When The Floating Book was
launched in the United States, Michelle Lovric was asked to explain how
she came to write about Venice.
I first saw Venice when I was eighteen years old.
Standing on the deck of a vaporetto steaming up the Grand Canal, I
felt something click into place. I remember physically nodding just once
in a decisive manner, an acknowledgment to the contract that I made in
that moment. I already knew that I wanted to be a writer, and had begun
training as a journalist. But now I had agreed to be a writer about
Half of these notes never see the printed page: when ‘loose’ in Venice, I lack that organ of discrimination a novelist needs to keep a story in focus. Often I must return to London, to look at the blank wall behind my desk and the screen, in order to beat myself into some semblance of order and produce a readable book, rather than an effluvium of effusions.
Then, when the manuscript has heaped up in piles, I take it back to Venice and walk it around the city, rereading each scene in the exact location where it takes place, refreshing each description with the sounds and smells that could not reach my imagination when it crouched over the faceless grey computer in London.
In both cities, I live a waterbound life. I always have. I was born by the ocean in Sydney, lived many years by the sea in Devon. These days my London home is a Georgian wharf on the Thames that looks over railway bridges and skyscrapers to Saint Paul’s. I prefer not to compare this dramatic but industrial view to the grace and fantasy of the Grand Canal: the feeling is too painful, for when I am not in Venice I resent, with a childish bitterness, the fact that Venetian life continues without me, that the cappuccini are still served at the Bar da Gino without me, that sun still sets over Zattere without me, that the squid still writhe in their metal trays at Rialto without me to pity them.
Sometimes I think that Venice is the font of all stories. Whatever item of research captures my imagination, I am inevitably led back to her, even when I do not plan on it. When I decided to write the life-story of Catullus’s poems, from their composition to their first publication, I assumed that the novel would be set in Verona, because that is where the original manuscript was found. However, magically, it turned out that the first edition was printed in Venice, by a German who married a Venetian woman, and soon I was there again, holding in my hand a manuscript of Catullus (so valuable that it has its own little diary of everyone who touches it) in a room painted with the names of the noblemen who came to inhabit The Floating Book as its chorus of characters.
Next I investigated charlatan doctors of the eighteenth century for The Remedy. At the beginning of my research I did not know where it would lead me. Back to Venice, of course, the crossroads and crucible for all quack medicines, as it turned out. London quacks even pretended to be Venetian to gain the confidence of their victims. And what was their favourite ingredient? Venetian treacle, made from vipers. And so it goes on. I am no longer surprised, but only gloat about these discoveries. Since researching The Floating Book, I have come to feel it is inevitable that my books will be set in Venice, perfumed by the city, no matter what or whom they are about.
People who read The Floating Book may be surprised to learn one other thing about it. Large sections of the book were originally written as poems and only later deconstructed into prose. For me it is important that the words have an auditory flavour, but more to the point, the discipline of poetry forces the writer to ask more of each phrase. Being a book about poetry, this exercise was all the more purposeful. In London I belong to several writers’ workshops, where I ‘expose’ my fledgling novels in their poetic forms. Now I have helped to set up a poetry school in Venice for English-speaking writers. Venice can block and obfuscate some writers, just as she goads others into torrents of words. They don’t even have to be about Venice …
Once a writer-friend came to Venice to stay with me, and we wrote in industrious, companionable silence in the same room overlooking the Grand Canal for two weeks. I drafted chapters of The Floating Book and she worked on her own novel. We did not discuss or read each other’s work. But back in London she did show me what she had written. I was astonished, not to say vaguely offended, to see that Venice featured not at all, except in the form of a postcard propped up on her heroine’s mantelpiece. It was brilliant, subtle.
I could never be so abstemious.
Copyright ©Michelle Lovric 2005
For permission to use this piece or extracts from it please contact my agent Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath www.amheath.com