“Elodie couldn’t get what Lena told her out of her mind. Par ot her was impressed with Lena’s courage, while another part was concerned for her friend’s safety. It was no secret what the Fascist police would do to her should she get caught. Their beatings and torture were a well-known threat to everyone in the city. Many people had simply vanished after being arrested, while others were sent back to their homes severely beaten, their scars a visible reminder of who was in charge of Italy. It was reason enough to stay away. That, and the fact that Elodie could only imagine how devastated her parents would be if anything happened to her.”
Think you’ve heard all the stories about WWII. Think again. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman focuses on the Italian Resistance. Elodie, a young student and cello player, becomes involved in the Italian Resistance when artists and teachers at her school become targets for Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Her own father gets taken away and beaten while he’s questioned. Elodie starts attending clandestine meetings and carrying out missions through her music for the resistance. She plays codes through her music. She falls in love with bookseller Luca, a Resistance leader. When Luca is killed and she finds herself pregnant, Elodie escapes to the coastal town of Portofino. A widowed doctor (his wife and child died during childbirth) still in mourning and longing to care for someone takes her in and they slowly open up to each other.
“There was also something about the smell of bookshops that was strangely comforting to her. She wondered if it was the scent of ink and paper, or the perfume of binding, string, and glue. Maybe it was the scent of knowledge. Information. Thoughts and ideas. Poetry and love. All of it bound into one perfect, calm place.”
I savored this novel and learned much about the Italian resistance movement and its use of codes and the arts. The Garden of Letters truly delighted me. Choosing to have her main character, Elodie, be a music prodigy and able to contribute to the movement through something she’s passionate about propels the novel in magnificent ways. Richman writes superbly and with splendid detail. Elodie is a charming, smart, intense woman and from the start you root for her and want her to success and find her bliss.
“Elodie has something that is completely her own. Her music is the root of her sorcery. She fills the air with it. She uses every part of her body when she plays: her fingers, her arms, her neck, and her legs. He simply cannot take his eyes off her.”
The Garden of Letters
Berkley Trade [September]
Alyson graciously took the time to speak with me about the novel and her writing process.
Amy Steele: I can’t believe this is the first novel of yours I’ve read. I will remedy that soon. And finally I’m getting questions to you. Apologies again about the rescheduling. You went to Wellesley College. I went to Simmons College in Boston. I loved the experience at an all-women’s college. What did you take away from your years at Wellesley?
Alyson Richman: I loved my years at Wellesley. Because it was a woman’s college, my social and academic life was kept completely separate. This helped me to maintain a sense of focus that I might not have had if I went to a co-ed college. The intimate, yet challenging, atmosphere also enabled me to build a sense of self-confidence and to believe a career in the arts was even possible.
Amy Steele: How did you become a novelist?
Alyson Richman: Actually, I first started thinking about becoming a novelist during my senior year at Wellesley. One of my art-history professors told me that I had a particular gift for telling the story “behind the painting.” As graduation approached, I remember thinking to myself: “If I could do anything in the world, what would I do?” And I told myself that what I’d really love to do was write stories that centered around the lives of artists. I had spent a year in Kyoto as an apprentice to a Noh mask carver, where it took me over a year to carve a single mask. [AS: amazing.] I remember thinking to myself during that time, here I was a Western woman studying a traditional Japanese art form, when did the reverse occur? When did the first Japanese artists start studying Western-style art? When I asked my art-history professors upon my return, no one knew the answer. I immediately thought this would be wonderful backdrop for a novel. I then applied for a grant upon my graduation, which enabled me to research the first Japanese artists who left there at the turn-of-the-century to study painting under the French Impressionists. I began writing my first novel The Mask Carver’s Son about the son of a Japanese mask carver who forsakes his family’s artistic traditions to study in Paris under the Impressionists.
Amy Steele: You write historical fiction. What appeals to you about the genre?
Alyson Richman: I love learning about something new with each book I write. The research part is truly one of the best aspects of my career. I love traveling to the countries I’m writing about, learning about a foreign culture, the food and traditions, and observing the landscape. When writing historical fiction, I also use photo archives and, in the case of my novels that take place during WWII, I try to locate people who were alive during that time who might be able to share their stories. I learn so much from the research part, and I love weaving that into my novels so my readers learn alongside the narrative.
Amy Steele: The Garden of Letters focuses on the Italian Resistance during WWII. Where you got the initial idea for the story is interesting. How did you come up with it?
