Artist Waylaid: Michelangelo’s stint as a defense engineer

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo's David

Artists, writers, creatives, take heart; even Michelangelo was waylaid from his vocation as a sculptor when practical demands required that he direct his efforts elsewhere for a time. The master of Renaissance art was obliged to set aside his excellent plans to carve Hercules from a block of marble when the governor of Florence requested that he build defense towers instead. Perhaps Michelangelo complained, but he apparently rose to the task on behalf of his beloved Republic. Still, I cannot help but think he yearned to return to his art all the while. This episode of the great artist’s life both fascinates and inspires patience.  As I stand before a boulder in the road to writing my third novel, I take particular comfort in Michelangelo’s travail.

The Pietà

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo Buonarotti’s drawings for the fortifications of Florence, made in 1528-9. Courtesy of the Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Italy.

One of Michelangelo’s drawings for the fortifications of Florence, made in 1528-9. Courtesy of the Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Italy. From

While Michelangelo is remembered for sublime works such as the Pietà and the David, he is less well known as an architect of fortifications. But in 1529 Michelangelo’s talent for working with stone was put to practical use. At this time, Pope Clement sought to vanquish the independent Republic of Florence and the enemies of the Medicis and to restore the family dynasty to power. Abetting the effort to obstruct the Pope’s plan, Michelangelo was appointed the position of “General Governor and Procurator of the fortifications of Florence.” In this capacity he was charged with designing the towers and walls that would protect the city-state from invasion. Detailed drawings for these plans illustrate the considerable depth to which the artist was occupied with this project. So impressive were his bastions, in fact, that the greatest architect of fortifications of the seventeenth century, Vauban, looked to Michelangelo’s plans for inspiration. (The Art Bulletin 22.3 (1940): 127-37. JSTOR. College Art Association. Web.

Mary's house in LakeviewLike Michelangelo, I now find myself in a situation that necessitates a shift from creative pursuit to practical endeavor. Rather than focus on my first draft of The Last of the Magicians, I am now thoroughly occupied with the business of buying and remodeling a new house, and eventually moving.  This all came about rather unexpectedly, for I had no intention of selling my present house in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. But as fate would have it, someone, quite literally, appeared at my door and made an offer that a prudent person would not refuse (although I did refuse for a while).

My office

The little office where much of Alchemy's Daughter and Nonna's Book of Mysteries were written

Have I prostituted my writing life for some cash? Perhaps. But more likely, I have bought myself more time to write in the future. Michelangelo returned to sculpting after the war, and I will return to writing in earnest once I am settled into my new place.  It is a lesson in learning to go where the current takes you, and perhaps also in accepting a plan for your life that is bigger than your own. Alchemy’s Daughter and Nonna’s Book of Mysteries were both written in between the demands of being a single mom, landlord, and a part-time nurse.  One way or other, book number three, The Last of the Magicians, will get written as well. We all get waylaid from our dreams at times. Keep the faith and know the boulders in the road will eventually be moved.

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Diving in and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Starting my new book, not without trepidation

While waiting for the right time to begin that novel you’ve been thinking about, or to take that trip or write that song, the days march on.  We give our precious time to obligations that have nothing at all to do with our heartfelt dreams.  Or when the opportunity finally arises, we feel overwhelmed by the size of the task and don’t know where to begin. I feel this way every time I start a new book (as in now) or essay.  There is just one thing to be done: dive in.

Begin anywhere, begin badly.  Almost all writers write terrible rough drafts, initial pages are crumpled into balls and tossed in the waste basket.  I’m pretty sure that little of what I wrote today is salvageable, but that’s beside the point.  I know that if I keep writing, and if I persist through a very long and painful struggle, the story will unfold.  The only obstacle is an over abundance of caution, a fear of failure, the caution of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock:

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

Don’t be like Alfred.  Be willing to look a little foolish and have fun with it.  There is no time like today to reach for your heart’s desire.

Daring to eat a peach
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The best headstrong young women, and Walt Whitman

Amelia Earhart

Like the heroine of Alchemy’s Daughter, I have occasionally been described as “headstrong” by those closest to me.  I take this as a compliment, despite the negative connotations of the word.  Without a degree of willfulness, how else is a girl to make her way in a world fraught with obstacles?  Becoming an author or achieving most any worthwhile goal requires focus, commitment to the end goal, and even occasional disregard for the opinions and feelings of others.  It is not possible to be a people-pleaser all the time while also setting out to achieve your dream.

Sally Ride

If a woman chooses a career in a competitive field–especially a field that has been traditionally dominated by men–a  stubborn nature has to be cultivated.  Astronaut Sallie Ride, conservationist and author Rachel Carson, and aviation pioneer  Amelia Earhart surely did not succeed by going with the flow and caring overmuch about the opinions of others.

