Carol Goodman is the author of five works of fiction: The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, The Drowning Tree, The Ghost Orchid and the newly released The Sonnet Lover. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, Goodman reveals how she was inspired to explore the identity of Shakespeare’s mysterious “Dark Lady” and describes what intrigues her most about the Bard’s famous sonnets. She also discusses the symbolism of her characters’ names, explains how much research and travel was involved in writing this novel, and sheds light on how she chooses to use imagery in her work.
Bookreporter.com: What made you choose to explore a possible lost Shakespeare sonnet in The Sonnet Lover?
Carol Goodman: It was really a coming together of two things that I love: Shakespeare and Italy. I spent my junior year abroad in Rome and have always loved the country. I was thinking about setting a book there when I also happened to come across a theory that Shakespeare’s Dark Lady (to whom many of his sonnets are addressed) was Italian. Since some of his plays are set in Italy, it seemed possible that he could have traveled to Italy. As I began to imagine what that love affair might have been like (the poems suggest some kind of betrayal), I became intrigued by the idea of hearing the Dark Lady’s side of the story. And so, Ginevra de Laura was born.
BRC: Talk to us about your feelings concerning Shakespeare’s writing. What pieces do you find particularly noteworthy?
CG: I’ve been reading Shakespeare since I was a teenager. Different works have spoken to me at various stages of my life. When I was young, I loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet most of all. I still love those plays — both of which are featured in The Sonnet Lover — but in recent years, I’ve found myself more drawn to the sonnets. Perhaps I’ve been influenced by my husband, Lee Slonimsky, who writes sonnets, but I also think that the recurring themes of the sonnets — betrayal, aging, the passing of love, and mortality — are ones that gain significance as one grows older. Shakespeare’s conclusion, that art is the only way to arrest time, is one I’m particularly drawn to as a writer.
BRC: Staircases are very important in The Sonnet Lover, especially the main one that leads to the upstairs hall and into Rose’s room. Wrought in the marble are tiny roses that look like blood spots at first glance. This is both a powerful and creepy image. Going up and down the steps seems to be a pastime for some of the characters as they continually walk on the roses. Is this perhaps symbolic of Rose Asher? Are the “blood roses” another symbol of her?
CG: I think of the rotunda with the main staircase as the heart and center of the villa. It’s inspired by the rotunda of the Villa La Pietra in Florence, which made a deep impression on me when I visited there. The idea of a rose petal pattern, however, came from another villa that I’d heard about in Sorrento. I was staying at a hotel that had a small 16th-century villa on its grounds, and I read about this rose petal floor in a little brochure in my room. When I asked to see the rose petal floor, though, I was told it was closed to the public. I even went back there a year later (while I was writing The Sonnet Lover) and asked again if I could see it — and was told no, the floor was too delicate. Maybe that’s why the image grew large in my imagination. I began to daydream about stories that might have inspired such an unusual floor decoration. So really, the image came before the characters and the story of Ginevra de Laura. Once I had Ginevra’s story in mind, though, I began to think of ways that my modern narrator, Rose, would experience her story, and I pictured Rose walking up those stairs, reading a poem, while rose petals from the rose in her hair littered the steps. It was a way of mingling the past and present — something I’m always trying to do in my writing.
BRC: Windows are symbolic of many things, and in The Sonnet Lover they abound. Usually Rose is looking out, and others do the same. Only rarely does anyone look in. Is there a particular reason for this?
CG: This, I confess, is not something I thought about before! Old houses in Italy have those heavy wooden shutters over the windows, so going to one and opening it is a big process. I love, too, the way light comes through those slatted shutters and the contrast of dark and light when they’re opened. Maybe it has something to do with connecting the inner life of the narrator to the outside world, but then again, maybe I just like looking out of windows — something I do a lot of while I’m writing (or trying to write).
BRC: Why did you choose to write The Sonnet Lover in the first person, and did you always know this story belonged in that voice?
CG: All my novels have been in the first person. That seems to be how they come to me — I hear the voice of a narrator telling me her story.
BRC: The Sonnet Lover is rich in symbols and subtle hints to the reader about names. Does “Rose Asher” refer to her as she was in the beginning, a bud that starts blossoming throughout the novel and by the end of the book is her own grown-up woman? Her name could have been from a Henry James or Charles Dickens work.
CG: I wanted the narrator to have a Shakespearean name that didn’t identify her with any particular Shakespearean heroine — so not Juliet or Miranda or Hermione. Shakespeare often uses the rose as an image in his sonnets, and it’s one of those symbols that can mean just about anything! But yes, I must have had some idea of her being in the process of blooming, because originally she was called Rose Blum (and my editor, rightly, thought that was a bit too obvious).
BRC: Orlando makes one think of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel about a changeling who is both male and female. Was this deliberate on your part, considering Orlando’s confusion over his sexuality?
CG: Exactly. I needed a good counterpoint for Robin, who has a gender-neutral name, and Orlando had both the advantage of the Virginia Woolf reference and a nicely Italianate sound.
