Donna Russo Morin is a lady after my own heart. She loves historical fiction and videogames and is a superb writer whose stories of the renaissance era are filled with colour, adventure and intrigue. I review her latest book "The Kings Agent" here and she very kindly took time out from her latest writing project to answer some questions for Sir Read-A-Lot's loyal subjects.
1. How did you develop the story of The King’s Agent?
Ah, I love this story almost as much as I love the story itself. I was doing research for my third book, To Serve a King, which entailed a great deal of study on Francois I. For those that may not know, Francois was the king of France when Henry VIII was king of England. But he was also the king so obsessed with art, that his collection became the inception of the museum we now call the Louvre. It was during this research that I found true life personage, Battista della Palla; he was Francois’ art agent, ‘the king’s agent’. He was mandated, by the king, to bring to France the great works of the Italian Renaissance painters, by whatever means necessary. Battista, his character and mission, so captivated me that I felt he deserved his own book. I had planned to ‘create’ a relationship between Battista and Michelangelo so that I could feature the artist in the book. It was as if I had hit the lottery when I found letters between the two men; letters that revealed a strong and loving bond between them.
Now, add into the mix the fact that all of my books are semi-biographical in nature in that the theme reflects a strong condition or emotion I am feeling at the time I’m developing the story. Aurelia, Battista’s female, fictional counterpart, is a woman who longs for nothing more than to shake off the shackles of a life devoted to duty, one overburdened by that duty. The girl just wants to have fun. When she is swept up into Battista’s quest…a romp that takes us across the Italian countryside and exposes her to some life-threatening danger, she does just that…the girl has fun while still serving her life’s purpose. I guess a reflection of my hope for myself.
2. How did you come to create the character of Battista della Palla and his band of brothers?
Well, as I said, Battista was a real man. The more I learned of Battista, the more I learned he was a charismatic, gutsy, larger-than-life rogue of a man. A man whom women want and men want to be. A man who, through his charm and his own largesse, would easily gather a group of spirited men about him. Now that I think about (truly this is just occurring to me as I write) he is the George Clooney character in the Ocean’s Eleven series of movies. I love men and I love the type of comedic camaraderie that can exist in a group of men who live on life’s edge. It was just this type of colleagues that I hoped to create.
3. Historical adventures are a favourite of mine and I really enjoyed the tasks you created for Battista and Aurelia to undertake. How were they created?
I smile at this question for it is yet another facet of this story that I myself enjoyed. Like you, I adore historical adventures. So, we have Aurelia who is conceived out of my own desire to just have some fun. One of my favourite ways to have fun is to play video games; it asks nothing of me but the use of my own wiles. My favourite game is The Legend of Zelda, an action adventure, questing type of game and I knew I wanted to pay homage to the game in the book. The symbol of the game is called a triforce (which I now have as a very small but poignant tattoo). It is a triple triangle within a triangle, symbolic of wisdom, courage, and strength. For me it also stands for the Law of Attraction—Ask, Believe, Receive—as well as the triangle of me and my two sons, three who survived a very difficult situation together. Throw that all into the mix and I knew I wanted Battista and Aurelia’s quest to come in three parts. What greater three part artistic achievement is there than Dante’s Divine Comedy? And there it was…that magnificent aha moment that writers encounter now and again, if they’re blessed. The tasks or challenges Battista and Aurelia face, then, are an amalgamation…a convergence with pieces of the three canticles of the Comedy…Inferno, Purgatory, and Hell…with a sprinkling of the puzzles found in The Legend of Zelda.
4. Are you writing anymore stories involving Battista?
He is one of those characters who do possess infinite possibilities. At book club appearances and other such functions, I have been asked about his earlier years…how he came to be the rapscallion as depicted in The King’s Agent. My mind is tickled by the idea and I’ve put that sentence in my journal of ‘Possible Stories.’ (I have five journals, that one is dedicated to the story ideas that jump into my mind like rabbits in springtime). The answer, then, is perhaps.
5. How easy did you find it to weave some of history’s most famous people into a fictional setting where they actually influenced your plot rather than just appeared as supporting characters?
In my particular methodology of writing, I come up with the basic idea for the story and then I research and research and research, ad nauseum, the period and people in which I will set them. I then build—or flesh out my story—to work around the real life people and events. In other words, I don’t create a story set in stone and force the historical characters to work with my story; I force my story to work with the period and the people and let the truth effect my plot.
