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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

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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.

 

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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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WeekEND Reading: What if an Orthodox Jewish New York man was somehow displaced to Alabama? How do authors express hope for our country in these new political times, and so much more in J.J. Gesher’s A NARROW BRIDGE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Blazingly original debut by co-authors under the pen name J.J. Gesher, A NARROW BRIDGE seeks to bring cultural, religious, and racial groups together through music, grief, and more. 
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After a childhood of rebellion, including drug abuse, Jacob Fisher has come to terms with his demons. Living as an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, his life is one of comfort and peace. Until the unthinkable happens and Jacob’s world crumbles under the ruins of anguish.

What’s a man to do but flee? He finds himself in a completely different world from his ‘norm,’ in the heart of the Alabama south…in the basement of a Baptist church. His life and presence is shrouded in mystique, but Rosie is determined to get to the bottom of Jacob’s secret.

At once a psychological mystery and also a personal coming-to-terms novel. (It’s not really suspense or thriller, but much more literary in terms of ‘what’s going on with this guy,’ but we, the readers know). A NARROW BRIDGE merges the teachings of the Talmud with Christianity, intermingling with race, culture, resilience, the power of love and human connection–topics I find highly timely in this current political climate. 

Written by co-authors Joyce Gittlin and Janet Fattal, the narrative is absolutely smooth and seamless, a strong sense of location, a deep understanding of culture. 

I’m so honored to welcome Joyce and Janet to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay: I did a little cyber-stalking and learned a bit about your inspiration for A NARROW BRIDGE. The way I understand, Joyce was driving along when Ben Harper’s song, “Crying on the Church Steps” came on the radio. Like every other writer, you started thinking about what would make someone cry on church steps. Images infiltrated your mind, a seed was planted. Can you talk a bit about that please?

J.J. Gesher: It wasn’t just the melody that moved us, it was the lyrics:

I sat down upon the church house steps

with all I have lost

with all I have been blessed…

 I hung my head and wept

The story’s evolution was like people watching at an airport. We took the image and worked backwards. We played with the picture, tossing possible identities until we had a fully formed protagonist, a man in all his complexity. What did he look like? What was his background? And most importantly, what would break this man so completely that he would end up crying on the steps of a church? It didn’t take long to cull the answer from the fears that we all share in our post 9/11 world.

The story would be more interesting if contrast was extreme – what if we took Jacob, an Orthodox Jew from New York, and placed him in a small southern town with a Baptist church? 143c523db0830bbb12022d62c3aeb7ecThrough research, we found our small town: Brent, Alabama, formerly industrial, stagnant, depressed, but still proud. We let our imaginations populate the town with compassionate people.

The church itself, the center of life in Brent, gave us our next creative foothold: Gospel music. Music brings people together, soothes our spirits, and makes us – no matter our background – fully human. What if our sophisticated, urban Orthodox Jew shared a passion for music with the church community of Brent? As Jews we are familiar with the Orthodox way of life –the strict guidelines for behavior, the loving community, and the intentional isolation from mainstream culture. What we didn’t know was the world of the Baptist church.

L.L.: I think it goes without saying that music brings people together. There’s something organic that…well, moves us. In A NARROW BRIDGE, we have a least two very distinct music styles merging: Jazz and Gospel. Plus, there’s Jacob’s Orthodox background. I’m curious how these musical styles married to complete a whole within the narrative?

J.J. Gesher: Sometimes music is part of someone’s life for natural reasons. This was true for Janet. Her mother was a concert pianist, music educator, and synagogue choir director.  Music was integral to family life. Joyce’s parents weren’t musical at all. Aside from contemporary music and school orchestra with a rented glockenspiel, she had very little exposure. But Joyce’s father was a dry cleaner, and Joyce spent much of her youth hanging out in the back of his business with the woman who pressed garments. This woman would pass the time by singing Gospel music and teaching Joyce harmonies. Many times, Joyce went with her to church. So to answer the question, music did shape us.  But it’s the type of music and the way it makes you feel about yourself that resonates for storytellers.

Our characters are passionate about many styles of music: liturgical, contemporary, jazz, and gospel.  All forms of music influence other styles, adapting and evolving continuously. It is also interesting that you used the word “married” to describe the coming together of disparate musical styles.  Like any good marriage, the individuals remain distinct but together create a new and richer amalgamation.

L.L.: Overall, I’d say A NARROW BRIDGE is so timely and topical, given our current worldview, regardless of political affiliation. Was this your intention in writing Jacob’s story, or did it sort of develop organically?

J.J. Gesher: In this current national climate that seems to stress division over community, how do we as authors express hope for our country? Differences will always exist, but our commonalities transcend racial, religious, and economic divides. The truest commonality is the will to live. Even when we are faced with unbearable emotional pain, most of us, somehow, put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Whether we are in a bombed out building in Aleppo or a comfortable Brooklyn apartment, survival is paramount. Of course, we continue for ourselves but the will to live must have purpose beyond the physical machinery. All humans have the drive to survive, but our deepest commonality lies in creating life and sustaining those we bring into the world. When we acknowledge our collective purpose then perhaps we will minimize the superficial differences between us.

