Author Interview: Irene Grazzini

Issue 032 is out now — go take a peek. We’re very excited to publish the second story in our current issue which is our first translated work for the Quarterly. Written by Irene Grazzini and translated from Italian by Joyce Myerson, the short story “The Smile” takes a well-known artwork and twists it into an unforgettable tale. We chatted with Irene about “The Smile” and she gave us some extra insight that is our pleasure to share with you today.

LSQ: How did the idea for your story “The Smile” come about? Your descriptions of the time period are very rich and detailed. Have you always been interested in the Mona Lisa, or did you research this artwork specifically for this story? Have you seen the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre? What was it specifically about this piece that inspired this story? 

Irene: The idea for The Smile came to me while I was doing some house-cleaning. Rummaging through my university books, inside an illustrated anatomy text, I found some pages of old notes and a draft of a story that we had been asked to write for a course I can no longer recall. The theme was: imagine yourself inside a painting. I had told the story of a girl visiting the Louvre Museum. She finds herself catapulted inside the picture of the Mona Lisa and then has a witty conversation with her. It was only a sketch, about which I had completely forgotten, little more than a page long, but it was a delightful re-discovery, and so I decided to develop it into something more complete.

I took advantage of a holiday weekend to go to Paris and the Louvre (I must admit that, in two days, I only managed to see less than half!). In this way I was able to enjoy the painting in person, imprinting on my mind the emotions it aroused. I had studied it in high school in a History of Art course, as well as a large part of the rest of Leonardo da Vinci’s works. This painting has always fascinated me. I live in Tuscany, whose landscape is the background of many of Leonardo’s works (Vinci is a small town about an hour and a half by car from my home). But the figure of Mona Lisa, with her enigmatic smile, has something special.

I did research on the subject, on the work, as well as on the historical period in question. I studied sources on the “real” life of Lisa Gherardini who would have been an ordinary woman of the Renaissance had Leonardo not immortalized her in the painting. Thus I decided to alter the viewpoint of the original: I wanted the story to be told by the Mona Lisa herself!

LSQ: Was there any part of this story that was challenging for you to write? 

Irene: When you set a story in another era, it is difficult to find the right balance between the description of the setting and the fluidity of the narrative. Writers cannot embark on endlessly long descriptive passages, but at the same time, we have to make the reader see and feel the time and place of the characters. It was also hard for me to identify with the point of view, the type of language, and the thoughts of Lisa, a Renaissance woman. I had to use somewhat “archaic” terms and turns of phrase, and the challenge was to make them accessible to a modern reader. And finally, the structure itself of the story is an exercise in style, because it is built upon a series of hints and clues until the final revelation.

LSQ: There’s a sinister quality in Leonardo da Vinci’s character in your story. Could you speak to this? 

Irene: Leonardo da Vinci is a figure that has always fascinated subsequent generations throughout the world, not only his Italian countrymen and women. His irrefutable genius is enveloped in a halo of mystery. We know his works, everything he has produced, but who was Leonardo really? What did he think about when painting? What was his purpose? In The Smile I tried to reinterpret him in more sombre shades, imagining him a disciple of the art of alchemy, which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was well-known, so much so that often artists inserted alchemical symbols in their works (just think about the floors of the Siena Cathedral!). The alchemists, according to the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, an almost mythological figure, tried to gain control of nature and matter, dedicating themselves to a form of science, soaked in magic. Among their objectives were immortality and the famous Philosopher’s Stone (recaptured by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter saga). My Leonardo, therefore, is a man obsessed with the search for perfection and immortality, a goal which he wants to reach through his art—a result which, from a certain viewpoint, he has succeeded in reaching in reality, inasmuch as he has rendered immortal the memory we all have of Lisa Gherardini.

LSQ: If there is one thing that you’d like for your readers to get out of this story, what is it?

Irene: That which Mona Lisa herself says: O strangers from a world in constant flux, I only ask you this: Live for those who no longer have such fortune. Smile for real, in keeping with your deepest wishes. Smile for real, not because you are obliged to as she was in the painting. And it is indeed that small imperfection that we call humanity that makes our smile perfect, marvelous, and unique.

LSQ: What authors inspire you and why?

Irene: I am a voracious and omnivorous reader. In terms of stories, I believe that Isaac Asimov is unparalleled, but I also adore the stories of J.L. Borges (The House of Asterion is a masterpiece). In terms of novels, I have been mostly inspired by YA authors such as Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. In terms of world-building and plot structure, I have been inspired by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann (the Dragonlance and the Death Gate series) and David Gemmell (the Troy series).

LSQ: Are you working on other writing projects? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?  

Irene: I have many projects on the go. Most recently I have written and have had translated a new story, in a completely different genre—a fantasy/sci-fi story set in a remote but not improbable future for our planet. My New York agents, as well, are actively seeking a publisher for my alternate history YA novel, of which I cannot disclose the title, but which I hope to see published soon and available to all readers, young and old!