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Murder Among Friends

Our Discussion on: "Burnt Siena" by Sarah Wisseman

Sarah Wisseman and the cover for "Burnt Siena"

We started with Sarah relating a highly amusing story about her research for a story where she was using the CDC website about small pox preparedness and that nervous co-workers were wondering “why are you researching this?” We then spoke about the research she has done on life in the historic Italy, and how she is able to paint such a detailed, absorbing picture of life in contemporary Siena.

Sarah was hoping as an archaeological student to be able to go on a U.S. dig in Italy, but for political and terrorism reasons couldn’t do one. She went to Italy for first time during grad school on an Italian dig outside Sienna. She spent three months there, and had opportunity to go back numerous times while working on her masters and PHd. She also shared a funny story about going to an academic convention in 2008 – which was set in a psychiatric hospital, and that she appreciated the irony of having a bunch of academics there! She took lots of notes and pix on that trip knowing that she was going to write about it. As she said, she knows perfectly well that she’s not a Donna Leon who has worked & lived there, or someone who has been there years and years, but having spent numerous months she can be convincing as still very much someone who is an ex-pat American seeing things for the first time.

Sarah does everything she can to make it authentic, and “having spent some time there makes it easier to tell what it feels like. And these days I love wonderful internet tools that I’m sure you all are familiar with -- like Google Earth. You won’t remember what a street looks like, you can click on the little person and go and see what was on it, or see that Piazza del Campo that I love so much.”

 Her first summer there, in 1975, she was invited by Italian friend “to see that suicidal horse race. It was beautiful, very colorful with all the medieval pageantry and costumes, and music. But after the race when one contrata wins, and everyone else bursts into tears and start banging each other -- it was terrifying. I didn’t realize how scary a mob can be until then.”

We asked: Since this story utilized various branches and types of police that are then interwoven by the heroine’s all over Italy, how true to how they operate did Sarah get?

She knew the names of the various groups and knew they sometimes work together well, and often fought over jurisdiction. Friends in Italy were able to give her more information and they were extremely helpful in telling her the basic set up. But since she’s not like Donne Leon – being on the ground, and probably being able to find a policeman friend, she extrapolated.

Digging out info on jurisdictions, and knowing something about Italian rules and regulations, she found they always fight over these. There’s always conflict between the different divisions. “So as an author, I’m able to take advantage of that and sew in confusion for the reader as well as myself. And so someone who’s an American could never navigate through all of this on their own. You’re exposed to bits of it. And Vittorio as a junior officer in this first book, has to navigate his way through this as well, and he has to develop his relationships with his boss and the other cops and his own ambitions to  move on to a place like Rome where he can have a little more responsibility.”

We told her that we appreciated how the personal relationships fed into the police relationships added a sometime humorous level to the events of the story while adding complexity to how things worked out.

One member asked about what she’s heard about the Italian police system is fairly corrupt. Sarah commented that “reading our own newspapers and blogs I am not sure it is any more corrupt than ours, although maybe in different ways.”

She also finds the concept – and importance – of family in Italy, is quite similar to rural areas and perhaps the Deep South, & some other areas here, “but nepotism and giving jobs to the relatives is very commonplace. So you have these networks of different authorities who have to work together mixed up with husbands, and wives and nephews and cousins.”

The Italians as a society are very, very much family based and so family is very much a part of decisions made on both a personal and professional basis. In all three books she plays with this. In the book she’s working on now, The Botticelli Caper, which takes place in Florence at the Uffizi – where it turns out almost everyone on the staff and the construction crew are related!  

Sarah finds the fun of research can occur when “setting out to find one set of facts, and stumbling on a side line that can help you create a sub-plot that will enrich the story or provide red herrings and take the reader down a different path.”

On the down side of writing: “Facing a blank screen you can then go off and research and pretend you’re accomplishing something – It can be a rabbit hole that may or may not provide something for the current story. It needs to be something that will help drive the story that will interest the reader. (Writers) are always worried that they might do an information dump.” This is particularly true for Sarah as an academic since she “wants to use that experience without boring the reader...”

She talked about how the next Flora book, Catacomb, deals with the Monuments Men and that they missed a cache after WWII under the city of Rome. Vittorio and Flora both move to Rome and share an apartment. They do juggle their love life, and grow into a couple, and by the third book – they’ll have to deal with each other’s family. Where they finally go to Chicago as well! (We cheered.)

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