Anita Abriel is well known to many readers because of her international hit The Light After The War. Now she returns with another World War II story – part thriller, part romance, The Italian Girl. (In the US it’s called A Girl During the War )
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and in Binge Reading this week Anita talks about The Italian Girl, a coming of age story of stolen art and romance in a famous villa in Florence peopled with real life historical figures.
International best selling author Kirsten Harmel calls it “A fast-paced and engaging read.”
We’ve got a mystery and thriller book giveaway this week – Justice Served – and also a Booksweeps promo for Literary and Book Club fans – Details on out website The Joys of Binge Reading.com in the shownotes for this episode…
This week’s book giveaways
Justice Served: https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NaQfNAeDejxUJ0vC7uv4
Best selling authors band together to offer you best giveaways – be in – only offered for a limited time… Of Gold & Blood Book Bundle #2 – with Books #1 and #4 – Poisoned Legacy and Tangled Destiny – is included…
Booksweeps Wine and Dine, Historical, Literary and Book Club Fiction
Win a prize pack of literary, historical and book club fiction you will love – 45+ books and and you also get a new e-Reader – $500 value prize. My Book Bundle – with Books 1 and 4 in the Of Gold & Blood series – is included…
Anita is on Five Quickfire Questions on Patreon Exclusive bonus content at patreon.com/thejoysofbingereading, and if you particularly enjoy this episode you can shout me a cup of coffee at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/jennywheelX
Links to topics mentioned in the show:
Pam Jenoff: https://pamjenoff.com/
Kristen Harmel: https://kristinharmel.com/
The Light Ater the War: https://www.amazon.com/Light-After-War-Novel/dp/1982122978
Bernard Berenson: https://itatti.harvard.edu/bernard-berenson
Gerhard Wolf: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Wolf
Belle da Costa Greene: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_da_Costa_Greene
Anita Hughes: https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/anita-abriel/#
Sally Hepworth: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46251368-the-mother-in-law
Where to find Anita Abriel:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
Jenny Wheeler; But now, here’s Anita. Hello there Anita, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Anita Abriel: Thank you so much for having me, Jenny. I’m just delighted to be here.
Introducing author Anita Abriel
Jenny Wheeler: You are fast making a reputation for yourself as one of the go-to authors for wartime women’s fiction. Your last book, The Light After the War, got rave reviews from fellow authors like Pam Jenoff and Kristin Harmel. Now we are talking about the new one which here in our part of the world is called The Italian Girl, but I think in the U S it’s got the name of A Girl During the War. Is that right?
Anita Abriel: That’s correct, yes.
Jenny Wheeler: It follows on from The Light After the War, so I guess they’re hoping readers will make the connection with your other book.
Anita Abriel: Correct. I guess so.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s sometimes a little bit confusing for international readers when they see two titles like that. They’re not sure if it’s a different book or the same one.
Anita Abriel: I know, and I feel bad about that because I hate for anyone to be confused or to buy the same book twice because I think I have actually done that before myself. But each publisher decides what to call it.
Jenny Wheeler: And it’s good that we’ve clarified that.
Anita Abriel: I think the title The Italian Girl is a perfect title for the book, and I adore the cover.
Set in Bernard Berenson’s Florence villa
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it’s a really nice one. Your central character in this book is an art expert called Marina and she has to flee Rome when the Nazi occupation is occurring because her father gets into trouble there and she’s left in a great deal of danger. She flees to Bernard Berenson’s villa in Florence, I Tatti.
Berenson is a huge name in Renaissance art history and there might be some people who aren’t particularly familiar with that, so I thought we might start there and ask you to fill in a little bit of the background for the story.
Anita Abriel: A fascinating amount of the story is actually true with real people. In historical fiction you start out by going down a rabbit hole of research and end up not at all where you expected, with all these people you’d never met, never heard of.
It started for me with learning that only one bridge was left standing after the German occupation, and that was the Ponte Vecchio. The Germans blew up all the other bridges in Florence because they wanted to slow down the Allies who were coming back to take the city after the German occupation.