BRC: How many of Shakespeare’s sonnets did you use in The Sonnet Lover? How many of his plays are quoted? Did you insert puns in the book as a homage to the Bard?
CG: There are only two of Shakespeare’s sonnets quoted in full: #18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer day?”) and #116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”). There are two lines from #65, and I quote copiously from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. The rest of the poems in the book are written by Ginevra de Laura, aka my husband, Lee Slonimsky. I’m not aware of making any deliberate puns, but there may be some unconscious ones in there.
BRC: Of course, Latin is the specialty of literature professor Rose Asher in The Sonnet Lover. What languages have you studied?
CG: Although I was a Latin major in college, did two (tortuous) years of Greek, took French in high school and spent a summer studying Italian, I’m really not that good at languages. When I travelled to Italy to research THE SONNET LOVER, I found I’d forgotten the little Italian I knew. I tried speaking a little Latin at the Vatican, but it didn’t get me very far.
BRC: Did you know who the killer was before you started The Sonnet Lover?
CG: Yes, but then I changed my mind.
BRC: I was mesmerized by the architecture of The Drowning Tree, which is rife with references to mythology, the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the arts and crafts movement, and the history of the Hudson Valley painters. Do you know before you begin a novel specifically what issues you will bring into the plot?
CG: When I first imagine a narrator I always want to know what she’s passionate about, whether it’s fairy tales or stained glass or Latin poetry. In my first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, I used what I already knew something about, since I had studied Latin just as Jane did; but in the subsequent novels, I often found that my narrators loved something I might know a little about — like stained glass or landscape design — but that I had to research. Sometimes the research for one book will spill over into the next. For instance, I read up on Italian gardens for THE GHOST ORCHID and then decided to set the next book, The Sonnet Lover, in Italy.
BRC: You artfully weave an array of symbols, metaphors and images into your work. Is this deliberate or something that “just happens”?
CG: When I start a book, certain images appear and then reoccur — like frozen water in The Lake of Dead Languages or trapped birds in The Ghost Orchid. Then, as I reread what I’ve written, I start to think of how I can use these images to tell the story. I think of it as another layer that’s occuring beneath the level of the plot. I try not to be too heavy-handed about it, but I confess, I love playing with images.
BRC: You create female characters who either are — or become — strong and independent. Is this a conscious choice, or do they just “take over” as many writers say their characters do?
CG: I suppose I’m always trying to become stronger in my own life and looking for models of independent women. I often start with a character whose life has gone wrong in some way, and I want for her to find a way to be stronger. I’m never sure, though, how she’s going to do that until I get to the end of the first draft.
BRC: Your books are all so different and reflect a lot of time spent on research. What can you share with us about how you conduct research?
CG: I’m probably one of those people who could have gone to school forever, so I enjoy doing the research for each book. As I mentioned before, once I know what a character is passionate about, I try to learn as much as I can about that field. I read voraciously, take classes, go to museums and lectures, and visit the places where my characters go. For The Sonnet Lover I read about Italian villas and gardens, Renaissance history, Shakespeare’s life, women poets of the Renaissance, the history of the sonnet, Florentine marriage rituals and cassone painting. The best part was that I got to take two trips to Italy — during one of which my husband and I stayed for a week at a villa outside of Florence that became the model for the physical setting of The Sonnet Lover. My teenage daughter rolls her eyes now whenever I say I have to do research, because she thinks it’s just an excuse to travel to exotic places.
BRC: I admit that I was attracted to your first book, The Lake of Dead Languages, because of the intriguing title. How much input do you have in choosing titles, or are they your own?
CG: The Lake of Dead Languages was the last title that was completely my own! I think I struck beginner’s luck with that one — which is funny because when I came up with the title, I thought it was a little silly and overblown. The rest have had to be tinkered with, but usually when my publisher says they would like a different title. I’ve managed to come up with another one that I liked.
Also, sometimes the title I started with no longer is the best title for the book when it’s done. When I started The Sonnet Lover, I was calling it “Villa of the Mysteries,” but then I found out that David Hewson was coming out with a book with the same title. At first I was sorry I couldn’t use it, but as the book progressed, I realized it wouldn’t have been the best title for the book. Love poetry had become so crucial to the storyline that I thought the title should reflect that. When I thought of “The Sonnet Lover,” I liked it because it could mean someone who is passionate about love poetry but also someone who uses poetry to express their love. And I got to call Lee “my sonnet lover” in the dedication — which made him happy. What more could you want from a title?
BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
CG: A novel called The Little Mysteries (at least that’s its title now!). It’s also set in Italy — but this time in the south, around the Bay of Naples. A classics professor goes to Herculaneum to find a papyrus scroll that was buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The story involves a first-century female slave who sued to gain her freedom (based on the real case of Petronia Iusta), an ancient mystery rite, and a modern-day cult. I had to travel to Naples and Capri for this one, causing much eye-rolling from my daughter.