Monday, May 05, 2008

Interview with Mary Jane Beaufrand

A few weeks ago I read Primavera by Mary Jane Beaufrand. It was an oh-so-magical read for me; a book that swept me off my feet. It was the author's first book, first novel. And I immediately thought to myself, "I must interview her!!!" So here she is: Mary Jane Beaufrand!!! (Be sure to check out Sarah Miller's review. She sums up the magic so well. Here's my review of the novel.

What inspired you to write Primavera? How did this novel come to be?

There were two elements that combined to bring it about. The first was the actual Botticelli painting in the Uffizi in Florence; specifically the double portrait of Flora and Chloris.

The second element is more difficult to talk about. I’d been dabbling with the idea of Primavera for about a month when I heard that an old friend of mine form Turin, Emilio Casaccia, tied tragically in a mountaineering accident in the Alps. I gave my fictional hero Emilio’s name and suddenly it seemed imperative that I see the novel to completion. A kind of tribute.

How long did it take to write and see it through to the finished product?

I started writing Primavera in the spring of 2004; it was published in 2008. So it took awhile.

How much research was involved in writing Primavera?

I did a lot of reading; then when the project was almost complete, I had the chance to go to Florence with my family. It was mostly a fact checking mission, but still lovely and touching. I got to see the actual Pazzi palazzo, which is now government offices and closed to the public. They just let me into the courtyard, but I couldn’t help crying. I thought: “I can’t believe after all this time, I’m finally in Flora’s house.” My next thought was, “Wait a minute. Flora didn’t exist. I made her up.” I couldn’t stop crying though. I cried the same way when I finished running my first marathon. There was this incredible sense of completion, but also realization of how hard the project had been—both the act of writing and working through the grief of the real Emilio’s death.

Why “Flora”? How were you inspired to weave elements of the goddess mythology into your text?

It goes back to the double portrait in the Botticelli painting. Looking at it, I wondered: what could make a girl change from Chloris, being chased by the west wind, vomiting flowers (thwick-tooey!), to being this radiant goddess of spring? It seemed to me that Chloris had to go through some terrible ordeal. The painting dates from 1482; the Pazzi rebellion dates to 1478. I thought, “That was certainly miserable enough.”

In fact, when I was in the Uffizi Gallery, my guide made a comment to the effect of: “That’s interesting that you put Primavera together with the Pazzi Rebellion. We actually don’t think Primavera is about the Pazzis, we think it was this Botticelli painting over here . . . .” At that point all I could do was cover my ears and say, “UMM NUM NUM NUM. I’M NOT LISTENING.” As an art historian, I would be a total bust. But as a writer of fiction, I figure I’m entitled to my imagination.

Were there any surprises along the way on your journey to publication?

Only that people liked it;-). I’ve been very fortunate to have an excellent agent, Steven Chudney, and a wonderful editor at Little, Brown, Jennifer Hunt. They were very supportive without seeming to be—a great combo for a first-time author. Their attitude throughout has been, “Of course we believe in you. Now get back to work.”

What do you know now (if anything) that you wish you had known then? Any advice you’d want to give to those still awaiting publication?

Two things: 1) Be persistent. If you give up after your first rejection you’re doing something wrong, and 2) Don’t be defensive about taking criticism. All along I wasn’t afraid to modify things and it made Primavera a much stronger book.
What was your first impression of the cover art for Primavera?

Loved it. I love the Renaissance feel, including the architectural background. Plus I like that the Flora on the cover is moving. She wouldn’t be the type to be poised and seated. Too uppity.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?

I’m a chronic tinkerer. I was changing things as long as I possibly could. It was hard work but I loved it. The worst part was that last six months waiting for the book to come out. Since there wasn’t much I could do any more, I had to sit tight and hope readers were as passionate about it as I was. It was a lot like having the pre-wedding jitters.

Now that my launch is over with I’m more relaxed. I’m working on my next novel, tentatively titled “Running the Santiam.” I enjoy being back at my desk. But I also enjoy visiting schools and talking to kids and teens about the craft of writing. I like to show them that writing a novel is hard work, but it’s doable. I really hope that budding writers with vision and persistence won’t be daunted. I hear so many horror stories of kids who’ve had teachers who say flat-out, “You can’t write.” My philosophy is: if that happens to you, you’re entitled to swear and walk out of the classroom and find a teacher who *isn’t* a giant weenie. Or if you prefer, give me the teacher’s name and I’ll get into a rumble with them in the parking lot.

Are you working on a second book? Any projects that you want to talk about?

I’m deep into my second project, Running the Santiam, which is a contemporary crime novel about a girl in rural Oregon; and at the beginning stages of a third, tentatively titled “The Hush,” about a fire at College Hall on the Wellesley College campus in 1912.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Has this always been a dream of yours?

Indeedy. I totally fit the profile of a writer’s childhood. I was asthmatic growing up and spent a lot of the school year wheezing on the living room sofa, getting through sick days with the help of The Secret Garden and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Have you always loved to read? Did you have a reading hero growing up? Someone who encouraged you to read, to lose yourself in a good book?

Yes, I’ve always been a reader. My mother was a huge influence on me. She was an English major in the 1950s—even had a chance to study with Bernard Malamud. But because of the era, didn’t have a chance to pursue her dream the way I did. I’m very fortunate.

What were some of your favorites growing up? And what are some of your favorites now?

Hoo-baby. My favorites growing up were the ones that we all read: The Secret Garden, Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time. These days I’m really enjoying Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. And I was blown away by The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecelia Galante. What lovely writing and such a powerful story.
For the grown up writers, I still love Eudora Welty and Oscar Wilde. That will never change.

Did you/do you have a favorite time and place to read?

We have this giant purple chair that’s kind community property in our house. My kids and I love to pile on it and read either together or separately. Before I had kids, my Basset Hound had the primo reading spot. He would curl up on my lap and snore. He was fat and drooly; but he was still a great reading partner.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

I don’t know about the time machine part, but it would be cool to move my crew to Italy for a year. Maybe Tuscany, more likely someplace with a beach, like Cinque Terre. Hmmm. . . art AND waves AND really good foccaccia bread . . . I’m drooling now.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Sarah Miller said...

Holy coolness!

I love knowing I'm not the only person who refers to irritating folks as "weenies."

And I'm totally going to be on the lookout for The Hush.

mo said...

Mary Jane
Would you be willing to visit my high school? I teach global history, 9th grade, and will be using your Primavera when I teach the Renaisance. The kids will love it...can't wait.