Interview With Mary Osborne, Author Of Nonna's Book Of Mysteries

4670953528 9c43d73d8b m Interview With Mary Osborne, Author Of Nonna's Book Of MysteriesAll week I’ve been promoting an interview with Mary Osborne, the writer of a book that I read and reviewed earlier this week called Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries. It is a fascinating story about a 14-year-old girl, who wants, more than anything, to learn how to be a painter, despite the barriers to the profession she has as a woman. Today, I have the great pleasure of finally bringing my conversation with Mary to my readers. Please take the time to read through it, and leave any questions or comments that you have for Mary as she’ll be stopping by today to respond to them.

Throughout the week, I also mentioned that I had something else of great importance to announce to you. As many of you know, I’m currently running a contest that features a copy NonnasBookOfMysteries as a prize. I’m ecstatic at the news that I can now say we’re offering not one but two copies of this novel! In an instant, I’ve doubled the chance that those who have already entered will win a prize, so keep your fingers crossed and enter if you haven’t already. The contest still closes at 8pm EST on June 10th, and I’ll be announcing the winner the following day on my site.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – my one-on-one conversation with Mary Osborne:

YABookShelf: Little known fact: when I was a young girl learning about the Renaissance, I wanted to be a Renaissance man when I grew up, never thinking at the time that if anything, I’d be a Renaissance woman. As a writer, artist, alchemist and registered nurse, you are something of a Renaissance woman yourself. How did you get into such a diverse range of professions?

Mary Osborne: Renaissance man, woman, either way it’s a worthy pursuit! Like the painters of Emilia’s day, I was raised in an environment that encouraged creative expression. Both my parents were artists, who didn’t think much of TV and refused to upgrade our old black and white set. To entertain myself, I made art and wrote puppet shows. Though I was creative, I also liked math and science. At Knox College, I studied creative writing and earned a degree in chemistry, thinking I would attend medical school. Ultimately, I decided that a career in nursing would allow more time for pursuing other creative interests. While I worked as an RN, I wrote stories inspired by my patients, designed t-shirts, and made hand-painted sandals.

YABookShelf: Historical fiction requires a lot of research to ensure accuracy to the period. What drew you to historical literature in general and to the Renaissance in particular? What benefits do you think tweens and teens can get from reading novels set in earlier time periods than their own?

Mary Osborne: At Knox, I took a fascinating class on Renaissance art history. While I parted with most of my science texts after graduation, I carried the tome from the art class, The History of Italian Renaissance Art, with me from apartment to apartment through the years. While I was drawn to the Renaissance, my first (unpublished) novels took place in modern times. When the subject of alchemy started creeping into my stories, an astute mentor observed that the bits about alchemy might fit better in another time frame. When I finally decided to weave the pieces about the medieval science into historical settings, a successful novel began to emerge. (And I dusted off that art history book, and put it to use once again.)

As far as benefits to reading historical novels, there are several! For one thing, you learn about life in another era. Secondly, these novels help us to develop a deeper understanding of the legacy of women who came before us and the strides made by our ancestors. The historical novel gives us perspective on our modern lives and helps us connect with the story, which we are continuing ourselves.

Even though Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries takes place hundreds of years ago, tween and teen readers can identify with the heroine. Emilia Serafini faces many of the struggles that today’s young women encounter. The obstacles have not been removed entirely. The battle of the sexes may be over in many places, but the negotiation is still going on!

YABookShelf: In your bio, it says that Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries was conceived during a trip to Tuscany. Had you always intended to write a historical novel or did your experience in Italy give rise to an idea that you couldn’t ignore?

Mary Osborne: When I traveled to Tuscany in the spring of 2001, the thought to write a historical novel had already occurred to me, but I had no idea how to begin the process. I had visited Florence once before, and something powerful was drawing me back again. I remember a feeling of excitement, of sudden inspiration, when I was visiting Giovanni Boccaccio’s home in the walled village of Certaldo, outside of Florence. (Boccaccio was the medieval author of The Decameron.) It was as though I had met my muse! After this trip, I read The Decameron and began writing the Alchemy Series in earnest.

YABookShelf: Emilia Serafini, the main character of Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries, wants to be a painter in Renaissance Italy more than anything, but is told that she can’t because she’s a girl. Did anyone suggest that your gender was a barrier to achieving your life goals and desires? How important is fostering a sense of empowerment in young girls today?

Mary Osborne: When I was contemplating medical school after graduating from Knox, several people suggested that nursing was a more suitable profession for women. My own mother discouraged me from becoming a doctor. But this is not why I became a nurse instead!

