Matta Press (2019)
Review and Interview by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (5/19)
Melissa Muldoon is the author of three novels set in Italy: “Dreaming Sophia,” “Waking Isabella,” and “Eternally Artemisia.” All three books tell the stories of American women and their journeys of self-discovery to find love, uncover hidden truths, and follow their destinies to shape a better future in Italy.
Melissa is also the author of the Studentessa Matta website, where she promotes the study of Italian language and culture through her dual-language blog written in Italian and English (studentessamatta.com). Studentessa Matta means the “crazy linguist” and has grown to include a podcast, Tutti Matti per l’Italiano and the Studentessa Matta YouTube channel, Facebook page and Instagram feed. Melissa also created Matta Italian Language Immersion Programs, which she co-leads with Italian schools in Italy to learn Italian in Italy. Through her website, she also offers the opportunities to live and study in Italy through Homestay programs.
Melissa has a B.A. in fine arts, art history and European history from Knox College, a liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, as well as a master’s degree in art history from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She has also studied painting and art history in Florence. She is an artist, designer, and illustrated the cover art for all three of her books. Melissa is also the managing director of Matta Press.
Melissa designed and illustrated the cover art for “Eternally Artemisia,” “Waking Isabella,” and “Dreaming Sophia.” She also curates the Dreaming Sophia Art History blog site and Pinterest site: The Art of Loving Italy, where you will find companion pictures for all three books. Visit MelissaMuldoon.com for more information about immersion trips to learn the language with Melissa in Italy, as well as the Studentessa Matta blog for practice and tips to learn the Italian language.
Hi Melissa, thank you for joining us today on Reader Views! Tell us about your latest novel, “Eternally Artemisia.”
My third novel “Eternally Artemisia,” like my first two, is set in Italy and tells the story of a woman who is on a journey of self-discovery to find love, uncover hidden truths, and follow her destiny to shape a better future for herself. My protagonist—Maddie—is an art therapist and through art retreats she leads in Italy, she helps other women through the aftermath of physical violence and rape. But this is just one of the themes of the book. In her professional life, Maddie may deal with the raw aspects of sexual violence, but this doesn’t keep her from believing in the power of love. Deep down inside she maintains there can be loves so poignant and profound the people who experience this deeply personal connection are destined to meet over and over again. This feeling is further fueled by Maddie’s childhood fantasies of time travel, and all through her life she wrestles with the “peculiar” feeling that she has lived past lives.
As the story unfolds in a villa in Tuscany just outside of Montepulciano, Maddie begins to connect with these previous existences and discovers the loves of her life. She establishes a bond with Matteo Crociani a nobleman from the Court of Cosimo II de’ Medici in Florence, as well as with the seventeenth-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi who was raped by her painting instructor at the age of sixteen. But Artemisia survived this horrendous event and went on to become the first prominent female artist of her generation. Still, today, she continues to be an influencer and a source of inspiration—not only because of her talent but by her courage to persevere despite great odds.
“Eternally Artemisia” celebrates the idea that when a woman dares to take control of her destiny and find the thing she is most passionate about, she discovers she is limitless and will transcend the scope of time.
How did you come up with the storyline?
As I was finishing my second novel “Waking Isabella”—that tells the story of Isabella de’ Medici who was murdered by her husband in her bedroom and the intrigue surrounding a portrait of her that was lost during World War II, I realized I didn’t want my writing experience to end with that book. So, before I had even published that story, I was already thinking about a topic for a third one. It didn’t take long, and the subject came to me as I was driving home from the gym one afternoon. While waiting for the light to change at an intersection I cast about for ideas, and it came to me—I wanted Artemisia Gentileschi to be my next heroine! At the next stop light, I already had my title and a vague glimmering of an idea for a storyline.
Like my protagonist Maddie, in “Eternally Artemisia,” from the first day I was introduced to Artemisia in a darkened lecture hall in college, I have been fascinated and intrigued by her story. Raped by Agostino Tassi, a friend of the family, Artemisia and her father took the man to court, but not for the crime of molestation, but because Tassi had stolen a picture from them and then refused to marry Artemisia even though he had promised to do so. In a time when it was unheard of for a woman to accuse her rapist publicly, she did. But in the end, she suffered great indignities and torture during her trial to prove that she was the one telling the truth. After a year, she finally won her case, but her reputation was in tatters. Her rapist, however, never spent a day in jail. He was, however, sentenced years later in Florence by the Duke of Tuscany—Cosimo II, Artemisia’s friend, and patron—for an unnamed crime, and served his time on a prison galley ship.
