Hi, everyone! Today, I’m celebrating the release of my friend Carmela Martino’s recently released novel, Playing by Heart. Carmela’s conversation with us here is part of her celebratory blog tour. Read on, then check out the other posts at http://www.carmelamartino.com/blog/posts/2406.
Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, being the ‘second sister’ means she’ll likely be sent to a convent instead. Emilia’s only hope is to prove her musical talents crucial to her father’s quest for nobility. First, though, she must win over her music tutor, who disdains her simply for being a girl. Too late, Emilia realizes that her success could threaten not only her dreams but her sister’s very life.
Playing by Heart is inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time–one a mathematician, the other a composer. At its core, the novel is the story of two teens struggling to follow their true calling, even when it conflicts with their father’s goals. It’s a clean historical romance appropriate for ages 12 and up.
Carmela and I met at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)-Illinois revision retreat in 2013—where I think we were notable for being the only two authors crazy enough to set YA novels in the 18th century. I was working on The Last Sister and she was working on Playing by Heart.
Let’s talk first about the historical inspiration for your novel. Who were those amazing sisters? And what made you decide to invent new characters rather than fictionalizing the lives of the real people or writing a biography? (I’m going to take a guess that it has to do with available sources.)
Hi, Courtney. Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about my novel.
The main characters in Playing by Heart, Emilia Salvini, and her older sister, Maria, are inspired by two sisters who were well-known in 18th-century Milan. We have more information about the woman who inspired the character of the elder sister, Maria Salvini. She was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, a child language prodigy who was fluent in seven languages. Her studies also included math and science. By age fourteen she was solving difficult geometry problems, and she went on to write an acclaimed math textbook. Emilia Salivini, my novel’s first-person narrator, is loosely based on Maria Gaetana’s younger sister, Maria Teresa Agnesi, who was one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera.
I did originally set out to write a biography of mathematician Maria Gaetana for ages 10 and up. It was a challenging project, especially because not much remains of Maria Gaetana’s own writing besides her textbook. I kept submitting and revising, but I kept getting rejected. One of those rejections was from the Candlewick editor I worked with on my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and Maria Teresa. Both sisters had struggled to please a domineering father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.
However, lack of source material wasn’t the only reason I fictionalized Playing by Heart. It was also because I wanted to write the novel for a young-adult audience. The Agnesi sisters’ difficulties with their father didn’t get resolved until after his death. By then they were in their early 30s—too old for protagonists in a YA novel.
As authors of historical fiction for young people, we’re constantly fighting the “history is boring” stereotype. But how could history be boring? It’s about people, and people are rarely boring. What drew you to the 18th century?
The only time I find history boring is when it consists of lists of dates and names. I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, especially historical fiction that incorporates real people and events. I love learning about the past while being entertained. That’s why I tried to include so many historical details in Playing by Heart.
To answer your question about what drew me to the 18th century in particular, I have to say it was mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s story. Even though my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science, I’d never heard of Maria Gaetana until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. She’d been a celebrity in her day and could have been the first ever female university mathematics professor, but she turned the position down. Instead, she spent much of her life helping the poor and homeless. The more I learned about her, the more intrigued I became. Why hadn’t I heard of this amazing woman before? I was determined to introduce others, especially young people, to her.
Let’s talk about that “clean historical romance” label. It seems like that’s always the question when it comes to romance: how steamy is it? And these days in YA, it seems like there’s a bias toward the steamier the better. (For the record, I find all this obsession with steaminess level very silly, on whichever side of it you fall. It should be natural for the book, and characters should not be forced toward one end or the other.) But I think this is an interesting question for authors of historical fiction because we have to look at historical realities about sex, gender, and physical contact. And not always just physical contact—sometimes we’re in contexts where men and women aren’t even allowed to speak to each other. How did you end up with a “clean historical romance?”
I agree with you that the level of physical interaction should fit the context of who the characters are and the societal standards of the time. It’s funny that you mention the phrase “clean historical romance” that’s part of the novel’s description. I didn’t include that until a writer friend pointed out that many readers assume that if it’s a “historical romance” it’s going to be steamy. Anyone with those expectations would be sorely disappointed with my novel!
Interestingly, there were some details about male/female relationships that I had great difficulty researching for the novel. For example, I was unable to determine if a chaperone would have been required in the room when Emilia was having a lesson from the Maestro. (I chose not to mention it one way or the other. No one’s commented about it so far.) Most of the material I found was about life in England or France, or even Venice. But Venice was a republic in the 18th century, and a rather licentious one, as I understand. The way of life there was significantly different from that in the Duchy of Milan, which was under Hapsburg rule.
I was wondering about that, and I concluded that Milan must have been very different from those other places you mention. To be honest, when I saw “clean historical romance” and “18th century,” I kind of did a double take because the 18th century is not known for its prudishness—quite the other way around, in fact. It’s beloved of historical romance writers partly because it’s one of our more sex-obsessed eras.
Playing by Heart ended up a “clean historical romance” because, based upon my research of the real family that inspired the novel, I couldn’t imagine the physical interaction between Emilia and her love interest going beyond handholding. However, the novel does mention other characters having quite different standards, which fit with my more general research.