Gerhard Wolf, even though he was a German Consul, came to Florence because he loved the Italian Renaissance. He was a great lover of Renaissance art, and he was not a fan of the Nazis. He only joined the Nazi Party to further his career because he had no other choice.
I Tatti still can be visited today
He had a great friend who is Bernard Berenson who owned a villa outside of Florence named I Tatti, which is owned today by Harvard, and you can go there. They have groups there and they study the Italian Renaissance.
Bernard Berenson was the most renowned art historian of his day. His valuing of a piece of artwork could completely change the price of the art. He was extremely well-known. He was American by birth, and he lived there in Florence for at least 20 years, if not more, at the villa. It’s remarkable. And then the character Ludwick who ran the Institute in the book was also a real character and that was also a real Institute.
The last crazy part is that Bernard was married, but it was a marriage by name only and his partner, for want of a better word, for at least 30 years was a woman named Belle de Costa Greene, who was J P Morgan’s personal librarian and was extremely well known in her own right. She bought all of the things in J P Morgan’s private library, and then went on to buy and sell illuminated manuscripts and other artwork for the rest of her life.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, there’s a very fascinating range of real-life characters there. Tell us a little bit more about the significance of there being one bridge left. How did that impact on the story?
Anita Abriel: Well, there is a part of the story – I don’t want to give anything away – where it is sort of a central part of the story, that happening. For anybody who’s been to Florence, who has seen Florence even in pictures, who knows Florence, the Ponte Vecchio is such a beautiful bridge, and it has been there since the 15th century.
Significance of the Ponte Vecchio
It’s not just a bridge to walk over. That’s where artisans had their shops, and still do. All the vendors have their shops on the bridge, and you’d shop on them, so to think that all of those bridges were blown up is unthinkable, and it is why the war was so difficult on so many levels because it wasn’t only about the terrible cost of life, though of course, that is the most terrible part.
My parents are both Holocaust survivors, so I know better than anyone, but there was so much art lost and so much architecture. There were so many other things that were lost.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. With so much real life in this, how did you handle the balance between real life and fiction, and were there any particular points where you felt torn between fictionalizing or keeping the truth?
Anita Abriel: That’s a really great question. I think in any historical fiction, the minute you start writing about these characters, in some way they become yours. They may be real, but they’re your real. And it is fiction, so you can play with it in terms of, you can give them conversations. You can give them where they live, what they do, what they wear, what they’re thinking. You can give them all those things while still remembering that they’re real, so you don’t go too far outside of the lines.
Historic truth and the writer’s imagination
But it’s a really wonderful thing I think because everything is so real in my head. To go that extra level and know that they did live in Florence, that they did communicate with each other, makes it that much more enjoyable to write, to get to know these characters.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. One of the reviews used the phrase that your Marina is “a young woman of modern sensibilities”. I wondered if the way she behaves is typical of a young woman of that time, or whether you maybe gave her a slightly more modern approach than she might have had in the 1940s.
Anita Abriel: She may have had a more modern approach in that she really wanted to own her own art gallery and many of the women then of course still prioritized marriage and family. But she did get that love from her father. She lost her mother at a young age, so she would have looked at her father for the satisfaction in life.
And while he loved her more than anything – and that’s really obvious in the short time we know him and in her flashbacks about him – he also really loved his art gallery, so she inherited that from him.
That I think was more modern, and perhaps in the way she behaved with Carlos she was a little bit modern in her thinking. But again, during the war, I think many girls were modern in their thinking because all the rules had been thrown out.
Bella da Costa Greene – a role model
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, sure, and they didn’t know what the next day was going to bring. It was a very different world in a sense. She also had Belle da Costa Greene as a bit of a role model, didn’t she? That is one real life woman that we know had an extremely glass ceiling-breaking approach to life.
I read a little bit about her and she was actually born into a black family but she was light-skinned, and she presented herself as white. She reached remarkable heights. She became one of the world’s acknowledged experts on illuminated manuscripts when she had perhaps not such a great start in life.
