Thank you, Maggie Burleson for hosting me today at Merlot Et Mots!
Q and A with Amazon Bestselling Thriller Author Belle Ami
The Girl Who Loved Caravaggio
- Why did you choose to write about artists and specifically, Caravaggio?
All of my books in the Out of Time Series, feature factual truth and emotional truth. They follow the lives of real people as well as fictional characters. I love blending fact and fiction. But in every story I create, there is an emotional truth, even if the character is made up in my head. I like to write about artists that I love. It just so happens, that the artists I love also led complicated, often dramatic, and tragic lives. I can always dig up a mystery in their pasts. Always. For example, in my latest book, The Girl Who Loved Caravaggio, I based the plot in the present-day timeline on a real painting by Caravaggio that was stolen and has yet to be found. It’s considered one of the most notorious art thefts in history. The fictional or dramatic story follows my heroine Angela Renatus and her fiancé Alex Caine as they seek to find the painting, and in so doing solve a mystery about who Caravaggio was, and why he was labeled a volatile and violent man. But the emotion in the story is true. What these characters feel is what we all feel — love, fear, desire, and betrayal — this is the heart of every good story because it is at the heart of our very human nature.
- What research did you have to do for this book, and what was the most interesting for you?
I do a tremendous amount of research for every book I write. And by research, I don’t mean just Google and Wikipedia. I read research books. Big. Fat. Research Books. For The Girl Who Loved Caravaggio I read several research books, took copious notes, and created a thick research binder. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s brilliant Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, is a detailed biography of the artist’s life and an in-depth analysis of his paintings, and I read The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. Both books were influential resources. From the facts of Caravaggio’s life and his tragic demise, I was able to create my vision of Caravaggio in my book.
- What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
To be honest, I don’t have a problem with writing from the male point of view. In many ways, it’s easier for me. Perhaps because writing about women is too close to home. When I write about men, I can have a more objective point of view. I have a son and I’m married, and most of my best friends in life have always been men. I enjoy how direct many men are. I enjoy picking their brains and hearing what they have to say on a variety of topics. Let’s face it, men and women think differently.
- Are all the books based on Angela’s and Alex’s past lives, or will we see others intertwined?
Funny, you should ask. The next book in the series will follow a female artist. I’m working on crafting the story as we speak. In the first three books, Angela was friend, muse, or the daughter of the artist in her past lives. But in my next book, Angela will be the artist in her past life. The other aspect of this is my exploration of the struggle of a female artist competing in a man’s world at a time when it was extremely challenging for a woman to be recognized as a professional artist. Women, until the 20th century have rarely found success or recognition as artists.
- What do you think are the ethics about writing such historical figures? Or what are your do’s and don’ts?
I work very hard not to change the facts of history. I’m a stickler for historical detail. I try to address the customs, culture, and mores of society at the time of the artist’s life. I also research the geography, the clothing, and especially the food. I’m a gourmet cook and food matters to me and all of my books have food-gasms. Another factor that I enjoy tremendously is analyzing the paintings. My heroine, Angela Renatus, who is a Ph.D. in art history shares her analysis of the paintings that she and Alex encounter. So I get to play art historian too. And that’s fun because art history is a life-long passion of mine. But for the rest — the emotional parts especially — it’s all unknown. And that is what intrigues me and allows me to fill in the blanks and create a sense of the artist’s emotional life as well as the lives of the people he/she loved. But at the end of the day, what matters is — do I get the emotional truth right? I hope that I do.
- Do you feel like it’s most important to have A) Strong characters B) Mind-blowing Plot twists or C) Epic settings?
In my books, I have to say A, B, and C. You can’t write a successful book without strong characters. The reader isn’t going to care about your book unless the characters are worth caring about. Even the antagonists need to be engaging. They must be hated or feared, but they need to have a pervading truthful motivation for their actions. I must confess, I like to create bad guys that have some simpatico characteristics. I have a theory that even the worst scum of the Earth has something about them that isn’t all bad. Maybe they have a pet that they treat with love, or maybe there’s a reason for their evil. Something that happened to them that made them the way they are. It doesn’t excuse them by any means, but it makes them believable as characters.
