For example, when vampire stories were all the rage, some of my students who’d never even read a vampire novel began writing them. There are several problems with this. First off, if you’re not a fan of vampire novels, it’s going to be tough to stick with the hard work it takes to complete a novel-length story you’re not passionate about. And even if you manage to persevere, readers (and editors) will be able to tell that you weren’t as invested in the story as a writer who really cares about the genre.

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The reason I say it’s good to know about the market is so that you understand the expectations of readers of your genre, and also how to write a novel that complements what’s already been written. I’m a great fan of historical fiction and have been for many years. One of my favorite aspects of the genre is being immersed in the novel’s time and place, and glimpsing what it must have been like to live then. I also love learning about true historical events through fiction. As a result, I worked very hard to accomplish those things in PLAYING BY HEART. So I’m especially pleased with reviews from readers like you who say the novel transported them to 18th-century Milan.

L.L.: I understand you completed your MFA through Vermont College of the Fine Arts. I’ve been intrigued with their program, mostly because one of my favorite authors, Thomas Christopher Greene, is the president of the university. What can you tell us about the process of obtaining the MFA and the importance of having a ‘hive?’

Carmela Martino: The MFA program surpassed all my expectations. The school was called simply Vermont College when I was there, but it’s now the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). For those who may not be familiar with it, the VCFA MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program that takes two years to complete. At the start of each semester, students attend an intensive 10-day residency on campus in Montpelier, Vermont. The residency includes faculty and student presentations, critique workshops, readings, and guest lectures by some of the finest writers in children’s and YA lit. During the residency, students create a work plan for the coming semester and are assigned an advisor who reads and critiques your monthly packets of writing. The program is set up so that you work with a different advisor each semester.vcfa-college-building-72dpi1.jpg

My first semester, I was lucky enough to work with Newbery-honor winning author Marion Dane Bauer. I learned so much from her that I was disappointed that I had to switch to a new advisor my second semester, especially because I was in the middle of the first draft of a novel. But I eventually discovered that each advisor had different things to teach me. Each helped me make amazing leaps in my writing skills. Having to produce both a creative thesis (which turned out to be my middle-grade novel ROSA SOLA), and a critical thesis, meant I grew not only as a writer but in my ability to read critically, too.

The program is quite intense, but the environment is incredibly supportive and nurturing. I ended up forming a strong bond with those in my graduating class, several of whom were already award-winning authors before attending the program. There’s a tradition at VCFA for each graduating class to have a nickname, and our group was christened the “Hive” by a faculty member because we were always “buzzing” about something. We liked the name and called ourselves Bees. There were about fifteen writers in my class. After graduation, we formed a Yahoo group to stay in touch. Seventeen years later, that group still has eleven active members. Hardly a day goes by without someone posting to the group. We share industry buzz, commiserate over rejections, celebrate sales, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. The Bees live all over the United States, but we’ve had several mini-reunions and try to connect at conferences whenever possible. I don’t know how I could have stuck in this business without the support of the Hive, especially after my local critique group disbanded a few years ago.

L.L.: What are you working on now?

Carmela Martino: I’m working on a short story set in the same world as PLAYING BY HEART. I plan to give it away as a thank you gift to my newsletter subscribers. After that, I want to take another crack at the biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi.

L.L.: Since we’re in a season of indulgence, what are some of your guilty pleasures?

Carmela Martino: Well, food wise, I have a terrible sweet tooth. At Halloween, I make my husband hide the candy or I’d eat it all before the trick-or-treaters arrived. I typically don’t keep any candy, cookies or cakes in my house—it wouldn’t last long if I did. But during the holidays, I do indulge my sweet tooth at holiday gatherings.

My other guilty pleasure is reading fiction for fun. I tend to be a workaholic, and between writing, teaching, and blogging, I don’t have much spare time, so reading feels like a guilty pleasure. I’m part of a book club that reads books written for children and teens, so reading the 1-2 titles assigned for that each month is pretty 51ZLy2UkSFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_guiltfree. And I just finished an adult novel (a rarity for me): The Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by Jennifer Chiaverini. Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. She was born less than 100 years after Maria Gaetana Agnesi. The Enchantress of Numbers helped me appreciate some of the parallels in the two women’s lives. And I was pleasantly surprised to find Maria Gaetana mentioned in the novel! (I talk a bit about the novel and two other of my favorite reads from this year in my blog post today at www.TeachingAuthors.com.

