Five Questions for Author Roberta Rich
Zoomer chatted with the first-time novelist and former lawyer about The Midwife of Venice from her winter home in Mexico (Rich divides her time between Vancouver and Colima). As a large iguana clattered about the roof, Rich talked about her inspirations, working on the sequel and the benefits of writing courses.
Athena McKenzie: I understand it was on a trip to Venice that you knew this was what you wanted to write. Can you tell us about that?
Roberta Rich: I got the idea when my husband and I were in Venice about four or five years ago. We were on the walking tour and ended up in the Venetian ghetto. We had a wonderful guide and she threw a few tantalizing facts at us. That’s when my curiosity peaked and I started doing some reading. I had never been very interested in history before that. I used to read a lot of historical novels as a kid but not a huge amount as an adult. Something just clicked in my mind. I thought, “What did people do? What was it like? How did they live? What did they cook?”
AM: Some details are pretty startling. Did you ever wonder if you should hold back?
RR: Well, you write these things as they come to you and if you write with any kind of passion, you write it all. If it seems too over the top you’ve always got an editor looking over your shoulder who might say, “You know what? Tame this down a little bit!” I’m working on the sequel now and I have some gruesome things in it too. I don’t know where it comes from. I just put it in. If Random House thinks it’s too much, they’ll let me know.
AM: What are your future plans for Hannah and Isaac?
RR: Well, Hannah and Isaac have settled in Constantinople. They’re doing well. Isaac has established a pretty prosperous business that makes silk tents for the Imperial Palace. Years ago I did a tour of the Topkapi Palace and they had a display of these gorgeous silks. Ladies of the harem used to have picnics in them. They would take the tents and send them out to the islands and they would spend all day lulling around drinking sherbet and eating lokum and sitting in these beautiful silk tents. That gave me the idea for Isaac’s profession. All is going well – too well of course and all hell breaks loose. Hannah is a midwife to the Imperial Harem. She delivers the Sultan’s babies, he’s sired quite a few. She gets involved in the intrigues of the Harem and gets involved with the Queen Mother and the eunuchs.
Then her sister-in-law arrives from Rome and it’s not clear what she’s after. Things do not go well for this poor woman for very long!
AM: Why was it important for you to include Isaac’s voice, as well as Hannah’s, in the Midwife of Venice?
RR: Structurally I’ve always liked that technique of having two separate points of view and two parallel stories that eventually converge. I originally was thinking of Hannah’s life – her back-story and her hopes and dreams. Of course that included Isaac and I started thinking of what kind of character he might be. Then I started reading about piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean; Isaac was a pretty ambitious guy and he decided to do some trading and he got caught. If you do research on the history of this area in that time period it was really very rich and very interesting. I thought, “This has too rich of a historical vein to ignore, so I’ll just have an Isaac character and see if I can write a male character convincingly.”
AM: I’ve read that before you wrote this novel you took several writing courses. What do you think can be gained from courses such as this?
RR: I am a huge taker of writing courses. I love the camaraderie of it because writing can be a very lonely occupation. I’ve made a lot of really good friends over the years through writing classes and I’ve always learned something. I’ve taken writing classes from Joy Fielding, Peter Robinson and James Frey and quite a number of people and I just think there’s always something to be learned from every writing teacher. When people tell me they’re interested in writing I also tell them to get a group together and pass your stuff around and be honest and direct with each other about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been a part of a writing group for close to 15 years. The other thing that you learn from other writers and teachers is that it’s not so much about writing. It’s about sitting in the chair for six hours a day, or whatever, and pounding out 2000 words.