The Book Monsters are excited to welcome Victoria Strauss. Victoria is the author of Passion Blue.
"Be sure you know your true heart’s desire, or you may find yourself surprised by what you receive."
This is the warning the Astrologer-Sorcerer gives Giulia when she pays him to create a magical talisman for her. The scorned illegitimate daughter of a Milanese nobleman, Giulia is determined to defy the dire fate predicted by her horoscope, and use the talisman to claim what she believes is her heart’s desire: true love and a place where she belongs–not likely prospects for a girl about to be packed off to the cloistered world of a convent.
But the convent of Santa Marta is full of surprises. There are strict rules, long hours of work, and spiteful rivalries…but there’s also friendship, and the biggest surprise of all: a workshop of female artists who produce paintings of astonishing beauty, using a luminous blue mixed from a secret formula: Passion blue. Yet even as Giulia begins to learn the mysteries of the painter’s craft, the magic of the talisman is at work, and a forbidden romance beckons her down a path of uncertainty and danger. She is haunted by the sorcerer’s warning, and by a question: does she really know the true compass of her heart?
Set in Renaissance Italy, this richly imagined novel about a girl’s daring journey towards self-discovery transports readers into a fascinating, exotic world where love, faith, and art inspire passion–of many different hues.
Describe your book in five words or less.
A vivid, passionate artistic journey.
What has your road to publications been like?
I wrote my first novel when I was 17, during a gap year between high school and college. I submitted it myself for a couple of years (with what I realize now was a truly awful query letter), and got some requests to read but no offers.
Then the manuscript landed on the desk of an editor who was about to transition into literary agenting. She offered me representation. It took another four years, but my agent-by-accident did finally sell the book. I worked with a wonderful editor to completely revise it, and it was published in 1982 as The Lady of Rhuddesmere.
I wrote two more YA books with the same editor. The YA market was very different then from how it is today–much more limited in what you could write about and how you could write about it. Authors like Judy Blume managed to break the mold—and became controversial as a result–but many publishers weren’t open to darker themes or edgy characters or unhappy endings. So I decided to switch to the adult market, where I felt I could be freer. I stayed there for my next four books.
In the meantime, Harry Potter happened, completely transforming the YA world. These days it seems there’s almost nothing that’s off-limits in YA. More than that, it has become an incredibly vibrant, exciting field that’s generating some of the most amazing writing coming out of any genre. I’m thrilled to be returning to it with Passion Blue.
How did the idea for Passion Blue come to you?
It actually came from an editor who read one of my earlier books. She liked the historical setting, and asked if I’d be interested in writing a historical novel about astrology—something she said she’d always wanted to read.
I loved the suggestion. After some research I came up with an idea for parallel storylines, one set in 15th century Italy and one in the present day, about two girls searching for their heart’s desire and linked by an enchanted astrological talisman. There was danger, betrayal, magic, and forbidden romance. I thought I had a winner.
But when my agent started shopping the manuscript, the editors who read it all loved the Renaissance storyline but didn’t care for the contemporary one. That was a very tough reality check. After much debate, I decided to abandon the contemporary storyline and make Passion Blue a single-viewpoint story featuring my Renaissance heroine, Giulia. It was extremely challenging to re-vision the book—not as simple as just cutting out one half of the story, because I’d designed the two storylines to mesh. But it was the right decision. The new book found a wonderful home, and I now have a novel I’m really proud of.
With Passion Blue being set in Renaissance Italy, what was the research process like in writing Passion Blue?
Giulia is a talented artist, and a good chunk of the book takes place in an artist’s workshop. The painting techniques of the Renaissance were very different from those today, and I had the fantastic luck of finding a local artist who paints in the classical style. He let me spend an afternoon in his studio, watching him prepare painting surfaces, mix paint, and work with both oil and egg tempera. It gave me a hands-on feel for how Giulia and her fellow painters would have worked, and what they would have seen, smelled, and touched.
Other than that—a lot of library research. I live near the campus of the University of Massachusetts, which has an excellent research library where I found books on astrology, art, painting, Renaissance magic, and Italian convents. The Internet was a major resource also. It’s amazing what you can find online. If you want a video demonstration of how to use an astrologer’s astrolabe, just go to YouTube. If you want to know about Renaissance underwear, check out the many costumers’ websites.
The one thing I wasn’t able to do was travel–the budget didn’t allow. But I visited Italy when I was a teenager, and have some vivid memories to draw on.
Passion Blue puts an emphasis on female artists, did the inspiration for this topic come from a personal love of artwork or somewhere else?
Absolutely from my personal love of art! I’ve always adored paintings (despite having not a shred of artistic talent myself)–especially the paintings of the Italian Quattrocento. One of the best things about visiting Italy in my teens was going to museums. Seeing the Botticellis in the Uffizi in Florence was life-changing (no exaggeration).
99.999% of the Renaissance artists you see in museums are male. 14th and 15th Italy was an incredibly restrictive place for women, who had limited rights and few options other than becoming wives or nuns. I didn’t realize until I took art history courses in college that that there actually were female Renaissance painters—not many, but a few, who against all odds managed to establish and maintain painting careers.
I became fascinated by these women, who were dismissed by their contemporaries as dabblers or freaks of nature, and whose art was nearly forgotten in the centuries after their deaths (modern scholars, thankfully, are re-discovering them). Passion Blue allowed me to show readers a little of their hidden world. Giulia’s teacher, Maestra Humilità Moretti, is based on a real painter nun named Plautilla Nelli, who was famous during her lifetime but whose paintings have mostly been lost.
What's next for you? Are you currently working on or have plans for future projects? Can we get any hints?
I’m working on a sequel to Passion Blue (no title yet—I’m superstitious about titles and don’t decide on one until well on in the writing process), which will take Giulia to the exotic and sometimes deadly city of Venice. After that, I have an idea for a YA gothic about a girl whose father, a professional poisoner, keeps her shut up in his palace, where she tends his garden of deadly plants. Until, one day, a fugitive thief climbs in over the walls…
Learn more about Victoria and Passion Blue:
Victoria Strauss is the author of eight novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone fantasy duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and Passion Blue, a YA historical. In addition, she has written a handful of short stories, hundreds of book reviews, and a number of articles on writing and publishing that have appeared in Writer’s Digest, among others. She’s co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Author Website: http://www.victoriastrauss.com/