Launch: Alana White’s The Hearts of All on Fire

INTERVIEW BY SUSAN HIGGINBOTHAM

Susan Higginbotham interviews Alana White on the second book in her trilogy set in 15th-century Florence. The Hearts of All on Fire is published today.

How would you describe this book and its themes?

A 15th-century Florentine lawyer must solve a mysterious death to keep his city from imploding, unaware that at the same time powerful enemies are plotting to destroy everything he loves. Book II in the Guid’Antonio Vespucci mystery series, The Hearts of All on Fire, is a timeless story of bitter rivalries and complex family relationships coupled with themes of love, loss, betrayal, and above all, hope in a difficult world.

What brought you to writing historical fiction?

As a child, my favorite books were historical fiction. I adored Ivanhoe and The Man in the Iron Mask. Later, I was drawn to Ellis Peters’s historical mysteries featuring Brother Cadfael in 12th-century England. When I read an article in National Geographic about the assassination attempt on Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici during Sunday Mass in Florence Cathedral in 1478, I looked for the novel with that episode at its heart. There wasn’t one, so I decided to write it myself.

Did you intend to write a series from the start, or did one book just lead to another?

My initial goal was to write a fictional biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici—but Lorenzo strides across a mighty stage. After years of research, I realized this would have to be a trilogy! Instead, leaning toward mystery, I wrote the first Guid’Antonio Vespucci book, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, thinking that might help me harness the material. When I finished it, I wanted to write another Guid’Antonio book, and that became the current title, The Hearts of All on Fire. I’m using all that earlier research for these books, so, there you go.

One of your supporting characters is a woman physician. Can you give us some background on women in medicine in medieval Florence?

Yes! I’m delighted I could create a woman doctor and stay true to the 1400s. This was possible thanks to two excellent works of nonfiction, The Renaissance Hospital, by John Henderson, and Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence, by Katherine Park. Their work enabled me to bring Dottoressa Francesca Vernacci and the world of 15th-century medicine in Florence to life. From them, I learned there were at least two women doctors in Florence, who, although they could not have attended medical school (no women, Jews, or “illegitimate” men allowed), they could study outside the system, take an exam and, if they passed, they could practice medicine. In my books, Francesca’s path is eased by the fact her father is a doctor. She studied independently with him and brilliantly passed her exam. Together, they manage the Vespucci family hospital, and that brings Francesca into close proximity with Guid’Antonio. I was especially happy that in The Hearts of All on Fire, I could dive into their past love affair (he’s now a married man, so no more of that). However, Francesca works with Guid’Antonio on cases he’s investigating; in Hearts, she performs the autopsy that leads him to the perpetrator. At story’s end, there is a wonderful surprise in store for Francesca, one I think readers will enjoy.

Did you find anything about researching this novel especially challenging?

Yes—of course, to me Renaissance Florence is the most fascinating time, ever. All those artists, philosophers, and poets among the conniving politicians. A LOT has been written about Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, certainly. Many of these luminaries must be in the books, since they are personal friends with the main players and are deeply entangled with them. For example, after the attack in Florence Cathedral, Lorenzo de’ Medici commissioned Sandro Botticelli to paint the conspirators (almost all were executed) on the outside wall of the town jail as a reminder of what happens when you cross those in control in Florence—powerful men like Guid’Antonio and Lorenzo. I had to research these supporting players as well as my main characters in depth. This took time but was a joy. Making the connections was not only fun, but enlightening, and often provided grist for the story mill.

Were you able to travel to Florence?

Yes! I’ve visited Florence many times, a town whose historical center today remains much the same as 600 years ago. I explored the streets and byways Guid’Antonio would have walked, timing him, taking note of what he would see outside the door of his palazzo, from the bridge of the Arno, and so on. I discovered a hidden piazza (Piazza Limbo) that became a focal point in the story. And the sounds! I had no idea how the noise of thunder would reverberate off the stones of Florence until one stormy night, I experienced it. That walled city seemed to rattle deep down in its bones.

Who is your favorite supporting character?

I’m fond of Guid’Antonio’s young “manservant,” Cesare Ridolfi. In the books, Cesare ages from twelve to nineteen. He’s “feather-footed,” a gossip, a fashionista and foodie who speaks his mind and often sets Guid’Antonio straight. Also, there’s Orsetto, or Little Bear, Guid’Antonio’s pet dog, who is dear to his heart and mine. Orsetto is a Lagotto Romagnolo, a curly-haired, Italian truffle-hunting dog—and I cannot quite believe there are now two of them in my neighborhood.

I believe you have a third book in the series planned.

Yes. The series arc is the Pazzi Conspiracy, the name given to the plot to murder Lorenzo and Guiliano de’ Medici at the elevation of the Host one Sunday morning. Books I and II have been leading to that event and slightly away from it. Book III is the assassination itself—one brother died, one escaped. This backdrop provides Guid’Antonio’s arc—dipping to his lowest point, and then to a resurrection of spirit. The books are about hope even in the worst of times. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how distant or dim.

What is the last great book you read?

Adriana Trigiani’s The Good Left Undone.

 

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