L.L.: I have to ask, too what it was like to work as co-authors. A NARROW BRIDGE reads so smoothly, so seamlessly, that if I hadn’t known, I’d have assumed it was penned by one author. Did you alternate sections, chapters, did someone else do all proofreading and editing? How did you divvy up the work?

J.J. Gesher: In movies and television, writer collaboration is the norm. Not so in novels. But we didn’t know any better, so we used our established method. Therefore, the first draft adhered closely to the screenplay, but it lacked substance and complexity.  We had to dig deep to flesh out the story.images-21

We followed the process that had worked for us in screenwriting: outlining, dividing scenes, writing individually, meeting to critique, rewriting, and then writing again side by side. The goal was a seamless product where we didn’t remember who wrote what.

The process of listening to constructive criticism was different.  In screenwriting, writers are expected to take notes and rewrite. Everyone involved in the process feels perfectly comfortable telling the writers how to reshape their story.

Certainly, notes are part of writing a novel as well.  While screenwriting notes are dictatorial, editorial notes are Socratic. Our editors asked questions to stimulate critical thinking, pointing out where we had summarized instead of illustrated. They reminded us that we could indulge in backstories, so that behavior was authentic.  Our editors never demanded modifications; rather they guided us to explore our own creative choices.

L.L.: And your pen name. I get J.J. is Janet and Joyce. But Gesher…how did the surname develop?

J.J. Gesher: At our publisher’s suggestion, we adopted a pen name.  The reading public is not used to seeing two names on a novel, though many non-fiction works have two authors, and screenplays can have multiple credits.  We agreed to a pen name, as long as our individual names would also appear on the book’s jacket.  J.J. stands for Janet and Joyce.  Gesher is the Hebrew word for bridge. 

L.L.: You’re both secular Jews yet you get into the world of a black Southern Baptist world so perfectly within the story. Can you talk a bit about your research?

J.J. Gesher: Though neither of us is religious, we are both entrenched in our Jewish identities.  We have experienced the Orthodox world through family members.  Whatever we didn’t know about laws and customs, we asked those family members, rabbis, and the Internet.  We know how an orthodox community looks and feels.

The Gospel research was a treat.  We visited the Broadus Ministry, a church in Pacoima, California.  The gospel music enchanted us, and the welcome was genuine and kind. The download-51congregants invited two strangers, white Jewish women, to share affirmations and fellowship.  The enthusiastic spirituality and the joyful music were so different from anything we experienced in synagogue.  We were determined to convey that warmth in Rosie and the congregation of First Baptist.

As to Brent, Alabama, we have never visited but we researched extensively.  We looked at pictures, newspapers, schedules, and maps; we read about what many southern towns have experienced in recent years. The rest was imagination.

L.L.: What inspires you lately? What keeps you up at night?

J.J. Gesher: What inspires us also keeps us up at night.  Aging parents, semi-launched adult children, our melting bodies, political mayhem, unrealized dreams. Sleep aids help.

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

J.J. Gesher:  What’s next? We’re working on a new book, one which uses multiple perspectives to tell the story of four girls and their families in the summer of 1967.  We explore how the world changed: racial and gender equality, economic opportunity, birth control, abortion, changing morals, military conflicts.  How do all of these transitions affect the individual and the country?

L.L.: Joyce, Janet…it was a pleasure. Thank you!

J.J. Gesher: Thank you, Leslie, so much for your lovely review.  Your enthusiasm gave us confidence that we can reach a broader audience and touch readers with our story.  And perhaps, in some small way, we can make the world a better place.

For more information, to connect with J.J. Gesher, or to obtain a copy of A NARROW ROAD, please see: 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: J.J. Gesher is the pen name for co-authors Joyce Gittlin and Janet B. Fattal. Together, Janet and Joyce have won several prestigious screenwriting awards, including the Geller Prize and the Screenwriting Award at the Austin Film Festival. Their first screenwriting collaboration was produced as a Lifetime Television movie. The co-authors both live in Los Angeles.

janetJanet B. Fattal has a masters in Comparative Literature from UCLA and has taught literature and writing at the college level. The editor of several memoirs, Janet leads many L.A.-area book groups, including for the Skirball Cultural Center, Hadassah, and the Brandeis alumni association.joyce

Joyce Gittlin has written and directed such television shows as Wings, Frasier, and Everybody Loves Raymond and has written more than ten feature films for Disney, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox. She has an MFA from NYU.

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Prospect Park Books and used with permission. Image of male/female music notes from Pinterest. Co-writing image from , gospel choir image from newsday.com]