18 January 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Laura Rahme on THE MASCHERARI: A NOVEL OF VENICE

This week, we're welcoming author Laura Rahme again, whose latest title is THE MASCHERARI: A NOVEL OF VENICE. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of The MascherariBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

VENEZIA, 1422.
   Doge Tommaso Mocenigo lies on his death bed. 
An evil has come to Venice. An evil that will set the course for the future of La Serenissima.
   On the eve of Carnivale, five wealthy Venetian merchants set upon a mask maker in the ancient district of Santa Croce. They are led by Giacomo Contarini, a ruthless patrician.
   The following day, the Venice Republic's security council, the most feared Council of Ten, summons Florentine inquisitor, Antonio da Parma, to hold an inquest on a most baffling case.  During a sumptuous banquet, Giacomo Contarini and his partners have met a chilling death.
   In the throes of this macabre investigation Antonio da Parma is lured by his dreams and visions and by the mysterious silver pendant that he discovers on one of the dead merchants.
   Noble Catarina Contarini has a sad tale to tell. Her husband's death weighs upon her and so too, do the scandalous accusations that have been raised against him. In her grief, she confides in Antonio and reveals her shocking secrets.
But Catarina's darkest secret concerns a witch; a Napoletana named Magdalena.
   Antonio is drawn ever closer to the magnetic Magdalena. He unveils the truth behind the merchants' murders and comes face to face with a machination of monstrous evil.
   Through this fascinating Magdalena, an enchanter of admirals and merchants alike, Antonio begins to realize that his true quest is one he could never have imagined.
    Weaving historical mystery and the supernatural, The Mascherari evokes a Venice that will leave your breathless.

**Q&A with Laura Rahme**

Why did you set your novel in Venice?

Venice holds a special fascination for both writers and readers because it is such an unusual place both architecturally and culturally. Thanks partly to existing literature and films, it evokes mystery and romance like no other city. I believe its slightly claustrophobic, labyrinthine architecture lends itself well to secrets and to concealment while the ever present water, be it turquoise or dark and murky, contributes to emotional themes or to horror.

After writing The Ming Storytellers which is set in 15th century China, I originally wanted to create a detective series set in the Ming Dynasty. But for some reason I was lured by the Venice Republic and that project never came to light. Venice became my obsession until I could no longer resist.

How does The Mascherari differ from other historical novels set in Venice?

Author Jan Moran has compiled a fantastic list of 27 great novels set in Venice which includes authors Daphne du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann. The list is by far not exhaustive, nor is it the only one. I personally would add Mirella Patzer’s The Contessa’s Vendetta which I loved – think, Return to Eden set in 17th century Venice, and you are in for a delicious treat.

My current impression is that existing literature focuses on the periods starting from the 16th to the 19th century, the majority of stories being set in the post-Napoleonic era which gave birth to our modern conception of Venice.

Beyond historical fiction, if we look at historical crime and mystery, we see many novels set in a more contemporary Venice, like Dona Leon’s exceptional crime series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti and which is set in 20th century Venice. Then there is this great favorite of film fans and book lovers alike: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is partly set in Venice.

The first aspect of The Mascherari that differentiates it from existing books is that it is set much earlier. Its story unravels in the late medieval period, in 1422, just prior to the birth of the Renaissance. I was greatly influenced by the atmosphere in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and enjoyed setting my novel in less enlightened times. The Mascherari also merges three of my favorite genres – historical fiction, mystery and the supernatural.

And finally, it features The Council of Ten. Secretive organizations fascinate me and that is probably something readers of The Ming Storytellers would have already gathered. I chose to portray The Council of Ten in a mostly negative light, a position that I borrowed from Byron’s The Two Foscari, and which was partly born of the French propaganda that followed Napoleon’s conquest of Venice.

What is it about late medieval Venice that appealed to you?

As soon as we delve earlier than the 18th century, we discover a Venice that is less a fabrication of its conquerors (that is, France, Austria, and later tourism) and more true to itself. What arises is an interesting culture that invites speculations about the psychology of Venice’s inhabitants at the time. From the 14th century, and right up until Napoleon marched into Venice in 1798, Venice’s security and morality was once governed by an extremely secretive council called The Council of Ten. Within the community, social order and righteousness was kept in check by hundreds of local parishes, by various professional guilds and yes, even by gossip, and over the years, the Council of Ten encouraged public denunciations of improper conduct.  

