From my reviews of both Becalmed and Sailing Out of Darkness, visitors to my place can probably deduce I’m a big fan of Normandie Ward Fischer. She tends to write for more mature women, those of us who have a few more years’ worth of mistakes behind our belts than the heroines of most romance novels. Something about her work resonates with me, and I just had to get to know her better.
While Normandie was doing this interview with me, she posted a memory on her Facebook timeline:
“It’s Thursday. I’m doing an interview with someone who asked about my years in Italy, and the memories are such fun. I was 19 when an Italian photographer used my eyes and face for a contest. This is one of the shots he took. My old eyes look at my young eyes and remember…”
Glad I could help her along memory lane, because she had some wonderful tales to tell. Her responses to my questions were so riveting–just like her writing–that I just couldn’t bring myself to cut them down to size.
I don’t have room for everything here, but keep an eye out. There will be other snippets of the interview with her, perhaps here, perhaps on AuthorCulture, or perhaps even in one of the magazines/ezines I hope to publish in.
Much of the setting for Sailing Out of Darkness was in Italy. Normandie seemed to have such a detailed knowledge, I figured she’d been there, so of course I asked about it first thing.
Here’s her response, the only one in the interview I have room for here:
Linda: You studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in the heart-breakingly beautiful city of Perugia, Italy. Tell me a little about your time there.
NF: I’ve been messing about with clay forever and began attending the Corcoran School of Art’s Saturday program for kids while still in junior high. All it took was one orientation day in the sculpture studio where the regular art students worked, and they couldn’t pry me loose to try other media. I never looked back. In those days, the Corcoran was an exciting place with instructors who were practicing artists and actually taught craft, helping me hone my eye. My first commissioned portrait, a bust of Adlai Stevenson, came when I was sixteen.
My lawyer-father wanted me to fit into a mold of his making, which included attendance at one of the conservative, though excellent, Seven Sisters Colleges. This would have been good for me, I’m sure, but I rebelled. His solution was to ship me off to Europe. (Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch.)
I’d had five years of French classes, which made Paris the logical choice. Instead, my father chose Italy, convinced it would be safer, and Perugia because of the Università per gli Stranieri where I could study for a few weeks before choosing an art program in either Firenze or Roma. In these cities, Americans stood cheek by jowl in the sculpture studios. In Perugia, only one other American studied in the art school—and the aula (studio room) had a view of the Umbrian countryside. Hard choice.
Those were magical years of learning a new language from people eager to help. My classes and exams were all in Italian, and the shopkeepers spoke no English. I made friends of foreigners from all over the world, some there to study the language, some at the regular university, some just touring for a while. I was the youngest among the friends from Canada, Australia, Britain, France, and various Middle Eastern countries. Our common language was Italian. We traveled throughout Italy, and I ended up bringing one of them home with me.
That first Christmas, I received an invitation to play Jane Austen—or rather, to spend a month in a modern Jane-Austen world. A Scottish friend found out I’d be homeless for the holidays. Would I like to spend the month at his home with his two sisters and his parents? I’d need evening clothes. Oh, and the two copies of Town and Country Magazine that he showed me so I’d be prepared? Picture Elizabeth Bennett seeing Pemberly by magazine and knowing she’d be sleeping there. For a month.
Off to the fabric store to pick up black velvet and a lovely lining fabric, along with needles and thread and scissors and a pattern. I hand stitched a long skirt, but had no time to make a top, which meant a shopping spree in London in between visits to Parliament and other places from my history books.
And then we arrived at his home. I’d tell you its name—and his—but that would be intrusive. Suffice it to say, I’d never imagined jaunting about among the aristocracy from manor to castle to quaint Scottish village to the Boxing-Day-Lord-of-the-Manor traditions.
Jane would have loved the Christmas Eve dinner when the women adjourned to the sitting room and gossiped. One unfortunate Lady Someone (an ex-American of Danish parents married to a man thrice her age, and I call her unfortunate because of her behavior) dragged the room into a discussion of gowns and designers. It was obvious that I was the only woman in homemade rags (and the only one under twenty), but by the time she’d made her way around the room, with names such as Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy dripping off lips, and had swung toward me with her, “And where did you get your outfit?” I’d had time to prepare myself. I peered down my long nose (I am very tall, even seated) and said, “Oh, this? Well, the skirt is handmade—by me—and this ruby satin blouse came from the Chelsea Antique Market.” A hush fell. Oh, Jane, Jane, you would have loved it.
During that month, I dedicated myself to the task of falling in love with my host, John. I failed. I fell for his house, his castle, his parents, his sisters, Scotland. What on earth was wrong with me that I couldn’t return his affection? Ah, me. Pemberly was not destined to be mine.
On our way back to Perugia, I had a day and a night alone in Paris before we met up with a French girl for the official tour. Picture me, please. It was the middle of winter. I wore deerskin boots, a long suede coat, had hair halfway down my back. I was staying in a small hotel off the Boulevard Saint Germain. This was Paris! France! I could speak (sort of) the language! I’d just bought some dried fruit and was almost skipping down the sidewalk when a short man approached and mumbled up—way up—at me. I said, “Pardon?” He repeated the mumble; I repeated the question. Finally, very slowly and much too articulately, he asked me in French how much I charged for the night.
I was 18, remember. I shuddered, turned on my heel, and dashed into a shop to collect myself. I looked down. Nothing showed. Toe to neck, I was wrapped and warm. My first on-my-own splendid evening in Paris had been ruined because some smarmy fool thought I was a hooker. And, no, this wasn’t the red-light district, but the student area of Paris. I should have laughed it off. At 26, I might have.
At the end of my first year abroad, my brother came for a flash-tour of Europe. We climbed in the VW Beetle I’d purchased ($300) from money I saved by living among frugal students. We had a lovely time, visiting the cities, traveling down the Amalfi coast, across to Brindisi, by ferry to Greece, up the coast through Yugoslavia (and the tales of could tell of Tito’s country), back to Italy’s northern bits, around the French coast and then to Paris, to Belgium, Holland, Denmark, back to Germany. After a quick visit to the States, I crossed the Alps and returned to Perugia for my second year of classes. I’d have stayed in Italy, probably forever, because I so loved the pace and the language and the people, but my father decamped, and my mother needed me.
I’ve returned to Perugia with my daughter in the days since then. The town has changed. There’s an escalator, and cars park only outside of town. But it will always be a magical, transforming place to me. And the friends I made are forever friends.
You’ll love Normandie’s newest, Sailing Out of Darkness. Be sure to add it to your TBR list!