Welcome to Episode 8 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!
In this episode, learn about Old Master art created by women artists, indie publishing, researching, and more in my entertaining conversation with Amy Maroney.
Amy is the author of the compelling Miramonde Trilogy, a dual-time series about a female artist in 16th-century Spain and France.
Amy Maroney studied English literature at Boston University and public policy at Portland State University, and spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction. When she's not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, painting, dancing, and reading. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.
Press Play right now and don't forget to check out Amy Maroney's Miramonde Trilogy series on Art In Fiction.
Amy Maroney's Website: https://www.amymaroney.com/
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Hello! I’m Carol Cram, your host for the Art In Fiction podcast. In this episode, I’m chatting with Amy Maroney, author of The Miramonde Trilogy, three fabulous dual-time novels listed in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction. Set in the Pyrenees in the 16th century and in modern times, the novels tell the stories of a Renaissance-era female artist and the American scholar who strives to solve a centuries-old mystery.
Amy Maroney studied English literature at Boston University and public policy at Portland State University, and spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction. When she's not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, painting, drawing, dancing, and reading. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.
Thank you, Carol. I'm so happy to be here.
Well, I'm really excited to have you today. I just finished your wonderful trilogy, the Miramonde trilogy. So could you tell us a little bit about it?
Sure. The Miramonde series is about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail. In book one, The Girl From Oto, the heroine of the series is born into a cruel and violent noble family. Her mother names her Miramonde, one who sees the world. Raised in a convent, Mira becomes an extraordinary artist, never dreaming she will one day fulfill the promise of her name.
Meanwhile, Mira's modern-day counterpart, Zari Durrell, is a young American scholar doing research in Europe who discovers traces of a mysterious woman artist and several 16th-century paintings. And soon she's tracing a path through history to Mira herself, but the art world ignores her findings, dazzled by a rival academic's claim that the portraits were in fact made by a famous male artist.
It's absolutely a wonderful premise for a trilogy. And so what inspired you to write this novel? Maybe tell us a little bit about your background.
Well, I grew up in Northern California and I'm from a family of bookworms. I was one of those kids who was always checking out the maximum number of books from the library and writing little what I called books that my mom would help me make into actual documents with covers. And I was an English major in college, and I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I never really thought it would be viable to be a writer of fiction. So I went right into nonfiction writing and editing.
Ah! That sounds familiar.
And I did that for many, many years, which has actually helped me a lot as a fiction writer, especially with the marketing side, which we'll talk about later. So then fast forward 15 or so years, and my husband and I were raising our two daughters and we had an opportunity to travel in Europe and homeschool the girls for a year.
Oh, how wonderful.
That was about seven years ago when the girls were nine and 12. Well, homeschooling took way more time than I thought it would. I was like, I'll homeschool. I will write novels.
I've been a teacher. I, yeah, it's a lot of work.
Oh, my gosh. Well, my respect for teachers was already enormous, but it just went through the roof with that experience. But anyway, we had just an amazing year of travels. And while we were there, I was lucky enough to visit Oxford University. And I had been struggling during the trip trying to make centuries-old portraits by Old Masters relevant to the girls.
And I wished that there were women painters to serve as examples for them, to maybe inspire them more. And we also wished that we knew about the stories behind the paintings and the people that were the subjects of these portraits.
So anyway, in Oxford, I was at Magdalen College and I stumbled across the 16th-century portrait of a woman that was attributed to a female artist named Catharina van Hemessen. And so after visiting many museums full of Renaissance-era portraits and learning about art history as a college student, I'd somehow never heard of female Old Masters, but now I saw for myself evidence that there were women painters in those days. And then shortly after that trip to Oxford, a friend visited a show of Artemisia Gentileschi's work in a Paris museum.
I went to that exhibition.
Did you? So it was like 2011, I think.
Yes, yes. At the Maillol, I think it was. Absolutely. Oh, I love that. Well, I love Artemisia, yes. We went to that exhibition. Ooh, small world.
Well, that must've been incredible, Carol.