The period of Carnivale, during which this novel is set, actually belies the rampant repression and moral enforcements of the times. From a socio-political point of view, social order – or ‘serenity’ – was important in Venice because it allowed a wealthy oligarchy to thrive and to maintain control over a large majority worker population. That, in itself, is not only captivating, but it is extremely significant because some people would say it mirrors our modern reality.

Beyond this, it is the medieval Venetian psyche itself that is unusual and provides the perfect backdrop for a supernatural mystery. The ever present fear of being denounced, of being the subject of gossip, of being watched by a secretive police, while living in cramped dwellings where little sunlight permeates, encourages certain individual behaviors. Setting the novel in late medieval Venice also allowed me to highlight the superstitions and repressed mentalities of the time, and to weave these through the story in a manner that could not function if the novel were set in later centuries.

What did you enjoy while writing this novel?

I am very passionate about research. It is true pleasure.

When I want to study a place, it is important for me to understand that place’s relationship with the world at the time. What stands out in the 15th century, is that Venice was a world power as the Western world was known. It would remain so until 1509 and some would say for a century more. Venice had the most powerful navy in the Western world and was made wealthy through trade with Byzantine Constantinople, Egypt and Syria, and through its many colonies including Crete, Mykonos and Santorini. The Venetian ducat was overtaking the Florentine currency as the leading currency in Europe. To put it bluntly, the rest of the world feared Venice. To conceive Venice, not as a tourist theme park but as a world power, was a shift in paradigm that actually became quite fun.

But let’s not forget the supernatural color of The Mascherari. I loved researching Italian charms, Roman mythologies, stregheria (Italian witchcraft) and the vecchia religione.
It was also through research that I met intriguing historical figures like Doge Tommaso Mocenigo who seems to have predicted his successor’s mistakes and the downfall of Venice, and about the extremely talented Alberti Leone Battista who was a genius long before Leonardo da Vinci. I just had to feature these men in my story!

Do you think it necessary to travel to a place in order to write about it?

Some people say you do. For me, that depends. I think Venice is very different from what it was in 1422. The nature of historical fiction demands that we filter out the modern from what actually existed at the time, so modern travel can sometimes make it harder to write authentically if one is not careful. Still I couldn’t resist flying to Venice a couple of years ago. 
While there, I explored the Council of Ten registers at the Archivio di Stato and I completed the obligatory Secret Itinerary tour of the Ducal Palace which was fantastic. But as I mentioned, the palace is much changed from what it was in 1422. So I supplemented my visit to the palace with research.

One thing I could not do at all is learn martial arts. I am a little disappointed about that because I strive to enrich my combat scenes – these passages take me the longest to write! I would have loved to learn from the great 14th century sword master, Fiore dei Liberi.

Tell us a little bit about the main characters from The Mascherari.

My protagonist, Antonio da Parma, is one who keeps much to himself. He is a man of great intuition and a meticulous scriber of all events. Yet, while it is he who pens most of the diary entries in the novel and who steers the reader through the story, revealing each character’s secrets along the way, he is perhaps the most enigmatic of them all. He has a vague past. What we do know of him is that he was never baptized and it soon becomes clear that he can communicate with the other world, or at least, glimpse beyond the living. I like to inject mysteries within mysteries and creating Antonio da Parma was a thrill.

Catarina Contarini is a wealthy patrician woman who has just lost her husband and daughter in a series of senseless murders. She is in mourning when Antonio da Parma begins his investigation. We know from her diary that she is distraught. Something is tormenting her, something beyond her recent loss. Drawing out Catarina’s secrets and imagining the life of a dissatisfied patrician woman was great fun but what was most satisfactory was unveiling her psychology, layer by layer.

Esteban del Valle is by far my favorite character. I will not say more but he is truly special. I hope readers will also like him.

Laura Rahme was born in Dakar, Senegal where she spent her early childhood. Dakar's poverty and raw beauty left a strong impression on Laura. Deeply inspired by her Lebanese, French and Vietnamese heritage, she has a passion for covering historical and cultural ground in her writing. Laura holds degrees in Engineering and Psychology. Her non-writing career has seen her in the role of web developer, analyst programmer and business analyst. She lives in Australia but calls the world her home. She is the author of The Ming Storytellers and The Mascherari.
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