Monday, 8 August 2011

MUSE MONDAY - Italy "the leg-shaped country" by Mary Hoffman

This Monday the unicorn is delighted to welcome Mary Hoffman, prize-winning author of over 90 books - that's a LOT of writing! Here she talks about her muse and the inspiration for her latest novel David. Over to you,  Mary...

I never thought of myself as having a Muse at all until Katherine's unicorn gave me the opportunity to visit his blog on a Monday. And I was asked to talk to Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4's Open Book recently, with another writer, about the muses of Renaissance artists. That got me thinking.

My muse is not an animal, real or mythical, nor yet is it a human source of inspiration like those 19th century women that were were models for the Pre-Raphaelite painters, like Elizabeth Siddall.

My muse is a country.

"The leg-shaped country"

It began as a youthful crush when I was fourteen and met my Muse for the first time, matured into a full-blown love affair when I was twenty, and has been going strong for decades since.

Il Bel Paese (penalty points if your first thoughts were of cheese!) means "the beautiful country" and is what Italians call Italy. In our family it is known as "the leg-shaped country" (TLSC) and referred to a great deal because everyone knows how much I would like to have a place to live there. It's not an affordable reality, just a dream - but what a beautiful dream.

And it was a place of great attraction for all educated and wealthy travellers in the 19th century, part of The Grand Tour. For its art, its music, its literature, the language, the charms of its many different landscapes, its climate and its cuisine and wine. All the things that charm me, in fact. I don't recall anyone ever saying they wanted to go to Italy for the ease of driving and parking, the bureaucracy, the carabinieri or the efficiency of its airport systems.

spice shop in Venice

The job of a muse is to inspire and Italy does that for me in spades. I find it impossible to be in TLSC and NOT have ideas for books.

My first ever published book was a long teenage novel called White Magic (published by Rex Collings in 1975) and it was set in an imaginary place on the Adriatic coast. Coincidentally it featured a unicorn. I'm sorry, RM, but it was THE unicorn! Does that mean it was you? (Muse: well of course... that was before my author needed me, so I was still a single and fancy-free unicorn).

Anyway, here I am 35 years and nearly a hundred books later, with my most recent novel David firmly set in Florence, one of my favourite places in TLSC, just published by Bloomsbury. The one I've just finished writing (Stravaganza: City of Swords) is set in a place based on Lucca and I'm going to Venice this month to revise an adult novel set in - well, let's just say it's not Wigan.

walls of Lucca
So how many books have been inspired by TLSC? I reckon ten YA plus one adult, so that's more than 10% of my output. And there are signs that the percentage will rise in the coming years.

Let me tell you about David, which is in its way all about different kinds of inspiration. The David concerned is the statue commissioned from Michelangelo in 1501 to stand in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence (The one there now is a copy; the original was put in the Accademia in the 19th century).

No-one knows anything about the model for this iconic work of art or even if there WAS a model for it. It was a gift of an idea for a novel: a gift made to me by my Muse, if you like, because I had all the information I could find about the business of sculpting it from the flawed block of marble that had been tripping people up in the Opera del Duomo for forty years, but at the heart of the story was a gap that I could fill.

So, into the city walked Gabriele del Lauro, a handsome eighteen-year-old stonecutter from Settignano. He was the son of Michelangelo's wet nurse and regards the great artist as his older brother - his "milk-brother" as he calls him.

Everything else in David arose from that simple central idea. Gabriele learns a lot about the complicated politics of the city and about love and sex in the three and a half years he spends there. But he also learns about art and meets a lot of artists. One of them is Leonardo da Vinci and Gabriele watches while he paints a rather well known portrait of a gently smiling woman. Not that it was well known then, of course, although its fame quickly spread through the city.

So, models and muses, inspiration and perspiration, the sheer physical slog of wresting a beautiful male figure out of a block of marble, which reminds me of creating a novel from the raw material of the idea. Thank you RM and Katherine for showing me what my muse is.

And thank you, Mary, for visiting the unicorn's humble blog!

David is just back from a mammoth Blog Tour that has lasted over a month. You can read more about the inspiration for the book at any of the 32 spots on the Tour, listed here:

For more about Mary and her books, check out these sites:


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