L.L.: Carmela, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Carmela Martino: I’ve enjoyed it, too, Leslie. Thank you very much. Or, as Emilia Salvini would say, mille gracie!

I would add that I’m also a writing teacher. I enjoy teaching as much as I do writing, so it’s sometimes a challenge to balance the two. I’m part of a site called TeachingAuthors.com, a blog of writing and teaching tips by six published children’s/YA authors who are also writing teachers. My co-blogger April Halprin Wayland recently posted a guest TeachingAuthor interview with Paul Mosier and we’re hosting a giveaway of his acclaimed middle-grade novel, Train I Ride, through Dec. 20. I invite your readers to check out the blog and enter the giveaway if they’re interested.

I also send out a monthly Creativity Newsletter that includes updates about my publishing news and writing classes as well as creativity tips. Readers can subscribe to the newsletter on my website. If they’d like to read a recent issue first, they can find one here.

For more information, to connect with Carmela via social media, or to purchase a copy of PLAYING BY HEART, please see:

PR BW  portrait.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carmela Martino holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. Her middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick Press), was named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.” Her second novel, the young-adult historical romance Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing), took first place in the Young Adult category of the 2013 Windy City RWA Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. Carmela’s credits for teens and tweens also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and multiple editions of the annual Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Carmela has taught writing workshops for children and adults since 1998, and she blogs about teaching and writing at www.TeachingAuthors.com.

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media channels:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of C. Martino. Image of ROSA, SOLA retrieved from Amazon; images of Agnesi sisters retrieved from Wikipedia, image of excited writer from, image of VCFA from the school’s website,  cover image of ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS from Amazon, 18th c. Milan from Wikipedia, all on 12.14.17]

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Wednesdays with Writers: Six-times NYT Bestselling author Margaret George on her love for travel, history, poetry and how competitive sports is like writing in her new historical saga, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO.

By Leslie Lindsay 

With a perfect streak of over six New York Times bestsellers, and 1.5 million books sold, MARGARET GEORGE turns her gaze to the ‘bad boy’ Emperor of Ancient Rome.

THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO is meticulously researched, gloriously written, and transports the reader to the heart of Rome and beyond.

Margaret George burst onto the scene in 1986 with her historical fiction of Henry VIII…and she continued writing critically-acclaimed biographical novels of historical figures, including MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE, CLEOPATRA, among others.

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 “With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression. This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second will be eagerly awaited.”

—Booklist

Emperor Nero. Many things come to mind at the mention of his name: Spoiled. Murderer. Tyrant. Pervert. Hedonist. Many of these caricatures are put in motion through Hollywood and rumors as ancient as the forum. Having come to power at the tender age of sixteen, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO follow his life in a two-part saga (this is the first book; both are written to stand-alone). Enshrined in power and raised by a cunning and ambitious mother, Nero is the 5th Roman Emperor, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Julius Caesar. We follow his young life from about age four to mid-twenties, just before the Great Fire of Rome.

Nero’s life is riddled with murderers, rivalries, plots, orgies, and incest. Sensational on its own—but the story is not just about revisiting these instances—there’s reclamation in Nero as an artist, a musician, an athlete. In fact, George’s book had me cheering for Nero at times, in fact, completely changing my opinion of him.

Today, I am so very humbled to welcome Margaret George to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Margaret, it’s truly an honor. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I’m so in awe of the breadth of knowledge, your impeccable research, and the magical way you are able to weave a deeply moving, stunningly visual narrative of Nero. Before we get into specifics, I am curious why Nero, why now?