I always thought Artemisia’s trials and tribulations would make an interesting story and at first, I thought the story would be about avenging Artemisia. In fact, that was my first title. But as I began working on the plotline, I realized I didn’t want this to be just about revenge dealt upon Agostino. I didn’t want to focus on a wronged woman seeking a way to bring down her abuser. Revenge is a small mean, spiteful act dealt out by people who feel trapped or have no other recourse. Instead, I realized there was a bigger, more enduring story to communicate to my readers. What I wanted to demonstrate was the brilliance of Artemisia. I wanted people to realize that by simply realizing her full potential and becoming a fierce woman—like the goddess Artemisia she was named after—that was the best kind of revenge a woman could have.
Artemisia rose like a phoenix from the flames and used her art to heal herself. She threw herself passionately into her work, even painting images of herself and her rapist in her biblical scenes to work through the myriad of emotions such violence causes a woman. Artemisia was also very astute, and despite being illiterate and living on a shoe-string budget, married off to a philandering man by her father to save her reputation, she succeeded in a male-dominated society in Florence to become a notable painter. The Grand Duke of Tuscany regarded her so highly he admitted her into the elite all-male Florentine Art Academy. She was the first woman to shatter the glass ceiling of the art world in the seventeenth-century.
To me, Artemisia’s story is one that shouldn’t be forgotten and is relevant today. I want to bring her to life for my readers and remind the world that some women—like some beautiful works of art—live on and will never be forgotten. So instead of Avenging Artemisia, I changed the title to Eternally Artemisia.
What motivates your protagonist, Maddie?
Maddie is dedicated to helping other women realize their full potential. She believes women are capable of achieving great things by believing in themselves and not listening to the voices that tell them they aren’t good enough or are not capable of accomplishing something. Her mantra instead, is that when women find the courage to take control of their destinies they discover they are worthy of anything they want to accomplish—and that is a woman’s super power.
In all her existences, Maddalena aka Maddie is a determined woman who stands up for herself and for those she loves and leads by example to show other women they don’t have to accept the status quo. In one lifetime she is a psychologist who is motivated to help other woman after experiencing her own near rape in college. In another existence she is a courtesan and a musician in the court in Venice, who dares to live an independent life. In this existence she is also healer and with her herbal remedies she practices rudimentary medicine. In another time period, she is a fashion designer, motivated to emancipate women through her clothing designs as well as provide equal job opportunities to women. Yet in another lifetime, she is a scientist exploring the moons of Jupiter, daring to face the unknown and make new discoveries that will open people’s eyes to a better future.
Artemisia Gentileschi is fierce! And such a relevant figure in today’s world! What are some of the things that stand out about her – what does she represent for all women?
Artemisia’s story is an intriguing one, but the thing that truly sets her apart and why she was so successful in the end, was her passion for painting! She lived and breathed her art and practiced it from a very early age, perfecting her skills, learning from her father, other masters, even the painting instructor who raped her. Artemisia was an observer of nature—she studied her own body, painted from life and worked with esteemed scientists like Galileo to understand how blood flows through the body and from gaping wounds. She never stopped learning, and she never stopped painting—even during her darkest days.
And during her lifetime Artemisia suffered through many dark days. She lived in a male-dominated society and hence, because of her gender, as a young woman she lived a very restricted life, and her liberties were extremely limited by her father. She was kept a virtual prisoner in her own home, not allowed to venture out on her own. In her lifetime Artemisia endured sexual harassment and rape. She was lied to, abused, and subjected to a court trial when the man who raped her reneged on his proposal of marriage. It turned out he was already married to someone else and had fathered children by yet another woman. It was only during the trial Artemisia found all this out. After raping her the man coerced and blackmailed her into accepting his promise of marriage so he could continue having access to her bed.
In a very public trial Artemisia, attended by a jury of men, she was subjected to inspection of her vagina in front of a judge and tortured with thumb screws to prove she was the one telling the truth as her rapist looked on untouched. She won her court case but left the courtroom in disgrace and almost lost her promising painting career. To save her reputation her father had plans of sending her to a convent, thinking no man would ever touch her since she was soiled goods. In the end, he bartered her off to a philandering Florentine man, and Artemisia was forced to leave her home town and begin life all over again in a new city. There she lived with a man she didn’t love or respect, and who stole her money. During her years in Florence, she also suffered several miscarriages.