After my husband died more than a decade ago, my mother prayed that I would remarry so that I could have a “normal” life again. Many people assumed that it would be too difficult for me to carry on as a single mother and raise a child without a man at my side. As the years went by, I found that it was indeed possible and that, in fact, I had no desire to remarry.

I think today’s young women are an especially powerful breed. They will be taking on even greater challenges, which is why achieving personal empowerment is so important for them. These women are going to be holding positions of significant authority, owning more businesses, and shaping public policy. I believe we’re entering a new era, where dynamic female leaders will have an opportunity to bring greater harmony and peace to the planet.

YABookShelf: Emilia’s mother, teacher, and friend all offer her advice at different points throughout the novel, which she doubts. What is the importance of doubt and it’s opposite, faith, in the mysticism of alchemy? How can these concepts help young readers reach their destinies?

Mary Osborne: When we believe we have all the answers, we are not open to mystery. To begin a mystical journey, you have to start with a sense of wonder, of not knowing where you are going or how you will travel. The initial phase of alchemy is called the nigredo-it’s the phase of darkness, when it’s “blacker than black.” You feel this when you start something new-go off to college, start a new job, travel to a foreign land, or end a relationship that is not working. You have to be willing to endure the discomfort, the doubts and unknowing, you somehow find the courage to walk through your doubts and the difficult times because you are living the life you are meant to live.

YABookShelf: Do you prefer the historical figure of Cosimo de’ Medici or Sandro Botticelli? What is it about your choice that is so appealing?

Mary Osborne: As an artist, I identify with Sandro Botticelli. We know him as the man who painted Primavera and The Birth Of Venus. The goddesses and ancient subjects he chose represented virtues which were meant to inspire people. Then he went through a dark phase when he was listening to the sermons of Savonarola, who preached against the worldly pleasures of the Renaissance. But Botticelli’s works live on, inspiring people to this day. Five hundred years after his death, he still has thousands of fans!

Though the pursuit of power and wealth has never appealed to me, I did enjoy writing about Cosimo de’ Medici. Rich, influential, a patron of the arts, he ruled the city even though he didn’t actually hold public office. Many of the Florentine buildings and sculptures we treasure today were created by artists who were patronized by Cosimo the Elder. I think it might be nice if there was a Cosimo de’ Medici around today, offering commissions to the poor, but talented artists.

YABookShelf: Do you prefer Iconography, the typical Florentine style or some combination of the two? What makes your choice such a powerful art form?

Mary Osborne: It’s difficult to choose between these art forms. Iconography is entirely different from the style of the 15th century masters, who were experts in foreshortening and perspective. The technical skill and visual effects of painters like Uccello have to be admired. They achieved a level of artistry that has never been surpassed, in my opinion.

Icons are also beautiful, with their luminous colors and gold leaf. On first glance, the subjects can seem flat, their poses artificial. But the wonder of the icons has to do with the relationship which develops between the panel and the viewer. Looking at an icon brings me a feeling of serenity; it’s like a form of prayer. So I suppose in this sense, the icon is unsurpassed.

YABookShelf: Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries is the first book of what will be four in the Alchemy Series. The second book, Alchemy’s Daughter, is a prequel set 100 years earlier than the first one. Will readers get to learn more about Emilia’s story or that of one of her children in the subsequent novels?

Mary Osborne: You have not heard the last of Emilia! Just as Emilia’s grandmother, Nonna Santina, pops up in Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries, Emilia will be remembered in the third book of the series, which will tell the story of Emilia’s great-granddaughter. Emilia might even make an appearance in Alchemy’s Daughter. Yes, this story is set 100 years earlier, but then Nonna Santina is a woman of special talents.

YABookShelf: Recently, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries was both the Grand Prize Winner of the 2010 Paris Book Festival and Best Teen Book 2010 San Francisco Book Festival and was selected by the Chicago Sun Times as a summer reading recommendation by the Sun Times book critic. How did it feel winning these prizes and recognition for your debut work of teen fiction?

Mary Osborne: It felt wonderful! I was so excited to win these awards. Artists have to believe in the merit of their own work and persevere whether they receive public recognition or not, but it’s ever so nice when someone says, “Job well done”!

Thanks for checking out my interview with Mary Osborne. Don’t forget to leave your questions and comments for her, so she can respond to them today and to enter for your chance to win one of two copies of this great book!

  12 comments for “Interview With Mary Osborne, Author Of Nonna's Book Of Mysteries

  1. Kathleen (Kapybara)
    June 5, 2010 at 7:10 am

    Great interview!

    I must admit, I’m quite curious about this book and one of my first thoughts when I read your review was of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Early Baroque painter whose style was influenced by Caravaggio. I was absolutely fascinated by her when I was an art student. Amongst other things, she was the first female member of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence.

