Today, we welcome a prolific author and history lover: C de Melo! I recently had the pleasure of working on the audiobook production de Melo’s The Apprentice (out today!), which is a dramatic adventure that takes place in the early 1600s, and is set in alluring, stunning Italian cities such as Florence, Siena, Rome, and Naples. The protagonist, ‘Carlo’, becomes an apprentice to a great artist, Giovanni Balducci, and later develops an illicit relationship with a monk, but things are not as they seem… In a work that, in my opinion, is in keeping with works such as The Name of the Rose and The Thorn Birds, because it involves monks and nuns, political and religious intrigue and sex scandal, the art world, and forbidden love, The Apprentice is a story that kept my interest and I was wholly emotionally invested in it pretty quickly.
One of the things that really came across to me in her work is how much she knows about her historical subjects, peripheral topics, and the way she seamlessly incorporated facts into the fictional storyline. I loved, for example, how her main characters talk about chiaroscuro and consume foods such as sfogliatelle. She fleshed out the world with the inclusion of sights, sounds, and tastes, and it really brought early seventeenth-century Naples to life for me. I found the book quite moving at the end and was a bit sad to say goodbye to the characters when it ended!
CdM: I lived in Florence for many years. My first and bestselling novel, SABINA, and its companion, ALLEGRA, are set in Renaissance Florence and the fascinating Medici family—that’s my area of expertise. “Bella Napoli” is a city I have visited several times, and it has inspired two books. I do my utmost to visit the cities and historical sites in which I set my stories so that I can make my readers feel as if they are there.
AZ: There are several seventeenth-century female characters in your book from various walks of life. The story is divided into two parts, both of which continue the story of a main female protagonist but in Part Two we meet Sister Giulia di Marco, who was a real person. Could you please tell us more about her?
CdM: Giulia di Marco suffered a difficult past. We know she went to live with relatives after being orphaned at a young age. There is speculation that she may have been sexually abused by an uncle. There was a baby involved from this encounter, and she was forced to put him up for adoption. A woman with this level of trauma could be vulnerable to the compassion of a
priest who historians described as attractive and charismatic. Add a charming lawyer and you have a love triangle. Literally. I think she found solace with her spiritual confessor/lover, and the whole premise of the cult gave her a much-needed sense of purpose. More than that, her “sacrifice” (use of her body) gave her redemption.
AZ: She really was a striking character, thank you for shedding more light upon her for us. One of the main settings in this book is a monastery, where we meet Brother Benedetto Corda (who is now firmly a romantic figure to me!). We get a bit of background about his life before he enters the monastery, but I wonder if you could tell us how you developed his character? Is he based on any real historical figure?
CdM: You mentioned Thorn Birds and The Name of the Rose. I love both books. The internal struggle between flesh and spirit intrigues me. The year I graduated college, I went to Rome and worked as a Jubilee 2000 volunteer. I had never before seen so many gorgeous priests. The Romans put out a calendar each year depicting handsome priests. Why is that? The wicked truth is this: there is something tantalizing about a young, good-looking man who has sworn off sex. It’s a challenge. Benedetto fits into this category, only he was “forced” into service due to extenuating circumstances. By the way, I have two books that feature hunky Templars.
AZ: I think there is a lot of truth to what you say, and there is an unquestionable appeal of the unattainable, the forbidden. Putting beautiful Benedetto aside, the setting in which we meet him is extraordinary: the catacombs of San Gaudioso. These catacombs are a fascinating (and macabre!) story in and of themselves. Did you know about them before visiting Naples? After reading your book, I’d be interested in visiting them. Could you tell us more about who the schiattamorti were and how long the practice existed?
CdM: I discovered these catacombs by chance during one of my visits. Inspired, I left the church already jotting down ideas for a story. The very next day, I went into a book store and found this tiny beat-up book in Italian about the Cult of Carnality…that did it. The combination of a Death Cult and a Sex Cult thriving at the same time was too good not to exploit. As for the
schiattamorti, their macabre practice may have lasted only a few decades since spaces were limited. Also, these tombs were being sold to the highest bidders at exorbitant prices, which reeks of corruption. The Holy Inquisition in Naples would have eventually put a damper on this practice.
AZ: Very interesting, thank you. You’ve published over a dozen works, which have been very popular with audiences: do you have any works in progress? Anything again set in the seventeenth century?
CdM: Yes, I do! Another ill-fated Giulia, in fact. I am currently writing about Giulia Mangiardi (aka: Giulia Tofana) the famous poisoner. I’m having a hard time with this work because the data in Italian doesn’t match the data in English. I’m filling in the blanks in the most cohesive and
historically accurate manner possible.
AZ: Can you talk us through your writing process? When I was narrating your book, for example, I found it very helpful to listen to monk chants during my practice sessions and then lit candles in the studio, and I had a lovely bar of Italian soap that is supposed to be reminiscent of monasteries and I kept that nearby as the smell helped get me more into the zone. Do you listen to any music? Do any scents or rituals help you get fully immersed in the
project during writing?
CdM: Inspiration strikes when I sit inside Renaissance palazzos and Medieval churches. Being in these old, sacred spaces is like a time machine for me. I imagine people in historical costumes, and I try to summon the sights, sounds, and smells of the period. Call it advanced escapism. I also take really long walks where, according to my husband, my lips move as I
create dialogues. He must be right because I sometimes get strange looks. I carry a notebook everywhere so I can jot down scenes, notes, outlines, etc. Once I get home, I’ll put on classical music or skim through my Renaissance art books to get ideas of dress, food, and ambiance. Oh, and wine. A good red wine encourages writing. I drink water when I edit.
AZ: C de Melo, thank you so much for your time.
CdM: THANK YOU so much, Andrea! To be interviewed by a talented author, singer, voice actress, and costumer is truly an honor. I can’t wait for fans of historical fiction to hear your beautiful voice bringing my characters to life. You did such a wonderful job. People are going to love it.