This morning I'm delighted to welcome author Debbie Rix to the blog to talk about her debut novel Secrets of the Tower which Emma reviewed earlier this week. After reading Secrets of the Tower Emma was given the chance to ask Debbie a few questions to discover a little more about her novel and writing process.
Two women, centuries apart, bound together by the secrets of one of the most iconic buildings ever created.
Sam Campbell sits by her husband’s hospital bed. Far from home and her children, she must care for Michael who is recovering from a stroke. A man she loves deeply. A man who has been unfaithful to her. Alone and in need of distraction, Sam decides to pick up Michael’s research into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Immersing herself in the ancient city, she begins to piece together the mystery behind the creation of the tower, and discovers the woman that history forgot…
Berta di Bernardo, the wife of a rich merchant, sits in her chamber, dressing for a dinner party. A gathering that will change the course of her life and that of a young master mason, Gerardo, forever.
A strong, intelligent woman, Berta’s passion for architecture draws her to Gerardo. As she embarks on a love affair, her maid Aurelia also becomes spellbound by the same man. Yet for Berta, her heart’s desire is to see the Tower built, and her determination knows no bounds…
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel Debbie ?
Secrets of the Tower tells the story of Berta di Bernardo – a widow who left the money to build the Tower of Pisa. The novel is set in two time periods – 1170 when Berta was alive, and 1999 – the year the Tower was finally re-opened after engineering work had been completed to make the Tower safe at last. I have two heroines – Berta of course, and a modern heroine Sam Campbell, a journalist married to a TV producer who has a stroke whilst making a film about the Tower. Living in Pisa, caring for her sick husband she is drawn to the story he was researching. The narrative interweaves the stories of these two powerful women and explores the complexities of their lives. Both wrestle with loving a man other than their husbands but they are bound together by something more – a passion for the Tower.
Did you always want to write historical fiction?
No – I don’t think I did to be honest. I think my inclination was to write about the present day. But there was something about the story of Berta di Bernardo that compelled me to write about her. I’m now a complete convert. Historical fiction enables the writer to learn so much about a period as you research it and hopefully pass that on to the reader.
Where did you get your inspiration from for Secrets of the Tower?
I was inspired by the time I spent caring for my husband Tony who had a stroke whilst making a film about the Tower of Pisa. That was the starting point for the modern story in the novel. Sam, the modern heroine, is based on me I suppose… But my husband is much sweeter than the character of Michael in the novel. Tony was quite poorly and it was a very stressful time, living in this strange city, having left my little children at home with my mother. Obviously it didn’t occur to me to write a novel about it immediately – we were too busy getting my husband well, but gradually over time I realised that it would make an interesting premise for a novel, if I could set it against the story of how the Tower came into being. Tony introduced me to the Professor of Medieval History in Pisa, and when he told me about Berta ‘the widow’ - I was hooked. I just knew that she would make a wonderful character to base the old story around.
Clearly a lot of time and research went into writing this novel. How long did it take to complete from the time you started researching until you wrote the last word?
I think it must be about 8 years. Obviously I was not actively writing all that time. I’ve been working (as a journalist and an event producer) throughout, and had to fit the writing into weekends and holidays. At least a year of that time was spent researching the period – as I was desperately keen to make the book as accurate as possible.
Did you come across any surprising facts during the course of your research?
One of the most surprising facts was the people who witnessed Berta’s will. I describe this in the book – but two of them interested me: the notary of the Emperor Frederico and the master mason Gerardo di Gerardo. The notary indicated that she was a woman of some substance; and Gerardo’s presence intrigued me. Why would a builder be present at the death bed of this lady. That’s what set me off really on my creation of the love story between the two – Berta and Gerardo.
I was surprised at the ending as I thought I had all worked out from about the midway point. Did you plan it that way or did the characters take hold and dictate what would happen?
How interesting. I’d be fascinated to know what you thought was going to happen.. No, I didn’t really plan it at all. The story kind of ‘wrote itself’… I was keen that Gerardo would survive though – so I guess it was inevitable that I wouldn’t let him die when he fell off the Tower.
My favourite character was Aurelia as I really felt for her as the book progressed. Who was your favourite character to write about?
I’m so glad you liked Aurelia. I found her a delight to write as I recalled my own early ‘crushes’ on young men when I was a teenager.
I enjoyed writing Sam’s character – she was quite feisty and I liked that. But I suppose I would have to say Berta was my favourite – I admire powerful women like her. She was pragmatic, brave and ultimately noble – a true heroine.
Did you find the time slip method difficult to deal with in the beginning and which did you prefer writing about Pisa in 1999 or 1171?
No, I love the time-slip method. In fact my next novel will use it too. As the writer, it provides a wonderful ‘holiday’ from the other story and I think that many readers feel the same way. You can overdo it though. My first draft went back and forth between the two time periods with alternate chapters, but my editor wisely suggested that I change that and I think the book is better for it -allowing the reader to enjoy one segment of the story before jumping to the other time zone. If I had to choose one or the other, I think I’d say I preferred writing about 1171 – but only because it allowed me to find out so many fascinating facts!
Have you started writing book two and if so can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes, I have. I’ve started on the modern story. But I’m still researching the old story. I don’t want to say too much about it, but suffice it to say it will cover a couple of continents and explore a different time frame to the last one – the sixteenth century. Italy will be involved too – as I find it very easy and enjoyable to write about that country. Once again, the book will centre around an inanimate object (as I did with the Tower) and hopefully both the reader and I will learn quite a lot about it by the end!
Describe your daily writing routine?
I write in a little summer house in our garden. I try to get started relatively early in the morning – 8.30 or 9 o’clock. When I’m really pushing on, I have a kettle in there to make cups of tea, but if the pace is a bit gentler, I’ll potter back up to the house periodically to make a nice cup of coffee,or grab a square of dark chocolate (my secrete vice!). I work through till lunch time when my husband – who is also a writer – and I sit down together for a meal – an omelette and salad, or soup. Then it’s back to work. I often get quite sleepy in the afternoon, but I just force myself to crack on. I get really inspired around 4pm and work on till 6 or 7pm when I’ll stop for the day to make dinner and have a glass of wine. In the summer months, my husband will often bring a glass of wine to me in the summer house which is nice – and we can sit there and look at the garden as the sun goes down.
Any advice for aspiring writers you wish to take a chance and write their own book?
It may sound a bit of a cliché but the best advice is ‘don’t lose heart’. I think it’s so hard because writing a novel is a huge undertaking. But in my experience the book just has to be written and won’t let you go until it’s done. Finding a publisher and an agent is also so difficult in today’s world – but miracles do happen. So basically, my advice is be positive, write the book you want to write and be methodical about exploring possible agents and publishers.
If you could write in any other genre what would it be?
There are two genres that I would love to explore as a writer– thrillers and also comedy. I am currently writing a book that is hopefully quite amusing.
Do you get much spare time for reading? If so what authors do you turn to for a good read?
I have very eclectic tastes. I love so many authors. The great masters of story telling: Jane Austen, Graham Green and Iris Murdoch. But also Mary Wesley, Olivia Manning, Maggie O’Farrell, John O’Farrell, David Nichols, Robert Harris…
When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
When I’d finished the final copy edit of Secrets my husband and I went out for a really nice meal. And I bought a beautiful sheepskin coat as it was jolly cold at the time. But I took it back to the shop a few days later as it seemed so expensive! Maybe, I’ll treat myself to it next time.