My friend gave me the little pamphlet that she got from the museum about Artemisia, and I was hooked after that. So I soon learned that because women's work wasn't valued, their paintings were often attributed to men or kept anonymous and I became kind of obsessed with the lost stories of these women and I resolved to write a novel on the topic and I'd actually started a novel when I headed off on this trip and it was a pharmaceutical thriller.
So I was in the mode of writing my first novel, but I quickly pivoted when I discovered this portrait. And then that was sort of the impetus for the idea, but then I kind of needed a heroine and a setting and so about a month after that, we visited the Pyrenees and we stayed in a restored medieval tower on the edge of the Ordesa National Park in Aragon. And I knew this was where Mira's story began.
That's one of the things I love about your novels is that it is set in that location, which is so beautiful. We went through the Pyrenees last year for the first time. It's, oh, it's gorgeous around there. Then you had that tie-in with the Camino, which a lot of people will appreciate, having walked it. I haven't walked it yet, but it's one of those things it would be nice to do.
And that's another thing I liked was that it was an unusual place to set an historical novel about painting - often they're set in Italy, but in that part of Spain, which is not particularly well known, you know, Zaragoza and those areas. It's not a particularly popular area of Spain. So that was an interesting element of your novel to learn about the location and the nature around there, the mountains, all that kind of thing, all this, like I didn't know about the Basque culture, et cetera.
You brought in so much into these novels. It's amazing.
Every time I started the next one, I went down another rabbit hole where I would get obsessed about a new thing, like the Basque culture and the Cagots, the persecuted people of the Pyrenees mountains.
So they did exist, eh?
They did exist. And there's very little about them in the historical record. There's a couple details in Mira's Way that are based on real incidents that happened with real Cagot people.
Can you explain who the Cagot people were?
They're a mysterious people. So they kind of appeared in the historical record a long time ago as sort of itinerant carpenters was some of the first references to them. And somehow they established a presence in the Pyrenees, but in a separate and unequal fashion so they had to live in sort of ghettos. They had to enter churches through these strange short doors that made people think for a long time that they were little people, but they weren't. They just had to go through these small doors. They weren't allowed to drink from the same water sources as French people. And there were just a number of very discriminatory practices.
And then that persisted until fairly recently. The conventional wisdom is that they just kind of assimilated into the general French population. So there's not very many people left to actually identify as Cagot.
Yeah. I hadn't heard of them either until I started doing this research.
Of course, the thing that really shines through in your novels, too, is how much research you did because, okay, you've got the dual-timeline stories of Zari and Mira, which would be enough on its own. But you also add in so much about the culture of the time, as you said, about the Basques and the whaling ships and in the first book so much about the wool industry. I found that totally fascinating. How did you find out so much information?
Well, I love doing research and I'm probably one of those people who, if I wasn't an historical novelist, I would be in trouble because it's just, it's too much time to be spending on these, these just crazy paths through the past.
The thing about the medieval wool trade which was so exciting to me, is I knew that I needed something in The Girl From Oto that would drive the narrative forward with a lot of conflict. As I looked into it, I realized that the wool trade was the thing because all the power players were involved in it. They all wanted the profits that were being seen from wool. And the reason Merino wool started being valued in Europe was because the Hundred Years War made it hard for Europe to get English wool and English wool had been, like, the best wool there was and no one really wanted Merino wool.
But then once it was hard to get English wool in Flanders or Paris or other places in the north, the Spanish traders started bringing it over the Pyrenees and selling it in France and other points north. So then we had monasteries, merchants, the nobles, the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, all getting involved in making money off of wool. So I got really excited about that. And I went pretty deep on that.
How did you do your research? Did you actually go there and sort of comb through archives and that kind of thing, in which case you'd have to know the languages? So what, what were some of your methods for researching because it is so, such an extensive research, but always integrated with the story. I want to make that clear. It's not like you do a lot of info dumps or any, which, which is a real feat when you are an historical novelist. So you wind it into the story extremely well.
Anyway, how did you get all your information?
Well, that was definitely one of the fun parts of traveling was I do speak French and I read French. So when I was in France, on the French side of the Pyrenees, anyway, I would go to libraries and museums and do research that way.