And yet, none of this prevented Artemisia from maturing into a strong, independent woman, a successful artist, and the first female to ever be admitted into Florence’s exclusive Art Academy. She painted for Kings and Dukes all over Europe and even in England. She surpassed her male peers because she developed her own unique style did not merely imitate the work of other men. It could be said she was one of the first to champion the woman’s movement, refashioning traditional biblical themes, repurposing them so that in her canvases, women become the center of the viewer’s focus. In her paintings, she demonstrates that when women unite, and take control of their lives and their destinies, they become the heroes of the story.
Your books all feature the journeys of regular women on their paths to self-discovery, whose stories parallel with the stories of some of the great Italian artists. As they are connected, by theme anyway, how would you describe your work? As a series? A trilogy? What is your goal with this collection?
They say to write what you know best, and what I know best is art and Italy! I didn’t start out to write a trilogy, but as I was working on my third novel, I realized I had. Each book, Dreaming Sophia, Waking Isabella and Eternally Artemisia stands on its own, but still, there is a common theme that connects them all and that is—what draws a woman to Italy and why. In each book, I explore the forces at play that cause my protagonists, sometimes against their will, to follow the gentle tug and pull of Italy to make a life there, despite great odds.
Maybe this is because I’m always trying to explain my own “peculiar” fascination with Italy, the Italian people and the language. I have always felt an inexplicable hand pulling me to Italy, despite having no Italian heritage. Like all my female protagonists—Sophia, Nora and Maddie—sometimes I too feel like I have been persuaded by Italian artists and Medici princess’—even seduced by Tuscan ghosts from the past—who whisper into my ear, to learn the language and return home to Italy time and time again. So, perhaps like my characters, I too have lived another life in Italy—or perhaps several!
Apart from that, my goal with my books has also been to bring art history to life for my readers. I believe “art” can talk to you and there are stories to be revealed if you take the time to “listen.” I find it fascinating to contemplate the idea art endures, but people pass away and are forgotten. We have paintings and cathedrals created by artists who worked hundreds and thousands of years ago—all tangible proof that lives were lived in the past, people loved well had hopes and dreams and aspirations. Rather than let these forgotten historical figures and painters remain vague dusty statics in a history book, I want to reanimate their stories and make them real and poignant again for future generations.
Will there be more stories to come?
Yes! I enjoy creative writing very much and already miss the process. It is a pleasure for me to create new “worlds” and fill them with interesting characters, giving them interesting problems and personalities. I also thoroughly enjoy the extensive research I do for each of my novels. I enjoy finding surprising connections and enriching my subplots with accurate historical details. Inevitably I stumble into something I hadn’t even considered and experience lots of “ah ha” moments. Sometimes it is like a treasure hunt, and as I write and the puzzle pieces all start to all fall together, there is that exquisite and rewarding moment when I realize I have a really unique and important story to tell.
At the moment, I’m currently toying with two ideas for my next novel. One involves the Etruscans—they are a group of people who settled Tuscany prior to the Romans. Their culture was matriarchal, and they revered strong women. I’m also working on another storyline about a woman named Sofonisba—a gifted painter who Michaelangelo taught and revered, who Leonardo thought painted divinely and who Vasari praised to high heavens. Haven’t heard of her? Perhaps it is because she was a woman that her fame and story have been lost and forgotten. I believe it is time to bring Sofonisba’s story to life again.
Tell us about your research process.
I begin by finding an art theme or a heroine from history that piques my interest, and then I start reading everything I can about this historical figure and their period. I let myself wander through libraries and the internet researching interesting and obscure facts, piecing together timelines and making connections. I also draw inspiration also for some of my characters from some of the minor historical figures I’m researching. For instance, Maddie’s persona in the 1930s is based upon the whimsical Italian dress designer, Elsa Schiaparelli. After reading her biography, that character in my book practically wrote herself!
As the writing begins, the research continues. I am continually finding valuable connections as I stop countless times to look up odd little things, like seventeenth-century fashion details about clothes that were worn, what people might have eaten for breakfast in Venice—rice with almond milk and creamed cod!—or chairs that might have sat upon in the court of Cosimo II. I keep files filled with written notes, as well as add images to my Pinterest picture boards so I have pictorial details I can reference.
I never know exactly where my research will take me or if something will actually make it into my novel. For example, while writing “Eternally Artemisia,” I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with all the notes I was taking about Galileo and the telescope he helped to improve—but, I knew it was interesting and could be useful at some point. I also wasn’t quite sure how I would use the information I was finding about the moons of Jupiter or the research I did about space-crafts taking off in non-gravity atmospheres around the planet Ceres. Who knew I’d actually be going there! Especially after penning my opening line that takes place in a tent in Jerusalem with a Jewish widow beheading the general who was about to lay siege to her people!
