Mindy: Welcome to Writer, Writer Pants On Fire. Where authors talk about things that never happened to people who don't exist. We also cover craft, the agent hunt, query trenches, publishing industry, marketing, and more. I'm your host Mindy McGinnis. You can check out my books and social media at MindyMcGinnis.com and make sure to visit the Writer, Writer Pants On Fire blog for additional interviews, query critiques, and more at writerwriterpantsonfire.com
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Mindy: Today's guest is Lauren Kate, the number one New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the Fallen novels, the Teardrop novels and The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove. Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages. Kate joined me today to talk about the inspiration for her newest adult historical, The Orphan’s Song.
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Mindy: We're here talking about The Orphan's Song by Lauren Kate which is a historical, it is set in Venice in 1736. So I was curious about why that location and that specific time period?
Lauren: The story kind of jumped out at me. I was on a book tour for another novel about three, four years ago. I was in Venice and I was returning one night from an event to the apartment where I was staying with my husband and my two really little children at the time and I was trying to get home to them and I ended up getting really lost, which if you've ever been to Venice, it's just kind of like a rite of passage as a tourist there. I found myself before this big building, this stone compound called The Hospital of the Incurables and all the streets surrounding this building were named for it: The alley of the Incurables and the Bridge of the Incurables, and there was just something so content and romantic about the sound of that name.
Lauren: I wanted to know what the building was and who the incurables had been. So I did a little bit of research on that trip and the stuff that I found out about this place, it drew me in so completely. For about 500 years, starting in the 15th century until the fall of the republic, which happens at the end of the 17th century, this building was an orphanage for families and children who were trained to become musicians who played instruments and sang in the church choir. And in the era of my novel, which is like the middle of the 18th century, like 1737 they are the most famous musicians in the world. So not only are these orphan girls attracting like the best maestros and composers to write music and teach them like Vivaldi, - Vivaldi, got his career teaching these orphan girls - they are also like a tourist destination.
Lauren: If you're a wealthy gentleman in England, when you come of age, you go on something called the grand tour, go to Rome to see the Vatican. You go to Florence to see the David and then you go to Venice to hear the orphans sing. They were kind of rock stars of their day. I loved the idea of these children with unfortunate and heartbreaking circumstances rising to prominence and wealth and extreme musical prowess. I was struck by one element. Joining the choir as one of these girls, you had to sign an oath that basically signed your life away to the church. You are not allowed to leave the church. If you became a member of the choir, you weren't allowed to step outside the walls of the compound, but for I think three or four times a year where they would go to just different churches and sing.
Lauren: If you ever left the orphanage to get married or anything else, you could never sing or perform music again. That part of you belonged to the church. So of course I'm thinking about the rebel girl for whom that's just completely untenable and feels very stifling. She's got to find her way to resist this and break free.
Mindy: So it's kind of like a cult in some ways.
Lauren: In some ways it is because there was such a draw to become one of these musicians. It was the best thing that could happen to you if you were an orphan. I mean that was the highest you could rise. You could rise really well above your station, you could make a lot of money, and you're getting love letters from famous people from all around the world and there were limits to it. There just wasn't a lot of personal freedom.
Mindy: You are talking about these orphans being brought into this lifestyle and perhaps this didn't come into your research, but I'm curious, what about the orphans that did not have any musical talent?
Lauren: They were resigned to a much drearier life. They still often stayed at the orphanage until they were about 40 years old. At which point they quote unquote retired to a nunnery. They would sew the garments for the girls in the choir. They would prepare their meals, serve as the nurses to the babies who would grow up to become girls in the choir. The whole focus of the work in the orphanage was to further the musical careers of this select group of girls. There was an audition process and if you didn't make it, you were stuck doing the drudge work for the rest of your life.
Mindy: So like support staff for the choir.
Mindy: You mentioned getting love letters then from famous people basically, fans as well. I'm assuming then that there is a sexual element that can come into play then with these young girls, yet they are in many ways the property of the church. So how is that juggled?
Lauren: In this era, first of all, it was considered really uncouth to perform on a stage. Like opera singers were kind of in the same sphere as prostitutes. It was not a noble thing to do even though people love to go see the opera. You didn't want your daughter to grow up and be an opera singer if you were in the upper class, except for these girls because of the way the church restricted every aspect of their lives, they were considered very pure, very holy, like they were singing in the image of the vestal virgins. They were protected when they would step into the church to sing. They sang in an elevated balcony that overlooked the church and it was protected by like a brass grate decorated with all sorts of flowers and blossoms and fruit, which really was meant to serve as a protector from the male gaze of churchgoers.
