Saturday, 3 April 2010

One Moment of Truth, Three Years of Lies - Michelle Lovric

On a sunny day in December 2006, I stood by the Zocodober fountain in the enchantingly strange convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, and realized I was going to write a novel about it.

My husband knew, without my saying anything. Or maybe even before. He’d already caught that ‘I’m-going-to-write-a-novel-about-this’ look on my face, in this photo.

It was a moment of truth that led to three years of lies: to writing The Book of Human Skin, a novel (for adults) that will be published in two days’ time.

For the rest of that day, all the way down to the Peruvian coast, with El Misti Mountain lifting its hat to us, throughout the next day in Valparaiso, I was already telling lies to myself. I was finding a way to knit my long-time obsession with Venice into my latest inamorato, Peru, grafting the two together with another new obsession: human skin. Back in London, I plunged into research at the Wellcome’s library, which, among its volumes on Napoleon’s glands and historic gunshot wounds, hosts an actual book bound in human skin (in the Special Bindings department.) Emotionally, the hardest thing about writing this book was forcing myself to handle it.

I'm told no English writer has set a novel in Santa Catalina before, though Flora Tristan, wrote of it in her Peregrinations of a Pariah, an overheated autobiography. Her material was charmingly recycled by Mario Vargas Llosa – who was born in Arequipa – in his book El paraíso en la otra esquina about Flora and her grandson Paul Gauguin. Vargas Llosa has explained that all other cities in Peru are jealous of the architectural and natural glories of Arequipa, which is why they label the Arequipans as mad. Indeed, there is a collective mania that descends upon the citizens during the few overcast days of the year: they call it the nevada, the snowfall. It lights up and clouds people’s minds at the same time.

Five months later, thanks to an Arts Council grant, I was back at Arequipa, with a novel first-drafted, being followed by two men with an extension cable for my computer, so I could write the scenes in situ in the cells I had chosen to be those of Marcella and Rafaela, two of my main characters. Bradley Silva, then director of the convent, could not have been kinder. I’d sent in advance sixteen pages of questions in Spanish, and the convent’s archivists were on hand to help me, as were a respected historian and a professor from the university.

And best of all, I was invited to walk around Santa Catalina at night, when its tiny streets and cells were lit only by candles and fires from the nuns’ ovens, and everything descended into a fearful, throbbing gloom.

I was also given the joyous privilege of a wonderful guide who spoke Italian – our common language – to help me plan routes for dragging a body and for escaping; a place to hide; a place where an attempt would be made on the priora’s life. Laura Salazar García soon got into the spirit, simulating the thumps of a body being dragged downstairs on a blanket, and helping me decide just where (on a string, in a drain) a bottle of smuggled brandy might be hidden before it was used to incinerate a corpse.

I was living in my novel, roaming cloisters, stepping down into the communal stone bath, attending dawn services to hear the nuns singing behind the grate that separates them from the world, tasting the powdery little cakes that have been baked at Santa Catalina for centuries. Day by day, the convent infested more of my imagination, got more deeply under my skin.

The Book of Human Skin is about skin diseases, the scourging of the skin by a religious fanatic, the shrivelling of skin in holy anorexia and in pagan mummification, the adoration of the beloved’s skin, thick skin, thin skin, beautiful and foul skin, quack medicines for skin, the skin that a home provides over fragile human beings, violence against skin, and gentleness too. It’s about eschewing the flesh, and rioting in it. It’s about itches and scratches, mutilations, scars, racial prejudice and power. Not to mention, as the title suggests, a very unusual form of bibliomania.

And of course all these ideas are bound together by people and relationships. My five narrators are Minguillo Fasan, his sister Marcella, their servant Gianni, a fanatical Peruvian nun, and a doctor obsessed with skin diseases (and the skin of Marcella). Hovering above them all, directing their lives with his victories and defeats, is Napoleon Bonaparte, that walking curiosity cabinet of skin maladies, whose every itch caused ten thousand men to scratch.

I can’t say that they all arrived in my head at the moment this photograph was taken. But they became possible. As I listened to the green water of the Zocodober fountain, my heart beat twice as fast as normal, and the contents of my handbag swilled around like primaeval lava, finally ejecting a pencil and a notebook, the first of dozens devoted to The Book of Human Skin. In this photo, I look exhilarated but also frightened, indeed somewhat demented: surely the appropriate reaction to the writerly light bulb surging on at full power, unexpectedly, in a remote corner of the globe.

In other words, I had a bad case of Arequipan nevada – snowfall in the brain.

Do any other writers out there have ‘the-moment-when’ photos?
Memories of what triggered a book?
Scars, even?

Michelle Lovric’s website
Santa Catalina’s website
Bloomsbury’s website
Interview by Pam Johnson about The Book of Human Skin
Arno Karlen, Napoleon's Glands and Other Ventures in Biohistory


Miriam Halahmy said...

A fascinating blog and such amazing research Michelle. I love the photo. I don't have a similar photo. But I was on my Mum's beach ( ten years after her death) on Hayling Island, having just started writing for children. I had a sudden flash : what if a couple of teenagers found an illlegal immigrant washed up on this quiet, unknown spot. What would they do? The completed novel is HIDDEN and will be published next March. My photo would show me staring across the inlet, my eyes dreaming into the sky.

Katherine Langrish said...

Sounds both creepy and fascinating, Michelle. I look forward to reading it!

Elaine AM Smith said...

I have a google earth camera situated there.

I set my novel NEAR EDGWARE in the woodland called The Weald above Harrow - then the google earth camera turned up - need I say more?

My daughter went to a small school on the road beside the thin sliver of ancient woodland that was "mysteriously" saved when deforestation ripped the trees from the heart of the English countryside. The last thing I said to her when I dropped her off for school each day was, "And don't at the bus stop by the woodland, you never know what might be in there!"

Then I created the story detailing exactly who, and what, was there.:)

Stroppy Author said...

Ooh, is it out now? I've been waiting for this book for ages! With some trepidation, as you know I have an unfinished novel that also deals with a book bound in human skin. But yours sounds so much more exciting...

How wonderful to have a photo of that moment. I'm usually alone when the idea for a book comes to me, so unless I turn my phone camera on myself there's never likely to be a photo!

michelle lovric said...

Out on Monday, Anne. Is it strange, or is absolutely not strange, that we two, the most committed vegetarians I know, are both writing about human skin?

And Elaine, WHAT did you tell your daughter not to do at the bus stop?

Jon M said...

Happy Book Birthday Michelle. The book sounds fascinating!

I haven't got a photo of that moment sadly but I quite like the fact that we are publisher/book twins and do we share black-edged pages?

Catherine Johnson said...

Sounds fantastic Michelle and the photo is super too!

Cynthia said...

Can hardly wait to get it! Adored Arequipa and convent Santa Catalina ~ you are so clever to think of this setting. Bart and Marilyn would have loved all this intrigue... Come to Provence and get inspired!