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Through the writing process, each of my heroines becomes very special to me. I think of them as close friends—people I would want to hang out with. So, of course when I write my novels, I’m still thinking about them. I can’t help but have a little fun and let my past heroines and protagonists make small cameo appearances in my later books. So, if the reader is paying attention, and has read my previous books, they will be treated to these references and be reunited with a few familiar characters.
For instance, in my second novel, “Waking Isabella,” the characters of Sophia and Lorenzo from my first book “Dreaming Sophia” meet my leading couple Nora and Luca in the final chapter. In my third story “Eternally Artemisia,” about mid-way through, I reference the astonishing discovery Nora and Luca make in “Waking Isabella.”
What was the hardest scene to write in “Eternally Artemisia?”
The hardest scenes for me to write were some of the earlier scenes in the story-line where I am trying to present the reader with enough background information to set up what is to come later for the overall plot to play out in a believable way and make sense. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain a natural light-handed easy-going dialogue between characters, to convey these details, without seeming to spoon feed the reader information. So, for me, the scenes between Martina and Maddie in the rogue’s gallery where I was setting up the characters of Maddalena the dress designer in the 1930s, and Maddalena the courtesan in the 1700s, and their relationship with the two Matteos from those time periods were challenging. I rewrote the dialogues between the two women—as they get slightly inebriated during their mid-night discussion—countless times.
You are an artist, writer, designer, Italian language instructor – how do you express your passion for Italy through all your creative talents?
In all my pursuits (from writing books, blogs, filming YouTube videos, to leading groups to learn Italian in Italy) my goal and my passion is to share with others the Italy I have come to know through my travels and personal experiences living in Italy. I want others to know the legends I have learned, the cultural curiosities I find so intriguing, as well as the history, the religion and the art. I want to paint a picture of Italy in words, to share the tastes, the smells and the sights that can be found in no other part of the world.
I also want my followers to understand the joy one feels being in Italy, but more importantly, the pleasure and the generous response one receives from an Italian when he hears you speaking his language.
Italy is truly a magical place, one that I never tire of writing about!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I have always been a creative person, expressing myself in various ways—through music, painting, and writing. I hadn’t really ever entertained the thought of writing a novel until I started learning Italian seriously and began the Studentessa Matta blog. Every day, for the past eight years, I have been writing articles in Italian and English and publishing them on my website. Over time, I accumulated so many non-fiction stories about Italy, I then began turning over in my head the idea of transforming these stories and anecdotes into a fictional novel so I could reach my readers and followers in a new format.
As a feature on my website I also review books about novels set in Italy. After finishing a book by another author, I was sometimes left a little dissatisfied and a little voice inside my head suggested that I should tell my own story—the story I really wanted to read that combined all of my interests into a uniquely plotted adventure.
At first, I thought the idea was ludicrous, and told myself I wasn’t a writer. Then looking over my eight years of blogging, I told that little voice inside my head to take a hike. Why couldn’t I realize a novel about Italy? I was in fact, an accomplished writer already—and in two languages! And now three books later, I am ready to begin a new one.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned about yourself when you first began your writing journey?
Writing I have found, is a highly creative process that involves all my mental capacities and energy. It can be calming, exhilarating, cathartic and freeing. When I sit down to write I enter a space where I can let go and tap into parts of myself, I never knew existed and explore my own hopes and dreams.
What surprises me the most, is how utterly consuming it can be. When I give in to it, the process overwhelms and takes me over completely. I live, breath and sleep my story for months on end. When I’m not writing—when I’m at the gym, walking, or making dinner, watching a movie or just lying awake in bed before going to sleep—I’m still thinking about my story, going over the plot in my head and thinking about my characters. I become a bit obsessive.
Sometimes, I feel like I can’t control it—it controls me. And when I overthink things and labor over a passage, the writing is hard. If I relax and let go instead, the ideas seem to just flow into my head and onto my page as if guided by a creative muse, and some of my best lines and paragraphs appear to write themselves. This always astounds me. I don’t fully understand entirely this creative “zone” that I fall into when I write, but when I allow myself to go there, I find it to be inexplicably mystical and totally joyful.
What is something you wish you knew when you started out?