On a related note, you ended up publishing with Vinspire, which publishes Christian and inspirational fiction, but I didn’t have the impression that you were writing it with the idea that this was “a Christian book.” Despite identifying as Christian myself, I typically give a hard pass to “Christian novels” because I generally find the religion to be either very forced, very preachy, or very misogynistic. (And if someone can explain to me this obsession with the Amish, I will be forever grateful.) I didn’t find any of this to be the case in Playing by Heart, and I think it’s because your characters’ devout Catholicism is very natural and true to historical norms. It’s not only religion for them, it’s culture, as well. Can you talk a bit about writing a story set in a context so different from our own? How can we make it relatable (ugh, that word!) to modern readers?
Thank you. I take it as a great compliment that you found the characters’ religious beliefs to be natural and fitting. I did not set out to write a “Christian” novel, and have avoided labeling Playing by Heart as such for some of the reasons you mention, in particular, that readers will assume it will be preachy. For the record, while Vinspire does publish Christian fiction, they aren’t exclusively a Christian publisher. As it says on their website, “. . . we are a family-friendly publisher, we do not allow extreme violence, any profanity, drug use or references to drug use, smoking, or the use of alcohol by minors, or sensuality or sex in our books.”
Before I answer your questions, let me back up and say that I faced similar issues when I wrote Rosa, Sola. That novel was inspired by events from my own childhood, including a death in my family. Like me, my main character, Rosa, is the daughter of Italian immigrants who are devout Catholics, and she attends a Catholic elementary school. I felt I couldn’t write the novel realistically without mentioning Rosa’s prayer life and her anger with God in response to personal tragedy. But I tried to keep religious references to a minimum because I was hoping to be published by a secular publisher. To my surprise, after Candlewick Press offered me a contract, the editor asked me to put more of the religious aspects into the story. She wanted me to show how integral faith was to how Rosa viewed the world.
Now, to get back to Playing by Heart, I again couldn’t write the story without incorporating the characters’ religious beliefs. As you say, religion was woven into the culture, possibly even more so than how I portray it in the novel. So, how do we make it relatable to modern readers? For me, I think there are two key ways:
1) By writing the story from inside my character as much as possible. Emilia is a first-person narrator, so as I wrote, I tried to immerse myself in her point of view, like a method actor playing a role. I tried to imagine how a girl with her worldview would think and behave in every moment. I also focused on showing vs. telling. I know that advice is almost cliché nowadays, but that’s what keeps a story that deals with religion from coming across as preachy. Never does Emilia say, “I’m going down to the chapel now because I need to pray that everything will be okay.” Instead, we see her go to the chapel without thinking twice about it and we hear her specific prayers.
2) By showing my characters struggling with the same issues modern readers have. For example, Emilia is so jealous of her older sister she doesn’t recognize how gifted she herself is. Sibling rivalry is something today’s teens can relate to. They can also empathize with many of Emilia’s other concerns, such as coping with the pressure to meet parental expectations, trying to discern her life’s calling, and trying to figure out if the one she loves feels the same about her.
And one thing writers are always interested in: how did you find your publisher?
It was a long path to publication. I started submitting Playing by Heart in Fall 2011. As the rejections came in, I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. Playing by Heart did well in several contests, and even took first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City RWA Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.
(That was after the revisions I did following the 2013 retreat where you and I met.) Several of the editors and agents who judged the contests asked to see the full manuscript. Unfortunately, they all told me pretty much the same thing: Playing by Heart was well written but historical fiction is a “tough sell” in the young adult market. After studying the market, I realized that the popular YA historicals seemed to incorporate fantasy, witches, secret societies, or a murder mystery.
Yes! And I have to interrupt and say that the witch thing really bothers me. Not because I have a problem with witches (Bring on the Harry Potter and the read-alikes. The Mists of Avalon was life-changing.), but because when authors take events like the Salem witch trials and glamorize them, they’re not respecting the past, and they’re not respecting the lived experiences of the real people who were victimized. With all the concern we have today for respecting the lived experiences of other people, it’s just fine to exploit people who are dead and can’t call you on it? That’s a real problem for me.
Okay, getting back to your book:
Playing by Heart has none of that. I’d thought my sales “hook” was that the novel is inspired by two amazing 18th-century sisters who were ahead of their time. Frustrated, I set the manuscript aside and hoped the market trends would change, as often happens in publishing.
Then, in March 2016, I had the opportunity to pitch to Dawn Carrington, editor-in-chief of Vinspire Publishing as part of the 2016 Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference (CWCO). Figuring I had nothing to lose, I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer. Dawn liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Less than three months later, Dawn emailed to say she wanted to publish the manuscript!
Thanks so much for hosting this interview, Courtney. I hope your readers will visit the other stops on the Playing by Heart Blog Tour. I invite them to go to my website for the complete list of tour links and enter for a chance to win a copy of the novel:
I’ll also be hosting a Facebook Launch Party on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 7-9 p.m. Central Time, where readers can win not only copies of Playing by Heart but other great books and prizes.
Thanks for joining us, readers! I hope you’ll check out PLAYING BY HEART and stop by Carmela’s Facebook Launch Party.
Thanks for being here, Carmela!