Anita Abriel: Exactly. She had an amazing story. She was a rule breaker, a ground breaker, in every way. To be born, like you said, to black parents, and even to be with the people she mingled with and then to have so much power within her world, within the art world, was remarkable.
She also had many lovers and so I think she was an inspiration to Marina in that way. She was free of anybody. She didn’t depend on anybody for money or her personal satisfaction. She created her life just the way she wanted it.
Jenny Wheeler: There’s a very strong sense of a deep understanding of Renaissance art that comes through in the work without at all being boring. There are lots of details about particular artworks that Marina’s presented with and I wondered, were you already quite an expert in that area yourself before you began this book, or did you have to do all that research for this book?
Anita Abriel – A lover of art rather than an expert
Anita Abriel: Another great question. Not an expert at all. A lover of it for sure and been to Venice and Florence and Rome as a child, but no, not an expert at all. Always had a real appreciation, but there was a lot of digging down different rabbit holes and a lot of studying the different museums and what they all held and who were my favorite artists and the lesser known ones and the lesser known paintings of each one. So yes, an awful lot of research on that front.
Jenny Wheeler: One of the underlying themes of the book is the way the Nazis were pilfering Italian art and taking it back to Germany. I know there have been a couple of movies about that whole aspect of the stealing of art. Has this become something we’ve been slightly more aware of in the last decade or so than before?
Anita Abriel: I think that perhaps too as many of the survivors die off, including my parents, because they just get old, we hear less of their stories personally, and more about other things. This is a topic where the knowledge isn’t all based on, I hid in the cellar. It’s this piece of art went missing and this is how it was retrieved or it wasn’t retrieved.
And so, yes, I think it definitely has become a more popular topic in recent years, and for the reason I mentioned before, because it shows a different aspect, another aspect of the war, of what Hitler could have done and did do.
The legacy of World War stolen art
Jenny Wheeler: How much of that art has been found? Is there a lot of it that’s still missing?
Anita Abriel: It’s impossible to know because things turn up and you didn’t know they were missing because there is just so much art. I’d say kind of both.
Jenny Wheeler: The latter part of the story takes place in Argentina where many Nazis escaped to after the war. Your first book, The Light After the War, which I’d like to talk about a little bit in a minute, ends in Venezuela, so in both your books, you’ve got stories ending in or going into South America.
Once again, I had a real sense that you had an appreciation of Argentina in this book. I guess you did visit there to research that side of it, did you?
Anita Abriel: I have never been to South America, so thank you for that.
Jenny Wheeler: Really? It was very convincing.
Anita Abriel: Thank you. I do appreciate that. My mother did end up in Venezuela so she did definitely tell stories about Venezuela and I have been fascinated with South America because of that, but I’ve never been to either place.
The Light After The War – a personal story
Jenny Wheeler: That brings us to The Light After the War, because it is an incredibly personal story. It was based on your mother’s story of escaping the Nazis and finally, as you say, finding her way to South America. Tell us a bit about that book and how it came to be written.
Anita Abriel: That really started me on the historical fiction path. Before that I was writing contemporary women’s fiction under my married name, which is Anita Hughes. I have almost 20 books written under that name. Then my mother died from Alzheimer’s about 10 years ago and I wanted to write her story.
I adored my mother. I think she was very strong and she was a wonderful woman and really encouraged me in my writing, and I felt ready to write it. It was quite an incredible experience. I kept everything. Even the names are all real – her name and her parents and her best friend, Edith. Everything was real and almost every single thing that happened really happened. She escaped and ended up in Naples and then Ellis island and then Venezuela.
Many wartime survivors in Sydney
When I told somebody about the story, they’re like, no, you can’t write that. That couldn’t happen. That’s not real, this or that part is not real. Well, yes, it is real. It did happen. So that gives you the, hmm, this might be a good story for others to hear too. And I learned many things in the writing of it – how I feel about being Jewish and how I feel about the war and how I feel about growing up as the child of a survivor. It crystallized a lot of those emotions for me that I didn’t know I had, so it was a really wonderful experience.