I had some really great librarians help me out in the town that will always be one of my favorite towns in the world, Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I just loved that place. So that was one of the best ways I found local information about history. And then once I got back to the US after those travels were done, I did a lot of academic database searching and I love www.academia.edu.
And then, so for the historical part, that's really where I did most of my research. And then for the modern part, I should tell you why I did two narratives. First of all, because it was not easy to do. It was probably the most challenging thing was having this modern narrative that I was weaving in and trying to make it as compelling as the historical.
But I really felt like I had to do it because I wanted a modern-day female historian, who was an outsider in both the academic and the art worlds, to discover a hidden female artist. And you really can do that now because of these high-tech research methods that art conservationists have.
So I felt like I needed to have that to show how we can look into the past and we can say to historians, well, maybe that's not right. Maybe if we look under the layers of this painting, there's going to emerge a different truth.
It's like that Fake or Fortune series, which I'm sure you've seen. It's like a detective story. And that's what your novel is like. It's like a fake or fortune, in a way.
Yeah. It is like that. And I've actually corresponded a little bit with Philip Mould.
Oh, did you?
He is great. And I just, I really got inspired by his work.
For those who don't know, Philip Mould is the host of Fake or Fortune and he's the expert that goes around and tries to find out the provenance of various pieces of work. And my husband's an artist, so we love that show. We always watch it.
It's so great, yeah.
And I was really fascinated by how you developed the scenes about how they authenticated the paintings, which relates to the Fake and Fortune, but where you did your research, did you actually find experts to talk to you?
I did. And I had one in particular, one art conservator who had me to her studio a couple of times. And she gave a lot of her time and resources to help me.
I think one of the issues was how do I make what Zari is doing, which is essentially data collection in some ways, how do I make that compelling enough to be a page-turner? So I would ask her, you know, what are some examples of nefarious things people do behind the scenes? Or what are some interesting ways you've heard of clues being unearthed on these paintings? And if I hadn't had those conversations, I don't know if I could have done it.
I certainly couldn't have done it as well as I did, because I, I feel like I've gotten a lot of feedback that the contemporary narrative is compelling and it does keep people's attention. So I'm glad. That was my big worry is that it just would fall flat next to the historical narrative.
It doesn't at all because Zari herself, the contemporary character, is a compelling character. We like her. We actually care about her. We like her romance. So it works extremely well. You really do empathize with her.
I liked that you did that whole outsider thing. You know, she's an American in Europe, you know, they sort of looked down on her a little bit and ah, and she's not up in the upper echelons of academia. So there's all sorts of reasons she has to make a go of it against quite a few odds. And it was interesting you say that you talk to experts because, uh, that's why I always tell people, too, when they're researching for historical fiction, find some experts and isn't it amazing how nice people are?
Oh yeah. I mean, I think a lot of academics are thrilled when somebody not of their world reaches out and says you have made my day. You know, what you study is exactly what I need for my book. And they just get all excited to share with you.
They really do. They just love it. I had a guy once say to me, wow, this is so nice to talk to somebody who's actually interested in this stuff, except for my students.
I remember the very first time I approached an expert in medieval art, actually, I was so nervous. I thought, well, why would she want to talk to me? I'm just a novelist. Well, she was thrilled. And she became a friend and also sort of integral to the development of the novel. It's interesting. Don't be afraid to reach out, I think, is the lesson there.
And keep reaching out, too. Some people are very busy or they just can't get back to you or they just don't necessarily, I think there is sometimes a little bit of a bias against fictionalized history for some people. And I remember talking to one academic who was just pretty cynical about me finding examples of female Old Masters, and you know, and that was her area of expertise. She knew what she was talking about.
And I just kind of forged ahead anyway, because I feel like there are enough stories that get teased out over time that we had no idea about, that we can't say for sure how many really existed.
No, we certainly can't. I mean, that's actually the premise of my first novel, but that's set 200 years earlier than yours, but still that same idea, that 'what if'?
There had to be way more female artists than are recorded because there'd be plenty of masters that would have had daughters instead of sons.
Kind of makes sense, doesn't it?
That absolutely does.
