Yesterday, I reviewed Palmerino, Ms. Pritchard’s latest novel, out now from Bellevue Press. Ms. Pritchard graciously consented to be interviewed via email.
How did you first learn about Violet Paget/Vernon Lee, and what led you to write a novel about V.’s life?
MP: In July 2008, while visiting Florence, I was introduced by an Italian friend, Giuditta Viceconte, to Federica Paretti, a member of the Angeli family, current owners of Villa il Palmerino, Vernon Lee’s former home. At the time, I had been thinking of starting a writer’s residency, and Giuditta immediately decided I should meet Federica to discuss possibilities. On the afternoon I met Federica, I felt an immediate kinship with her and strangely, with the Villa itself. I had a deeply comforting sense of having “come home.” As I learned of Vernon Lee from Federica, I began to sense and to “see” things around the villa and the property that caused Federica to regard me strangely, until she finally said, “You may be meant to write a book about Vernon Lee. Perhaps that is the real reason you have come here.” For example, as I was looking out of a upstairs window onto the terrace, I “saw,” as in a film, a puppet show for children being performed there. I turned to Federica, saying “this would make a wonderful space for a children’s puppet show!” She then told me that was the exact place where Vernon Lee performed puppet shows for the children of the peasants or contadini. But it was after I learned about Vernon Lee’s supernatural tales, about her fascination with genius loci or spirit of place, and about her being one of the first writers to explore the notion of empathy in art, that I began to connect with her on a deeper level, and feel “called” to write about her. It’s also true that I fell in love with Villa il Palmerino itself before I fully committed to researching and writing about Vernon Lee. After our first meeting, Federica invited me to return, and one year later I did, renting out one of the spacious rooms. I would return three more times, each time for a longer period, to do research on Vernon Lee and to write the first and subsequent drafts of the novel. I completed Palmerino in Switzerland, at Chateau Lavigny, a writer’s residence, in the autumn of 2012.
What was the writing process for Palmerino like? Do you share writing traits with Sylvia?
MP: I embarked upon over a year of research, visiting the Vernon Lee archives at Colby College, Maine, and returning to Florence several more times. Once I felt prepared, I then had to begin to shape the novel’s perimeters, determine its structure. Once I decided to largely focus on Vernon Lee’s emotional life, specifically her two great love affairs, I began the actual writing. I designed the novel in three alternating threads, Vernon Lee’s ghostly voice, Sylvia’s voice, and the story that Sylvia was telling. Writing is a risk, a gamble, a running through the darkness, so I could only hope this unconventional design would work. One of my literary inspirations was Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the other Vernon Lee’s own highly regarded supernatural tales, particularly “Amor Dure.”
If I share any writing traits with Sylvia, it may be that I always write in longhand first, and that I love to have food around me when I write. I also tend to isolate myself when I’m writing, particularly when working on a first draft – it’s the only way I can “hear” the book. It is a lonely phase, but also a thrilling kind of pilgrimage into the life of the imagination, into other lives and worlds.
V. dismisses modern scholarship about her life and, particularly, her sexuality (pages 127-28). Do you share her assessment of current scholarly efforts to understand, or analyze, Vernon Lee’s/Violet Paget’s life?
MP: In the last ten or so years, there has been a tremendous resurgence of scholarly interest in Vernon Lee. There is a wonderful online journal, The Sibyl, that is richly and entirely devoted to current studies on Vernon Lee. In September, 2012, I was fortunate to be a part of the first international seminar on Vernon Lee, held in Florence. I went to many talks by scholars dedicating their academic lives to aspects of Vernon Lee’s extraordinary and prolific life. I was honored to close the seminar with a reading from Palmerino, a reading held at twilight, in one of the many hidden gardens on the grounds of Villa il Palmerino. It was a magical way to close a scholarly seminar, and while reading,I seemed to feel Vernon Lee’s presence nearby. My sense is that she would both be critical of all the research being done on her, the published books, papers and articles, the seminars, but that she would also be deeply pleased.
How did you go about conducting research for Palmerino?
I started with Vernon Lee biographies, relying mainly on two, then read many of the books Vernon herself had read and admired. I visited Colby College, Maine and in the archives room, sat for hours poring through correspondence between Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Edith Wharton, Clementina “Kit” Anstruther Thompson and Vernon Lee. I cannot describe the feeling of holding a letter written by Henry James, addressed to Vernon, in my hands. And while reading Kit’s immensely charming letters, illustrated with whimsical figures, I understood exactly how and why Vernon fell in love with her, needed her, and was devastated when she left Vernon. In Florence, I found the two places Vernon and her family had lived before moving to Villa il Palmerino. I visited the British Institute where there is a room filled entirely with a large portion of Vernon Lee’s extensive library, and was able to look through her books, see her pencilled annotations and marginalia, written with a bold, energetic hand. And at the famous Gabinetto Vieusseux, I was able to read more of her letters, many in Italian or German, and see the progression of her emotional state through her handwriting from the firm, bold hand of her middle years to the weak scrawl of later years, the intelligence still evident but the infirmity of a failing body sadly taking hold. And of course, I found much to read online, scholarly papers, other references.
Which writers do you read while you’re writing, if any? Do they change from book to book?
As part of my research for Palmerino, I read a great many of the books Vernon had been strongly influenced by. I also read books and articles relating to that time period in Florence, to the Anglo-American cultural community of 19th century Florence. On my author website, on the Palmerino page, I have put a partial list of these books. I also listened to classical music, particularly music Vernon Lee had liked. She was, among other things, a respected authority on eighteenth century Italian music.
When I write a book, it becomes an immersion experience. If it is an historically based novel or short story, I intentionally surround myself with the books, art and music of that time period, as a way of spelling myself back into that time and place. In writing contemporary fiction, I mainly read poetry and contemporary fiction I find compelling and hugely exciting. Steeping myself in the best literature is, I have found, a pleasant way to keep standards for my own writing as high as possible.
What kinds of projects are you planning next?
I’d like to finish editing a book-length collection of essays I’ve written, all of which have been individually published. After writing historically inspired fiction and a few humanitarian journalism pieces for the last three or so years, I’m starved to return to writing contemporary fiction – as a way of balancing, I think. But my next big project will be another historically based novel about a nineteenth century British Shakespearean actress who was also an abolitionist. The big, ambitious plan is to write a series of historically inspired novels, beginning with Vernon Lee, on three nineteenth century British women, a writer, an actress, a medical reformer. All three of these women defied the constraints and conventions of their time and forged, not without sacrifice, accomplished and brave lives.
My thanks again to Ms. Pritchard for her time and generous, thoughtful answers. You can read more about Palmerino, and Melissa Pritchard’s other published works, on her website, and you can follow Ms. Pritchard on Twitter: @PritchardMeliss.