Margaret George: I’ve actually been thinking of Nero for a long time—for over twenty years, in fact.  I was all afire to do this back in the 1990’s.  But all the stereotypes you mention above were in full force then, and people weren’t interested in exploring farther, they were so prejudiced against him.  Since then the climate has changed; in 2003 there was a major revisionist biography, and three big Nero exhibits—two in Rome and one in Germany—have been outstandingly popular, the last one in 2016.  His moment has come, and at last he can make his case.220px-Nero_1

L.L.: You’re known for your meticulous research. In fact—you’ll laugh; I’m no sybil—but I dreamed you researched this book for twenty years!  In your ‘afterward,’ you list some amazing titles referenced in writing; do you have any research rituals?

Margaret George: Isn’t that funny, maybe you are a sybil.  As I said above, I started doing research on Nero back in the 1990s and continued on even as I was writing other books.  The research for HELEN OF TROY (early 2000s) in Greece was also Nero research because he was so nuts about Greece and made a big ‘arts tour’ there that lasted sixteen months.

I don’t have any rituals per se, but I do like to take things in a certain order.  First read the books, then go to the sites, and last of all do the writing.  It’s best to have done the reading research before going to the sites, because then I am more aware of what I need to notice. I also like to write out notes by hand because I think it registers in my brain better that way.

I take a lot of photos on site and buy any kitsch relating to my characters I find, because it shows they are still  ‘real’ to modern people.  As a result I have a 10’ x 4’ Nero flag, Nero candles, Nero matches (what else?), Nero rubber duckies, and Nero tote bags.  There were even bottles of Nero wine at the German exhibit!

L.L.:  Just like with the Internet nowadays, ancient Romans loved gossip. How were you able to tease out what was ‘real’ and not?

Margaret George: It’s hard after two thousand years to be able to sort out the National Enquirer material, because, well, even the National Enquirer has true material.  (Remember the Bruno Magli shoes that O.J. was wearing, caught in a National Enquirer photo?)  I had to take into consideration the source of the material, and whether it was ‘canned’ and repeated elsewhere about other people, or whether it was just unbelievable and obviously a character assassination.  For example, any time anyone died Tacitus, Suetonius, or Dio Cassius (the main three sources for Nero) claimed it was poison, and that Nero did it.  In many instances it made no sense—why would he poison Burrus, his Praetorian prefect? Often the gossip in one is contradicted in the other, for example, one historian says Burrus died of a throat ailment, not poison.  Another silly piece of gossip is that Agrippina and Nero had sex in the royal litter, and when they got out, their clothes were wrinkled and stained, visual proof of it.  In the novel I even have Nero commenting that, since he had a whole palace at his disposal, why would he resort to a litter in the streets in broad daylight?

L.L.: What details, if any, do you invent?

Margaret George: I actually do invent a number of details, if they are plausible. For example, the horse farm outside Rome where Nero selects the team he wants to train for chariot 240px-Ritratto_di_claudia_ottavia,_da_roma,_via_vareseracing.  Now, we know there were horse farms.  We know his right-hand man, Tigellinus, was a former horse trainer and breeder. We know Nero raced chariots But we have no information about where or how he got his horses.  So I imagined that scene, which I thought would show something about horses and the special training they underwent for chariot racing.  And there are other scenes like that: his secret athletic training under an alias when he was a boy, his visit to the Roman brothel, his wedding night with Octavia.

Some of the details that may sound invented aren’t.  We know Nero had bad eyesight and used an uncut emerald held up before his eye to watch chariot races.  (It probably didn’t work.)  We know he had a special drink named after himself (the decocta Noroonis) made of boiled and re-cooled snow.  We know he didn’t like wearing togas and switched to tunics whenever he could, including flowered ones.   

L.L.: You do a beautiful job of reconstructing a stunning visual landscape for ancient Rome. Your visceral details are quite poetic lending to a tremendous sense of place. Instead of asking, ‘how do you do it’—what do you keep the saw sharp?

