Picture by Christopher Massa
“I WAS INTERESTED IN THE QUESTION OF: WHEN ARE WE MORALLY CULPABLE?”
A notorious work of fiction
Venice research gives Chase’s
Sharnick theme for first novel
BY TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY
For Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, history was never inert.
It was always more than brittle black ink on a page or the vague chimera of an active intellect. For Sharnick, chair of the English Department at Waterbury’s Chase Collegiate School, history was a fleshy, material world, concrete and approachable as one’s own neighborhood.
“My house was crawling with history,” says Sharnick, whose first novel, “Thirst,” has just been released. “For me, history was not a subject. It was a story about people who were very real to me. My dad and my godfather used to talk about historical and literary characters as if they were people. So, when I was little, if someone said ‘Tacitus,’ it might have been Uncle Charlie.”
That substantial understanding of history informs Sharnick’s fastpaced novel, which takes place in Venice in the summer of 1613. It begins with a glimpse of a crime so horrific it beggars Captain Lorenzo Contarini’s imagination. Returning from 15 months at sea, he sees a Venetian sandolo, carrying the flag of the convent of San Zaccaria and that of the Republic. As the flat-bottomed boat approached a figure of the government, a red-haired woman, holding an infant to her breast stood in greeting.
“ At the sight of him, the Madonna stood, rocking the boat so that the sisters were forced to take up their oars again to steady it. He waved in greeting, his draped arms slicing the air rapidly. The nuns rowed aside of the caorlina, one of them dousing the torch with which they had signaled, and the Madonna eagerly, it seemed, handed the infant to him. Her burnished hair flying, she readied herself to follow the baby to the other vessel when, without preamble or warning, the man made three wide circular sweeps with his arm and flung the child far into the water. Its blanket unraveled as it fell into the lagoon.”
That action, with whose veracity Contarini initially wrestles, forms the catalyst of a series of debaucheries, coverups, secrets and silences that, Sharnick says, was the stuff of life in Venice in the early 17th century.
“I was interested in the question of: When are we morally culpable?” Sharnick says. “If you look at Venice at that time, you see the absolute abuse of young girls and women. And if they complained, the courts saw the abuse of the individual girl more as an assault on the family’s honor than on the girl.”
Sharnick says her book emerged from the extensive records she plumbed of the Venetian republic, a period, she says, that has been comprehensively documented. “It was shocking for me to learn, for instance, about how threequarters of the population of patrician women were in convents at this time because only one daughter of these families would be designated for marriage.
The rest would go to a monastery.” The problem, she said, were that “these patrician women were more used to having their own way. They could do all sorts of things.”
And in “Thirst,” they do. Homosexual sex, interracial sex, rapes of women by priests, out-of-wedlock births by nuns and sex with Moors all take place in the decidedly carnal initial pages of “Thirst.” Sharnick notes that her research revealed that the San Zaccaria Convent was notorious for being “the most licentious convent in Venice.”
“No matter how serene the republic was on the surface, underneath this orderly and calm republic there were all these machinations. One of the questions I have is: When does the individual say ‘No.’ When does nature out?”
Bubbly and self-deprecating in person, Sharnick has been at Chase Collegiate for 15 years. An inveterate learner, she graduated from Fairfield University with a degree in English, earned a master’s degree in Renaissance studies from Trinity College and completed course work at Wesleyan University. She won a Solo Writer’s Fellowship from the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation that allowed her to live in Venice in July 2010, when much of “Thirst” was written.
“Everything is slow in Venice,” says Sharnick. “You always hear, at every moment, the lapping of water, the birds and the wind. It feels womb-like. I find it very consoling. You are never not being seen or heard by somebody.”
That insular, incestuous feeling comes out in “Thirst,” where most of the characters are related to one another through marriage or though some secret tryst. Sharnick says she finds writing historical fiction “freeing” because, she says, “I really find the fictional world the place a person can tell a truth.”