  2. June 5, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Kathleen, I love the story of Artemisia Gentileschi! In fact, in the bibliography of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, you’ll find Susan Vreeland’s novel, The Passion of Artemisia, listed. (As Melissa and I were saying, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.) Like Emilia, Artemisia fought against the conventions of her day and the jealousies of men. Both women struggled to balance family life and career. They developed rich, internal lives, which saw them through their trials. While these women were maybe atypical of their time, I think they represent many of us today. We are are trying to do it all, succeed in a world previously dominated by men, and hold our families together. Thanks for mentioning Artemisia! Are you an artist, by the way? Any other aspiring artists out there?

  3. June 5, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Mary, thanks so much for stopping by to respond to user comments and questions. I’m really excited for this chance to hear more from you. :) Thanks to both you and Kathleen for bringing up the story of Artemisia – I’d never heard of her before, and I’ll definitely be looking her up. :)

    I have another question myself:

    You mentioned having written other novels before Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries, but they’ve gone unpublished. How many novels did you write before this one? How do you judge whether a novel that you’ve written is successful or not? (I’d think it might be more difficult to get the creative distance from it.)

  4. June 5, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Melissa, I wrote two novels before starting my Alchemy Series, so I’ve written a total of four books now. Like many aspiring young authors, I sent out my first novel with the ink barely dry, thinking I’d soon be on my way to fame! That was back in 1998. In retrospect, I’m glad that book wasn’t published.

    My first novel was based on my experience of losing my husband at the age of 34, when our son was just a baby. Talk about needing distance from your subject! Now, more than a decade after his death, I see that I was too close to the experience to write about it. Time provides a broad perspective, and the years also gave me a chance to hone my writing skills. I might go back and revise my first novel someday, after I complete the Alchemy Series.

    With that being said, it is an act of discernment to decide when to move on to the next project and when to persevere with the book you’ve written. My process was to listen to my betters, follow my instincts, but most of all, just keep doing what I love–writing! Eventually, everything falls into place.

  5. Kathleen (Kapybara)
    June 5, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Mary, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment! I actually studied at a small arts & crafts college and majored in graphic design. The school believed in providing students with a solid foundation in fine art, so I had three years of classical drawing instruction as well as some art history classes. Currently I pay the bills as a graphic designer and write in the evenings/weekends.

    Melissa, AG is well worth learning about. There is a 1997 movie loosely based on her life, but I’ve avoided it as I have issues with some of the liberties I’ve heard the filmmakers took. Also, if you haven’t seen it, you might find this post by Janice Hardy interesting: She actually designed her own cover for her second book.

  6. June 5, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Mary, thanks for your sincere response to my questions. Awhile back I was having a conversation with a friend on Twitter about debut novels and whether or not they actually are the first book written by the author, so I’m always curious to know more about this topic. You have an optimism that I think aspiring writers really need to hear more of – there may be disappointments, but they will make the successes that much more exciting. :)

    I agree that distance is key when writing about a subject of a personal nature, but at the same time, I would be interested to know if you ever go back to the first novel and find a way to retell it. I think it’s really important that writers have the chance to hone their writing skills before tackling a extremely personal project. Every novel is important, but from conversations I’ve had with other writers, it seems as though when you have the chance to actually get that personal novel published, it may very well be a defining moment because you have so much invested in it.

    Another few questions for you: In the other portion of our interview, you said that you had an “astute mentor,” who suggested that you incorporate the alchemy themes with a historical setting. How was this mentor and are they still in your life to congratulate you now that you’ve had your first book published? Was it easier to incorporate the alchemy theme with the new setting?

    From some conversations I’ve had with other writers, I know that some authors have the opportunity to have their say when it comes to the cover design, especially when they’re artists themselves. What was your role in the look of Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries? What do you think of the finished cover design?

    The use of the Italian language throughout Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries was a highlight for me while reading it as some of my ancestors are Italian, but no one in my family speaks the language. Have you always been fluent in Italian or did you study it for the purposes of the Alchemy Series? Do you speak any other languages besides English?

  7. June 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for asking about my mentor, Melissa. The person who suggested that I incorporate the concepts of alchemy into historical settings is Emily Hanlon ( I started working with Emily at the International Women’s Writing Guild conference at Skidmore College in NY some years ago. She provided coaching sessions as I was writing the first version of Alchemy’s Daughter (her name will appear in the acknowledgments). When Nonna’s Book was published, I shared the happy news with her and with IWWG founder, Hannelore Hahn. I believe IWWG will be reviewing the book soon. This group is extremely supportive to women writers, and I encourage aspiring authors to look into their workshops and programs at

    When you start the process of writing, no matter what topic you pick, themes and ideas which resonate with you will float to the surface. This was how I began to write about alchemy. When I switched the setting of my book from a 21st century to a 15th c setting, the story began to unfold more easily. It was as though the Alchemy Series was just waiting for me discover it!