Writing a book is like aging a fine wine. It takes time and sometimes the process just can’t be rushed, despite my impatience and desire to hurry the story along. After completing the first draft, as excited as I might be about what I’ve set down in the first flush of writing, it is far from perfect. But rather than becoming discouraged, I must always remember my best work actually comes later during the re-writing and editing. That is when I can weave in the details and more masterfully embellish the scenes.
The second time around, I’m no longer feeling my way in the dark, and the story becomes richer and fuller because I am totally in command of the plot and know exactly where I am going with the story-line. Even in the final hours before publishing, I’m kind of in awe that I’m still writing amazing lines, that I never could or would never have written six months before. So yes, I must always remember, the story gets better with age.
What does your writing practice look like?
My writing practice is a long and circuitous one, and I devote hundreds and hundreds of hours to the process.
After finishing several weeks of initial research, I begin brainstorming a plotline and then write a detailed 100-page outline. When it is complete, I share it with my primary story editor. Given the green light the overall story makes sense, I begin the first draft following my detailed 100-page road map. I work non-stop, writing every day, creating a 100,000+ word manuscript. During this time, I allow myself to write fluidly in an expansive manner, trying to ride the creative wave that first inspired the story. After completing the initial draft, which takes about two months, I review it again with my original story editor (a female), as well as with another (a male). Based on the feedback I receive, I then begin the extensive editing and re-writing process, cutting out unnecessary information, adding useful details, fixing plot problems and refining dialogues until I finish the novel, which can take another six to eight months.
I write best late at night and early in the morning. Afternoons, I spend doing further research or going to the gym to exercise, relax and refocus my brain. Early evenings, after preparing dinner, I go for long calming walks with my two beagles. As I walk, I listen to Italian music and watch the sunset and the moon rise. I often leave the house tired and without energy, but as I walk and gaze at the stars, my mind subconsciously replays scenes and chapters, and it is during these walks that often I have my best ideas. I resolve plot problems or think of lines to write, and I rush home to open and capture them in the document that is always open on my computer. I am so energized at this point, the ideas just seem to flow out of nowhere, and I continue writing until the wee hours of the night.
I always write my stories on a computer. I begin my manuscripts in Word, and then when the story is really solid, I lay it out in InDesign. Since I am a graphic designer and a visual person, early on I need to see my story fully formatted, to envision what it will look like printed. I also design and illustrate my own book covers and as I work on the graphics and set the type, I continue thinking about the storyline. Inevitably, reviewing the layout of my novel in InDesign, I see it and read it with new eyes, and this also helps my editing process.
I read and reread my manuscript countless times over and can continue working on it for months. But at a certain point I have to tell myself I’ve told my story to the best of my ability and say goodbye to my protagonists and let them enter the world so that I can move on to my next idea!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing, or about life in general?
In regard to writing the best advice I’ve received is: Write without fear… Edit without mercy.
In regard to life: She believed she could, so she did.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Writing a novel is hard work and requires a lot of time and dedication to the craft. But first you have to have a highly creative and unique idea that only you can tell in your own way and in your own words. To successfully complete a novel, you must have the ability to disassociate yourself from your work and critically review what you have written, in order to tear apart your work over and over again to make it better. It also takes a thick skin to accept criticism and the willingness to correct your work when you go off the rails.
Because of this, the writing process can be time-consuming, tedious, and disheartening. At times it can make you question whether you are a good writer. But be kind to yourself. Especially if you are a perfectionist. Just know that after a good night’s sleep everything looks better in the morning and you will have a clearer vision. The important thing is to keep writing, because you can always fix a badly written paragraph, but you can’t fix one that isn’t written.
Also, I don’t believe in writer’s blocks. I think writer’s block are the result of not knowing what you want to communicate in the first place. When this happens, you have to go on long walks, listen to good music and re-center yourself. You must figure out what is the point or big idea you want to convey. Be open to self-revelation. When you do, the ideas will come to you when you least expect them. Then going forward, you have to keep asking yourself at every point in the story, what do my readers need to know next. That will answer the question of how you should proceed with your next chapter and keep your story flowing until the very last word.
Melissa, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your work with us!
CONNECT WITH MELISSA MULDOON!
Author Website: www.MelissaMuldoon.com
Author Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/MelissaMuldoonAuthor/
Melissa Muldoon’s Dual Language Italian Blog: https://www.StudentessaMatta.com
Studentessa Matta Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/studentessamatta
Dreaming Sophia Art History Blog site: https://dreamingsophiabook.com/
Dreaming Sophia Art History Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DreamingSophia/
Pinterest Book Site—Art of Loving Italy: https://www.pinterest.com/dreamingsophia/