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Interview with Elle Newmark, author of "Bones of the Dead"
Elle Newmark is an award-winning writer whose books are inspired by her travels; she explored the back streets of Venice to cook up her delicious novel, “Bones of The Dead.” Elle also trekked through the rainforests of Costa Rica to write “The Cloud Forest,” and she toured India by car and elephant to write “The Devil’s Wind.” Both new books will be coming out soon, but today she is here to talk about “Bones of The Dead.”
Tyler: Welcome, Elle. I’m glad you could join me today. First of all, I understand “Bones of The Dead” is a novel with a bit of a mystery, set in fifteenth century Venice. How did you become interested in fifteenth century Venice, and what made you decide to make it the setting for your novel?
Elle: The Renaissance is an incredibly rich period for a writer to tap. Man waking up from a long intellectual nap-art, science, humanism all exploding at the same time-and most of it happening in Italy, my ancestral home. How could I resist?
Of course, Venice is utterly unique. A city of palaces built on water is an outrageous idea, and yet there it is. It’s fabulous-the pageantry, the architecture, the history-fabulous! I lived in Europe for seven years and I’ve traveled on almost every continent, but I’ve never seen any place quite like Venice.
To quote my narrator: “Venice has always been a perfect setting for secrets, seduction and the melancholy thoughts of a poet. Tainted by iniquity, Venice invites moral surrender, not with a playful wink, but with the understanding that she is, and always has been, sluttish under her regal disguise.” That’s perfect for “Bones of The Dead.”
Tyler: The main character, Luciano, is apprenticed to the doge’s chef, and together they become involved in a dangerous adventure. How would you describe their relationship?
Elle: In a rather Dickensian move, the chef plucks orphaned Luciano off a squalid street and takes him into the palace kitchen. Luciano is grateful, even though the chef has ulterior motives; he has a long-standing wish for a son and he needs an heir to a secret legacy. The chef is an enigmatic character whose real mission is slowly revealed.
But the chef and Luciano come to love each other as father and son. The chef becomes Luciano’s mentor, his protector, and his teacher-his father in the truest sense.
Tyler: In your book you use food as metaphor to advance the plot. You say, “Intrigue escalates and schemes thicken like stew while the enigmatic chef uses metaphorical soufflés and mysterious sauces to guide Luciano through a dangerous but delicious maze.” Why did you choose to use food as a metaphor?
Elle: My father is a master chef, so I suppose food-as-metaphor was inevitable. I grew up in an Italian family, and food played a central role, not only on special occasions but every day. My first job, at the age of ten, was stuffing homemade ravioli on a long, pasta-covered table in our basement. Of course, I learned to cook, and I’ve often thought the preparation of food is loaded with metaphorical possibilities. Also, I just like the notion of a culinary historical.
We talk that way all the time, don’t we? “Variety is the spice of life,” “You are what you eat,” “Dry as toast,” “The salt of the earth,” “Peaches and cream complexion,” “He stewed in his own juices.” Food engages all our senses. Everyone loves the satisfying crunch of peanuts, the narcotic aroma of fresh bread, the sight of ripe cherries, the sound of sizzling bacon. Food overwhelms the senses. One wonders whether we consume food or it consumes us.
As for metaphors, could there be a more perfect metaphor for the impermanence of life than a soufflé? Well, maybe a rose, but that’s a cliché. The soufflé blooms, it’s magnificent, and then it’s gone. Either you were present to appreciate it or you missed it. The chef’s spiritual message is “Be here now.” I’m Buddhist, so I guess when a Buddhist writer grows up with a chef you’re going to get soufflés instead of roses.
Tyler: I understand the plot revolves around Luciano learning that powerful men are plotting to unearth an ancient book rumored to contain heresies, love potions, alchemy, and even the secret of immortality. Where did you get the idea for this book?
Elle: Books were tremendously important during the Renaissance-the printing press was new and it was the dawn of humanism. Until then, the power structure in Europe maintained iron-fisted control of the people by limiting the flow of knowledge. When books presented crazy new ideas (like the earth revolving around the sun) there was trouble. Books were always monitored for seditious content.
However, there’s no squelching human ingenuity. People find inventive ways to protect their ideas, like the scrolls stuffed into jars and hidden in caves near the Dead Sea. The chef hid his subversive ideas in plain sight-he encoded them in recipes. One way or another, the written word is preserved to illuminate the past and show the way forward.
In “Bones of The Dead,” is about a book that holds forbidden secrets. Human nature being what it is, everyone thinks the book has what he wants most. Luciano wants a love potion, the old doge doesn’t want to die, one person wants gold, and another wants power. No one knows exactly what’s in this book, but they all know what they want it to be.
Tyler: Immortality and alchemy have frequently appeared as dreams or goals in fiction. What do you find fascinating about them?
Elle: I find them interesting for the same reason everyone else does. Immortality fascinates because no one wants to die. We try to fool ourselves into thinking we don’t age-we dye the gray out of our hair and we spend billions on wrinkle creams, diet plans, and cosmetic surgery because we idolize youthful beauty. Getting old isn’t cool because it smacks of death.
