A Talk with Carol Goodman
Author of THE SONNET LOVER
Your four previous novels—The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, The Drowning Tree, and The Ghost Orchid—are all set in upstate New York. THE SONNET LOVER is your first novel set in Italy. Why? What drew you to Tuscany?
I loved writing about upstate New York and will probably return eventually to that locale, but I felt like I needed a change—and as long as I was going to change venues, I figured I might as well go far afield. I was drawn to Italy because I had studied Latin and Roman History in college and spent my Junior Year Abroad in Rome. While I was thinking of doing an Italian story, though, I was also doing research for my previous novel, The Ghost Orchid, which led me to studying Italian gardens and villas. I started imagining an Italian villa for the setting of a book, and the most beautiful villas seemed to be perched in the hills above Florence. Then I started getting interested in Florentine history . . . well, as you can see, one thing led to another.
Landscape is an intrinsic part of your novels, almost becoming a character in its own right. Was there any special research involved in creating the world of THE SONNET LOVER? Is La Civetta based on a real place?
Yes, I love creating places and I don’t feel that I can begin a book until I know where it’s set. La Civetta is a fictional place but it has roots in the real world. My first inspirations were the Italian gardens I studied while writing The Ghost Orchid: The Villa d’Este in Tivoli, the Villa Lante in Viterbo, the Boboli Gardens in Florence. I loved how these gardens create a world and tell a story about the people who lived in them. I finally settled on the Villa La Pietra as the perfect model for my fictional villa. It’s set above Florence, is now an American school, and some of its features—like the teatrino and the limonaia—seemed like the perfect settings for the story that was beginning to take shape in my mind. Luckily, I was able to spend a week in an apartment on the grounds of the villa and get to know it.
THE SONNET LOVER asks whether a Renaissance poet named Ginevra de Laura was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. Is Ginevra de Laura a real poet? Can you tell us a little about her?
Ginevra de Laura is a fictional character, inspired by several real life Renaissance women. I started out reading about women poets of the Renaissance: Tullia d’Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Franco, Louise Labé and others. I was amazed at the varied and adventurous lives these women led, and the remarkable poetry they wrote. As I started shaping Ginevra de Laura I thought of her as one of these women, then she began to feel like a character in her own right. Since my husband was writing the poems for her, she really seemed to take on a life of her own.
Who do you think Shakespeare’s Dark Lady is?
I think Shakespeare’s Dark Lady may very well have been an Italian woman, perhaps someone he met in London after he moved there for his playwriting career. England increasingly attracted people from the Continent during the Elizabethan Age, and Shakespeare’s particular interest in Italy is obvious from the number of his plays he set there. No one knows the extent to which the Sonnets may be autobiographical, but the known facts of Shakespeare’s life and marriage certainly do not rule out some intense involvement with a woman other than his wife. He spent a lot of time apart from her and perhaps slighted her in his will.
While you were researching THE SONNET LOVER, did you learn anything about 16th-century women’s lives that particularly intrigued you or took you by surprise?
Yes, quite a lot. First of all, I was surprised at the number of accomplished women poets who wrote at that time, women who expressed themselves with passion and conviction. But while these women found ways to express themselves, most women’s lives were severely constricted by the strict codes of Florentine marriage. What shocked me the most was that if a woman’s husband died, she no longer had any place in that household even if she had children. The children would remain there but her choices were to return to her father’s household, marry again, or go into a convent. How, I wondered, did women find their own voices in this restrictive a culture? That’s what particularly intrigued me.
The past and present are interwoven in all of your novels. In THE SONNET LOVER, the protagonist’s life begins to mirror that of the woman she’s researching. What is it about this structure that appeals to you?
I guess I’m just past-obsessed. I’m fascinated by the way that our lives are shaped by the past, both by personal and family history and the history of the culture around us. I’m interested in how we look to the stories of other people to understand our own lives and to
provide models for living our lives. I’m also interested in the danger of over-identifying with models in the past, but that’s really more the theme of my next book.
You have said that language itself is intrinsic to your stories. Can you explain?
When I start out writing a scene I have a visual picture of what’s happening and perhaps a few bits of dialogue or description, but once I start writing the scene it’s often shaped by the words I choose. One thing leads to another; the process of writing creates the scene. I always try to remember this when I wake up in the middle of the night unsure of what’s going to happen next—that writing it will tell me what’s going to happen next.
The sonnets in THE SONNET LOVER were written by your husband Lee Slonimsky, a hedge fund manager and a poet in his own right (his most recent book, Pythagoras in Love, is a collection of sonnets). How does your writing partnership work? Do the sonnets—or perhaps even the characters’ lives—gain resonance from that relationship?
I give Lee each chapter to read after I’ve written it, and he responds in detail, which gives me my first reader response and great feedback. He’s always very supportive and also has really interesting suggestions, some of which I act on. Since he was immersed in the book to begin with, it was relatively simple for me to “assign” poems for him in the writing of THE SONNET LOVER, which he wrote as they arose out of situations in the book. Lee’s passion for writing sonnets—he often writes one on a morning walk before going to work, and has been doing that for more than four years—infuses the love of Ginevra de Laura for writing sonnets, and was partly the inspiration for the book.
You and your protagonist Rose Asher have something in common: you are both college professors. Rose’s colleagues go to extraordinary lengths to protect their academic territory. In your experience, how cut-throat is the world of academia?
Luckily, as a part-time writing teaching I’m fairly immune from academic politics. I do see some envy and backbiting in writing circles—I don’t think any enterprise is really immune from that and any insular world, like academia, intensifies those dynamics.
What can your readers expect to see next from you?
I’ve just finished the first draft of my next book, and I’m very excited about it. A Classics professor from Austin, Texas travels to the Bay of Naples to decipher a papyrus scroll that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The scroll tells the story of a Roman slave, Petronia Iusta—an historic figure—who sued to gain her freedom from her masters. Another good woman model! The scroll also contains the description of an ancient mystery rite that took place in the days before the eruption and hints at the existence of a lost book which becomes the focus of a modern-day cult.