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Interview with Elle Newmark, author of "Bones of the Dead"
Award-winning author Elle Newmark, whose books are inspired by her travels; he toured the back streets of Venice to create his fine novel “The Bones of the Dead.” Elle also crossed the rainforests of Costa Rica to write “The Cloud Forest” and toured India by car and elephant to write The Devil’s Edge. Both new books are coming out soon, but he’s here today to talk about “Bones of the Dead.”
Tyler: Welcome, Elle. I’m glad you joined me today. First of all, I understand that “Bones of the Dead” is a small mystery novel set in fifteenth century Venice. How did you become interested in fifteenth-century Venice, and what made you choose it as the setting for your novel?
Elle: The Renaissance is an incredibly rich time for a writer. A man waking up from a long intellectual nap, science, humanism explode at the same time – and most of it happens in Italy, the home of my ancestors. How could I resist?
Of course, Venice is completely unique. A city of palaces built on water is an outrageous idea, and yet there it is. Fabulous – the sight, the architecture, the history – fabulous! I lived in Europe for seven years and traveled to almost every continent, but I had never seen a place like Venice.
To quote my narrator: “Venice has always been the perfect setting for secrets, seduction and the melancholic thoughts of the poet. Venice tainted by evil invites moral surrender, not with a playful wink, but with the understanding that it is, and has always been, under its royal guise .” This is perfect for “Bones of The Dead”.
Tyler: The main character, Luciano, becomes an apprentice to the Doge’s chef, and together they take part in a dangerous adventure. How would you describe their relationship?
Elle: In a rather Dickensian move, the chef drags the orphaned Luciano off a bleak street and into the palace kitchen. Luciano is grateful, although the chef has ulterior motives; she has long desired a son and needs an heir to a secret inheritance. The chef is a mysterious character whose true mission is slowly revealed.
But the chef and Luciano love each other like father and son. The chef becomes Luciano’s mentor, protector and teacher – a father in the truest sense of the word.
Tyler: In your book, you use food as a metaphor to advance the plot. You say, “Intrigue escalates and schemes thicken like a stew as the enigmatic chef uses metaphorical puffs and mysterious sauces to lead Luciano through a dangerous but delicious maze.” Why did you choose food as a metaphor?
Elle: My dad is a master chef, so I guess food as a metaphor was inevitable. I grew up in an Italian family and food played a central role, not just on special occasions but every day. My first job at the age of ten was making homemade ravioli on a long pasta-covered table in our basement. I learned to cook, of course, and often thought that the preparation of food was full of metaphorical possibilities. Also, I just love the concept of culinary history.
We always talk like that, don’t we? “Variety is the spice of life,” “You are what you eat,” “Dry as toast,” “Salt of the earth,” “Peaches and cream,” “Roasted in your own juices.” Food engages all our senses. Everyone loves the pleasant crunch of peanuts, the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread, the sight of ripe cherries, the sound of sizzling bacon. Food overwhelms the senses. One wonders whether we consume food or whether it consumes us.
When it comes to metaphors, could there be a more perfect metaphor for the transience of life than a soufflé? Well, maybe a rose, but that’s a cliché. The souffle blooms, gorgeous, then disappears. Either you were there to appreciate it or you missed it. The chef’s spiritual message: “Be here now.” I’m a Buddhist, so I think if a Buddhist writer grows up with a chef, you’ll get soufflés instead of roses.
Tyler: I understand that the plot revolves around Luciano learning that powerful people plan to uncover an ancient book rumored to contain heresies, love potions, alchemy, and even the secret to immortality. Where did the idea for this book come from?
Elle: Books were extremely important during the Renaissance – the printing press was new and it was the dawn of humanism. Until then, the European power structure maintained an iron grip on the people by restricting the flow of knowledge. When the books introduced crazy new ideas (such as the Earth revolving around the sun), trouble ensued. Books have always been scrutinized for seditious content.
However, there is no human ingenuity whatsoever. People find inventive ways to protect their ideas, such as scrolls filled in bottles and hidden in caves near the Dead Sea. The chef apparently hid his subversive ideas – he coded them into recipes. One way or another, the written word is preserved to illuminate the past and show the way forward.
“Bones of The Dead” is about a book that holds forbidden secrets. Human nature being what it is, everyone thinks the book has what they want most. Luciano wants a love potion, the old Doge doesn’t want to die, one man wants gold and the other wants power. No one knows exactly what’s in this book, but they all know what they want.
Tyler: Immortality and alchemy have often appeared as dreams or goals in fiction. What do you find fascinating about them?
Elle: I find them interesting for the same reason as everyone else. Immortality fascinates me because no one wants to die. We try to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not aging – we dye our gray hair and spend billions on anti-wrinkle creams, diets and cosmetic surgery because we idolize youthful beauty. Getting old is not cool because it smells like death.
Despite all this, we die, but we achieve immortality by what we leave behind. Whether we intend to or not, we all leave something behind, even if it’s just a piece of DNA. Most of us strive to leave behind something more meaningful—art, skills, ideas, values. I believe we achieve immortality by passing these things on to the next generation. That is why I recommended this novel to teachers.
