Novelist and poet Barbara Quick is best known as author of the 2007 international favorite Vivaldi’s Virgins, still in print, translated into 13 languages, made into an audiobook, and currently in development as a mini-series by Lotus Pictures. Winner of the Discover: Great New Writers prize for her first novel, Northern Edge, Barbara was awarded the 2020 Blue Light Press Poetry Prize for her debut chapbook, TheLight on Sifnos. Barbara’s fourth novel, What Disappears—over a decade in the making—was launched by Regal House on May 17th. Five of Barbara’s poems were recorded by Garrison Keillor and featured on The Writer’s Almanac last year. She has been a frequent guest—most recently on May 2nd, on Grace Cavalieri’s archived program from the Library of Congress, “The Poet and the Poem,” which has featured both her poetry and her novels. One of her poems was published as a full-page spread in the May 2022 issue of Scientific American. Her 2010 novel from HarperTeen, A Golden Web—about the 14th century teenage anatomist Alessandra Giliani—continues to intrigue and attract historical fiction fans. A trained dancer and avid organic gardener, Barbara is based with her husband, violist and vigneron Wayne Roden, on a small farm and vineyard in Sonoma County. More at BarbaraQuick.com
Welcome to my blog, Barbara. I’m wondering, how do you come up with book titles?
Both a book’s title and its cover convey crucial first impressions, to book buyers, book review editors and, in the end, to readers. They’re part of the marketing end of things, which is quite possibly (probably!) not the author’s area of expertise. I felt strongly about the title What Disappears for my fourth and latest novel. The words just seemed right to me, in the way that a line of poetry can and should feel just right—the right music, the right meaning. Jaynie [Jaynie Royal, BQ’s editor at Regal House] gently suggested that I might want to come up with another title, one that conveyed more specific information about the novel’s time, place, and story. I was adamant, though—and, lucky for me, the cover designer conveyed all of that beautifully via the jacket art, and the more universal, more purely literary title I wanted was allowed to stay.
My second novel was set among the girls and women of the Ospedale della Pietà, the cloistered foundling home Venice where Antonio Vivaldi was resident priest and composer in the 18th century. When the book was in the editorial pipeline at HarperCollins, the marketing team nixed the title I wanted (“too long, too Italian!”). Honestly, they may have been right. I came up with four pages of alternative titles—and Vivaldi’s Virgins was the one they chose. I have no one to blame but myself! I should only have proposed titles that I’d be happy living with. I wanted something that would be the English language equivalent of “la prediletta di Vivaldi”—Vivaldi’s favorite. Vivaldi’s Virgins made the book sound a little tawdry, which it isn’t at all. Still in print after 15 years, amazingly enough—and slated to become a mini-series—the book’s contents have informed the title, rather than the other way around. And I’m at peace with it.
As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?
Much of What Disappears is set in the world of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Although I have some background and training in dance, I am by no means a ballerina. I was worried that any real ballerina or balletomane reading my novel would catch me out on some term of art or practice that would betray my ignorance. And so I dug as deeply as I could and spent years on the research, watching and rewatching films of the ballets referenced in the novel, studying musical scores, searching out photographic archives, and reading history and ballet memoirs as well as every other primary source I could find from that rich cultural phenomenon that came to be known as the Belle Époque.
When I’d already signed off on the final proof-edit of my novel in 2021, I discovered Gavin Larsen’s newly published memoir, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life. This wonderful book resonated deeply with the experiences of my ballet dancers in What Disappears. I wrote a fan letter to the author—and we began corresponding. Very quickly, Gavin offered to read my novel in that final proof—and, much to my joy and amazement, loved it! There was one mistake she saw, in my description of a fouetté, which she helped me think through and correct. (It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to break down just by watching videos, no matter how many times you watch them—it happens so fast!) Fortunately, it wasn’t too late to change that little bit of verbiage for the final page proofs.
This was during the pandemic. Gavin joined me for my virtual book launch with the New York chapter of the Historical Novel Society. We’ve been collaborating on book events ever since. We have two coming up, on October 12th and 16th, in North Carolina, both of them live events (one of them with our fellow Regal House author Martha Anne Toll, whose novel also takes place in the world of ballet). Gavin and I have become very good friends. It’s unfathomable to me that I’ll be meeting her for the very first time in person on October 12th in Raleigh! Because of the novel, I’ve had the opportunity to write two essays for Dance International Magazine, one on how I did my research for What Disappears—and the other an appreciation of the 1931 ballet memoir by Tamara Karsavina (who is one of the historical characters in my novel).
So one may well enter an unknown world to do the work needed to write a novel—and then, because of that novel, one comes to be seen in that world as a kind of expert. Because of Vivaldi’s Virgins, I’ve given pre-concert lectures and done book signings and book group visits for several major orchestras. And I was even introduced to my husband, Wayne Roden, a long-time violist for the San Francisco Symphony, because of my novel.
All of these things were certainly unexpected!
Why do you write?
The more I read other writers’ stories about why they write, the more I’ve come to see the commonality among all of us. Maybe neuroscientists will someday come to identify a subspecies of human beings: homo poeticus. We write because we have to write—because we’re wired to write. Because writing saves us from our demons and gives us more joy, when it’s going well, than anything else in life. Of course, it’s not always simply wonderful—and self-doubt is always lurking in the wings to spoil whatever sense of triumph one achieves. To use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase for the presidency, writing is a splendid misery. I feel privileged to be able to do this work—and I struggle a lot with all the aspects of the process that are so perilous and simply beyond my control.
I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again here: I wouldn’t trade being a writer for any other job! Writing has saved me, over and over again in my life. I don’t think I would have survived my childhood if I hadn’t started writing poetry. I write because writing is, and will always be, my lifeline.
Where do your characters come from?
I believe—and, increasingly, physicists believe—that there’s much more to reality than what we’re able to perceive with our eyes and ears. I know I’m not the only writer who intuits voices floating in the ether around all of us. They’re probably the same voices that schizophrenic people hear (without the advantage of being able to differentiate them from the voices recognized by the rest of us as “real”).
I know it sounds goofy, but that’s the provenance of all my characters: that gilded swarm of voices, lives, and collective memories that exist in the seemingly empty air. It’s the same thing, really, that we call, rather prosaically, the imagination.
Of course, there are little signposts, here and there—newspaper articles, factoids dropped by random people: little shards of light that just seem to penetrate my consciousness. That call out to me, demanding my attention.
My two main assets as a writer, I think, are that I’m a good antenna—I can often tune in to those voices. And I tend to think in terms of metaphor. It’s just the way my brain is wired. When I’m writing fiction, I tend to “overhear” my characters’ voices rather than having any conscious sense of writing their lines. I get very quiet and I listen.
It’s the same thing when a poem comes to me: it seems to land from somewhere else and I simply gather it in. Sometimes it’s the entire poem. But more often, it’s the first two or so lines.
If I’m re-creating someone who actually lived—like Anna Maria dal Violin or Tamara Karsavina or the Belle Époque’s narcissistic King of Fashion, Paul Poiret—I find out everything I can about how they spoke and thought, and try as best I can to let them inhabit me. If I’m creating a character out of whole cloth, I study them in exactly the same way I would if they’d been real. I listen for their voice. I daydream about them. When I’m writing from their point of view, I become them. I think it’s essentially because I’m greedy: writing fiction allows me to experience many more lives beyond my own little life.
What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
I’ve learned to never, ever fail to write down a piece of prose or poetry that comes to me, thinking I’ll remember it later. (I won’t! It disappears.) I keep my notebook on my bedside table in case an idea comes to me in the middle of the night. If I’m somewhere without paper, I’ll write on a napkin or the back of an envelope. Shunted into a storeroom with a demonstration skeleton during the pandemic, while I was waiting to be treated for a bad cut in an overcrowded hospital waiting room, I wrote a poem on what became a blood-stained paper towel. If I’m walking and don’t have a pen, I’ll record whatever it is on my phone. Words are gifts that mustn’t ever be taken for granted.
I don’t listen to music when I write, unless it specifically pertains to a given scene or the spirit of the book I’m working on. Naturally enough, I listened to a lot of Vivaldi’s sacred music while I was writing about the girls and women of the coro in Vivaldi’s Virgins. I came to associate Brahms’ Second Symphony with different characters from What Disappears—and often listened to it while I was rewriting. I feel a special affinity with Brahms, as if the same muses might have informed both of us.
Any music with lyrics is anathema to me while I’m writing—and any conversation that won’t blend in as white noise makes writing impossible. During the many years I lived in Berkeley, I did a lot of my writing in cafes. After I moved to the North Bay, I never found a café that had the right kind of ambient noise and I came to do all my writing, except when I’m traveling, at home. I have a special chair where I write, a Morris chair with wide arms that serve as a desk on both sides of me.
Who is your favorite character from your book(s)?
I have an enormous fondness for Anna Maria della Pietà, or Anna Maria dal Violin, as she was known in her youth, the narrator and protagonist of Vivaldi’s Virgins. I also love Alessandra Giliani, the 14th century teenager who dressed as a boy so that she could attend medical school at the University of Bologna—whose short and spectacular life I reimagined for my 2010 novel from HarperTeen, A Golden Web.
I have an as-yet-unpublished novel called “Saving Puccini,” about the womanizing opera composer who charmed everyone who knew him and left a string of broken hearts and bitter women in his wake. But I love him, despite all his faults! I seem to have a weakness for brilliant, artistic, and selfish men. Paul Poiret, in What Disappears, is one such man. I loved writing in his voice—it was such fun and so liberating to be so completely narcissistic and filled with self-esteem. I love Jeanette, the bitchy twin in What Disappears. These are all characters who allowed me to wander far beyond the borders of what I consider acceptable behavior in my own life.
What is your most bizarre talent?
My husband, who isn’t given to flattery, says that I have a very good musical ear. Even though my singing voice isn’t any good at this point, I’m able to pull phrases of orchestral or chamber music out of my head, on key.
This must be related to what seems to be an unusual ability to learn other languages. I speak five or six now, with varying degrees of proficiency and, in one or two cases, fluency: but the trick I have, I know, is the ability to get the music right. So I always sound like I speak much better than I really do.
Learning languages is an ongoing hobby of mine. I think it helps me keep my brain limber. Whenever I’m doing language lessons, or learning choreography, I can tell that it helps me with everyday word recall.
What’s your favorite word and why?
This is really silly—but a few years ago, on a visit to Norway, I fell in love with the word fjord.I haven’t had occasion yet to use it in any of my novels or poems. But I love saying it.
What would you tell your younger self?
I talk to my younger self a lot, telling her not to be afraid. That I’m going to take care of her—and that she’s going to have a very beautiful life. I tell her not to give up, not to despair. To be hopeful and brave. I try to nurture her, across time, in the same way I’ve nurtured Julian, my brilliant and wonderful son, who is just turning 30 this month.
I think love can be given and received across time—and those who love us can continue to nurture us even after their physical bodies have become part of that gold-tinged swirl of light and thought. I want my son to know that I will be there for him.