I am in the final stages of writing my third novel. Set amongst the world of the silk industry in 18th century Italy, Amsterdam and London I am, once again, intermingling fact and fiction.
I am often asked where I get my ideas. My first novel, ‘The Girl with Emerald Eyes’, was set in the world of twelfth century Italy. It was inspired by a personal experience when my husband was taken ill while making a film about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The second book: ‘Daughters of the Silk Road’ was a huge leap of faith from my publisher. ‘I have an idea about a Ming vase,’ I told her at our initial meeting. ‘Someone inherits a Ming vase and doesn’t understand what they have sitting in their hall. Of course, it turns out to be valuable. I’ll develop a historical storyline to intermingle with it – perhaps exploring how the vase arrived in Europe.’
‘I’ll have that,’ she said. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘That was easy.’ Not so easy perhaps, as I then had to write it. Fortunately for me, several weeks of research threw up the remarkable Italian merchant explorer Niccolo dei Conti who returned to Venice in 1444, following twenty-five years travelling in the Middle and Far East. He wrote a fascinating account of his time abroad in which he referred to a meeting with the legendary Admiral Zheng He – a favourite of the Chinese Emperor Xuande (1426 – 1435). This was the hook I needed. Could Niccolo have brought back with him a Ming vase that survived him and his descendants until the present day? It might stretch credibility a little… could such a vase survive the rough and tumble of everyday life for over six hundred years? And could someone inherit such a vase and not realise its true value?
I chose a particular Ming storage jar as ‘my vase’, and had it pinned to my notice-board throughout the time I was writing the story. Made in the time of Emperor Xuande, and now in a museum, the Dragon Jar was remarkable because the claws of the dragon (a favourite motif of Ming china) had only three claws, indicating that it was intended for a royal recipient. In my novel, this vase is inherited by my modern character – a young divorced mum of a teenage daughter – who doesn’t know its worth, and uses it as a mere receptacle for car keys and dried flowers.
Amazingly, just two weeks after the book was published, an almost identical vase was sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong for $158 million [£16m]. This Dragon Jar – also made under the reign of Emperor Xuande – had been used by its owners as an umbrella stand! Coincidence? Or a case of life imitating art?
What of my current novel, set in the 18th and 21st century silk industries? For me, it’s important that the setting provides more than a mere backdrop: it also has to allow me to immerse myself in a subject that will hold my interest for at least a year while I’m researching and writing. My first novel revolved around architecture – a subject that is close to my heart, as my parents were both architects. My second was about blue and white china – something I have loved since childhood. Where then did the passion to write about silk come from? It is a fabric that I love to wear. It’s used in everything from underwear to furnishings, and even to medical instruments. It’s as strong as steel. But these are merely rational arguments for writing about a subject, and the truth is that most novelists don’t employ logic when choosing a subject for a story. In my case, I simply woke up one morning with a powerful sensation that silk would be the setting for the next novel. Slowly, piece by piece, elements of the story came together. A friend took me to see an exhibition of the works of the botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian. Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Maria Sybilla was remarkable in many ways. Appreciated in her own life-time for her work as both an artist and an entomologist, her output was considerable. Her beautiful paintings of flowers, plants and insects were triggered by her initial fascination, as a thirteen-year old child, with silk moths. They were her first love, and she continued to record the process of the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths throughout her long career. Given that the silk moth is the starting point for the process of creating silk, I was keen to weave her story into my novel.
Interestingly she also divorced during her life – an unusual event in itself in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I did some research on divorce in Italy and discovered a fascinating collection of court documents that revealed how many women sought divorces at that time, particularly in Venice, where the Patriarchal Courts held sway. I have never been divorced myself, but appreciate that although it can be a traumatic experience for many people, for a woman who is deeply unhappy – or forced into an arranged marriage – it can prove a liberation. Her release from an unhappy marriage can also be a kind of metamorphosis.
At about the same time, I discovered that the modern Italian silk industry is currently undergoing a revival in the Veneto region. Once the foremost silk producing region in Italy, it suffered a decline in the 1960s due to the overuse of pesticides in their mulberry orchards. With no indigenous silk for their mills, they started to import the raw material from the Far East. A local international businessman, whose own family had been involved in silk for generations, decided to reverse this trend and has begun to revive the industry that had once been the bedrock of the local economy. In the days of Palladio, the legendary Italian architect, it is calculated that over four thousand of his finest villas were built using wealth produced by the Veneto silk industry.
I have combined these elements in the novel, which will be published in late Spring 2017. Title yet to be decided.
This post is brought to you by Debbie Rix.