Margaret George: That’s very kind of you. I worry that I don’t have enough details!  But I am a student of Ray Bradbury’s (figuratively not literally) and his writing is very ‘visceral’ or I would say ‘sensual’—of the senses.  He explained it this way:

“Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture.  If the reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won.” ~Ray Bradbury

I try to keep that in mind.  Most descriptive writing is heavy on the visual but if you can bring in the other senses it gives a real feeling of being there.autobiography-of-henry-VIII

L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your early writing days? What do you think you did ‘right?’ What do you wished you had done ‘better?’

Margaret George: It took me a long time to hit my stride, I think.  My father read over my first handwritten draft of HENRY VIII (what a martyr!) and noted two things: one, that writing in the first person isn’t just writing in the third person and replacing all the ‘he’s’ with “I’s” which he said I did, and second, that I was best when I cut loose from the strict historical recounting and used my imagination. 

I think he was right and I believe I corrected those weaknesses, after much trial and error.  As to what I have done wrong, or wished I had done better—-I have gone overboard in memoirs-of-cleopatra-1including everything, which reached its apex with CLEOPATRAI listened to it all on tape and realized as I did so (since you can’t skim with an audio) that, instead of standing the reader before a bulging closet and saying, “Here it all is!” I should have selected the best clothes for him or her.  That’s the job of the writer—to select and present.

NERO is a lot more spare but I am pleased that you didn’t feel I skimped.  Less is more…maybe. (Although Nero himself wasn’t known for his minimalism.)

L.L.: I have to believe Nero would be beyond proud of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I know I was rooting for him! What might he say if he read the book?

Margaret George: Oh, I’d love it if he would say I had gotten it exactly right, and how did I KNOW?  That’s what I strove for, to let him speak again and have it be true to character.  I would love to know what he thinks, but I’d be crushed if he didn’t like it after all!

L.L.: What inspires you? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Margaret George: Poetry is a great inspiration—such economy of words to say so many things.  I have a friend who said, “It’s friends and poetry that get you through the hard times.”  She is right.  Friends, of course, and travel, which is endlessly fascinating and the opposite of navel-gazing, an occupational hazard of writers.

Like Nero in the novel, I like sprinting—100 and 200 meters, because for those seconds the whole world vanishes and all you see is the finish line.  The world of competitive sports is so different from the literary one, although there are similarities, too.  Both have starting blocks, finish lines, medals, rankings, and prizes, and both require a lot of solitary hours spent in practice for just a little while in the spotlight.  

L.L.: I’m curious what the next book entails. I have to read it! Can you give a glimpse?

Margaret George: The second part of Nero’s life is as tumultuous as the first.  It opens with the Great Fire of Rome, the largest fire in antiquity, which burned for nine days and destroyed most of the city.  Nero deals with the aftermath, rebuilds Rome according to new urban planning, builds his revolutionary Domus Aurea (Golden House), punishes the Christians, deals with a far-reaching conspiracy against him, involving some of those closest to him,  holds his second Neronian Games, races in the Circus Maximus (image below), Poppaea dies, he stages a spectacular entrance to Rome for King Tiridates of Parthia, he goes to Greece for a year long round of music and athletic competitions, returns to Rome and is overthrown, finally committing suicide with his famous last words, “Qualis artifex pereo”—“what an artist dies in me!”  And he was only thirty years old by then.  What a life story!

L.L.: Margaret, it was a true pleasure. Thank you!

Margaret George: Thank you for having me, Leslie.

Circus_Maximus_in_RomeFor more information, to connect with Margaret George, or to purchase THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, please see:

Website

Facebook

GoodReads

Pinterest

Barnes&Noble Best New March 2017 Fiction 

Amazon 

Check out this video of Margaret on her inspiration for Nero

Margaret-George-Hi-RES.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

She especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website, as well as covers of Henry VIII and Cleopatra. Historical images of Nero, Octavia, Circus Maximus all retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.08.17. Special thanks to L. Burnstein of Berkley/RandomHouse] 

BookS on MondaY: Mary Felciani shares her inspiration for her children’s book on friendship, THE MAPLE LEAF (hint: it was her hometown), the Roseto Effect, Cognitive Maps, and the magic of friendship

By Leslie Lindsay 

You just have to mention the words “Italy” and “leaf” and you’ve got me. Throw in a story about friendship and I’m there. Having been an Italian aficionado for most of my life (don’t ask why, according to my Ancestry DNA results, I’m only 1% Italian), I was enamored with this children’s story by Mary Felicani, who I can assume is Italian, penned this charming story of a young Italian boy, Carlo and his quest for friendship.