Lauren: They wanted to be heard but not seen, but you could arrange a meeting if you wanted to marry one of them and you were wealthy. You could arrange a meeting with like the prioress of the church and she would let you come and you know, talk to the girl and see if you liked her. Again, not a lot of freedom for most of these women who grew up in this church, but this was an extremely hedonistic era in Venice masquerades and decadent parties that would sometimes go on for months and everybody's wearing masks all the time. Like not just to parties, but just going about your day and going to buy a piece of fish for dinner in the market. You're wearing a mask. It was a time of like decadence and anonymity and really wild, all sorts of wild activities. So these girls are an anomaly in this era because they were so pious and so sheltered. Again, that's going to drive a couple of them crazy and send them sneaking out into the middle of the night and seeing what else they can find in Venice.
Mindy: Wow, that's fascinating. So in the book there's this wonderful dichotomy between what their lives are like as the choir members and as these girls that are very much the images of the vestal virgins and the pious singers. Then also they're existing in this world that is very sexual in many ways and it's a really wonderful dichotomy between those two worlds, these girls - the ones that are sneaking out - then are bridging. Talk about that for a little bit, how they are processing that as characters.
Lauren: Okay, so Violetta she's the main, um, she's the female protagonist in the story. There are several nights where she sneaks out and one of the first nights she joins up with sort of band of revelers on the street and they lead her to this masquerade where she enters into this like a really codified process of celebrating a night. There were certain kinds of masks that you would wear for certain kinds of evenings you wanted to have. There was a mask called the moretta, which was an entirely black mask with two holes for the eyes and nothing for the mouth. There was no ribbon that attached this mask to the back of the head the way most most masks, you know, you picture, they're just tied on the back of your head. This one had no ribbon. It stayed affixed to the face because on the inside of the mouth there was a black button and the person who wore this mask was only women.
Lauren: The woman who wore this mask bit on the button to keep it in place. So not only was your face hidden, but you were rendered basically fully mute the whole evening. And when I first learned about that, it made me feel suffocated. It felt like how restrictive, what subjugation. I was talking to the Venetian historian who led me through Venice when I was doing a lot of my research and she said, no, no, this was considered extremely erotic for them because the voice was something to be protected, something to be valued. You didn't share it, you didn't speak just to anyone. It was something that you only did when you were very intimate with someone. So you might dance with any number of men at a masquerade, but you're only going to drop that mask if you're ready to share your voice, your face, your everything was someone.
Mindy: Oh, that's fascinating. I like it. And of course a lovely parallel between their voice when they're singing.
Lauren: Yeah. Yeah. So I mean for Violetta especially, she is trying to really go under cover, she doesn't want anyone to hear her voice, so she is quite tempted by the lure of the moretta mask.
Mindy: Coming up, what differences, if any, there are in writing for the adult versus the ya market.
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Mindy: You also write at least two truly historical characters in The Orphan’s Song. There is Vivaldi as well as another composer. You say that you took your characters names actually from the roles of the students, is that correct?
Lauren: Obviously we have lots of information. We have Vivalid's music and we have his biography. We have a lot about him, but these women for as famous as they were in their era, history overlooked them. And so to go back and search through these archives, they're orphans so that you know you can't even trace their families, but they were known by their first name and the instrument that they played. So people would, if you're going to go to Venice and see these orphans, you'd say, I'm going to go hear Laura of the Violin or Anna of the Oboe, Violetta of the Angel's Voice. These were names that I came across flipping through these big old archives and I just, I wanted to bring them to life.
Mindy: So, so cool. The research involved when writing about an actual historical person, whether it's Vivaldi or anyone, really when you're writing about a person that is fairly well known in the average reader's mind when it comes to someone who is already famous - any reservations about writing about a real person?
Lauren: Yes, and I think that that's probably why Vivaldi is a shadow figure in the novel. We never really see him in the flesh. We do meet Nikola Porpora who was the maestro at the incurables. The reader is not intimate with him. The characters are not really intimate with him. I like the backbone of a historical novel. I like being able to do a lot of research and really situate a story within a world that was real. But I also like freedom for my characters to surprise me, and I know that if I have a real historical character that I'm writing up as a protagonist, I worry about that. I worry about how much freedom I would be able to let her have to surprise me to go left when I wanted her to go right. If I'm trying to adhere to like some real personal history, so there's something nice and freeing about having invented characters in a real historical setting.
