This interview originally appeared on BloodWrites, the website of mystery novelist Jen Blood.
Susan Russo Anderson is a painter, a poet, a traveler, and a wordsmith who will transport you so completely to another time that you’ll be able to see, taste, and smell nineteenth-century Italy. Her Aweseome Indies-selected mystery Death of a Serpent and its sequel, No More Brothers, are the first books in what promises to be a captivating series featuring the strong, savvy, unquestionably flawed Serafina Florio. Here, Susan shares a little about what makes Serafina tick, her inspiration for the series, and the fabulous places and experiences that have influenced her along the way.
Can you tell readers a little about your Serafina Florio series?
In 1866, the year that the Serafina Florio series begins, Sicily was in chaos. Organized crime battered a people already fed up with inept government. The crops failed for the second year in a row and the price of food skyrocketed. Banks folded. Overnight, people became penniless. What did the government do? They raised taxes. It was the last straw. All along the northern coast of Sicily, there were violent protests. Bandits came down from the hills, freed the prisoners, stormed into the cities, joined in the killing and looting. In an effort to restore order, northern Italy declared martial law and sent troops to quell the rioting. One of the soldiers had cholera. Soon an epidemic raged throughout the island and thousands died daily. It was your typical nightmare from hell.
Enter Serafina and Death of a Serpent, the first book in the mystery series. She’s just lost her husband, her mother and sisters. She’s terrified of not being able to support her seven children and her best friend, Rosa, asks her to investigate the murder of three women slashed to death because the police haven’t solved the crimes and because Serafina is a wizard at figuring things out. So after she agrees to help, Serafina plunges into the investigation, discovers suspects, and creates a daring plan in an attempt to capture the killer.
After the first book, Serafina has more mysteries to solve. But eventually, life in Sicily becomes intolerable and Serafina migrates with her family to the Lower East Side where she continues to solve mysteries and grapples with the Black Hand.
Serafina is strong and smart, but she’s not perfect. She can be controlling. She’s not careful with coins. She has affairs. Often she’s not around when her children need her. Sometimes she uses them. But one thing about Serafina, and it’s true of every book in the series—she longs for peace and justice. She has the intuitive grasp of an amateur sleuth and she searches for truth as much as she yearns for a loving home for her family and she never, ever gives up.
As a midwife with quite the brood herself, Serafina Florio is hardly your average amateur sleuth. What was your inspiration for her character? How did you come up with the idea of making her a midwife?
Serafina is a combination of a bunch of strong women I’ve known throughout the years, either in person or in books. But I based her on one woman in particular, an incredible ancestor of mine, Anna Caverna, who was a midwife in a small town in Sicily. She lived from 1805 to 1905, surviving her husband by forty-five years, surviving the rule of two foreign monarchies and all that horrible chaos of Unification’s early years.
But why did I make her a midwife? You see, Serafina needed to make money in order to keep her family together. Yes, there was the family apothecary which her son ran after her husband died, but times were tough and profits were dwindling and midwifery was one of the few careers a woman could have in the nineteenth century.
Lucky for her, Serafina learned midwifery from her mother, then went to the University of Palermo for her certification. Nineteenth-century midwives in Italy and France went to university or to a teaching hospital and the best were taught and certified. Early in the nineteenth century, Paris—where Serafina’s mother went for her training—was tops in midwifery, far more advanced than in nineteenth-century America where, by comparison, birthing was a brutal experience.
Historically, everyone in a Sicilian village knew and respected their midwives. After Unification, they were given a stipend by the state. In many towns, the midwife led the baptismal procession into the church. That’s why the townspeople called Serafina “Donna Fina.” It was an honorary title.
Back to why I made Serafina a midwife. It opened doors for her, gave her cachet with the community. Serafina knew everybody. And a sleuth always needs an excuse to be where normally she would not be, even in the middle of the night, so she can snoop wherever and whenever and people will confide in her and commission her to solve mysteries and bodies can collect around her like barnacles on a ship.
In the bio on your website (which I love, by the way), you say that Death of a Serpent “began as a painting of the Lower East Side, and ended up as a mystery story.” Can you tell readers a little about that journey?
In 1997 I was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee to paint a diptych of the Lower East Side. So how do you stuff all of that rich, immigrant neighborhood and wealth of detail into a painting or two?
At the time we lived nearby—right across the Brooklyn Bridge—so before I picked up a brush, I spent three months just walking the streets of lower Manhattan, sketching in a notebook, reading as much as I could about the area and the great migration of the early twentieth century, interviewing some of the old time residents, frequenting the delis and the pickle stands and the Tenement Museum. Why does a family decide to migrate? What’s the push, what’s the pull? Those were the questions I asked myself.
Maybe it was the onion soup at Ratner’s, but one day as I sat on a park bench, I imagined a young girl. Probably she lived in one of those thousands of crowded tenement buildings now gentrified but still standing south of Fourteenth Street. For sure she breathed fetid air, carried water from the well up five flights of stairs. I told myself she froze in winter, roasted in summer, was ashamed of her accent and the way she dressed. Tessa, I called her. Smudged from play and wearing a patched smock, she looked at me a moment, then pointed to a crowd of peddlers. Placing a finger to her lips, she whispered something indistinct and vanished. Where was she born—in a back street in Sicily? A village in Russia? A brothel on Allen Street? What were her dreams? What was she trying to tell me?
So I sketched my roughs and decided which buildings to put into my montage, painted my paintings and everyone was happy. Time passed but Tessa lived on in my mind. Her story is a mystery—each story is—and that’s why I love mysteries. But her story is legion and got into my fingers and that’s how Death of a Serpent started. It’s the first book in a very long series.
Also on your website, you have a lengthy bibliography of references you’ve used in writing your novels, running the gamut from the English-Sicilian Dictionary to The Writer’s Guide to Psychology. What has your research process been like for the Serafina mysteries thus far? How much of your phenomenal descriptions of nineteenth-century Italy are based on actual visits to the area, and how much is based on reading and online research?
For ten years I worked for the airlines during the time when travel benefits were wonderful and it was not unusual to fly from New York to Paris for a weekend. To give you an idea of cost, the round trip airfare for my then four-year old son from Chicago to Milan was $32 and hotels in Europe, especially southern Italy, were very reasonable, so we traveled to Italy countless times. Still do, long after the travel benefits have vanished. And I walk and walk, eat the food, meet the people, search for all the Tessas of the world.
And of course when I was growing up, having many aunts, uncles, and cousins who are Italian helped. Sicilian culture was in the air I breathed, the food I ate, and in my childhood memories. Today, someone’s always visiting Italy or visiting us from Italy. But when I got serious about writing and studying the Lower East Side and nineteenth-century Italian history, especially Risorgimento, then libraries and the internet became very important, too. For three years after my husband died, I wrote very little but lost myself in research.
I imagine you’ve been asked this question a multitude of times before, but I’m going to ask again, because I’m genuinely curious in this case. I’m interested in how or why you made the decision to publish independently rather than going the traditional route. What ultimately went into your decision to “go indie”?
Like many of my fellow writers, hundreds of rejections convinced me to explore independent publishing. I think it’s hard for a traditional publisher to sell a mystery that takes place in Sicily in the nineteenth century. And today, shelf space is at a premium, so I don’t blame agents and publishers for rejecting my manuscripts. They have to live.
But computers and the internet aren’t foreign to me. I’ve been online for some time and an Amazon customer for years. Hard to escape the revolution that’s going on in publishing, so I took the plunge and published independently.
On the plus side of independent publishing are speed and author ownership and freedom. But an author wears many hats.
I love to write, love to network, but the marketing part is the hard one for me and I’ve made lots of mistakes and will make more, I’m sure. At least I knew enough to hire professional editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers. But next time I’ll do things differently. I’ll start hunting for reviews and talking about my book months before publishing it and I’ll publish ebook and paperback at the same time instead of separately.
But I’ve got hundreds of books to write and that’s my first love and job one. I think it’s true what they say—books sell books. The more good books an author publishes, the more she sells. It’s like compounding interest.
I read in another interview you did recently that one of your favorite ways to plot is during long walks. How long have you been “writing-while-walking,” and what are some of your favorite walking locales?
You know, Jen, I’ve been walking all my life. When we lived in Brooklyn and I worked in Manhattan, I walked to and from work almost every day. I loved walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, love walking when I travel, getting up in a brand new city and just walking very early in the morning, watching workers loading vegetable carts, people climbing church steps, reading newspapers outside cafés. I hear new sounds, smell unfamiliar scents, search for the words that catch them up. And of course I always sit and search for Tessa.
Writing is a gift. And an important part of it is a mystery. To be fine and true, writing takes lots of rewriting, revising, and editing. But long before a writer even thinks about scratching a page, the writing begins, deep in the subconscious. Walking helps me tap into that.
Your novels are fascinating to me because you are able to balance history, mystery, character, and description so fluidly. Which of those four is most difficult for you? Simplest?
I’m not sure what’s the most difficult but I know I spend a lot of time focusing on my characters and figuring how and why they do what they do and especially their unique syntax and the cadence of their speech. I try to make them pirouette across the stage with words. I listen a lot to conversations around me. New York subways are great for that. And I love to listen to children and the breathless way they have of speaking and being. And just when I think I know my characters, they change, so it’s an endless process. It’s like talking to your friends. Maybe it’s just one conversation we have with each of our friends, but there are many, many instances.
Before I do any serious writing in Scrivener, I have conversations with my characters. I pick one or two out and spend my first waking hours just writing long hand, strings of words in their voice. I imagine them having tussles with themselves or with another character. I do a lot of crossing out, looking up words in the online OED and figuring what word Rosa would use in this situation. For instance, she wouldn’t use “declaim” she’d use “screech,” and how is she dressed this morning—in her purple robe with the gold tassels and red slippers or has a maid dressed her already and what soap did she use for bathing and that sort of thing—details which never ever get into a story.
And of course I have to do lots of interpolation because my characters aren’t American or English, they’re Sicilian, but I need to capture their cadence in American English. So I go for a walk, half listen to an audiobook, come back and go to the computer and do the serious writing. I’m very lucky. For the past year, writing has been my fulltime job. But before that, when I had to earn a living, I squeezed it all in, a pocket of time here, a minute there.
As far as historical research goes, that is never ending, but doesn’t take up as much time as it did in the beginning when I wasn’t writing novels at all but revisiting the seething hotbed of revolution that was Europe in the late 1840s and the rise of Risorgimento— spending all my free time reading and researching. Now, sometimes when I’m plotting, I’ll run into situations—would Serafina wear a watch or have a watch pin fastened on her bodice? What would it look like? Can Rosa use the word, dodgy, in 1866? It’s such a Rosa word, please say yes. So I use the OED online for the first written usage of words. Did they have sewing machines in Sicily in 1866? What did they look like? How did they operate them? So I have specific questions I need answered and the internet is great for that.
I love Serafina for her strength and compassion, her intelligence and that wonderfully keen eye of hers. Is there anything that surprised you as her character took shape? What do you like best about writing her?
When I start writing, she takes right over. And what I love best is when she surprises me. For instance, I had to completely revise my latest novella, NO MORE BROTHERS, because smack dab in the middle of writing it, Serafina decided to have an affair. It was all her doing, not mine. So I had to go back and write the build-up scenes.
And what I like best about these scenes is that Serafina has no clue that she has the hots for Loffredo, but she really wants him, no doubt about it. She is convinced that the flirting and all the pre-affair stuff that goes on is all his doing and if she gives in, well, it’s because she feels sorry for him. That was so much fun for me to write.
Of course I need to be careful. I wouldn’t call them sex scenes at all because most of my readers don’t want detail. Innuendo, romantic build-up—that’s fine—but then they want a huge jump forward. “Afterward” becomes an overused word.
Do you have any current or upcoming promotions, appearances, or releases you’d like readers to know about? And, of course, the inevitable: When can we expect the next Serafina Florio mystery?
And I’m hoping to release DEATH IN BAGHERIA late this fall. Here’s a summary: Serafina is commissioned by the haughty Sister Genoveffa to investigate the suspicious death of her mother, a baroness in Bagheria. Along with Rosa, Serafina travels to Bagheria, discovers many suspects, including the local mafia don, the butler, the gardener, the cook, a local witch. Meanwhile, townspeople gossip about Serafina’s ongoing affair with Loffredo and one of her children vanishes. Along with the rest of the middle class in Sicily, Serafina’s family’s life is becoming more and more desperate, but despite these difficulties, she remains determined to learn the truth.
Where can we find you online? (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.
And the obligatory parting question: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three non-essential things (or people) would you have to have with you to stay sane?
This is a no brainer, assuming the deserted island has electricity and wireless—1) my family, 2) my kindle, and 3) my iPhone. And I know my grandchildren would love it—at least for about ten minutes—since they wouldn’t have to dress up and there’d be no school.
Thanks so much to Susan Russo Anderson for taking the time to answer my questions! You can learn more about Susan and her work through her website at http://susanrussoanderson.com/, where she writes some wonderful book reviews, the occasional Serafina Florio short, and generally talks about the writing life.