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Set in another time (medieval), and another place (Italy), the message is universal. Yet it’s Mary’s deft use of sensory detail that brings the story to life, thrusting me back to an ancient time when the values of friendship and belonging were just as resonate then as they are now.

I’m pleased to have Mary back this week to chat with us about her book, THE MAGIC LEAF, her love for Italy, and how we can help our children cultivate friendship.

Leslie Lindsay: Mary, it’s a pleasure to have you join us again. Thank you! I’m just in love with THE MAGIC LEAF, mostly because I love Italy, but you’re Canadian…though guessing by your last name, you’re also Italian? Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for setting THE MAGIC LEAF in Italy?

Mary Feliciani: Leslie, thank you for having me back and making me feel at home. Yes, I am Italo-Canadian. I chose my hometown in Italy as a backdrop because the story has a meaning or a moral. It seemed reminiscent of a simpler time and place. I still had fond memories of the hometown that I left as a child.

L.L.: I had to do a little research and learned Roseto is indeed a real, southeastern roseto_valfortore_075_raboemedieval town in Italy. Like the book, Roseto is hill town nestled in an enclave of low mountains, winding roads, and thick-walled homes to keep out the heat. It reminded me a bit of Corniglia in the Cinque Terre, yet different.

Mary Feliciani: Leslie, I can’t believe how thorough you are. I was born in Roseto, Italy. My family immigrated to Canada when I was 6 years old. Subsequently, all my education has been in Canada. I understand Italian quite well, but like most people who leave a country when they’re young, my comprehension is better than my oral language.

When my children were small, our annual vacations were to the beaches along the eastern coast of the United States and provinces in eastern Canada. It wasn’t until 2011 that we took a family vacation to Italy. We returned again in 2013 visiting neighbouring countries as well.

The Roseto in Italy has a connection to the Roseto in Pennsylvania. If you like research, google the Roseto Effect, and you will learn of an intriguing study conducted there in the 1960s. I wasn’t aware of the Roseto Effect when I wrote THE MAGIC LEAF, but the more articles I read about it, the more meaningful my message of friendship becomes. Roseto is all about a sense of community. download-36

L.L.: I have to talk a bit about sensory details, for a moment, because you use them beautifully here—and I think that’s such an important part of children’s literature. Kids don’t often have the experiences adults have acquired, so we have to bring those experiences to them. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to bring that town to life? 

Mary Feliciani: Believe it or not, I still had a cognitive map of the town. I could visualize the town square and from that point of reference, see the location of my aunt’s house, my maternal grandmother’s house, my paternal grandmother’s house and my own home. I also recalled where my nursery school was and the uniforms we had to wear.

I asked my mother and my older brother to fill in same of the blanks. I also employed postcards, old photos, and made use of a magazine that is published by the town and sent to subscribers in other parts of the world. My mother still receives the town’s magazine.

Feasts in a small town were a really big deal back in the day. Everyone participated – even toddlers were part of the parade. Children would experience sights and sounds that wouldn’t be duplicated until the following festival.

L.L.: Those sensory details pair well with the illustrations. A children’s author has a particular challenge that adult authors don’t usually encounter: they need an images-7illustrator. I’m curious what your experience was like working with Tina Durocher? Did you have a vision for the illustrations, or did she bring those to you?

Mary Feliciani: Thank you for asking, Leslie. Not everybody includes the illustrator when discussing a children’s book. The illustrations are half of a picture book, and just as important as the text.

I was extremely fortunate to have found Tina. Her work is not only beautiful, but unique.  As a small publisher, I hire people that free-lance. Tina and I didn’t know each other before we collaborated on the book. We used to meet at a Tim Horton’s halfway between Toronto and Mississauga (where I live). So much happens at a Tim Horton’s, eh!

