Having posted poetry from Canadian poet Catherine Owen on Tuesday, today I'm delighted to feature Canadian novelist Barbara Lambert, who has written a guest post on her latest novel, set in Tuscany 'The Whirling Girl'.
You can read my review of the novel over on my book blog.
Now - over to Barbara. Where did the idea come from, I asked her.....
What was the spark that ignited the idea for The Whirling Girl?
When I try to recollect, it’s like peering into a kaleidoscope. That burst of colour, that unexpected zing of thoughts falling into place, the pattern of things to come.
But the pattern shifts - shifts again.
Was it that moment on a dusky terrace overlooking the Val di Chiana? The sky turning amethyst. A castled city across the plain, glimmering like an illustration in a fairytale? Then a voice in my head. This is where she will be standing, when…
That sudden pulse of excitement as I stood there myself, and she was beside me for a moment, enticing if a little blurry. A woman troubled, this I immediately sensed. Look how her gaze avoids the closer view of Cortona directly across a narrow valley, its ruined fortress looming above ancient Etruscan walls. What’s with her and the Etruscans? Does thinking of those long-ago people upset her? What does she know of them?
What do I know, for that matter?
This was early in my first visit to Italy, a hiking trip. I knew only that the Etruscans had ruled most of Italy once, then were vanquished by the Romans, almost forgotten until their buried tombs began to be discovered, centuries later, and astounding artifacts emerged….
Or, maybe the flash came earlier on that same trip. My husband and I had become lost in the woods somewhere between Volterra and San Gimignano, having misread the “orienteering” clues we’d been given. As dusk came down, we encountered others from our group, also lost. We managed to follow a power line to an isolated farm house where a kind woman poured wine for five total strangers, helped us telephone our hotel to send a car. The kitchen was lit just by one overhead iron lamp. A fire crackled in a hearth big enough to roast an ox. Shadows danced on the walls. An emerald lizard flashed across the ceiling beams.
This is where she will live, in a room like this….
A week later I returned to Canada to do final edits on a different novel.
And she was suddenly with us again - that troubled young woman – wedging herself between Douglas and myself as we climbed the lavender-bordered steps to the mill house. This is it. (Her voice, this time.) Something memorable is going to happen to me here….
Memorable things did happen there. To all of us.
We went to stay in the Molino many times over the next few years, joined sometimes by friends, sometimes by family – and always by that complicated young woman. Clare.
The first time, it was May, the hills a riot of wildflowers. What a coincidence that Clare turned out to be not just a flower artist, but a botanical artist, who could name all the wayside flowers. As I learned more about her artistic discipline – the fine line it walked between art and science - I realized what a clue this was to her complex personality, and the way (for reasons yet to be discovered) she had long teetered between guilt and desire. Her story began to take shape. This was exciting.
It struck me, at that point, as a story requiring only of the most amiable sort of research – hikes though the countryside, excursions to charming hill towns, lunches in little off-the-beaten-track trattorie – all of which could be digested, so to speak, during serious sessions in the hammock back at the Molino, thinking deeply while gazing up at Cortona’s austere Etruscan walls.
|The Etruscan walls of Cortona|
Those walls. No wonder Clare had avoided looking at them, early on. They brooded over us as we set off on light-hearted excursions, stonily assessed us as we returned. Such inconvenient questions they began to raise.
If Cortona had been one of the seven great cities of the Etruscan League – as I’d learned by then - where were all the tombs? There were three great “princely” tombs, yes, down in the Val di Chiana – but where had all the others been buried? Might there be – for fictional purposes at the very least – undiscovered tombs in this little valley, in the vicinity of the Molino?
An intriguing thought. I set it aside. I had no intention of letting my novel be kidnapped by the Etruscans. Until - right in the Molino itself - I came upon the book that would change my life. And, finally, let me into the puzzle of Clare’s….
After that trip, I took out subscriptions to archaeological journals – spent hours in libraries – amassed an Etruscan library of my own. Eventually, too, I was fortunate in being able to engage in extremely helpful correspondence with archaeologists all around the world. But it was that single book, discovered one morning in the Molino, that set the whole thing off.
George Dennis was an Englishman who, in the mid-1800’s, made the first systematic exploration of Etruscan tombs and abandoned sites. That morning, when I scooted out to the hammock with the two-volume edition of Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, I was immediately enchanted both by the strange illustrations, and by Dennis’s erudite but at the same time amiable prose. It was like holding the hand of a charming uncle-ish sort of figure who knew … well … everything (and provided footnotes for what he didn’t). A man one could accompany on a fascinating tour, not just around Etruria as it had been in the mid-1800’s, but also deep into the Etruscan past.
Later, I managed to find a rare edition for myself. On subsequent trips to Tuscany, George Dennis was a constant companion on my own forays to tombs and ruins.
At the same time, the past of that other constant companion, Clare, began to come clear - the lonely young girl she had been, who did have an uncle of that enviable erudite sort. An uncle who (though in a location far from Italy) took her on imagined trips around the Etruria he had always longed to see, and read to her from that same book, which was his greatest treasure.
An uncle who became not so amiable, alas.
Eccola! The Whirling Girl.
Barbara has a video trailer of The Whirling Girl on You Tube at
You can also watch it on her website at www.barbaralambert.com
Barbara Lambert's previous work includes A Message for Mr. Lazarus (2000) and The Allegra Series (1999). She has won the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction and The Malahat Review Novella Prize, and been a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize and the Journey Prize. Currently she is editor of the online literary Salon des Refusés, Dr. Johnson's Corner.
Lambert has lived in Vancouver, Ottawa, Barbados, and Cortona, Italy, where she stayed in a five-hundred-year-old mill house and researched Etruscan archaeology. She now lives on a cherry orchard in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, with her husband Douglas Lambert.
Read my review of The Whirling Girl.....