As far as plot, if I don’t have a plot that intrigues me and pushes me to explore and think, I get bored. If I’m bored, then the reader will be bored. Even nursery rhymes can have exciting plots. Take Jack and Jill, for instance. Jack goes up the hill, falls, and breaks his head, and Jill comes tumbling after. My goodness, does he live, does he die? Did Jill push him and then slip? Was it premeditated murder? You see where this is going, plot twists keep the reader turning pages.
Epic settings create the ambiance, the romance, and without them, the story would have no flesh, no substance. The artists I’m writing about in this series lived in Rome, Florence, Sicily, Amsterdam, Naples, Malta, to name but a few of the places. That doesn’t include all of the places where Angela and Alex find themselves. The setting is the tapestry on which the story is woven, without it, the books would be colorless and dull.
- What was your hardest scene to write?
Believe it or not, the opening scene of the book where Caravaggio fights the duel in which he kills his opponent Ranuccio Tommasoni, a pimp. Through my research, I discovered that swordfights are the most difficult to write because they only last about two minutes. To capture and give justice to what is an art form in and of itself and bring to life a deadly drama of a one-on-one battle to the death, is difficult. I’m very proud of that scene, it may be one of the best I’ve ever written.
- What is your favorite genre to read, and why?
I don’t have a favorite genre. I’m an avid reader and reviewer and have been my entire life. In non-fiction, I love biographies and history. In fiction, I read, literary, thrillers of all kinds, including art thrillers, military and espionage thrillers, and psychic and domestic thrillers. I love time-travel, mysteries, romantic suspense, and paranormal. Really there aren’t many categories I don’t read or won’t try. Reading and reviewing other great writers inspires me too.
- Do you write any secret eggs in your books, if so, can you give a hint?
In The Girl Who Loved Caravaggio, I included Angela’s mother, a woman Angela believes is dead. Madame X, Natalia Rozanova, aka Anastasia Dolya, is an ex-KGB agent who abandoned her husband and Angela when Angela was a baby. She turned into a secret egg for me and therefore my readers, because in The Girl Who Knew da Vinci in book 1, Angela told Alex her mother had died in childbirth. We also have a villain whom we never “meet” and she goes by the name Madame X. Well who is Madame X? I was prepared to keep her “in the background” and a “mystery” for a while. But my editor started bugging me to bring Madame X to life on the page. Not as a “background villain” but a real character. So I did. I made her Angela’s mom! Happy Easter Egg! Natalia/Anastasia is an arms dealer, art collector, a criminal of sorts, and wealthy beyond measure. Alex has been sworn to secrecy by Oliver, Angela’s father, to never reveal Natalia’s existence. Angela believes her mother died giving birth to her. Although Natalia plays no role in Rembrandt, how could I not bring back such a fabulous character? Stay tuned for the return of Madame X in an upcoming book.
- Which book is your favorite, why?
This is a tough question to answer. I love all of my babies for different reasons. I love The Girl Who Knew da Vinci because it’s where Alex and Angela meet and fall in love. I love it because it perfectly reflects one of the principles of reincarnation, that not only are we working out karma in our lives, but we’ve known the same people before. Although it was challenging to manage, I loved writing three timelines with six main characters, not including Leonardo da Vinci.
In The Girl Who Loved Caravaggio, writing about Caravaggio, whom I believe is incredibly misunderstood, was a great learning experience. It made me realize that history, particularly centuries old history, can be altered by and rewritten by people who weren’t there during the life of the artist. In Caravaggio’s case, many of his early biographers had personal reasons or biases for straying from the truth, whether it be jealousy, dislike, contempt, or personal prejudice. Those early biographies influenced everything ever written about the man and his life. Much of what was written about him was skewed and misinterpreted.
In The Girl Who Adored Rembrandt, I crafted a story from the missing pieces of Rembrandt’s life. One of the suppositions I ask is, why did Rembrandt never paint his daughter, Cornelia? Rembrandt painted everyone else in his family. In fact, he painted almost everyone he ever met. He painted his son numerous times, his wife, his lover, and his common-law wife, Hendrickje. Why not his daughter? I found it curious, so I created a story about his relationship with Cornelia and it turned out to be one of the most poignant stories I have ever written. I still cry when I read the ending.