I would verbally describe the mental image I had for a specific illustration. She then drew a linear of what she thought that I wanted. The linear was just a partial illustration without any colour, and that is how I decided if we were on the right track. If I agreed to the illustration, then she would complete it. Besides Tina and my first printer, all the other people I have worked with have been online.

L.L.: Without giving too much away, can you talk a bit about the title? Is there, indeed a magical element to Carlo’s story?

Mary Feliciani: Some readers see the magic in the friendship. Other children can relate to a time that a friend has helped them feel better about a problem. Or, they have experienced time flying when they are with their friends. All three of these scenario can apply to the story. Some older children can see a placebo effect, even if they don’t know the terminology.

L.L.: I think friendship is kind of magical…when two people, whether young or old, there’s a bit of an unseen magical connection that takes place. Can you talk about that, please? download-37

Mary Feliciani: When I read the story to school children, I tell them that friendship is just as important as you grow older as it is in your childhood. Sometimes they are surprised I say that.  I wrote the manuscript for THE MAGIC LEAF  while I was at the University of Toronto studying psychology. As a young adult, I was very idealistic and was hoping to find the one theory or the one famous psychologist who had all the answers. But what I learned was that there wasn’t a theory which could explain everything, and even among psychologists, there were differences of opinion. I began to believe that having a good support system in combination with whatever theory one might subscribe to, was very important. I realized that friendships were necessary even as we grow older. Walking life’s journey with a friend makes everything easier.

L.L.: Before you wrote full-time, you were an elementary school educator with an emphasis in psychology. Did you see a “problem” with friendship at the elementary level? What might be done to help ease those years?

Mary Feliciani: I spent half of my career teaching various Special Education classes and the other half in the regular classroom setting (grades 1-6). Children are really good souls; they just want to be accepted by their peers and by their teachers. Some children have the social skills to make friends easily, while others may have a more difficult time. Schools are always encouraging students to be more inclusive in their play and attitudes.If there is a problem, a parent and/or teacher might be able to put it in perspective.

L.L.: Do you have plans for another children’s book? Can you talk about that, please?

Mary Feliciani: I think that bullying has been a hot topic for a number of years. When I write, it is the topic or issue that inspires me. I feel compelled to write. My latest eBook,BIG AND SMALL IN THE MIRROR, is about bullying that happens in the school environment. It is the first of a trilogy about bullying. I am currently writing the second book of the trilogy, THE INVISIBLE BOY. As always, there is a twist to the title.

L.L.: What should I have asked but may have forgotten?

Mary Feliciani: Your questions were wonderful! I have never discussed the setting of the story in the way that I  presented Roseto to you.

Leslie, I could talk to you forever. You are so good at making the conversion flow. We could talk about books, we could talk about teaching, we could talk about travel…

L.L.: Mary, it’s been a pleasure to read THE MAGIC LEAF and connect. Back to those sensory details…I could definitely use some warm Italian sun now that we’re smack in the middle of gray and dreary here in the Midwest.

Mary Feliciani: Well, I’m in Canada. Right now it is warm enough, but damp and cloudy. We are experiencing the same thing. Hopefully I can find the time to take a vacation this summer. Thank you so much for the opportunity to met you and your readers. I hope that we can chat again in the future.

For more information, to connect with Mary, or to purchase THE MAGIC LEAF, please see: 

IMG_2870.JPGAUTHOR BIO: 
Mary is a Canadian author, independent publisher and a former elementary school teacher. She attended UTM where she studied psychology and still lives in Mississauga, Ontario.
Mary’s background in psychology, work with children and passionate interest in the human condition, which stems back as far as she can remember, are all evident in her writing.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay here: 
Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1

image003-3Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com

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[Cover and author image courtesy of M. Feliciani and used with permission. Author is in white at Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy. Image of Roseto, Italy stone houses retrieved from Wikipedia on 12.8.16. Image of newsarticle on Roseto effect from . Image of maple leaf from and hands linking image retrieved from, all on 12.8.16]