Interview with Mary Osborne
Teens were lucky to meet Chicago author Mary Osborne at their local branch libraries over the summer and fall as part of the One Book, One Chicago 10th anniversary programming. Several CPL Teen Advisory Council members asked Osborne questions about her novel Nonna’s Book of Mysteries and about life as a writer.
Angela, 16, asked: Where are some places you enjoy writing?
From my third-floor office window I have a view of neighboring rooftops and the lights of Wrigley Field in the distance. I have been writing from this room in my house for years and love being able to look up from my computer and see the trees, the changing of the seasons. Once in a while, when I’m writing longhand and roughing out scenes, I’ll bring a notebook to the local Starbucks. Or you can sometimes find me at the Julius Meinl on Southport and Addison.
Angela also asked: Why did you pick the genre you write?
I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. My first two (unpublished) novels were contemporary. When I started reading about alchemy, allusions to the topic started showing up in my writing. My writing coach at the time, Emily Hanlon, suggested that the bits about alchemy might be a better fit for a historical novel. I doubted my ability to write this genre, but a trip to Italy brought all the pieces of the story together.
Jia Jia, 17, asked: What inspired you to create Emilia’s character in the story? Does she reflect elements of you?
The character of Emilia was probably most inspired by my mother, who was a very talented painter. As a kid, I’d come home from school and often find my mom at her easel in the kitchen. Like Emilia, she had to work hard to find her place in the art world. She never gave up on her painting, and her career continued to grow and evolve throughout her entire life.
Mary Osborne led teens at the Vodak-East Side Branch in creating alchemy scrolls as a reflective art project about dreams, intentions and goals.
As a writer, I closely identify with Emilia’s challenges, both professional and personal, as well. The process of getting published is an uphill battle, and it takes commitment to stay the course in this competitive field. I started writing the Alchemy Series nine years before the first book finally made it into the bookstore shelves.
Feng Dan, 17, asked: What are the titles of your favorite paintings? Who are your favorite artists/painters? Have you visited or lived in any part of the places the main character has?
I am a huge fan of Renaissance art, and in particular the works of Sandro Botticelli and Fra Angelico. Botticelli’s “Primavera” depicts a group of beautiful mythological figures in a magical orange grove. The god Mercury, who is an alchemical symbol, is one of the figures in the painting. This is one of my all-time favorite paintings, and I was able to see it for myself when I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar who lived during the early Renaissance. He was an innovative painter who pioneered new techniques, such as the use of light and shadow to model figures. I love his “Annunciation,” which celebrates the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. It’s interesting to see the incorporation of Tuscan landscape and classical architecture in this biblical scene.
Nonna’s Book of Mysteries takes place in Renaissance Florence. I’ve been lucky to visit the city twice and see many of the works of art which were created back in Emilia’s day. On my website, www.mysticfiction.com, there is a map of Florence which shows many of the places Emilia frequented. You can print it out and take it to Florence with you if you ever have a chance to visit!
Jessenia, 17, wants to know: What gave you the idea to write a book about a girl artist in Florence, Italy? Do you have an interest in alchemy and did that impact your choice in including it in your book?
I had actually written a draft of the prequel, Alchemy’s Daughter, before I started working on Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. In both novels the characters receive a mysterious text entitled A Manual to the Science of Alchemy. The idea for the manual arose from my fascination with the topic of alchemy and psychiatrist Carl Jung’s book on the subject. So yes, my interest in alchemy absolutely had an impact on the storyline. To some degree, I chose a storyline which gave me a vehicle in which to write about alchemy.
After I finished Alchemy’s Daughter, which is about a young woman who becomes a midwife in medieval Italy, I thought about possible subsequent owners of the alchemical manual. My travels to Florence led me to contemplate the artists of the Renaissance, who were almost all men. I began to wonder what it would have been like for a young woman who dared to be an artist at that time. Then the character of Emilia was born!
Araceli, 16, asked: Did you have an interest in the Renaissance before you started writing this story or was it the story that you wanted to write about that got you to look into the Renaissance?
As a matter of fact, I became a fan of Renaissance art when I took a class in this subject as a young student at Knox College. A number of years later, when I visited Florence and saw firsthand the works of art left behind by the masters, the Renaissance came alive for me. I never parted with the huge art history book from my college class, and I often referred it as I wrote Nonna’s Book of Mysteries.
When I began thinking about the character of Emilia and envisioning her as a painter, it seemed there could be no greater time to be an artist than during the Renaissance. Part of the fun of writing Nonna’s Book of Mysteries was rediscovering the artists I had learned about years earlier at Knox.
Araceli also asked: Your website says you’re an author and artist. What kind of art do you create? What do you enjoy more—being an author or artist?
An alchemy scroll created during Mary Osborne’s program at the Vodak-East Side Branch.
As much as I love writing, it’s fun to have a change of pace and switch to different mediums. I enjoy sketching and dabbling with acrylics and watercolors. For a time I was designing alchemy-inspired T-shirts and painting wood sandals with Egyptian god and goddess motifs. I sold these items at a local shop.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about taking an icon workshop and learning to “write” icons, as Emilia learned from Makarios in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. My friend Joseph Malham is an artist in residence at St. Gregory the Great Church in Chicago, where he sometimes offers suchclasses.
While my primary interest is writing, it’s fun to keep learning and expanding into new areas of creative expression. I also think that it is possible to be an “artist” without actually creating pieces of art. To me, being an artist means living creatively, seeing the beauty around you and daring to follow your own inner voice. You are an artist when you paint fresh, colorful pictures on the canvas of your life!
Mary Osborne, author of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries and Alchemy’s Daughter, is a writer, artist and registered nurse living in Chicago. An honors graduate of Rush University and Knox College, where she was mentored in the creative writing program, Osborne has degrees in chemistry and nursing. Nonna’s Book of Mysteries was conceived during a springtime trip to Tuscany. A journey to the walled Italian village of Certaldo and the home of Giovanni Boccaccio—medieval author of The Decameron—provided inspiration for the prequel, Alchemy’s Daughter.