Walt Whitman

When I began setting serious time aside to write and chose to give up a full-time nursing position, I ruffled some feathers, as my female role models surely did.  A few family members could be heard grumbling about my impractical venture.  Who does she think she is? Why give up full-time work to write when you have a child to support? Like Santina Pietra of Alchemy’s Daughter, I knew that not pursuing the dream would be a sort of death.  Better to do as Walt Whitman says in “Passage to India” and “steer for the deep waters only,or take a risk in life.

Today I am sharing Laura Fabiano’s review (and Rafflecopter giveaway) of Alchemy’s Daughter as published on her wonderful site, Essentially Italian. Laura describes the book’s heroine as strong and willing to make a bold move to defy convention.  I have nothing against social conventions, but sometimes it is entirely appropriate to ignore them.

Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

Walt Whitman, Passage to India

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Harper Lee, the sadness of Go Set a Watchman, and virtual tours

To Kill a Mockingbird

With the release of Go Set a Watchman, I have been thinking of the beloved author Harper Lee and wondering, like many of her fans, if she ever really intended for this book to be published. Something is not quite right about the sudden appearance of the “long forgotten” manuscript in the hands of Lee’s attorney.  After all, Lee, who is now 89, ailing, and living in an assisted living facility, had plenty of opportunities to publish the book earlier, had she been so inclined. By many accounts, Go Set a Watchman is the failed, first draft of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t help but feel that the shy author, known to turn away interviews and who went running from the NY publishing world back to the safety of her hometown after To Kill a Mockingbird became hit, did not simply loose track of the old manuscript among her archives. More likely, Lee buried the manuscript in a drawer and fully intended it to stay there.

Harper LeeHarper Lee chose to live a quiet, reclusive life after the colossal success of her first novel, and she was known to turn away interviews. Although she eschewed publicity, I think a virtual tour might have been more palatable to her. From the comforts of her Monroeville, Alabama home, she could have penned answers to bloggers’ questions without stepping foot in NY or inside a TV station.

Emily Bronte

Shy author, Emily Brontë

The virtual world makes armchair tourism possible these days. As an author, I love the fact that I can circle the Internet with my new book, Alchemy’s Daughter, and speak with hundreds of people from the comfort of my Wrigleyville office. It’s true that I am something of a shy author, like Harper Lee, Emily Bronte, and C.S. Lewis.  A lot of us writers are that way, and it’s often the reason we started writing in the first place.

Italy Book Tours has done a wonderful job setting up my virtual tour. At each of the Alchemy’s Daughter stops, you can enter the Rafflecopter drawing for a chance to win a free copy. You’ll also hear a few stories about my years-long process of writing Alchemy’s Daughter, which was once a book called The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter. By the way, if anyone ever tries to publish The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter when I’m an old lady with dementia, you heard it right here that it was never my intention for that book to be published.

Medieval cloth merchant

Medieval cloth merchant, like Santina Pietra's father in Alchemy's Daughter

Alchemy’s Daughter Full blog tour and giveaway schedule:

July 13 - Studentessa Matta – review / giveaway
July 13 - Babs Book Bistro – review / author interview / giveaway
July 14 - Working Mommy Journal – review / giveaway
July 14 - Dreams Come True Through Reading – review
July 15 - Confessions of a Reader – review / author interview
July 15 - Il Mio Tesoro – review / author interview
July 16 - ABookGeek – review / giveaway
July 16 - – review / giveaway
July 17 - Unshelfish – review / guest post / giveaway
July 20 - T’s Stuff – review / guest post / giveaway
July 21 - Rockin’ Book Reviews – review / guest post / giveaway
July 21 - In This World of Books – review / giveaway
July 22 - A Simple Life, really!? – review
July 22 - Jayne’s Books – review
July 23 - Griperang’s Bookmarks – review / author interview / giveaway
July 23 - Essentially Italian – review / author interview / giveaway
July 24 - Vic’s Media Room – review /
July 27 - The Autistic Gamer – review
July 27 - Svetlana’s Reads and Views – review
July 28 - Just One More Chapter – review / giveaway
July 29 - Pure Jonel – review / guest post / giveaway
July 30 - Jorie Loves a Story – review
July 31 - Library of Clean Reads – review / giveaway

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Alchemy’s Daughter Italy book tour and giveaway starts today!

Italy Book Tours July 13, 2015 marks the start of the Alchemy’s Daughter Italy Book Tour, which features books related to Italian culture.  Please join me for this fun virtual trip and enter the tour sponsor’s Rafflecopter giveaway for a chance to win one of the free copies that will be given away at the conclusion of the tour on July 31. Santa Croce

To kick off the tour, I am stopping today at Babs Book Bistro, where I offer some behind the scenes information about my the heroine’s love interest, my background as an RN, and my research on the topic of medieval midwifery.

