Your Money Or Your Life – Michael Gregorio
An interview with Rupert Morgan of Paper Planes (France)
Your Money Or Your Life takes place in Renaissance Italy, Michael. Is this a period you are particularly drawn to?
I love art and I live in Italy, so the Renaissance is right there on my doorstep. Filippo Lippi decorated the cathedral of Spoleto, the town in which we live. Giotto painted the Life of St. Francis in Assisi, just twenty miles away. Perugino worked close by in Perugia. But every town and village has its secret store of treasures, and we have been to visit most of them. On one of these outings, I came across the work of a little-known painter named Giovanni di Pietro, who was nicknamed ‘Giovanni Lo Spagna’ on account of his Spanish family origins. Giovanni Lo Spagna… Spanish John… I was fascinated by the name, and I became so curious about his life and achievements that I made a point of going to see every church that he had painted in the area.
Where did the idea for the story originally come from?
One day Daniela and I drove up to Gavelli, a tiny fortified town on the top of a mountain. Spanish John worked up there in the winter of 1522. I was enthralled by the beauty of the place. But how in heaven’s name had he ended up living and working in such a remote spot? We visited the church of St. Michael the Archangel, and we saw the frescoes that he had painted. One painting in particular caught my eye. I’d never seen anything like it in a church before. What was the story behind it? And what was the story of the artist? Clearly, he was a gifted professional, though he would never become famous like Raphael, another pupil of Perugino’s that he must have known well. How had Spanish John become a decorator of village churches, an illustrator of local legends and minor miracles? While we were inside the tiny church, admiring the frescoes, there was a sudden rumble and the earth began to quake. What must Gavelli have been like in 1523, I asked myself. There was no gas, no electricity, no central heating, just lots of snow and earthquakes… I knew straight away that I had the material for an unusual short story – a down-at-heel painter, a mysterious commission, wild Nature, earthquakes. All I had to do was write it.
Is the story based on true events in the painter’s life?
Not at all! I invented everything, including the miracle which John eventually paints. The real Spanish John was much more successful than my character. Giovanni lo Spagna was nominated Captain of the Arts in Spoleto in 1517, and he married a noble lady from Spoleto, too. I just tried to imagine what Umbria was like in that period, the sort of life a poor ainter might have led, the kind of adventures he may have had. Historical fiction fascinates me. You use facts to enhance the story, but the story belongs to you, and you dress it up – or down – with historical detail. You want the reader to ask questions about life in the past, but you mustn’t be pedantic.
The men who paint the church frescoes in the story are nothing like the idea we have of 'artists' today, nor are they treated the same way. Do you think the respect that artists command today is a recent phenomenon?
Life was hard for everyone in the Renaissance, but it was especially hard for painters. They were workmen paid by the square metre. Can you imagine laying flat on your back in a freezing church year after year, painting something as immense as the Sistine Chapel, while the Pope kept urging you to get a move on and finish the job? We have a ‘Romantic’ notion of the artist as a privileged ‘creator’ of fine things, working in splendid isolation in his ivory tower, making lots of money and enjoying himself, but the achievements of people like Spanish John tell a very different story. They were struggling to survive for a crust of bread in a world where nobody would pay them if they didn’t produce the goods on time. We have worked under similar conditions while writing novels to meet a deadline, and there is nothing remotely ‘Romantic’ about it, I can tell you! Maybe Spanish John and I have something in common…
How do you organise your working day as a writer?
I get up early, take a shower, get dressed, have breakfast, then I sit down and start writing. My wife and I write historical crime fiction together. We have published four novels in English, and a mafia-noir novel in Italian. Daniela doesn’t like short stories, while I love them, so I write all the shorter fiction that we are able to publish. Sometimes stories are commissioned for anthologies like Venice Noir (Akashic Books, USA), other times they’re just ideas that attract me. Please, don’t ask where the ideas come from, because I couldn’t tell you! I began to write as a hobby many years ago and I have never lost my passion for it. I write the blogs for our website, too, so I’m never short of something to work on.
Who are the writers you admire most/who inspired you to become a writer?
I have always been a voracious reader. I read most of the great novels when I was young – Cervantes, Melville, Fielding, Dostoevsky – and I studied Eng Lit at university. My all-time favourite novel is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I have re-read at least thirty times. The richness of the language, the twists and turns of the plot, the sparkling humour, the amazing variety of characters, both good and bad – it’s a mystery story that I would love to have written! I soon discovered other books to fall in love with – Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, the Raymond Chandler novels, James L. Cain’s, the great noir writers of twentieth century America. Then Le Carré, Elmore Leonard, Bill James, Robert Goddard. Nowadays, I’m a keen fan of writers like Alan Furst and Hilary Mantel, who work within an historical context. They are doing what Daniela and I set out to do when we began to write about the magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, who features in our crime and mystery novels set in Prussia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. If you like to read, I think, then one day you will want to write. That’s what happened to me, anyway.
Your Money Or Your Life (available from 15th May, 2013).
In Italia è disponibile anche come e-book: http://www.amazon.it/Your-money-your-life-ebook/dp/B00CQ20WNA/ref=sr_1_1?s=english-books&ie=UTF8&qid=1368431271&sr=1-1&keywords=michael+gregorio