Today, I’m delighted to interview Barbara Lambert, author of The Whirling Girl.
KBW: The Whirling Girl is set in Italy. Have you been to the places that Clare goes?
Barbara Lambert: Yes, I’ve been lucky to spend extended periods in Tuscany, staying in a 500-year-old mill house in the valley behind Cortona. So I guess it’s no surprise that a very similar “molino” plays a role in The Whirling Girl. During those trips my husband and I traveled all over Tuscany and Umbria, hiking the hills, or driving the narrow twisting roads from little town to little town, often stopping to lunch in some out-of-the-way trattoria where foreigners and local were all seated at one big table with a couple of bottles of wine plonked down in the middle for general consumption—sometimes a big platter of the daily “house” pasta too, no need to order, just join in as the food got passed around. Not surprisingly, the first draft of my novel ran to over 1000 pages, because I couldn’t resist having Clare visit every one of those favorite places, too! I had a lot of cutting to do.
KBW: I loved the little facts in the novel about archaeology, Italy, plants. How do you research all that?
Barbara Lambert: I knew nothing about either archaeology or botanical art (Clare’s specialty) when I started the novel. But it’s hard to spend time in that region without getting interested in the Etruscans: there is just so much evidence of that ancient culture, everywhere. So, first off, I visited all the sites that I could: museums, archaeological remains, tombs … and then, later, when I realized that archaeology was going to play a major role in the novel, I read a huge number of books on the Etruscans, then subscribed to archaeological journals—and then I became a terrific pest by writing to all the experts in the field whose work I’d discovered through that initial research.
The cool thing was how much generous help I got! So many really busy people took time to engage in extensive correspondence, or give extensive phone interviews. The same applied to the botanical information. As a result, the research for the novel became a long and exciting “trip” on its own, one I wouldn’t have missed for worlds. But again, from a practical writing point of view, I ended up with an enormous amount of information that had to be ruthlessly cut away from the novel in later drafts!
KBW: Is Clare at all like you?
Barbara Lambert: What can I say? She’s a terrific liar!
Actually, one of the things I did realize about Clare, right at the start (with a sense of liberation) was how very different she was from me. As soon as I began learning about her expertise in botanical art, I felt free to explore my way into a very different personality, without aspects of myself barging in. Botanical art is a most exacting discipline, half art, half science—very far from my nature. The way Clare balanced its demands gave me a clue, too, into the more general “split” in her personality—how in her paintings she walks a fine line between creativity and science, just as in her life, before coming to Italy, she had always balanced between guilt and desire. This helped me to understand how she could be so dedicated to rendering the truth in those paintings, yet could lie about so many other things, to conceal the confusion in her past.
Still no matter how I protest, I have to admit there will always be little flashes of the “writer” in any character, won’t there? I look out my window right now, at a burgeoning Mountain Ash tree, and even though I’m not a painter (couldn’t paint a barn door) my fingers itch to pick up a brush and “capture” those gorgeous clusters of tiny orange globes; I can almost feel the paint on the palette as I mix the luscious colour. What’s happening here? Have I instilled Clare with my frustrated desire to paint? Or have I lived with her so long that she’s started to barge into my personality?
KBW: What inspires you to write?
Barbara Lambert: In a way I’ve been at it ever since I was a small kid, living out of town, no friends to come and play. I’d wander around the orchard making up “adventures” (and friends) in my head. At one point my mom suggested I might write some of them down—new idea to me! Then I got the inspiration to send one of them to a children’s magazine my parents had subscribed to for me. I received my first rejection slip (from Jack and Jill) when I was nine. For some reason I found this encouraging (which demonstrates the madness of writers, doesn’t it?) partly because the rejection came with a very nice letter saying “Keep it up!”
Beyond that, I guess what most interests me now, is trying to capture the “complicatedness” of people. I remember getting tired of all the horribly “nice” girls in the stories that I read as a kid, and wondering what it would be like to write one from the viewpoint of a “bad” person instead. I do seem to have been doing a lot of that ever since. Trying to peel back the layers of my characters, in other words, trying to discover what’s going on deep inside, whether on the surface they seem admirable or quite the reverse.
And then of course (in relation to The Whirling Girl) so much else about Italy inspired me to want to write about living there.
Help! Stop me. I could go on and on …!
KBW: Do you have another novel in the works?
Barbara Lambert: I’m not sure whether it’s a novel, or a set of linked stories. But, yes, I do have “something” in the works, which is set much closer to home.
For more about Barbara or The Whirling Girl, drop by Barbara’s website.