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Secrets behind Alchemy’s Daughter to be revealed in July blog tour

Florence Italy


Novels are fiction, of course, and yet many novels contain elements from the author’s life. While  Alchemy’s Daughter is a work of my imagination, I drew from childhood experiences, my nursing background, travels to Italy, and even previous romances–maybe even romance gone bad–when writing this book.  I hope you’ll join me for my upcoming Italy Book Tours virtual tour this July, when I’ll be sharing several behind the scenes stories about the making of this tale of medieval midwifery, romance, and  alchemy.

The upcoming tour will conclude with an Alchemy’s Daughter raffle.  So be sure to follow the tour for a chance to win one of the free copies that will be given away!  The tour begins on July 13 and ends July 31.  Stay tuned!

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It’s a book!

Alchemy's Daughter book launch at the Zhou B Art Center

As of May 15, Alchemy’s Daughter has officially entered the world!  Thank you to all those who came out to the pre-launch party on April 17 at the Zhou B Art Center.  It was a beautiful event, set in one of the world’s most dynamic art destinations, which combines working artists’ studios and four art galleries in an 85,000 square-foot warehouse.  The evening was a beautiful celebration of art and literature on a warm spring night in Chicago.  If you missed the launch, you can still visit Zhou B on any “Third Fridays,” when the Center’s studios and galleries are open to the public.

Mary with Carrie Michael and Jillian Maas Backman

Another fabulous and free Chicago event is the Printer’s Row Lit Fest on Saturday, June 6 and Sunday, June 7.  I’ll be  in the Chicago Writer’s Association tent, on Saturday, June 6, from 2 pm to 5 pm.  Printer’s Row is Chicago’s best summer festival for book lovers, so come on out!

On June 26, 2015 at 6:00 pm, I will be participating in “Get Lit“at St. Gregory the Great Church in Chicago.  I hope you join me for this casual party, which will be punctuated by a few short readings. Participating authors include myself, Joseph Malham (author of John Ford:Poet in the Desert), and Amy Andrews (co-author of Love & Salt).  Jake Ishler, protégé of renowned jazz guitarist John Moulder, will be playing for us throughout the evening.  More details to come.

Mary A Osborne quote

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When in doubt, wear an amulet to protect against the evil eye

In Italy the evil eye, also know as malocchio is taken seriously.  Caused by the negative thoughts of others, the evil eye can be cast accidentally, as when someone feels jealous, or intentionally, as when someone wants to cause harm.

Corno, or little horn, amulet

Throughout the centuries, in response to the curse, protective talismans have been created.  Italians still wear the corno, or “little horn,” which is a twisted, horn-shaped amulet. In other cultures, disks or balls with concentric circles of blue and white are thought to turn away the forces of evil or bad luck.

Zhou B Art Center book launch gift

In Alchemy’s Daughter the midwife, Trotula, always carries a talisman with her when attending a birth, in order to protect the mother and baby from malocchio.  I think it can’t hurt to carry a little personal protection, and so guests at my April 17 book launch party at the Zhou B Art Center will receive free evil eye necklaces, while supplies last.  Hope to see you there!

Santina listened to the voices and footsteps coming from Mama’s room and watched the maidservant, who was alternately wringing her hands, pacing back and forth, and praying to remove “malocchio,” the evil eye—an attack of magic caused by envy.  Whenever trouble of any sort occurred, Margherita seemed to think this was the cause.

From Alchemy’s Daughter

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Remembering Mrs. Timmer, lessons learned at Blythe Park School, and going indie

Gotta love the Suburban Life news

Mrs. Timmer, who taught fourth grade at Blythe Park Elementary School in Riverside back in the seventies, had a way of speaking to nine and ten year-olds in a way that was never condescending, unlike some teachers, whose names will not be revealed.  She was never cross, she never shouted.  She held thoughtful class discussions, offered up exotic photo clippings from National Geographic as writing prompts, and in springtime she set up a “milliner’s shop” for the girls in the workroom adjacent to our classroom. (I have no memory of what the boys were doing at this time, but I’m sure it was something equally fantastic.) Crafting outrageous hats from paper plates, ribbons, feathers, and lace was one of the highlights of my grade school career.  Mrs. Timmer brilliantly nurtured the inherent creativity in her students, and she cheered those first feeble attempts at essay writing while still correcting our grammar and spelling mistakes with aplomb.  I wish I could tell her that her confidence in me was not misplaced, that I kept on writing and became a novelist.

