Mary Osborne's Nonna's Book of Mysteries is, like so many other good books, hard to pin into one genre. At it's heart, it's historical fiction for young adults. Though mysticism plays an important role in the book, this is strictly realistic fiction; despite the theme of alchemy, there are no wizards. But there is romance, art, intrigue and a compelling discussion of alchemy, philosophy and religion, all of which works perfectly within a story of a young Renaissance girl working with and against her society to pursue her dream.
Osborne was gracious enough to answer my questions about alchemy, art and the Renaissance. If you're looking for a summer read, add this to your list- no matter your age.
What made you realize you were a writer?
For a long time, I thought that getting published would make me a bona fide writer. The first time I saw my books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, it really was a gratifying moment. However, I think I began calling myself a writer when I started staying up late night after night to work on the Alchemy Series. A passion for the craft is what really makes you a writer.
When did you decide to write?
At Knox College I majored in chemistry and thought about a career in medicine, but then I fell in love with the creative writing program. My first short stories were awful, but my professor encouraged me to keep at it. When I told my mother I’d discovered my calling, she said, “That’s nice, but how are you going to support yourself?” I decided that I could be a nurse and still have time to write on the side. That’s exactly what I did.
Why did you write Nonna's Book of Mysteries?
I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. While working on a contemporary novel, I started reading Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy. I was fascinated by the symbolism and philosophy of the medieval science. Allusions to alchemy started showing up in my writing. An astute mentor, novelist Emily Hanlon, suggested that the bits about alchemy might be a good fit for a historical novel. I doubted my ability to write this genre, but a trip to Italy brought all the pieces of the story together.
Did you go to Italy just to research your book?
The trip to Italy was a vacation, though I selected Florence because I felt that being there would contribute to my writing process. I discovered the sense of place and time for the book just by walking the cobbled streets and sitting in the churches. Visiting the home of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Medieval author of The Decameron, in the nearby, walled city of Certaldo was especially meaningful to me. I felt as though I’d met my muse when I sat in the room where Boccaccio once wrote.
Describe your story.
Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is the tale of a young woman who dreams of becoming a painter in Renaissance Florence. Her quest is guided by her grandmother’s alchemical manual, which has been passed from mother to daughter through the centuries. Essentially, the novel is about connecting to the thing you were born to do and going for your wildest dream.
I've always been fascinated by the Renaissance and the explosion of creativity that followed as people from different cultures came together. What attracted you to this period, and how easy was it to create a story for it?
As a college student I took a wonderful class in Renaissance Art history. A number of years later, when I visited Florence and took in the magnificent works of art left behind by the masters, the Renaissance came alive for me. Much of the city remains unchanged after five hundred years, so it was easy to envision life at that time. Even so, I spent an enormous amount of time researching the period. I never parted with the enormous art history book used back in my college class and often referred to it as I wrote the book.
I think I've read enough stories about writers to last me a while, but I love reading stories about any other kind of artist. What made you decide to make Emilia a painter?
My mother was a very talented painter. In grade school, I’d come home for lunch and often find mom at work at her easel in the kitchen. Like Emilia, she struggled to define herself as an artist, and it was always a challenge to find ways to exhibit and sell her work. The life of the struggling artist is definitely a theme that’s familiar to me. When I discovered that women were not granted painters’ apprenticeships in Renaissance Italy, I began to imagine how a willful young woman might find her way around this obstacle.
So your mother knew a little something about an artist needing to support herself.
Though my mother was highly creative, she was also a very practical person. When her marriage to my father began to falter, she trained to become an interior designer. She wanted to acquire a means of supporting herself as well as to continue painting after her divorce. By example, she taught me how to live a creative life, to pursue your chosen craft over your lifetime.
There's a lot going on in your book. First, alchemy. How would you describe it?
Alchemy is the ancient science of turning lead into gold. It was a common pursuit in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; practitioners were early chemists, mixing chemicals and potions in secret laboratories. Though many alchemists were intent on the simple goal of getting rich, true alchemists saw the work as a spiritual process. They believed that the physical work was actually a metaphor for inner transformation. As the metal in the cauldron was purified, so was the practitioner’s soul. Carl Jung saw alchemy as a psychological process of finding wholeness as an individual.
