Monique: You’re about to release The Florentine Bridge, a book about learning to live again. Tell me more about this book.
Vanessa: The Florentine Bridge is a story about a young Australian woman by the name of Mia, who is an aspiring artist trying to find her motivation to paint again after going through treatment for cancer. Even though she’s been given the all clear, she struggles to see the world through the same lens she used to and is working through some fears associated with that. So when she’s presented with an opportunity to travel to Tuscany, she takes it. Along the way, she falls in love with Luca, who helps support her through this. So, yes, the story is largely about learning to live and trust in life again after having experienced a traumatic event. It’s also a story of hope that explores how we deal with and accept uncertainty in our lives, because none of us can foresee or control much of what comes next.
Monique: What inspired you to write a book set in Florence?
Vanessa: I spent several years living in Florence in my early twenties and while I strongly felt that one day I might use this setting for a book, for many years I just didn’t know what book that would be. Italy not only makes for a perfect romantic backdrop for a story but it really is one of those countries where life seems to slow down, allowing one to wallow in the history and surrounds, so it seemed like the perfect fit for a character on a journey towards being able to see beauty in life again.
Monique: Which character could you most relate to? Why?
Vanessa: As a mother, I could very much relate to Julie, Mia’s mum, and the turmoil she would have experienced in having to support her daughter with the news of her cancer diagnosis and treatment. The flashback scenes with Mia and her parents were possibly the hardest ones for me to write for this reason. I think in order to write ‘true’ we as authors need to put ourselves in the shoes of our characters even if that feels uncomfortable. In other ways I could relate to Mia, in that I had personally experienced what it was like to move to a foreign country at a relatively young age and have the world open up as a result. Travel, in general, puts us in that space of reflecting on life and differences in culture, but also allows us room to really get to know ourselves better.
Monique: What sort of research did you do? How? What are some of the interesting things you learnt?
Vanessa: Having lived in Florence, I’d visited places like the Uffizi gallery where I would marvel at paintings by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Da Vinci, and other esteemed painters that are on display. I knew a bit about them from those visits but really enjoyed learning more about how we interpret art, as well as the Renaissance in general—what materials painters used and how they worked as apprentices for many years before they were even allowed to touch the brushes. I also spent time experimenting with watercolour painting which gave me a sense of what it’s like to get lost in the world of painting and creativity. I also researched some of the history behind Florence’s basilicas and cathedrals and landmarks, and many of the places of interest that feature in the book are places I have visited or have personal connections to. Thankfully, I’m bilingual and fluent in Italian, so the Italian phrases came easily!
Monique: What attracted you to writing?
Vanessa: I think my love of writing stemmed from an absolute love of books and reading. As a child, I had a wild imagination, so as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved writing and storytelling. I’m also a naturally curious person who always likes learning new things and I’m interested in people, so I think these character traits also lend themselves well to being a writer.
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Vanessa: Committed, curious, and completely blessed. I feel very lucky that my book (and future books) will reach readers in a way I’d always hoped for.
Monique: Can you take us through a “typical” writing day?
Vanessa: I have set writing days during the week where I write during school hours. I can’t stand writing when my house is a complete mess, so before dropping the kids off to school, I prepare lunches, make beds, put the washing on, pack the dishwasher and do a quick vacuum. I do this so that when I come back home from dropping them off, the housework is already taken care of and I basically then flick the kettle on to make a tea or coffee, and then get stuck into writing. If I’m on a deadline, then I’ll try to get up at 5:30 am and make the most of a couple of hours before the rest of the family is up.
Monique: How do you start a novel?
Vanessa: One word at a time! I usually write a blurb first which gives me enough of an idea to know who the main characters are, what the conflict is, what’s at stake, and what the inciting event is going to be. That all informs how I want the book to feel. At this point, I don’t know how the book will end, but at least I know what it’s going to be about, even if I largely explore that through the writing itself as scenes unfold.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Vanessa: I try to step away from the work. Meditation usually helps as does taking a walk outside or doing something else creative.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Vanessa: It’s taught me to believe in myself and it’s taught me to remember why I write—because I love playing with language, I love the thrill of making something out of nothing, and I love the joy that comes with following characters to create a story—one that readers hopefully enjoy.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Vanessa: Self-doubt and feeling as if I don’t have enough time to write. At some times more than others I have to work hard to quieten the voice of self-doubt (usually while writing a first draft) but thankfully I’ve found ways to help me overcome this.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Vanessa: That it’s a glamorous and easy job. That you just sit down and write and the words pour out of you effortlessly and perfectly formed every time. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t. Like anything, writing requires dedication to the craft, and the staying power to keep revising a book until it’s ready.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Vanessa: I’m reading Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things and after that I’m sure I’ll devour the ARC I have of Natasha Lester’s forthcoming novel, Her Mother’s Secret.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Vanessa: There are so many authors and books I admire, but I’m almost always in awe of writers who manage to string beautiful sentences together as if they’re dancing with words. Sue Monk Kidd is one of them, and I also loved The Help by Kathryn Stockett. In the last twelve months or so I really enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not read?
Vanessa: Goodness! Too many to tell. I think the saddest part about loving books is that you know you’ll never be able to read ALL the books you want to.
Monique: What’s the best thing another writer has ever taught you?
Vanessa: I interviewed Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling book, Writing Down the Bones once, and she gave the simplest advice ever. She simply said, “Just pick up the pen and write!” I think we can overcomplicate things, and worry about things and judge ourselves as writers but at the end of the day the most important thing is to just write and keep on writing!
Click here to read an extract of The Florentine Bridge.