Wednesday 11 June 2014

In flagrante delicta – Michelle Lovric

Michelle Lovric is a long-term ABBA Irregular, posting here many times in last five years. She’s the author of four children’s books set in Venice and five for adults, also with a Venetian theme. She’s guesting today with an account of an embarrassment that may well have befallen other writers.

NB Cathy Butler, who kindly donated her day, will be back in this spot next month.


So I was in the Chinoiserie bedroom of the Palazzo Papadopoli in Venice, half-crouched and half-lying in a corner, scribbling a description of its strawberry-and-apricots-in-cream stucco ceiling and the frescoes on the walls. I was writing the strange floating world of the painted Orient through the eyes of my protagonist, Manticory Swiney.
I aligned my body so that I could see what Manticory would have seen, if she were lying beside her faithless lover on the humid Venice morning when she looks on his face for the last time.

Alive, that is. Alexander Sardou will get what is coming to him, all too soon.

Did I mention that I also write books for adults? The end result of those scribbles at the Palazzo Papadopoli is published this week: The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, about seven Irish siblings with 37 feet of hair between them. Born in the wake of the Famine, they grow rich and famous on the commercial exploitation of what grows naturally from their heads.

But too many secrets haunt the Swiney girls, Darcy, Enda, Berenice, Manticory, Oona, Pertilly and Ida. They end up hiding out in Venice, pursued by a ruthless journalist, and nursing seven separate heartaches, one for each sister.

So there was I in the Swineys’ Venetian refuge, the white palazzo above, at the end of a serpentine Canal near Rialto. I imagining Manticory with her six feet of red hair tangling around her body like a fox’s pelt, when who should walk in on my tryst between art, sex and storyline, but a publisher!

Not my own lovely publisher from Bloomsbury, Helen Garnons-Williams, but the very eminent and elegant Pete Ayrton, founder of Serpent’s Tail. He publishes the English editions of the remarkable Venetian writer Tiziano Scarpa, with whom I sometimes share events. So Mr Ayrton and I are known to one another.

My first reaction was to leap up, red-faced. I had been writing a somewhat spicy love scene, and I’d been caught in the act.

But it was not the pictures in my mind, nor the words in my notebook that made me blush and squirm.

It was being caught in the act of working, in the down-and-dirty, unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts bit of writing. The part where your rear end is coated with the dust of an ancient crumbling palace and your hands are smeared with ink. You have forgotten the time. You’re not even in the current century. You are not a person anymore; you are a prism through which your characters refract onto the page. Your breath is coming in rags from your unattractively open mouth, and your eyes are strangely askew with concentration. You are whispering fragments of dialogue to yourself, pulling your hair across your eyes to see what it does to the view.

Writing was the last thing that I wanted to be seen doing by an eminent publisher.

Mr Ayrton clearly understood the situation, accepted my stammered greetings with polished ease, and proceeded swiftly down through the enfilade of brocaded, mirrored rooms, leaving me to my blushes and internal disarray .

I tried to analyse my embarrassment afterwards. I guessed that I’d succumbed to an old prejudice about literary genius (not that I’m in any way claiming it) being a fine flow of what comes naturally rather than something you actually sit down and work at.

Byron – not my favourite – used to call it the estro: a rare appreciation of any feminine quality by this most misogynist of writers. The mysterious estro fell upon Byron and poems appeared. The English milord would never claim to do anything so grubby as working hard himself. He decried visibly industrious writers like Southey as ‘scribblers’. And anyway, why should Byron lower himself to clerking when there were £5000 worth of women to be had in Venice (he boasted that he got a lot for his money, including a sexually transmitted disease) and show-stopping swims down the Grand Canal to perform, or horses to be galloped along the beach with his friend Shelley. Or posing for portraits, like this one by George Henry Harlow (courtesy of Wikimedia commons). Work? Never!


Yet he did. Thousands of lines – Beppo, Don Juan and a steady stream of (ok, I’ll admit it) brilliant letters – the latter, to my mind, far better than the poems. They were just as preeningly self-conscious, however: his most private correspondence was crammed with wit informed by a foreknowledge of its publication. When writing my first adult novel, Carnevale, of which he is a kind of anti-hero, I found his letters far more useful than his poetry.

So even Byron worked on his writing, though he wouldn’t be caught dead actually doing it. And I, in Venice, had suffered an attack of that most egotistical of emotions, embarrassment. (I’ve heard shame defined as thinking that we might possibly be better than we actually are.)

Had I caught Byron’s image-mad malady of thinking that writing must not be seen to happen?

 If so, I hope it’s the only thing I ever caught from him.

 Has anyone else ever felt ashamed to be caught working?


 Michelle Lovric’s website

The True & Splendid History of theHarristown Sisters was published on June 5th by Bloomsbury.

There's a new pinterest site for the book and an interview with Mary Hoffman on the History Girls June 1st.

Carnevale is available as an eBook.

NB My embarrassing incident occurred during the Venice Arte Biennale a few years ago, when the Papadopoli (Palazzo Coccina Tiepolo Papadopoli, to give it its full name) hosted a major exhibition. Manticory’s frescoed bedroom was devoted to just one artwork: a fresh watermelon carved into a rectangle.

I was then privileged to be given private access just before the building works started to convert the palace into one of Venice’s most luxurious and beautifully positioned hotels. My photographs were taken before the restoration. Manticory’s frescoed room is now a part of the Tiepolo alcova suite. Many thanks to Sabine Daniel for showing me around.

Picture of Michelle Lovric by Marianne Taylor


Penny Dolan said...

What a wonderful tale, Michelle, and how well-timed to catch that painted room before its renovation. The crumbling dust just adds to your description, and makes me feel sure that the Harristown Sisters is crammed full of such delicious treasures.

ps. Peter Ayrton sounds a very tactful gentleman.

Nick Green said...

I would have to actually do some work before someone could catch me in the act of it...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

'You are not a person anymore; you are a prism through which your characters refract onto the page...' loved this Michelle. Your post was delicious as always. And apart from all else, it was marvellous to view Manticory’s frescoed room. But no... only those who know illustrious people, have to pretend not to be working, the rest of us common folk just plod on regardless!!!

Becca McCallum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becca McCallum said...

Hilarious. Fantastic post. Also, gotta love that image of Byron.

Lucy Coats said...

Lovely stuff - the down and dirty, gritty bits of being a writer are nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, though. We writers should revel in our eccentricities and celebrate them. If you hadn't lounged about in the dust of that Palazzo Popadopoli floor, the scene wouldn't have been nearly so good, nor nearly as realistic (and it's both, by the way). Hooray for the Swiney Sisters!