I'm not a religious person- at all- but I've always loved Greek and Egyptian mythology, and ancient Greek philosophy fascinates me. I steeled myself when the conversation veered toward religion, but I ended up intrigued. You made those complicated topics accessible, I think, especially for a young audience. What else could young readers pick up if they wanted to find out more?
It’s funny you say that, because I was hoping not to alienate readers when I approached religious content in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. However Emilia’s Catholicism is true to her time; life was often interpreted in terms of church and faith in the 15th century. Renaissance minds were also fascinated with the ancient world, and manuscripts from the far away past were being sought and translated. Primary sources, like Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, are not light reading, but younger readers might be interested in reading the Greek and Egyptian myths. I still love the beautifully illustrated D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.
D'Aulaire's Greek Myths! Are you saying that because I've already mentioned it about five times on my blog? I agree- it's beautiful and informative. I started reading it when I was ten. How old were you when you picked it up?
So we have this in common! My mother gave me D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths when I was about ten years old also. I read and reread the stories, and I loved looking at the illustrations. The myths speak to the unconscious mind and provide clues to the dilemmas we all face in life. It’s a great read for any age.
When I read Nonna's Book of Mysteries, I wasn't expecting as much romance as I ended up reading. It was a pleasant surprise- I thought the romance was well done and balanced modern expectations with historical realities. I've noticed that a lot of books with strong romantic elements aren't being marketed that way. Was that a conscious decision of yours?
Now that you mention it, perhaps this aspect of the book might have been marketed. I guess we were thinking that romance was not the focus of the book or the most unique aspect of the book. Hopefully the story sends the message that while romantic relationships add great meaning to women’s lives, they do not necessarily define our lives. Young women can identify with Emilia because she does fall in love, but she still has life goals and a strong sense of self.
You wrote in a "very special guest star" into your story, Cosimo de' Medici. Were you nervous about incorporating a character who's been so well-documented?
I actually had a lot of fun writing the scene with Cosimo de’ Medici. Having already read about his life and seen him depicted in film, I had a sense of how I would portray him. The book was already underway when I stumbled upon the fact that Cosimo had commanded his scholar, Marsilio Ficino, to translate a newly discovered text written by Hermes Trisgmegistus, whose texts were very popular with Renaissance alchemists. It was a wonderful synchronicity which occurred while I was writing the book.
I love those moments of synchronicity- it almost makes you feel like you were meant to write your story.
Yes, I think moments of synchronicity are clues that we are on the correct path. They are small affirmations that suggest circumstances are lining up in a fortuitous way so that our work might be completed. I have long felt that writing the Alchemy Series is something I was meant to do. It’s a mission I’m compelled to complete.
Finally, the technical aspect: I knew Renaissance painters couldn't simply go out and buy a tube of paint from an art supply store, but I was fascinated by the process they undertook to make the different colors and what they had to do to prepare their canvasses. Did you try any of that yourself?
While I haven’t tried preparing pigments myself, I have a good friend— Joseph Malham— who is an iconographer and paints in the traditional Byzantine style. I watched him at work and observed how a panel is prepared. I also referred heavily to Linette Martin’s wonderful book, Sacred Doorways. She did a wonderful job explaining in great detail how pigments were prepared and panels were created at that time.
Why did you decide on a prequel for your next book and not a sequel?
In truth, I started writing the “prequel” before I wrote Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. While Alchemy’s Daughter –the prequel— was sitting with my literary agent, I went on to write Nonna’s. As it turned out, this was a stronger novel because I’d become a better writer by this time. So Nonna’s Book of Mysteries went out first, and Alchemy’s Daughter came back to me for revision. I’m still not quite done with the rewrite—I have a hard time letting go of manuscripts and declaring them finished!
What can you tell us about it?
Alchemy’s Daughter is the tale of Emilia’s great-great-great grandmother— Santina Pietra, who lived during the time of the great plague of 1348. She was a midwife and the original owner of the alchemical manual— or the book of mysteries.
Do you have a release date yet for Alchemy's Daughter?
The date is currently planned for June 2012. That’s if everything goes according to plan! I will be writing furiously through the autumn.
What are you working on next?
I’m sketching out the third book in the series— The Last of the Magicians. There will be a special celebrity guest star in this novel as well. In this book, the alchemical manual will travel from Italy to England. And there will also be a touch of romance!
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I'm looking forward to reading your other books.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you.
Click here to purchase Nonna's Book of Mysteries. Enjoy!