I first came across Rachel Nightingale at the inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference in Sydney. As a writer with a background in re-enacting, she was selected to read segments of the first chapter pitches for assessment by a panel of industry experts. Mercifully, I hadn’t submitted a first chapter because the fall-out was brutal. But I can remember thinking Rachel had the best job, simply reading out the entries. Since then, we’ve both had our debut novels picked up by Odyssey Books and, as we’ve presented together at events, and sat together on an Odyssey Books table, and, as I’ve picked Rachel’s brain about what to expect from the editing/launching/marketing process, I couldn’t wait to interview her about Harlequin’s Riddle. Let’s start with the blurb:
The Gazini Players are proud to present
For your Edification and Enjoyment
Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe
Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.
On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.
Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?
What historical era/place is this story based on?
Harlequin’s Riddle is based on events and life during the Italian Renaissance. The Commedia dell’Arte were travelling players who roamed the country performing improvisational theatre during that time. The Punch and Judy show that still survives today is a fragment of the original playing. There are theatre troupes around the world who still train actors in Commedia techniques. And of course the masks of Venice’s famous carnival are linked to Commedia characters – you can still see people dressed as Harlequin or Pierrot during Carnivale today.
Would you call it historical fantasy, or simply fantasy?
If I’m being very specific, I think it’s officially second world historical fantasy. Second world, in that the story takes place in a country very like Italy, called Litonya, which bears many of the hallmarks of the country but has its own geography and customs. Historical in that the events are based on the lives of performers and other artisans of the time, and the descriptions of buildings, costumes and food are based on the Renaissance world of Italy. Fantasy, because there is a mystical element that overlays everything and drives the story. Tarya is a realm that sits beside the real world setting – a place where artists who are in flow can uncover unexpected powers and create change in the world through their art.
Can you tell me the point at which the history ended and the fantasy started?
I have to be careful what I say here because my answer could give away spoilers for the third book! As with any writing, Harlequin’s Riddle is a mix of many influences, including research into the setting and artforms of the time, my own experiences as a performer and audience member, my lifelong fascination with Pierrot and with masks, and of course letting my imagination roam. The idea for Tarya itself grew out of reading an interview with Alan Cumming, the Broadway and Hollywood actor, who spoke about that moment before you go onstage as offering a chance to enter another world – I asked the question ‘what if this place was real?’ and my world building grew from there. This otherworld was crucial to the story, so I made the choice to step away from the real Italy, and the real Renaissance era, because it would make it easier for readers to accept the mystical aspects of the story. That said, I still researched and incorporated aspects of Renaissance Italy to create the setting. One of my characters, Isabella, is based on a real Commedia actress of the time (although I’ve taken liberties with her personality!) and some of the player families’ names can be found in Italy’s theatrical history. I could describe it as similar to building an old-style animated movie – the historical research allowed me to paint the backgrounds, whilst letting my imagination roam in service to the story (the fantastical aspects) created the movement in the foreground.
What inspired this novel? How has your outcome veered away from the initial conception? How has it stayed true to your original vision?
As I mentioned, the idea of Tarya grew from the interview with Alan Cumming, but I have collected masks most of my life – they intrigue me in the way they conceal or change identity, so that became part of the way people can reach Tarya, for everyone except Mina, my central character. And there’s a wonderful musical called The Venetian Twins, by Australians Nick Enright and Terence Clarke, which is based on the Commedia dell’Arte, and which I was lucky enough to see in Sydney with the incredible Drew Forsyth and Johnathon Biggins. That was what first showed me the magic of the living Commedia, beyond the romantic images that people are familiar with. I recently looked back at my early notes for the first book and saw how much had changed – and how some ideas that were there at the beginning remained through many edits. What has remained have been core ideas about theme. Change is very much an organic process as you keep writing and editing, and then again as you get others to read your work so it can be difficult to realise how much has shifted unless you do look back.
What did your research process look like?
I use a range of processes for research, as I mentioned in an earlier question, but probably the most fun is being a re-enactor. One of my hobbies is making late period garb, as in Renaissance and Tudor dresses. I was probably influenced by watching Zeffirelli’s lavish movie version of Romeo and Juliet in high school, because Italian Renaissance dresses are my absolute favourite. I’ve made three dresses and two overdresses so far. This sort of research involves looking at portraits from the time and trying to work out how garments were constructed, as well as reading about how things were worn, the sorts of fabrics used and so on. I avoid commercial patterns because they tend to add in things like darts or shaping that weren’t used at the time. There are patterns available that are far more historically accurate. Wearing a boned corset or walking around in a skirt with three petticoats is a really good way of getting inside a character’s head, because you have to move differently, hold your back straighter and possibly overheat!
Tell me about the Inamoratas and their costumes and the type of theatre you are depicting in general?
To understand the Commedia dell’Arte my critical resource was an actor’s handbook by John Rudlin, although my background in improvisational theatre allowed me to understand what I was reading at an experiential level, which was important in being able to get inside the actors’ heads. The name Commedia dell’Arte roughly means ‘comedy of the artists’ but the ‘Arte’ part also signified that this group of actors had official approval to perform, which is important in the Tarya trilogy, where the question of who has the right to make art becomes increasingly important as the books progress. Rudlin says the Commedia began around the mid-16th Century as an entertainment in market places, so those involved had to be good at drawing a crowd. The performers take on stock characters such as the trickster Harlequin or the rich banker Pantalone, and these have standard costumes, movements and speeches so the crowd can easily recognise who is who. Of course, as with movies and books, love is a central concern, and the two young lovers, the Inamorati, are always at the whim of fate, trying to find a way to be together regardless of the many characters and events that conspire to keep them apart. You could say I took a Commedia approach with the book, because I too used a framework (the Renaissance and the history of the Italian players) and then improvised a fantastical world and events around them.
Harlequin’s Riddle was a delight to read – well structured, historically robust, yet inventive in its fantasy elements – and above all compelling. I can’t wait to read the next instalment. It is available though Odyssey Books, all good bookstores, and in the usual online locations.