The other day I received the sweetest Christmas greeting email that reminded me of how incredibly lucky I am to do what I do for a living. Both as journalist and novelist, I have had the great privilege of being invited into people's lives as I research or write. I try to never forget what a a rare and precious honor that is, particularly some of the magazine profiles I did about survivors--of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, or brutal cancer treatments--whose grit and stubborn one-foot-in-front-of- the-other devotion to getting their family out of crisis was hauntingly inspirational. Those experiences were humbling gifts and have completely defined me as a writer. I learned from them that ordinary people could do the most extraordinary things and that "everyman" characters brought a to-the-bone pathos and beating hearts to otherwise abstract historical events or social issues.
As a novelist, I am so touched and grateful for the generosity of total strangers when I am struggling to make sense of historical events or to find tidbits of facts on lesser known historical figures who are critical to my story. I have totally fallen in love with places I hadn't expected to because of the residents' graciousness. Like Piombino, Italy. I almost hate to tell you about it because it is so wonderfully devoid of us boorish, spoiled Americans! But it has one of the most stunning views I have ever had, across the diaphanous azure waters of the Mediterranean to the islands of Elba and Monte Cristo, crowned in the rose-gold sunshine. And some of the nicest people I have ever met.
My daughter and I arrived to do research on my next Renaissance novel and I had emailed ahead to our B & B hostess asking if she could recommend a local historian to help me gather information. I speak no Italian, I am embarrassed to say, and she bravely used what English she had, relying on her son and a friend to translate. When we arrived -- after a rather horrifying drive in the teeniest stick-shift car I've ever rented (and I grew up driving VW bugs) -- Donatella introduced us to Maurilio, who is an expert in WWII not 15th century. Another friend provided translation for our conversation and as soon as my subject matter was explained, Maurilio began calling all his historian friends to find out who could help us. The next day he tracked me down in the town to take us to a friend who had a book she was happy to lend us. And when I returned to the US, another of his friend-scholars reached out via email to offer me guidance.
(For those who travel for food, not digging up research ( ha ha) I should add that we had one of the most exquisite meals in the village that I've ever tasted. The owners could tell we were completely unfamiliar with the local fare, took away our menus and said with paternal gentleness, "trust us." They brought us course after course of local seafood and wines that were stunningly gorgeous as well as delicious.)
In gratitude I sent copies of DA VINCI'S TIGER as small thank-you's for these people's great kindness. And Maurilio emailed me this Buon Natale!
If you ever have the chance, go to Piombino! It is an arcadia.