Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page. -Eudora Welty
We’re pleased to have with us today, Dee White. She’s the author of Letters to Leonardo, a debut YA fiction best introduced by Aussie Reviews — one of at least a half-dozen wonderful reviews of her novel I’ve come across:
“Letters to Leonardo is a stunning debut novel from Victorian author Dee White. The blend of first person narrative with letters gives the reader a wonderful insight into Matt’s thought processes and emotions. Matt’s journey is full of action, emotion and twists and turns which keep the reader riveted from chapter to chapter…”
JR Great review, Dee. Welcome to Musetracks, but before we begin, I have to ask — is there a bit of an accent I detect? Tell us about yourself.
DW That could be an Australian accent, John. I was raised in regional Victoria, Australia, and that’s where I completed my high schooling. I went on to do a Diploma in Professional Writing & Editing at Victoria University. I still live in regional Victoria in a house my husband and I built (mostly). I have two boys who read everything I write, and enough pets to almost fill an ark – including dog, cats, goats and rabbits – and that’s not counting the large number of kangaroos, echidnas and wedge-tailed eagles we share our property with. My special interests are reading, writing, golf, cricket, amateur theatre, collecting stray animals and traveling. I travelled around Australia in tents for almost two years with my husband and our two boys when they were 8 months old and 2 ½. One of my favorite parts was camel riding in the outback – and I dream of adding a camel to the menagerie one day.
JR Interesting background. I know one of our Musetrackers, Candi Wall (a softie when it comes to stray animals), would enjoy sharing stories with you about her love for these four-footed creatures. But, Australia… So many of us hold a fascination for the mystery and romance of that land down under. How did you first discover that you might pursue writing among all these other passions?
DW I started writing poetry when I was seven and that was the year I decided I would become an author. I have always written since then, but it wasn’t until I became and advertising copywriter and journalist that writing became a career. From that, I branched out into my real passion…writing books.
JR Marsden’s work must have had its effect on you. And it’s apparent, from the reviews, that you’ve also established that all-important credibility with young adults on all levels — intellectually and emotionally. Was Letters to Leonardo your first effort in the genre?
DW Letters to Leonardo was my first YA novel, but my third book. My earlier works were a non fiction book( A Duel of Words) and a novel (Hope for Hanna); both for middle grade readers. I started out writing picture books when my boys were very small. As they have grown older, my books have got longer and the target readership has aged too. My oldest son is a now a teenager and I guess that’s how I ended up writing YA fiction. It was also one of my favorite subjects at university – and I think I’ve discovered that I’m really a fifteen-year-old boy at heart – this seems to be my writing voice.
JR What was your inspiration for the story?
DW The two main pieces of inspiration came from a true story I heard about a man who received a twenty-first birthday card from the mother he had been told was deceased, and the real life experiences of a friend growing up with a mother who suffered from a bipolar disorder. I was also really affected by a comment made by comedian Sir Spike Milligan about his own bipolar. He described the ‘lows’ as “1000 grim winters growing in my head.” Added to this was a long held fascination with Leonardo Da Vinci, which grew even more obsessive as I did my research for this book.
From the minute the pieces of this story fell into place in my head, I knew it was a story I had to write.
JR In this coming-of-age story of love, life, triumph and tragedy, your main character, Matt, a fifteen year old boy, grows up believing his mother had died, then he receives a card from her and his world is turned inside out. Deceived by his father and with feelings of betrayal by a woman he’d never known, he tries to unravel the reasons why a mother would abandon her child. In the novel, meanings and messages left on canvas bring the powerful presence of a legend back to life. Can you tell us about the kinship you and your character have with this artist, Leonardo da Vinci – a man who was suspected by some as suffering from the same bipolar disorder as Matt’s mother?
DW What fascinates me about Leonardo, apart from his overwhelming genius and artistic talent, is that he was true to himself. I bought a little statuette of Leonardo and the Mona Lisa, and it sits on my desk watching over me. Leonardo da Vinci has become my muse.
My favorite of his works is the Benois Madonna. Apart from the wonderful colors and detail, I love the relationship depicted between the mother and child. The mother’s expression is of overwhelming love, while the baby with typical youthful curiosity is totally oblivious to his mother’s emotion and is completely fixated on the flower in her hand.
In Letters to Leonardo, Matt, and da Vinci lived over 500 years apart, so I wanted to bring them together in a realistic and original way. Art was a powerful connection between the two. Matt was an artist, and he later discovered that this was one of the strongest things that linked him to his mother.