Mindy: Yes, absolutely. When you're writing about a real person, you are, as you're saying, restricted by what you can have them do and where they can even be most times, especially if it's a very famous person, their lives have been researched so thoroughly that they can actually pin down where they were or where they probably were at any given time. You don't have the ability to even move them around a global map, perhaps the way that you want them to, and it restricts your own setting. It also restricts you in that you may have a reader that picks up this book because they are - not particularly this book - but picks up any book because they are interested in Vivaldi or whomever, and then when they pick up your book and you have a detail that is incorrect about their life. That reader that is going to either feel misled or definitely feel like you have perhaps not done your research.
Lauren: Yes. Yeah, and sometimes I think too about, right now I'm working on another book and it's set during the American civil war. Again with with the female characters for whom there's not a lot of documented history. I feel a sense of freedom but with male characters who were quite famous - one of the characters I'm writing about is a civil war general on the union side. I'm not writing about Ulysses S. Grant, his name is General Hooker, Joseph Hooker, so he's famous in some circles and lesser known in other circles, but I think you know he, he does have descendants who are carrying on his history in a specific way. You want to just do right by the history of these real people and that does, it limits what you can do with them.
Mindy: The restrictions in writing about a real human being. Those are a very real thing. So I wanted to ask you also about your YA novels. I myself am aa YA writer and you broke into YA in a very big way a few years back. So now that you are coming out with The Orphan's Song, which is an adult historical title, I just wondered about your process when it came to writing adult versus YA. How did you go about writing differently or did you not? Did you just write the story that you had inside of you?
Lauren: The latter. I just wrote the story. In some ways the processes is exactly the same. It's still very hard for me to get a first draft out. I still struggle with showing enough of the characters interiority, you know, the things that are challenging to me about writing are constant unfortunately. You know, I think one of the differences really, I would say the only difference between something that's geared for a YA audience and something that's not necessarily is the scope that the story will look at is going to be more focused in a YA novel. Even though The Orphan's Song has characters who are teenagers for much of the book, the book looks at a larger historical context and it looks at characters in different moments of their life than would be interesting to just a teen reader. As a writer of YA books, you'll understand this as well and probably some of the listeners who enjoy YA books understand this, but there's something really brilliant and focused about like the narcissism of being a teenager and like not caring at all about your mom's hopes and dreams and aspirations and as a writer that lets you get very close to one character's psyche, which I think can make a great, an enjoyable experience as a reader and a writer. I think it's just zooming out a little bit is the feeling of writing a non YA novel for me.
Mindy: Very cool. No, that makes absolute sense to me. I also was thinking in terms as I read the book, in terms of it being a historical for adults, I've often noticed in historical writing for adults that there is desire on the part of the readership, that particular readership, they like description more. They want to feel that investment of the surroundings, but also clothing from what I understand of the historical adult audience is that they like that description more than the traditional YA audience does.
Lauren: Yeah. I think my writing style, I'm sure it's changed, but I think it's always been maybe more descriptive in general anyway. You know, my young adult fantasy novels are quite, the setting of them is quite palpable. It's, is its own character and I spend a lot of time letting the protagonist inhabit like a very physical world that almost like sticks to your skin. I agree that like a lot of the YA novels I read, it's more about character and it's more about emotion.
Mindy: Why don't you tell us where listeners can find you online and maybe a little bit more about what you're working on right now.
Lauren: Yeah. So you can find me all over the place online. I'm on Twitter and Instagram at Lauren Kate books and Facebook, I think it's Lauren Kate author. My website is Lauren Kate books.net. I love to interact with readers and fellow book lovers online. So drop me a message or anybody out there listening. Yes. I spoke a little bit about what I'm working on now, but uh, in a nutshell, it's three prostitutes solving a mystery on the front lines of the civil war.
Mindy: That's so awesome. I'm here for that in a big way.
Lauren: Thank you, Mindy. This was wonderful. Thanks for having me.
Mindy: Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire is produced by Mindy McGinnis. Music by Jack Korbel. Don't forget to check out the blog for additional interviews, writing advice and publication tips at www.writerwriterapantsonfire.com If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you, or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.