Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with Donna Russo Morin, author of Portrait of a Conspiracy

In Florence, Italy, on 26 April 1478, members of the Pazzi family and their allies plotted to assassinate the powerful Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother, Giuliano, in full public view within the city's magnificent Duomo (cathedral).  In the case of Giuliano, they succeeded.  First in a new series, Donna Russo Morin's Portrait of a Conspiracy (Diversion Books, May) uses this historical event and its deadly aftermath as a springboard for a multifaceted thriller about a dangerous painting, a secret sisterhood of women artists, their plan to help a missing friend, and the resounding power of art.  I enjoyed the book very much and hope you'll enjoy the following author interview.


How did you come up with the novel’s premise?

It really was a convergence of events and ideas. I was finishing work on my 2012 release, The King’s Agent, which features a true to life Indiana Jones of 15th-century Italy that included one of his actual dear friends, Michelangelo. I found myself longing to write more about art and artists.

At the same time, I was going through one of the most personally traumatic periods of my life. If not for a group of truly dedicated, loyal, and supportive women, I’m not sure if I would have had the strength to continue. It gave me a clarity of vision into the power of women united. Female relationships can be so much more intimate than those of men. But they can also be hard on each other. This book, the whole trilogy in truth, is nothing if not an homage to that power and the complexities of female relationships.

The two thoughts connected, and Da Vinci’s Disciples were born.

The scene of Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination is full of cinematic action and a high level of tension. What was the experience like for you as an author, choreographing such a terrible, iconic moment on the page?

That assassination, the true attempt of the Pazzi family to eliminate the Medici family, is an historical event, one of the greatest conspiracies of the 15th century. I found two non-fiction books that detailed the event in great, if clinical, detail (Martines, Lauro. 2003. April Blood. London: Random House; and, Simonetta, Marcello. 2008. The Montefeltro Conspiracy. New York, NY: Doubleday).

Our job, as historical fiction writers, is always to breathe life into these clinical dissertations.

I’m very fortunate to have a very sharp, vivid mind’s eye. Once all the events are in there, my mind allows me to "see" it, almost in movie form. And, perhaps because I have an acting background, as I watch the movie I "feel" what the point-of-view character would feel. It was disturbing and possibly the hardest part to convey.

But the difficulty comes when the writer must depict all the details without the assistance of a single screen shot. Yet it needs to be fast-paced and tightly written while still conveying the enormous emotion of the event. Tight and fast-paced being critical. The moment of verbal choreography is the most challenging. IT MUST BE BIG…but with the sparsest of words. Deciding what to leave in and what to take out was the most demanding task. The event went through more than a few versions. One of the more difficult revisions my agent and I decided to make was to cut one of my favorite portions of that event. How Lorenzo de’ Medici really escaped the attack. While it is a story in itself (a scene I will probably put up on my blog at some point) it didn’t further this story, and so to serve immediacy and the aura of impending danger, it was taken out.

What were your concerns or challenges in writing about a historical figure as famous as Leonardo da Vinci?

In truth, the da Vinci depicted in Portrait of a Conspiracy is a da Vinci most people are unfamiliar with. His genius and greatness are widely known. But he was not, by any means, an "overnight sensation." He is not that old, wizened man in a portrait that is, most likely, not him. My da Vinci, is the young, questioning, experimenting, struggling, youthful da Vinci poised on the precipice of his greatness.

There were fewer restraints when writing this lesser known man; there were more places where I could theorize from my prolonged research on da Vinci, especially in terms of attitudes and opinions, personality traits and quirks. The greatest challenge was in terms of time (this is especially true in the second book). Da Vinci moved around a great deal (hence, his death in France). I needed him to be in the right places at the right times, but I squirm with playing fast and loose with such details of truth.

For the women, Leonardo’s mentorship is welcomed and important to their ongoing development as artists. Did any special mentor have a role in your writing career? 

There have actually been two prominent people in the development of my craft.

The first is my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Alfonso. She was a lovely young woman (I think we were her first class after graduating college). I was constantly writing then, silly stories about a pink pussycat who wanted to run for president and how the numbers 2 and 4 were in love, but 3 kept getting in the way. She started Story Time with Donna on Friday afternoons. When I heard the other kids laughing at my story, or saw them looking at me wide-eyed, waiting eagerly for my next word, I came to know I was meant to be a storyteller.

In the last decade, there has been one man who stands out above the rest. Writers are incredibly supportive of each other; there’s a bit of a shared survival in this crazy industry. But this man, Christopher Gortner (known as the bestselling author C. W. Gortner), has astounded me with his generosity of advice, technical tutoring, and so much more (including being there just to listen when I rage and cry about this business—and my personal life as well). He has taken me under his wing, unfurling it without hesitation; there is never-ending learning there. It is a warm and safe haven I am truly grateful for. He is my da Vinci.

author Donna Russo Morin
Portrait of a Conspiracy showcases women’s experiences, supportive friendships, and their clandestine pursuit of artistic creation, and I especially liked that the women came from a variety of social backgrounds. Did you come across any intriguing or surprising facts while you were researching women of the Italian Renaissance?

There were some surprises…the equal propensity for noblewomen to be as promiscuous as their husbands (it was true in other countries, I knew, but I didn’t expect it in Roman Catholic-dominated Florence). The line of demarcation between the classes is more sharply drawn in these women’s lives, but it did not always seem to be what they wanted, but what they had to do. And there was great prejudice within the classes as well, even those on the lowest rung.

What never ceases to surprise me as I research the periods of my books, are the common ground women of today share with women of the past. We are still struggling to achieve what we want to achieve without greater obstacles than men. We still totter with putting ourselves and our professional dreams and goals before the care and dreams and goals of our loved ones.

This backward, reflective mirror is a priceless recompense in being an historical novelist.

Were any of the women based on real-life artists?

No; in fact they are based loosely on actual women in my life, including myself. Granted, there is some blurring of characteristics—what one real woman demonstrates may be a trait of one of the other fictional women. Portrait of a Conspiracy is a study of female relationships and their ambition, the explosive and artistic Renaissance, a mystery, a thriller, and at times, a violent depiction of life in 15th-century Florence, but it is also one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written.

Ultimately, the trilogy will lead us to one of the earliest and greatest women artists of the time; it’s where the story was always meant to go.

Your admiration for Florentine history, culture, and architecture comes through vividly. What were some of your favorite locales to visit, or to write about?

Architecture is an art form in my mind, and in many others, I think. Architecture in the Renaissance was evolving at a break-neck pace, as were the other art forms. As Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance, it is filled with architectural wonders.

Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the basilica of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is a highlight. Not only is it the factual scene of the assassination, it is a first of its kind construction, the first freestanding dome built at the time.

The Palazzo della Signoria (known now as the Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace) is also a favorite. As the government center, it is filled with all the secret passages and odd additions that prevailed at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed mapping out covert invasions and escapes in this building.

Although my birth name, Russo, can be traced to 9th-century Florence, I have not had the privilege of traveling there. It will remain, for now, the obsession of my pen. But the day is coming; oh, yes it is.


Donna Russo Morin is an award-winning of author of historical fiction. A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, she lives near the shore with her two sons, Devon and Dylan, her greatest works in progress. Donna enjoys meeting with book groups in person and via Skype chat. Visit her website at www.donnarussomorin.com, friend her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @DonnaRussoMorin.

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