On Writing, with Barbara Lambert
Barbara Lambert's third book is The Whirling Girl (Cormorant Books), an adventure set in Italy and which takes full advantage of the author's deep connection with and love of the land there.
The novel follows botanical artist Clare Livingston on her trip to a small Italian town, where she has unexpectedly inherited property from a little-known uncle.
Today Barbara talks to Open Book about creating Clare and her secretive family, the allure of Italy and the surprises in the writing process.
Tell us about your book, The Whirling Girl.
The Whirling Girl is about Clare Livingston, a young botanical artist who unexpectedly inherits a house and olive grove in Italy, from an uncle who fled there when she was a teen.
Clare has just published an account of a trek through perilous reaches of the Amazon, illustrating endangered species. Why should she be wary of travelling to Tuscany, to accept her uncle’s bequest? And why, when she arrives, does she allow herself to be swept into a web of intrigue, scattering lies, until even her ability to paint is compromised?
The novel unfolds during spring and early summer, when international archaeologists return to their Etruscan excavation sites. As the Tuscan hills reveal ancient secrets, Clare is led into an excavation — layer by layer — of her own complex history.
What drew you to Italy as a setting? How would you describe your own experience of living in Italy?
The moment I arrived at the Molino di Metalliano, I had a jolt of recognition. We emerged from a shady lane of chestnut trees to see weathered stone walls, a lichen-mottled tile roof, all so much a part of the landscape that the old mill house might have grown from the soil of that valley, on the banks of that stream. We climbed steps sculpted by five hundred years of other climbing feet, we crossed a grassy terrace flanked by geraniums in terracotta pots. I’ve always been here, was what I thought. This is an alternate life I’ve always been living.
I’m sure this is a familiar sensation for many — turning some sudden corner in Tuscany, catching a view of patterned vines, rows of cypress trees, ochre buildings on a hilltop crowned by towers. These are the landscapes of the world’s most famous paintings. The landscapes, and the golden slanting light.
How can a writer help being seduced by such a setting? Stories start nuzzling up, demanding to be written — demanding, too, that you journey back again to explore — filling notebooks on the food, the wine, the art, the bustling city life, the mellow country atmosphere, the grace and civility of the people and the great reward of just settling in the piazza of any little hill town and watching the engaging theatre of Tuscan daily life pass by.... Who wouldn’t dream of living here permanently? Or at least writing about someone who, surprisingly, does have that opportunity?
On my first visit, it was May, the hills riotous with wildflowers. Right away, a young woman — an artist — began to walk beside me.
At first, hers was a simple story. She would be troubled (why?) but in the end she would be healed, thanks to the beauty of the Tuscan countryside and the good people living there. Of course love would also come into play. I’d like to think The Whirling Girl would have been completed a great deal sooner, if the Etruscans hadn’t led me astray.
It’s hard to spend time in Tuscany and Umbria without being captured by those remarkable people who once ruled almost the whole of Italy and left behind incomparable treasure in their lavish tombs. I did return to the old mill near Cortona again (and again!) — a base for exploring treasure-filled museums, eerie tombs, ruined cities whose mute stones spoke of ancient power — as my “simple” story turned a corner into new territory altogether.
Clare, your protagonist, is a botanical artist. What were some of the challenges and opportunities in writing a visually-minded character like her?
I was raised in a family of visual artists, but left out by that talent. So writing about artists has often felt like a luscious substitute. But it was only when I realized that Clare Livingston was a botanical artist, that her character started to come clear. At first I knew little about this discipline, which walks a fine line between art and science. The fact that it was foreign to my nature felt like a terrific release. Gone, the danger of writing about someone even remotely like myself. At the same time, Clare’s love for this demanding work told me much about her complex spirit.
Also it was just plain lovely to sit with her on a little rock, watching her ply brush and watercolour, imagining myself into her skillful fingers as she painted.
This is your third book. Have you noticed any themes or obsessions that tend to turn up in your writing? And do you find your process has changed at all from book to book?
I do seem to write about art a lot. I’ve read that people who do this are actually writing about writing. In my case I’d say it’s back to that business of living out a wished-for alternate reality.
Otherwise, what fascinates me most is giving my often deeply flawed characters, whom I love, a chance to peel back the layers of their inner lives, for better or worse.
As to process: I wish mine could change from book to book. I realize I generally start with the end in mind, (as the adage urges). Sometimes I even start by writing a terrific final sentence. But inevitably when I actually get to the end, the characters themselves have heartlessly had quite a different take on things.
What books have you read recently — or during the writing of The Whirling Girl — that really knocked your socks off?
When I first began researching the Etruscans, I was lucky to discover an old copy of Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. The author, George Dennis, was an Englishman who, in the early 1800’s, made the first systematic exploration of Etruscan tombs and ruins. I was enchanted by the strange illustrations and the erudite but at the same time amiable prose. It was like walking around Tuscany holding the hand of a charming uncle-ish sort of figure who knew ...well, everything. At the same time, the early life of my botanical artist started to take shape: the lonely orphaned girl who did have an uncle of that enviable erudite sort, an uncle who took the little girl on imagined trips around the Etruria he had always longed to see, and read to her from that same book, which was his greatest treasure....
An uncle who becomes, sadly, in fiction, not quite so amiable.
What are you working on now?
What am I working on now? Something much closer to home.