Sharnick, who is now working on a trilogy about the 15th-century sailor Michael of Rhodes, has taken some of her Chase writing students to Italy, where the group spends extended amounts of time in one particular region to absorb the tempo and tenor of Italian life. “So many people want to change their life,” she says. “My life is a very fortunate life. I love teaching and I love writing and I get to do both.”
Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, who leads the English Department at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, has written her first novel, ‘Thirst,’ a fictional account of life in Venice in the early 17th century.
Interview with Carlin Carr (February 27, 2012)
Please tell us about Thirst.
Thirst is an historical novel set in 1613 Venice. It involves a mysterious drowning in the lagoon and a suspicious murder on a bridge, both of which alter the imminent marriage between Captain Lorenzo Contarini and la signora Caterina Zanchi. Determined to discover the culprits of both crimes, Lorenzo finds himself at war with the most powerful personages of the city he loves. Like readers of the tale, Lorenzo discovers that all are not as they first appear.
How would you classify the novel? Is it a mystery? A thriller? Historical fiction?
Fireship Press has categorized the novel as: historical/mystery/detective/romance.
What draws you to the Renaissance era?
The Renaissance era is rich with all that is human—both praiseworthy and damnable. It is one of the most colorful eras of all time. One lifetime is not nearly enough time to draw from it.
You spent some time writing/researching in Venice. What are some extant locations featured in your book?
The most fascinating aspect of Venice is that nearly all of its past remains extant. There are not cars, busses, motorbikes, or bicycles in the city. All transportation is by boat or on foot. The rhythm of the place is the rhythm of the tides.
The main actions of the novel take place in the Doge’s Palace, the Convent of San Zaccaria (now the Department of Homeland Security) and on the island of Torcello (the original settlement of Venetians). Each of the places was just as real to the novel’s characters as it is to Venetians and tourists today.
How long did it take for you to research and write Thirst?
--about four years, two researching and two writing and revising
What are some of the challenges of writing a story that takes place in a real setting so far removed from your own? What makes it especially interesting or fun?
Although this might sound odd, the setting of the novel has been in my imagination for quite some time. I never feel very far removed from Venice. The place permeates my mind, and I have been very fortunate to visit many times. In July of 2010, I was able to live and write at the Convent San Giuseppe through the auspices of the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation Solo Writer’s Fellowship. That opportunity, along with the chance to work in the archives and trace my characters’ steps on the actual cobblestones, in the gondola, at the churches, and in the court of justice, turns an initially foreign setting into a most domestic one.
Was this story inspired by real events, or did you invent the tale yourself?
While I invented the plot and characters of THIRST, the novel is inspired by an historical past. My primary source of factual information is Professor Mary Laven’s seminal study, Virgins of Venice. Professor Laven outlines the manner in which noble Venetian families parceled out their daughters—one for marriage, the rest for the convent. The San Zaccaria convent gained its notoriety from the large number of aristocratic daughters who did not live there by choice, but by parental dictum. Many of the goings-on were anything but spiritual. One of my interests is exploring if and when individual personalities refuse to accept and adhere to societal pressures. What happens to those who rebel?
What inspired you to start writing Thirst? Have you always wanted to be a novelist?
Venice inspired me. THIRST is the first of a series of novels to be set in the lagoon. The next one, whose working title is PLAGUED, will be set in 1403. I’m researching that now and plan to have a draft done by July.
Yes, I have always wanted to write novels.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a daily routine?
During the academic year, I write late in the evening. During the summers, I get up early, walk to work out plot, drink two cups of strong coffee, then write from about nine until one. The routine is important. Discipline translates to pages written. The important rule is to get the story down, in all its messiness and imperfection. Then, after a couple of days off, begin the quite different process of revision, revision, revision.
Once this novel is released, do you have any plans or ideas for another project?
Yes, I’ll be writing PLAGUED, based on the historical figure, Michael of Rhodes, who joined the Venetian galley crews in 1401. His participation in Venice’s nautical history will form the backdrop for a novel in which the plague and the nefarious child-trafficking activities of the feared Council of Ten wreak havoc, testing social and political alliances.