In spite of all that, we do die, but we achieve immortality by what we leave behind. Whether we intend it or not, we all leave something, even if it’s only a mote of DNA. Most of us make an effort to leave something more meaningful-art, skills, ideas, values. I believe we achieve immortality by passing these things along to the next generation. That’s why I dedicated this novel to teachers.
Oh, and alchemy, yes, that’s an old favorite because it speaks to something embedded deep in the human psyche. Alchemy is about greed and a wish to believe in magic. If people didn’t fantasize about getting rich quick, the lottery would go broke. Last time I checked it was doing astonishingly well.
Tyler: Why did you choose “Bones of The Dead” for the title?
Elle: The title works on several levels. First there is a scene in which the doge and the pope’s astrologer eat Italian cookies called bones of the dead. As the characters munch through the bones of the dead, they talk about the illusion of defeating death, and this introduces the theme of immortality.
Second, all the churches in Europe have catacombs and bones of saints preserved as relics. The chef points out that they are only bones, only symbols of the real legacies-lives lived with courage and wisdom, the things he wants to teach Luciano.
Third, as the chef tells Luciano, “Civilizations are built on the bones of the dead.” Teachers of every description pass knowledge from one generation to the next, and thus humanity advances. That’s why I chose the quote from Sir Isaac Newton for my epigraph: “If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Tyler: I understand the book has some political intrigue involving the Church. The novel sounds like it has a conspiracy theory feel to it. Do you feel the issues in it speak to the world’s current state of affairs?
Elle: Any novel worth its fictional salt speaks to the world in its current state, that is, to some universal theme. In medieval times, the Church wielded political influence and popes conspired with heads of state. During the Renaissance, free thinkers challenged that power structure. These days, it might not be the pope, but we all know that far-reaching deals are made behind the scenes. Politics are politics, then and now.
“Bones of The Dead” carries the message that we don’t have to be personally defeated by shrouded power struggles at the top. We can choose to live with decency and purpose, no matter what plots are hatching behind closed doors.
But if, by conspiracy theory, you’re referring to the passages about the Gnostic gospels and Jesus, well, there’s nothing in my novel that hasn’t been suggested before. It’s not new; it’s just controversial.
Tyler: Which writers or books would you say have influenced you in your writing?
Elle: Oh, there are so many. Early influences were the two Johns-Steinbeck and Updike. Steinbeck for his humanity, and Updike for lives imagined down to the last quirky detail. I also love the magical realists-Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende in particular-for the way they bend reality and take me along for the ride. Ian McEwan stuns me with his ability to portray the dark side of human nature with insight and compassion. Ann Patchett has a lovely gentle touch; Rohintin Mistry offers us a moving and unflinching look at India; Toni Morrison colors outside the lines, but brilliantly; Tim O’Brien depicts war with an admirable willingness to mine his own pain; Sebastian Faulks draws me into foreign landscapes of time and mind; Kasuo Isaguro is a genius…
Honestly, there are so many fine writers out there I could go on forever. I wish everyone would just go to a library, go to a bookstore, and try new authors. Experiment.
Tyler: What about writing historical fiction intrigues you, and do you find anything specifically difficult or frustrating about it?
Elle: I love everything about historical fiction-reading it, writing it, and researching it. What broader canvas could I ask for than the history of mankind? And what richer palette could I use than the tapestry of human experience? The historical writer draws on vast resources of human behavior, but with the benefit of hindsight.
Tyler: Would you tell us a little bit about the next two novels you have coming out?
Elle: “The Cloud Forest” tells a story of indigenous people in an Amazonian rainforest and their struggle to escape the intrusion of the 20th century. Researching that book took more than a year, as well as an unforgettable trek through a rainforest.
“The Devil’s Wind” is set in India, 1948, the year of Partition and Gandhi. That one is about the power of forgiveness, and researching it took me to India. Elephants are surprisingly easy to ride.
Tyler: Obviously you love to travel. What is it about traveling that inspires your writing?
Elle: A sense of displacement kicks my creativity into high gear. In familiar surroundings it’s easy to get into a routine and walk around half awake. But when you travel, everything is new, you don’t know what’s around the next corner and you’re awake to every moment. I’m addicted to that feeling of discovery.
To experience the world and its people is a great and humbling adventure. To write about it is a way of understanding and sharing.
Tyler: Where do you plan to travel next, and will you be researching another book?
Elle: I’d love to go back to Africa just to see more of it and, who knows, a book could come out of that. But right now I’m thinking my next book might take place in cyberspace.
I’m fascinated by the meeting-of-the-minds happening on the Internet. These days, many of us live a good chunk of our lives virtually and, as a result, our internal worlds are becoming significantly larger. We interact with people we would never otherwise encounter in our daily lives. This is unprecedented, and I’m interested in how it’s changing us.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Elle. Before we go, would you tell our readers where they find out more about “Bones of The Dead” and where to buy a copy?
Elle: With pleasure: You can visit my website at http://www.ellenewmark.com, or order “Bones of The Dead” from Amazon.
As my personal thank you, I’d like to invite everyone to a virtual Renaissance party at http://www.bonesofthedead.com on November 27. If you order Bones of The Dead that day, you can use your Amazon confirmation number as a password to get into the party. We’ll have music, I’ll be serving food for thought, and I’ll be giving away a bundle of free downloads as party favors. Invite everyone.
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