Mary A. Osborne in fourth grade at Blythe Park

Once Mrs. Timmer charged her fourth graders the task of creating a Thanksgiving themed-play.  She enforced no killjoy guidelines but only asked that the narrative pertain to the holiday, and we were allowed to form our own groups.   Predictably, the boys separated into one group and the girls into another.  Within the semi-chaos of the bubbly, chatty group of girls, it soon became clear to me that I would not be able to realize my artistic vision.  If I wanted to write a play “my way,” I’d have to break away and go independent.

The problem with this plan was that unless I wanted to do a one-girl show, I needed a few converts.   But my classmates seemed to like being part of the big group and had no interest in my small, indie production.  Only Toni Vyborny, who I will always remember for this kindness, decided to join me.  Toni and I eventually performed the play, which may have featured the legendary Pocahontas, before the class and our parents.  I don’t recall that our little play was remarkable in any way, but I do know that it taught me an important lesson about striking out on your own.  Others may or may not like what you’re doing and you might feel a little lonely, but you’ve had the satisfaction of having expressed yourself.

Blythe Park School

This attitude, which incorporates a degree of obstinacy and inability to work effectively in a group, serves a writer well.  Like other fiction writers I’ve talked to, I derive satisfaction from manipulating imaginary friends in a reality of my own making, and I have the capacity to do so for incredibly long periods of time.   I recognize that people who can work well in groups are perhaps more useful, as a whole, to society than stubborn individualists, but the world needs both types of people.  Mrs. Timmer praised Toni and me for persevering with our own play, and she praised the rest of the fourth grade girls and boys for their performances, too.

As my second novel, Alchemy’s Daughter, nears release, I’ve occasionally been asked why I’ve gone the independent publishing route via Lake Street Press.  The answer is easy:  because I got to do it my way, and Kirkus Reviews liked it pretty well, nonetheless.  Going indie means doing a lot of the work yourself, but it also means you have a say in your book cover, the editing process, and even your book’s shelf-life.  On the other hand, small presses such as Lake Street don’t have the huge publicity machines and extensive distribution networks enjoyed by the large publishing houses.  Writers who publish with small presses or on their own have to work harder at tasks other than writing, but they also have more control over the destiny of their work.

Will this writer ever give up her indie ideals, finally give up and follow the pack?  I admit the possibility of jumping ship, and I have contemplated a friendly shout-out from Writer’s House in NY.  The hard-learned truth is that for a writer, the act of writing is considerably more fun than promoting and publishing.  But for now, Alchemy’s Daughter is Indie bound (literally and figuratively, because independent bookstores share the same sensibilities as independent presses.)

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Goodbye house next door, hello new novel

Wrigleyville teardownThe walls of my Wrigleyville office are shaking because the building next door is being torn down.  Another vintage home giving way to the bulldozer and making way for a new, luxury, single-family home. Before it was bought by a developer, the house was a fully occupied four-flat.  There was nothing wrong with the building, but rehabbing is not an option when you aim to sell a house for over $2 million.  Personally, I’m not a fan of the mansionalization of Wrigleyville, which serves to displace renters and detract from the neighborhood’s eclectic charm.  Others point out that the return of the teardown is a sign of the recovering economy.  I suppose, but even so, the sound of the bulldozer does little to cheer me.  The teardown does, however, provide an apt metaphor for the work of rewriting a novel.   As with an old house, sometimes you can fix up a manuscript only so much; other times you have to be ruthless, tear that novel to pieces, and start over.

Rewriting a book can be a painful process for a writer.  You’ve been working for months, often years, and you thought you were done.  Then you hand over your baby to an editor, agent, or friend, and suddenly you discover your work is fatally flawed.  It’s not a matter of rewriting a chapter or two or strengthening a character or polishing the prose; the novel just doesn’t work, and it’s back to the lonely exile in the desert of the writer’s office for many more months.

The first draft of Alchemy’s Daughter, forthcoming in May 2015, was actually written before my first published novel, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. Back in 2001, the book that would eventually morph into Alchemy’s Daughter was entitled The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter.  Over the process of fourteen years, the book was not just revised, it was broadly re-envisioned to incorporate a new plot structure and new characters.  More than once I thought I was done, and more than once I chose to listen to my honest critics and change the parts of the book that just didn’t work.

PhoenixIt might seem ridiculous to spend so much time on a single novel.  (Although during those fourteen years, I sometimes set the manuscript aside entirely and focused instead on other projects.)  But tearing Alchemy’s Daughter apart and rewriting it again and again proved to be a good decision.  I know how regretful I’d feel if the book had been published in one of its earlier versions.  I suppose most books fall short of perfect, and a writer could go on polishing prose forever.  Nonetheless, there comes a point when the art approaches the height of the original vision, and you can let it fly.

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