Jenny Wheeler: You yourself were born in Sydney and now you live in California. How do you place yourself against the background of your mother’s story, because she was born in Germany, is that right?
Anita Abriel: Hungary.
Jenny Wheeler: And she escaped. So did she end up in Sydney?
Anita Abriel: She ended up in Sydney, yes. That’s where she married and I was born and raised in the Eastern suburbs, which was very Jewish. Not completely obviously, but many, many survivors. Many, many, many. Double Bay at the time was full of Hungarians and Czech and Austrian people. I think all the kids are still there. So, yes, it was a very Jewish upbringing, child of a survivor upbringing.
Anita Abriel’s international existence
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve mentioned that you had already written 20 contemporary fiction books under your married name. How did you get into writing initially? Was there a once upon a time moment when you thought, oh, I’ve just got to be a writer. How did it happen?
Anita Abriel: There was definitely a once upon a time moment. When I was eight years old, I entered The Australian newspaper’s national poetry competition. Once a week or once a month they had a winner in your age group and then they had a winner of all those months, and I won the whole thing in my age group. They had your picture in the paper and I think I won $25, went and bought shoes and I said, I want to be a writer.
I actually sent off a full novel to an editor at Harper & Row at the time when I was in high school here in America, and I got a revision letter, which is amazing, but being very new to America and desperately wanting to be the Brady Bunch, I became a cheerleader – because of course we didn’t have those in Australia – and never did the revisions.
Jenny Wheeler: You probably didn’t appreciate just how significant that was.
Anita Abriel: Oh, my gosh. I’d run back there in a minute and tell that teenager do the revisions.
Two wartime books with different origins
Jenny Wheeler: Tell us what was different in these two books. The first one was so personal and so much close to a memoir, and then the second one was entirely your imagination. How was the process different in writing them?
Anita Abriel: There is another one. There’s also Lana’s War which came out last year which is based on real facts but also made up. It was really wonderful writing my mother’s story, especially because she’s dead and so it made me feel close to her.
But I love to write, and I love to tell new stories and I love delving even deeper into that time period and what others went through, so I enjoy whatever I write. But there is nothing more special than to tell your mother’s story, and I have five children of my own, so to tell it and to leave it for them is also really special.
Jenny Wheeler: I guess it was perhaps sad that she wasn’t here to see it.
Anita Abriel: Oh, so sad. If you look at the dedication to every single one of my books, it is just “To My Mother”. In my acknowledgements I thank my children and this and that, but every dedication is to her.
Anita Abriel’s wider writing career
Jenny Wheeler: Turning away from the specific books and looking at your wider career, if there was one thing you’ve done more than any other that you would see as the secret of your success, what would it be – in the creative writing area?
Anita Abriel: That is a really good question. What do you mean exactly?
Jenny Wheeler: One thing – a talent, somebody you met significantly, like a mentor. Was there a turning point somewhere where you might have been just about at the point of giving up and the door was opened for you? Something like that.
Anita Abriel: My mother used to say when I was young, you just turn it on and it won’t turn itself off. I honestly think that many writers are born to write. You start by reading nonstop and I read everything. In college I read everything and I still do read. I read two or three books a week. I think you have to have a love of literature, both reading and writing, and then eventually it comes.
Jenny Wheeler: What was the very first book you ever wrote, apart from your teenage one? What was the first book that got published?
Contemporary women’s fiction also
Anita Abriel: In America it’s called Monarch Beach and in Australia it was called The Beach Holiday. It came out 12 years ago exactly.
Jenny Wheeler: A contemporary romance or contemporary woman’s fiction?
Anita Abriel: Contemporary women’s fiction is what they call it.
Jenny Wheeler: When you started out writing, what was your main goal, and have you already achieved it or even majorly surpassed it?
Anita Abriel: I think the problem with being a writer is you never feel like you’re successful. You never feel like it’s enough. I do think that getting The Light After the War on the bestseller list in Australia was a huge achievement for me and very special. Now I can say I’m a national bestseller.