6. Can you tell me how you began writing and what drew you to writing historical novels?
I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a writer. I’ve been writing stories since I possessed the ability to write, at first silly childlike stories of bunnies and playful things. I turned eleven in 1969, the Summer of Love, and my writing turned to anti-war poetry and treatises on equality for women (I’d have burned my bra had they made one small enough to fit me). In the mid-seventies, a new author took the book world by storm, and I followed the King down the twisted, intestine-strewn path that is horror. I spent many years in this perverse world, the gore becoming tempered with mythical creatures as I discovered C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. (Years later two of those horror shorts appeared in critically acclaimed, if poorly read anthologies.) During these nebulous years, I also managed to obtain a couple of degrees at my state university.
In the years between, I mapped out a fairly successful freelance career while working a ‘day job’ in public relations and advertising. In addition to inclusion in the two anthologies, I was on staff at a local magazine, and my book review career, which began in 1988, hit a pinnacle of sixty published reviews, including publication in The Milwaukee Journal, The Hartford Courant, and Foreword Magazine.
Novel writing was always the ultimate goal. It took me seven years to write my first novel--giving birth to two boys at the same time--a medieval fantasy liberally laced with horror. It sits in my hope chest still, though I still have ‘hope’ for it.
In the summer of 2002, I came down with what I thought was the flu. After two and a half years and more doctors than I care to remember, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Six weeks later, my father passed away from cancer. I retreated from the world and into my books and writing. I re-watched The Three Musketeers (1973 version) and remembered how much I loved it and all the Musketeer stories. I remembered how I wanted to look like Rachel Welch/Constance (who doesn’t?) but I wanted to be Michael York/D’Artagnan. The idea for The Courtier's Secret, my first book, was born. It was a startling realization that I wasn’t writing what I most loved to read…historical fiction. It started as early as middle school and the first reading of Gone With The Wind and continued on in college with works by Leon Uris, James Michener, John Jakes, and Rosalind Laker. Finding ‘my voice’ in that manner is what finally brought me publication. While being treated for the Lyme, I conducted nine months of research and wrote the first draft in nine weeks. The rest, as they say is ‘history’.
7. Like me you are a videogame fan. What games do you like to play and which console do you play on?
I do prefer console play and I am a bit of a Nintendo devotee, which is the only place you can find The Legend of Zelda. Though with two sons, young men of 19 and 22 in college but still living home, all three systems—Ninetendo, PS3, and XBOX reside in our home. I am most partial to action adventure games; I favour the combination of puzzle-solving, treasure finding, and fighting games to the straight first person shooter (though I do like simple shooting at times) or the simple side-scrolling platforms. I guess there is an appreciation of sorts, as a writer, to the games where in depth world-building was taken into consideration in the conception of the game. Hmmm, let’s see…history lover, serious video game player…yes, I wear my ‘Nerd’ badge proudly.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring historical fiction novelists?
Make sure that you love the genre and that this is truly ‘your voice.’ There’s that old, archaic adage which states that you should write what you know (a ridiculous notion or there wouldn’t be historical fiction, would there). But I cannot stress enough that a historical fiction writer knows their topic completely. Research, research, research. Gather three to four times the amount of material than you will ever use in your novel. Not only will this make your story richer—for you will have a profusion of information from which to pick out the best—but it will also make the writing process move quicker; you won’t be forced to stop writing to gather more information. And flow—being in the ‘zone’ and not having to step out—is crucial, I believe, to good writing. Also write about the periods and places that interest you the most; don’t just jump on the Tudor wagon (or other such wagon) just because you believe it is the historical fiction that will say. Write your best book and it will say and it just might become the ‘next big era.’
9. Fun Question – which three characters from history would you invite for dinner?
Thomas Jefferson, Marie Antoinette, and Mary Magdalene. In the case of Mr Jefferson, I would love to hear his version of the events that so captivate me. In the case of Marie Antoinette, I long to discover her side of the story; to allow her the chance to separate myth from fact. As for Mary Magdalene, she was, aside from all else, a mother who gave her life for that of her child. To speak with her, to empathize with the sacrifice, to console her, I would consider a great gift. (In a complete cheat, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Ben Franklin would also get a seat at my table, or the party would not be complete.)
10. Fun Question – at which event in history would you like to have been a fly on the wall?
The American Revolution (oh, perhaps that won’t go over too well with this particular audience). But I am in awe of what the people of that moment in time accomplished. And actually, I would have liked to have been a part of any revolution, such as those that took place in France. Or the one that brought the wall down in Germany. It may be the influence of the ‘60s in which my childhood took place, perhaps it is my own passionate spirit…but I firmly believe that we, the citizens of the world, need to be the catalyst and the tools for its betterment, not just our own.
Thank you Donna for a candid and inspiring interview! Head over to my Giveaway Page and leave a comment to win your very own copy of "The King's Agent"!