Today I have the pleasure to interview a wonderful author and fellow Italy lover: Germaine Shames. If you haven’t yet, read my recent review of Germaine’s fabulous book You, Fascinating You, and listen to our interview on Chique Show.
Germaine, welcome to my blog. First, can you tell us about your relationship with Italy? What do you love about it?
I first visited Italy while studying at university in Switzerland. The contrast between the two countries struck me instantly. Italy had a vibrancy and earthiness unlike anything I had experienced elsewhere. I was smitten by its gardens, fountains, statuary, countryside and street life—and remain so to this day.
How did you come up with the idea to write “You, Fascinating You”? When did you first come across the story of Margit and Pasquale?
A chance meeting thirty years ago with a mysterious Hungarian-Italian émigré planted the seed for You, Fascinating You. That man was Cesare Frustaci.
As we got to know each other, details of his wartime childhood began to emerge: the “shoes” he fashioned for himself from horses’ feedbags, the bullet that tore through his knee as Russian troops entered Hungary, the corpses alongside which he would awaken each morning… He seemed to be describing the perils of an orphaned waif abandoned to his fate, yet he was the son of Pasquale Frustaci (aka the “Italian Cole Porter”), a composer and conductor whose career flourished even as city after city fell. How then, from the age of seven, did Cesare end up alone on the battlefronts of Europe in the midst of the worst carnage the world has known?
The answer would arrive in my mailbox fifteen years later: a videotaped oral history Cesare contributed to Yale University. It told the story of his mother Margit Wolf, a Jewish ballerina who fell in love with a dashing Italian maestro and bore him a son—a ballerina who inspired a timeless love song only to fade from history without a trace. I sat riveted as if hearing the libretto of a classic ballet or opera and knew I would one day share this epic with the world.
When doing research for the book, did you actually visit all the places where the story unfolded?
I traveled though three countries—Hungary, Italy and Germany—to piece together Margit’s story.
The most arduous leg of the journey was by car from Budapest across the interior of Hungary to the remote agrarian village of Apagy near the Ukrainian border. More than sixty years earlier the Red Cross had sent Cesare by train to this same village, where he was adopted by a local family.
Road-weary, Cesare and I arrived. To our surprise the rustic cottage where he had been given refuge was still standing. A withered old man hobbled up and embraced him. Soon, the entire family had gathered to welcome back the half-starved brother they had found crying on the train platform and taken to their hearts.
I will never forget that reunion.
Was there anything that surprised you or shocked you about the story?
There was little about this story that did not surprise or shock me—that is what made it irresistible.
I cannot be explicit without spoiling the story for readers, but when Cesare traveled to Capri a few years ago and interviewed an Italian Count who had known his father, actress Greta Garbo entered You, Fascinating You’s real-life cast of characters.
Also making cameo appearances in the story are Vittorio De Sica, Zsa Zsa Gabor and an Italian Pope.
When you were writing “You, Fascinating You”, did you encounter any challenges? Were any parts of the book hard to write?
Research was the first challenge. After five years of assiduous probing, gaps remained in Margit’s story that most likely would never be filled. It was at that point I abandoned the idea of writing a nonfiction book and embraced the historical fiction genre. Happily, the Historical Novel Society has named You, Fascinating You “Editor’s Choice,” an honor bestowed each quarter on a select few books that exemplify the best in historical fiction.
The sad parts of the book were painful both to write and to revise; to this day I weep each time I revisit a half dozen critical scenes.
How did the book touch your own, personal life? And how did it change you as a writer?
Letting go of my heroine’s burdens and becoming fully present once again in my own relatively privileged life has demanded conscious effort. I consider myself a better writer—and perhaps a better person—for having communed with a heroine of the stature of Margit Wolf, and for seeing this project through to its end despite countless obstacles.
As I mentioned in my review, “You, Fascinating You” would be perfect for a movie. Let’s dream for a while: Who do you see playing the roles of Margit and Pasquale?
I’ve yet to fix on the ideal Margit Wolf, but for Pasquale’s role my choice would be actor Antonio Banderas. And while we are dreaming, I would also love to see Margit’s story enacted on the stage in the form of a musical, ballet and/or opera.
How lovely! As I was reading the book, I envisioned Anne Hathaway for Margit, and Ralph Fiennes for Pasquale, but Antonio would be totally irresistible! Okay, so what are you working on? What’s next for you?
I am going underground for my next two novels, which will be published under a pseudonym. Beyond that, I am working on a literary ghost story set against the histrionic rise and fall of Abstract Expressionism.
Thank you very much for this interview, Germaine. I can’t wait to read your new novels!
Thank you, Barbara, and continued success with all things Chique!
Author Blog: http://germainewrites/from-the-heart-germaine/
Where to order You, Fascinating You: http://palefirepress.com/shop/