Just reading through your novels, it so reminded me of the process that I went through as well, which I think why I find them so compelling is, is that 'what if' question, you know, what if there were more women artists and of course lately, and I'm sure you can talk about this, there's been a lot more women artists, female artists coming to the fore.
Oh, yeah. Well, one of the things that was so wonderful, the year that I published the first book, The Girl From Oto, was the year of the Clara Peeters show at the Prado.
Zari kept saying hopefully, and kind of just wanting to talk herself into believing it, that women artists did exist and they would be celebrated one day. And then the Prado had its first ever show featuring a woman artist. And the reason they had it, or one of the reasons, was because a curator's wife asked him if there were any paintings in the basement by female artists. And he found some by Clara Peeters.
That's a story that's happened all over Europe. There's paintings by women in a lot of these.
It's just suddenly in the last five years, I've seen a lot more exhibitions by women painters. And it was interesting 'cause you said, well, they're in the basement. And I think that's probably exactly what's happening. They're starting to look in the basement and find all of this work that they didn't know was there.
I'm sure you're familiar with that group Advancing. I think it's Advancing Women Artists. I think that's what it was called. This woman, I think an American woman, spearheaded it in Florence 30 years ago or something.
They started getting paintings out of the basement of the Uffizi that were by women artists and restoring them. When I first was doing research for The Girl from Oto, I looked them up and learned some about what they've been doing and sort of have been following them ever since.
Just wanted to mention before I forget that there was a second show at the Prado, wasn't it earlier this year, with Sofonisba and quite a few artists?
It was Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola. They had another one, just what, three years after that first one, featuring two female Old Masters.
Yes, I was dismayed that I just missed it because we were in Spain last year. And so I didn't get to see it. And then of course, this year we had to cancel our trip to Europe, unfortunately, as we all have.
Time for a short break.
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So you talked about earlier that you would do a short reading for us. So would you like to set that up and go for it?
So I'm going to read the first couple of pages from Chapter One of The Girl from Oto, which is book one in this series.
Autumn 1484, Castle Oto, Aragón
Like the breath of an angry god, the wind streamed over the mountains from the north and slammed into the castle, the balcony shutters bucked and heaved, straining against the iron latches that held them in place. To Elena's ears, the sound was the hollow clacking of bones.
Wind goes where it wants, she thought, finding the source of a draft with her fingertips. She closed her eyes and imagined herself in the forest where brittle leaves swirled and unruly flocks of golden eyed owls blinked in the high branches of oaks.
A faint moan rose from across the room. Elena straightened up, squared her shoulders. The sooner they got on with it, the sooner she could escape these walls.
She rolled up a small woolen rug and wedged it against the base of the shutters, muffling the rattle. Then she padded across the thick Moorish rugs to the great bed and pulled aside the drape.
The young woman lay curled on her side in the candlelight. It was difficult to pick out details, but Elena had dressed and undressed this body so many times that she did not need the aid of the sun to understand the predicament.
The woman—still a girl, really—was built like a snow finch. Her belly was far too large for her bony frame. For months, Elena had traced its bulbous arc with her fingertips, measuring the swell of it, prodding the taut skin. The likely explanation was not a giant, but twins, and for a first birth, that often meant catastrophe.
She dipped a cloth into a copper pot of water that sat on the floor by the bed. With practiced movements, she bathed the woman's pale limbs, smoothed back her tangled hair, massaged lavender oil into her skin.
"My lady, the baby can't wait any longer."
She raised her voice. "Lady Marguerite. There's more yet to do. Rouse yourself."
"Why do you shout at me so? Will you not let me sleep?."
Marguerite turned her head toward Elena, her eyelids half open. Elena felt uneasy looking into those eyes. They were silvery green, like the hide of a tree frog, and the black lashes that framed them were spindly as spider's legs. Perhaps it was this contrast of light and dark that made them so unsettling, or the long, slanting sweep of them. Or their size, for they seemed much too large for the woman's angular face.
Whatever it was, there was something more feline than human about them, and Elena had never been fond of cats. She looked away and put a hand on the distended belly.
"If you wish your baby to die, by all means, sleep."
Something hard—a knee? A foot?—pressed against her palm with urgent, fluttery movements.
"If you wish your baby to live, then push. Now make your choice."
The glowing eyes found hers. A pale slender hand slipped into her strong brown one. The young woman on the bed took a deep breath, set her jaw, and bore down.
Oh, that's wonderful. I was totally transported back to that room. And, of course, Elena does play quite a role in all three of the novels. She was one of my favorites. She's a wonderful character.
Isn't she? I love her. I feel like she's the link that just connects all the books in a sort of maternal way. As I wrote the series, I was amazed by how strong my connection grew to Elena. She's really a wonderful character.
She is a wonderful character. I can see why you liked her. And actually, just speaking about the series, did you plot out all three before you wrote the first one?
No. So, I originally was going to write one book, Carol. It was going to be one book, and of course it just grew and grew and grew. And I realized, well, it's definitely not going to be one book, so maybe it'll be two. And then I just figured out over time—and I certainly didn't know anything about plotting a novel when I started this—but I figured out over time that it was a trilogy.
And I learned just so much along the way. I'm still learning so much about craft and how to write novels and how to do it in an efficient way. I would love to figure that out. But with historical fiction, it's just, it does take a long time. The research is an integral part of the process and you can't not do the research. And plus I love the research.
How long did it take actually to write the three novels?
From idea to publication of the first book, it was about four years.
That's about right, yeah.
Then the next one, it was 18 months after the first one and the third one was a year after the second one. So I'm getting faster.
That's fantastic. Yes. But in a way, the process, I find, doesn't get easier.
You might be more efficient, but it's still, I don't know. I still find it a bit of a struggle.
I do, too, because I'm now working on a new series and I, in some ways I feel like I'm starting from the beginning as a writer again. I have to keep reminding myself I did actually publish three novels.
I know, I keep telling myself that, too, because I've got three out and I'm thinking, why is it so difficult to get the fourth one out? So tell me about the current one, your work-in-progress, if you're able to.
So it's been actually, it's such a great distraction to the pandemic and the new reality to have this research. So I'm doing another series. It's not a trilogy and it's a bit more of a new world that I'm creating. It's set in the medieval Mediterranean.
Which part of the Mediterranean?
So it's centered on the island of Rhodes during the rule of the Knights Hospitaller...
And the series features two families, one Italian and Greek and one French, and their worlds intersect on the island of Rhodes. And one of the heroines is an artist and another is the daughter of a falconer. And then there will be other novels featuring other protagonists.
This time, one is going to be a man, he's a Scottish mercenary who works for the Knight, and one will be a female slave who lives with one of these families. And there's no modern narrative this time. And I'm writing currently a story about the falconer's daughter, which will be in an anthology of historical stories that'll be published later this year by a collective of historical novelists.
Oh, fantastic. That sounds really interesting. We thought we'd also talk a little bit about publishing because writers like to learn about that, particularly new writers. So can you share something about your publishing journey?
Sure. So I knew from the beginning that I did not want to try to get traditionally published with these books. I had done some research into indie publishing. I really, from the very beginning, have been listening to Joanna Penn, you know, the Creative Penn podcast.
And I just followed her lead and felt like I already know something about writing and publishing because of my nonfiction background and I'm an editor, I'm a copywriter. I understand that I need to hire people to help me with the cover design and with editing and stuff.
But I knew how to hire people, put a team in place. The thing I wasn't really prepared for, and I'm still learning, is just all the marketing and sales and advertising side of it is, more than anything, it's just very time consuming. And I fantasize about hiring a virtual assistant someday to help me with some of that so I can spend more time writing.
I find that even if you are published traditionally, you still have to do a lot of marketing, and indie has a lot of benefits, doesn't it?
It does. And you know, the more people I talk to like you who are hybrid published or used to be traditional and now are indie, a lot of them are saying, you know, you still have to do a lot of your own marketing, even if you're traditionally published.
I think one of the things that was a little hard for me in the beginning was that there is still a bit of a stigma around indie publishing. Obviously some self-published books are poorly written and they have terrible covers and all that, but there are a lot of us with well-written, high quality books out there. And I did notice a bit of that stigma when, when I was trying to get traction selling books in bookstores.
The bookstore model is just completely built around traditional publishing.
There is still this thing about, ooh, self-published, which is why I prefer to call it indie published, because, as you said, it's a business. If you do it right, it's extremely hard work. However, it's also wonderful because you have so much control.
Exactly. Yeah. And I think that bias against indie published books is eroding. I really think it is because I think a lot of people had really no idea that extent of indie publishing until very recently.
No, because it used to just be, you know, you did your memoirs and stuck them in the basement, but things have changed, thanks to the ebook revolution has helped tremendously.
The other thing that's been helpful for me as an indie author, just especially in the first few years, was being a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
One thing I wanted to say to people is if you have a story and you don't wait for a traditional publisher to tell you you're allowed to publish it because I just decided to go for it. And then, and then I struggled with actually hitting the Publish button because that meant I would have to stop revising and tinkering and my book wouldn't be perfect.
And it's scary to put your work out in the world and you're sure to make mistakes and reviewers are going to point them out.
Oh, they will find them.
I had to let go of that fear and just do it. And the beauty of indie publishing is you can go back and fix errors.
Exactly. And I have to compliment your books. They are extremely professional. I didn't find any errors there. They're really well researched and also well edited, formatted, everything. So you did the work and I actually didn't know you were indie published until I investigated further. It's not like I could tell.
That's great praise. And there, there were errors along the way that I kept going back and fixing, you know, nothing huge, but just things pop out and things, proofreaders miss things.
Oh, yes. All the time.
But I think that's another area where my copy editing background has helped so much because I was trained to do style manuals and have that kind of eye when I'm looking at a manuscript. So even though you always have to get other people to edit and proofread your work, being able to recognize a lot of grammatical issues, it gives me a little bit of a leg up compared to some people who are really aren't trained in that.
Exactly. I think it definitely helps to bring that professionalism to it. And that's essential.
Do you use any writing tools?
I use Scrivener. I love it. It really helps me organize my plot, my research notes and my scenes. And then I have strategy books and craft books that I rely on. So the story grid method has been really helpful for me.
And I've even done some of their online courses with video for webinars and community forums and that's been great. And then I also just recently got into the Save the Cat! Writes A Novel method, which is another good way of looking at how to structure a novel. And it's pretty easy to comprehend. The story grid can get quite nerdy and left-brainy for me. And I think the Save the Cat novel is a little bit easier for me to grasp. So ...
I'll put that in the show notes, Save the Cat?
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and Save the Cat was a screenwriting book originally, and then it was sort of turned into this 'use those methods to write novels' strategy.
Oh, great, well, I can hardly wait to look up that. This is one of the things I'm enjoying so much about developing Art In Fiction, and then interacting with other authors is, I learn so much because there's so many different subjects that people are writing about. Yes, they're all in the arts, but within the arts, that's a pretty wide area.
And I learned lots of things about technique and publishing and craft. So it's been a lot of fun. Any other advice you'd like to give to authors?
If you are ready to take on the business of marketing and selling your books, you're well suited to be an indie author.
Another thing is, I have had some talks with other writers since this pandemic began about, is what we do relevant. Like, really, is this what the world needs right now? Like, it just seems we've had a few of these sort of existential conversations. And I do just keep coming back to my core goal is to entertain people and help them escape. And if they are educated along the way, fantastic.
But I know how much books mean to people as a way to get out of their reality for a few hours. So I feel like, for that reason alone, yes. Keep writing and keep publishing.
Good advice, and yes, I think we always need stories and maybe, maybe now more than ever, when we have a little bit more time, which has been a bit of a gift through all of this pandemic. Well, not everybody's had more time. I've had more. I think some people have, just that ability to stop and to absorb story is such a gift.
And so thank you very much, Amy, for talking with me today and sharing your wisdom about writing and publishing and also your wonderful trilogy of novels. I highly recommend reading them.
Thank you. This has been wonderful. I really enjoy talking to you.
My guest has been Amy Maroney, the author of The Miramonde Trilogy, listed in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com. Be sure to check the show notes for the link to a 20% discount on a subscription to ProWritingAid, a fantastic editing tool for writers.
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