Alyson Richman: I was at a dinner party when someone shared with me a story about how her father escaped from Hungry through Italy during WWII with forged papers. When this friend’s father arrived in Portofino, German guards were scrutinizing everyone’s papers so carefully, he was sure he was going to be arrested. Suddenly, out from the crowd, a big barrel-chested Italian man cried: “Cousin, cousin, I’ve been waiting for you all week. Thank heaven’s you’ve come!” He seemed to know the German guards, and was able to whisk my friend’s father away and take him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino. When my friend’s father asked this man why he saved him, as he clearly wasn’t his cousin, the man replied: “I try and come to the port every month. I try to save the person who looks the most afraid.” When I heard that story, I immediately thought it would make an amazing beginning to a novel. I imagined the two people who meet at this port. One fleeing and in need of shelter, the other person who senses his fear. Two lives intersecting without either of them uttering a single word between them.
My novel prior to The Garden of Letters was called The Lost Wife. It took place in the Czech concentration camp, Terezin, so I knew I didn’t want to do another Holocaust novel. I began to research women in WWII Italy and learned about these female messengers who risked their lives working for the Resistance by transmitting important information during the war, many times the information was not written down, and if it was, it was done in code. I decided to make my main character a cellist, because I wanted the codes she transmits to be done through her music playing. In The Lost Wife I explored how art was used as a form of resistance during WWII. In The Garden of Letters, I focus on how music was used.
Amy Steele: Your descriptions are beautiful and you’ve done impeccable research. Can you explain your research process?
Alyson Richman: I made three trips to Italy. The first was purely a visual trip, where I visited the northern cities that the book takes place in: Verona, Mantua and Venice. I also tried to make new contacts that would be helpful for my research. I was able to connect with people who introduced me to their more elderly relatives who shared their memories of life during wartime. The second trip, I hired a translator who helped me with my interviews of messengers in the Italian Resistance, partisans who had fought in the mountains, and people who were connected somehow to the material. The third trip I went to Liguria to see the coastal villages of Portofino and San Fruttuoso, which also are settings in the book. You can actually see many of the photos from my research on my website: Alysonrichman.com
Amy Steele: You said that you’ve always added art and painting to your novels and this is the first time you’ve written about music. What drew you to make Elodie a musician?
Alyson Richman:Almost all my previous novels deal with painters. I’m the daughter of an abstract painter, who always taught me to see the world with an artistic lens. I even considered a career as an artist myself right around the time I began applying for college. But in The Garden of Letters I wanted to challenge myself with something new. I wanted to see if I could write through the eyes of a musician and explore how she might be able to use her talents to do something original and help those who are resisting German occupation.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about Elodie?
Alyson Richman: I love her memory. I love that her mind and her ability to remember everything with such razor precision is what sets her apart from her peers. When I visited Venice, I was told that Venetians have a particularly strong visual memory because they live within a labyrinth, where it’s difficult to remember all the street names but one can give directions that are grounded in a visual sight. I love connecting Elodie’s natural ability with her maternal bloodline.
Amy Steele: Were Elodie’s actions and interest in the resistance unusual for the time or were a lot of students getting involved? She risked a lot.
Alyson Richman: It’s hard to say exactly how many students were involved at the time because so much of the Resistance occurred underground and with great secrecy. There was, however, a lot of recruiting done from the university campuses amongst students who felt impassioned to fight against the looming threat of German occupation.
Amy Steele: You add in some real-life characters to the novel—Rita Rosani, Brigitte Lowenthal, Berto Zampieri and Darno Maffini. Why did you choose to do that and what were the challenges?
Alyson Richman: I decided to set the novel in Verona, Italy because years ago, on a family vacation, I saw a plaque on the outside wall of the synagogue there honoring the fallen partisan, Rita Rosani. I had never heard her name before and our guide told us that she was one of Verona’s most beloved partisans who died in battle on the Monte Comune in the nearby mountains. Little is known about this woman who was only 23 when she died, other than that she was a former school teacher who died bravely in battle and that she was Jewish. When I began researching other members in the Italian Resistance in Verona, I learned about Brigitte Lowenthal, Berto Zampieri and Darno Maffini. I love interweaving into my stories little-known historical figures. Many of these people have done incredible and heroic acts that required great risk and sacrifice and I love shedding light on them and sharing their accomplishments with my readers.
Amy Steele: What is your favorite thing about The Garden of Letters?
Alyson Richman: My favorite part of the novel is the scene in which Dalia constructs the room in Angelo’s house that contains the garden of letters. I think it’s one of the most poetic and visual chapters in the novel. I’m particularly biased about this scene because it was one of those unscripted, magical moments in writing when the characters start doing something you hadn’t planned. It sprang from an image I had of Dalia kneeling on the floor, cutting the paper, preparing the glue, and it just began to grew from there. The character literally took over and created something artistic within the pages of the novel, and I just love when that happens.
Amy Steele: Thank you SO much Alyson! I look forward to speaking again soon.
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