But more than that, I used to go to the bookshop. There was a bookshop, Lesley Mackay Bookshop, that I used to go to every day as a child and I actually worked there for a year when I was about 21 and I just adored it. I’m a huge book lover, so that was a big achievement. I really appreciated that.
What Anita Abriel is reading now
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fabulous. Turning to Anita as reader, because this is The Joys of Binge Reading and we like to ask you what your own reading tastes are and if you’ve got anything you’d like to recommend to our listeners. Tell us about your reading life. Are there any books that really stand out for you?
Anita Abriel: My reading life is, I do read just fiction and it’s so varied. I did just read The Maid, which I’m sure is out in Australia and New Zealand, which I did think was absolutely fantastic. She’s a brilliant writer, Nita Prose, and such a likable heroine. I adored that. I know that Sally Hepworth’s new book came out in America yesterday. I loved her last one, which was called The Mother-in-Law. That was great.
Actually I’m off to the library after this to pick up two, because I can’t always afford to get a couple of new ones. I always generally have about 25 books on hold at the library because I put them on hold before they come out.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. Looking back down the tunnel of time, if there was one thing about your creative career you’d change, what would it be?
Looking back down the tunnel of time…
Anita Abriel: Start earlier. I raised my children until 12 years ago, so for 22 years, and didn’t write until I was well into my late forties. Now knowing (a) how much I love it and (b) that you actually can get published – because of course you never believe that you will actually get published – I would definitely have given it a shot earlier.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. What is next for Anita as author? What have you got on your desk over the next 12 months – either books that are coming out or books you’re working on?
Anita Abriel: I’m working on a couple of things at the moment, but they’re at the stage where it’s still in my head, so I don’t want to give it away just yet. But definitely more historical fiction. And then I do have another Christmas book, contemporary fiction, coming out in September.
Jenny Wheeler: And that’s under the name of Anita Hughes, is it?
Anita Abriel: Correct. Yes.
Jenny Wheeler: So you are still maintaining that pen name?
Anita Abriel: Yes, because I love the writing and one book a year is not enough.
Anita Abriel – writing as Anita Hughes
Jenny Wheeler: So you deliberately have got a different pen name for your historical fiction and your contemporary fiction. Is that how it works?
Anita Abriel: Yeah. When I wrote my mother’s book, I took back my maiden name because I wanted to feel close to her, and I think it works for readers to know what they’re picking up.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that’s right. The historical ones you’ve got on the go, are they World War II ones as well?
Anita Abriel: Definitely historical fiction.
Jenny Wheeler: Okay, sure. Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Anita Abriel: That’s my favorite part. You absolutely glow when you know that somebody knows your characters, that they liked or disliked them or were invested in some way. My website for the historical fiction is www.anitaabriel.com and for the contemporaries www.anitahughesbooks.com.
Where to find Anita Hughes .. Abriel online
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting. They talk about an author voice. Do you think you have the same author voice for your contemporary and your historic fiction? Would people recognize that voice over the whole spread of your work?
Anita Abriel: That’s a really great question. In some ways, absolutely. All of my books are filled with beauty, a little bit of fashion, food, glamour, because I like those things and they come out. Obviously the contemporary fiction is a lot lighter and there’s more humor because there’s not much humor in the war. But yes, I think they would, actually.
Jenny Wheeler: I’ve been thinking a bit about that thing of voice lately and wondering how consistent it was, so that’s really interesting.
It has been fantastic talking. Thank you so much for your time, Anita.
Anita Abriel: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s such a treat.
If you enjoyed Anita’s book you may also enjoy… C.F. Yetmen’s stolen art mysteries
Next Week on Binge Reading: Santa Montefiore… International fiction queen….
Santa Montefiore is the women’s fiction queen, selling six million copies internationally of her heartwarming sagas that have been described as “beach read blockbusters.” She’s published a book a year since 2001, and we’re talking about tow of her latest books – An Italian Gile in Brookly, a World War II story of loss and restoration, and the lastest in her hugely popular Irish historical series the Deverills, The Distant Shore. That’s next week on The Joys of Binge Reading.
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