I’ve used some of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings to symbolize people and events in the story. The Mona Lisa, for example, is an enigma like Matt’s mother, but she is also a watching presence. In the letters he writes to Leonardo,Matt uses da Vinci’s paintings to talk about things that are happening in his own life. It’s what connects them to each other. Here’s an example:
Matt: “…that’s what I love about your Drapery Study, I never thought of clothes as having a life of their own – but they do. We all wear an outer layer to hide who we really are.”
Matt’s anguish and feelings of betrayal when he discovers that his mother is not dead are symbolized in another of Leonardo’s paintings. Here again:
Matt: “There’s this one painting, St Jerome. I can’t stop looking at it – at the torture in the saint’s eyes as he crouches among those craggy rocks, prostrate before that open-mouthed lion. It’s like that painting expresses everything that’s going on inside me.”
He links Leonardo’s Lady with the Ermine to his own feelings of disappointment, and trying to come to terms with who his mother really is:
Matt: “…I’m starting to think that Mum and I are like your Lady with the Ermine. I’m Mum’s pet. Maybe that’s all I was to her when I was a kid.”
JR Love the symbology here. You can just sense Matt’s longing for the ideal in Benois Madonna as contrasted with the despondence he bares in some of Leonardo’s other masterpieces. As an aspiring writer, was there ever a time along the path to publication when you felt you might not achieve your goal? Any lessons learned you’d like to share?
My mentor didn’t like that Letters to Leonardo was in first person, she thought that my use of art was clichéd, and she felt that young adults wouldn’t know who Leonardo da Vinci was. I think this was really the only time throughout the whole journey that I experienced self-doubt.
I was a very inexperienced writer and thought, “She knows what she’s talking about,” so I changed my story to meet all her recommendations. Instead of Letters to Leonardo, it became Space, a book about a boy who loved astronomy and wrote letters to astronaut, Buzz Aldrin.
A publisher I submitted Space to thought it was well written, with well developed characters etc, but that it was missing something. That’s when I realized it was not my story anymore. I spent the next two years rewriting and editing – adding layers to the story, connecting up all the pieces and making sure that the manuscript was as tight as it could be.
In 2008, I decided to have my manuscript assessed at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference in Sydney. Margaret Hamilton ,who assessed it, was very positive and in fact even went so far as to introduce me to publishers at the conference. A few months later, Letters to Leonardo was accepted for publication by Walker Books Australia.
So I guess in terms of how many publishers I submitted it to, Letters to Leonardo had a reasonably easy road – but I did spend many years writing and rewriting – trying to get it right before I submitted it.
I wanted to share my experience with other writers because for me, the biggest lesson was learning to ‘stick with my story’. Sometimes, as writers we have to follow our instincts – and have faith in our own work (no matter how many rejections we have received).
This experience also taught me that talent and a good story idea aren’t enough – you have to have determination – an unshakeable passion for what you do. You have to want to be a writer above all else and you have to have a story you love – then hopefully, others will love it too. I hope this inspires others to keep going with the stories they love – to keep writing – keep rewriting – and keep believing in yourself.
JR You’ve expressed so well what writers fear most – falling in love with an idea, a theme, or a character to whom we’ve given life, only to have the marrow of that inspiration stripped away someplace along the rugged road to publication. When you speak of determination and unshakeable passion, how does this translate for a writer who must next become a marketing manager?
DW I had a job in marketing in a past working life so I understand how important it is. I did a number of actual launches for Letters to Leonardo as well as a cyber launch and blog tour. The blog tour had over 1000 hits and there were more than 250 hits at the cyber launch. There’s more information about this on my blog http://deescribewriting.wordpress.com
Aside from internet marketing, I have talked at conferences about my book, visited schools and done book shop signings. It’s important to get your work out there, and I must admit, I love talking to kids about books and writing.
My sons and I made a book trailer for Letters to Leonardo on a zero budget. My eldest son was the voice of Matt Hudson and my youngest son selected and played the music. The link is http://www.blazingtrailers.com/show.php?title=504
JR I love how your family has become a part of both the struggle and success of your effort. Hmmm… this must be one of the upsides to writing YA.
A great pleasure, Dee. We’ve enjoyed having you as our guest. Seems the world knows no boundaries in a collegial fellowship of authors and aspiring writers whose pleasure is to motivate and inspire. Thanks for sharing the experience, and we wish you much success with your novel.
Letters to Leonardo is currently only available in Australia, but it can be purchased on line at Boomerang Books, Fishpond, or other online sellers.
BUT… For one lucky commenter, Dee is offering an autographed copy of her debut novel!