Oh, and alchemy, yes, it’s an old favorite because it speaks to something deep within the human psyche. Alchemy is about greed and the desire to believe in magic. If people didn’t fantasize about getting rich quick, the lottery would go bankrupt. Last time I checked, it was doing amazingly well.
Tyler: Why did you choose “Bones of The Dead” as the title?
Elle: The title works on several levels. First, there is a scene in which the Doge and the Pope’s astrologer eat Italian cookies called the bones of the dead. As the characters munch on the bones of the dead, they talk about the illusion of defeating death, and this introduces the theme of immortality.
Second, all the churches in Europe have catacombs and bones of saints that are preserved as relics. The chef points out that these are only bones, only symbols of true legacies – lives lived with courage and wisdom, the things he wants to teach Luciano.
Third, as the chef tells Luciano, “Civilizations are built on the bones of the dead.” Teachers of all descriptions pass down knowledge from generation to generation, and thus mankind evolves. That’s why I chose Sir Isaac Newton’s quote as my epigraph: “If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Tyler: I understand that the book has some political intrigue about the church. The novel sounds like it has a conspiracy theory feel to it. Do you feel that the questions in it speak to the current state of the world?
Elle: Any novel worth its fictional salt speaks to the world as it is today, that is, to some universal theme. In the Middle Ages, the church exercised political influence, and the popes conspired with heads of state. During the Renaissance, free thinkers questioned this power structure. It may not be the Pope these days, but we all know that far-reaching agreements are being made behind the scenes. Politics is politics then and now.
“Bones of The Dead” carries the message that we don’t have to personally defeat what is shrouded in power struggles at the top. We can choose to live with integrity and purpose, regardless of what plots arise behind closed doors.
But if, according to the conspiracy theory, you’re referring to the passages about the Gnostic Gospels and Jesus, there’s nothing in my novel that hasn’t been suggested before. This is not new; it’s just controversial.
Tyler: Which writers or books do you think have influenced you in your writing?
Elle: Oh, there are so many. Early influences were the two Johns-Steinbeck and Updike. Steinbeck for his humanity, and Updike for his imagined life down to the last funny detail. I also love magical realists—especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende—for bending reality and taking me on a journey. Ian McEwan amazes with his ability to portray the dark side of human nature with insight and compassion. Ann Patchett has a kind, gentle touch; Rohintin Mistry offers a moving and unflinching look at India; Toni Morrison colors outside the lines, but brilliantly; Tim O’Brien portrays war with an admirable willingness to ease his own pain; Sebastian Faulks draws me to strange landscapes of time and mind; Kasuo Isaguro is a genius…
Honestly, there are so many great writers I could go on and on. I wish everyone would just go to libraries and bookstores and try new authors. Experiment.
Tyler: What about writing historical fiction intrigues you and do you find anything particularly difficult or frustrating about it?
Elle: I love everything about historical fiction—reading, writing, and researching. What wider canvas could I wish for than the history of mankind? And what richer palette could I use than the tapestry of human experience? The historical writer relies on the vast resources of human behavior, but also in hindsight.
Tyler: Can you tell us a little bit about your next two novels?
Elle: “The Cloud Forest” tells the story of an indigenous people living in the Amazon rainforest and their struggle to escape the onslaught of the 20th century. The research for the book took more than a year, as well as an unforgettable trip to a rainforest.
“The Devil’s Wind” is set in India in 1948, the year of partition and Gandhi. It’s about the power of forgiveness, and the search for that brought me to India. Elephants are surprisingly easy to ride.
Tyler: You obviously like to travel. What is it about travel that inspires your writing?
Elle: The feeling of displacement fuels my creativity. In a familiar environment, it is easy to get into a routine and walk half awake. But when you travel, everything is new, you don’t know what’s around the next corner, and you’re awake for every moment. I am addicted to the feeling of discovery.
Experiencing the world and its people is a great and humbling adventure. Writing about it is a way of understanding and sharing.
Tyler: Where are you planning to travel next and research another book?
Elle: I would love to go back to Africa to see more of it, and who knows, it might turn into a book. But right now I’m thinking of setting my next book in cyberspace.
I am fascinated by the confluence of ideas on the internet. Today, many of us live a good part of our lives virtually, and as a result, our inner world grows significantly. We interact with people we would otherwise never meet in our daily lives. It’s unprecedented and I’m interested in how it changes us.
Tyler: Thanks for joining me today, Elle. Before we go, can you tell our readers where they can find out more about “Bones of The Dead” and where they can buy a copy?
Elle: With pleasure: Visit my website at http://www.ellenewmark.com or order “Bones of The Dead” from Amazon.
As a personal thank you, I would like to invite everyone to a virtual renaissance party at http://www.bonesofthedead.com on November 27th. If you order Bones of The Dead on the day, you can use your Amazon confirmation number password to get into the party. We’ll have music, I’ll give thought provoking ideas, and I’ll give away a stack of free downloads at parties. Invite everyone.
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