    Regarding book covers, I think it’s always nice when authors have a say in the designs. I love the cover of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries and contributed my ideas to the designer. (Though designers are artists too, and they ultimately have to follow their own vision.) If an author has no say in the cover, I think there’s a risk of the image not matching the essence of the book.

    I’m glad my use of Italian was convincing! I am not even close to fluent in the language, but I intend to work on this (and to plan another trip to the beautiful Tuscan countryside someday) Sadly, I have only my college French, besides English. Tant pis, too bad!

    I agree with what you said about aspiring writers needing to keep a sense of optimism. This is true, no matter what your ambition. Those who achieve their life goals are the ones who persevere and persevere. Each of us has a unique destiny, the thing we were born to do. So go for it!

  8. June 5, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Thanks Mary and Kathleen for your comments!

    Mary, I really appreciate you telling me and my readers about the, which helped you get to a place in your writing where Nonna’s Book could be published. It is always nice if an author is willing to talk freely about these matters because, ultimately, even just that suggestion could help a number of other women writers get to the point in their careers when they knew that their book had been accepted for publication as well. Having written about influence in a post earlier this week, it makes sense to me that even this small suggestion could easily help aspiring writers get where they need to be, and they may very well consider you someone who at least gave them the idea that made it possible. :)

    I really love what you said about the themes and ideas that resonate with a writer “will float to the surface” and that once you changed the setting of your novels, the story became easier to write. What seems like a small change (though without a doubt it meant a lot more research) is nevertheless something that can really open one up to what they ought to be doing. Of course, if you ever go back to the earlier novels, the experience of getting the Alchemy novels down will invariably help you again.

    I also appreciate everything you said about book covers and contributing your design ideas. It’s important to note that designers have their own ideas as well about how the writing process should go – there can always be some clashing here if both writer and designer don’t acknowledge this reality to themselves. At the same time, I think what you said about the author helping to ensure that the cover matches the essence of the book. I think that often designers don’t read the book – they just do what they think would appeal to the reader and it may completely clash with what the story is about. Often the cover is decided upon, I would think, by the marketing department and about how they envision the book should be portrayed: I’ve seen books with alternate cover designs and sometimes liked them, sometimes not. Recently, I saw one with two different designs – one that appeal to a more general audience and another which is more geared toward the teen audience only. Of course, it’s important to produce something teens would be interested in, but I think that the adult crossover market needs to be considered sometimes too and the “general appeal” cover would serve both markets.

    Kathleen, thanks for giving me your insight into the AG movie. I think I’ll side with you and do other research instead to learn about her. Thanks also for showing me the post by Janice Hardy about her second book’s design. I like how the designer used her mockups to come up with something a little different, but on par with her vision. It’s great that she shared that with her readers; I think it’s something that many people would never consider important, but my love of art and design make it something I’m very interested in learning more about. :)

  9. June 6, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Melissa, I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you, Kathleen, and your readers. YA Bookshelf is a place where thoughtful and ambitious young women gather not only to discuss new books, but to ask questions, share ideas, to give and receive inspiration. I wrote Nonna’s Book of Mysteries with the intention of sending a message of hope and empowerment to young women. Girls, our world is desperately in need of your talent and leadership!

    I invite your readers to follow me on facebook (you can friend me from my website, I’d love to know what everyone is hoping to achieve in the year ahead. For me, it’s sharing Emilia’s story and inspiring readers to embark on the mystical journey of the artist–for we are all artists when we approach life with a sense of wonderment, enthusiasm, and hope. :-)

  10. June 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Mary, I’m really glad that you agreed to come to my site and speak with Kathleen, my readers, and I. Your message is one that I think all young women can benefit from, and it has certainly further inspired me to keep at what I’m doing with YA Book Shelf and to not be afraid to take on any opportunities that come my way. :)

  11. Julianne
    June 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Very interesting interview. I am in the process of reading the book right now, and looking through this interview I can see what inspired you and how you applied it to your writing. It is a very unique story because the details are so realistic, and I find myself living vicariously through Emilia! I can’t wait for the other books in the series!

  12. June 13, 2010 at 5:54 am

    Thanks for your comment Julianne! I can’t wait for the other books in the series either, though I have to admit that the interview and other conversations I had with Mary Osborne got me even more excited about it. She really put a lot into writing Nonna’s Book Of Mysteries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: