#ReadingWithMum: Meet Me in Venice, by Barbara Hannay
My mother, Catherine, is the person who first instilled in me a passion for reading. Now we are both adults, I love that we can share our favourites, discuss what we’re reading with one another, and compare notes. Barbara Hannay’s latest novel, Meet Me in Venice, features a mother growing in relationship with her own adult children, and for that reason, it’s the perfect novel to share with my own mum and to introduce you to a collaborative review I’m calling #ReadingWithMum. Here, you’ll find my mother Catherine’s thoughts on this family drama and a delightful interview with its lovely author, Barbara Hannay, whose thoughts will have you torn between digging out your passport and getting serious about writing that novel you keep dreaming of.
Meet Me in Venice introduces us to Daisy, a mother who plans with her husband Leo to visit his birthplace in beautiful Venice. But when Leo passes away unexpectedly, Daisy is left alone with her grief and the prospect of cancelled plans. It is then that she decides to invite her children along — on a journey to mend broken hearts, to reconnect with one another, and to make rich memories. Nothing goes entirely smoothly, however, and in the weary process of sorting Leo’s finances, Daisy discovers that her husband had been keeping something from her. At the same time, her children Marc, Anna, and Ellie are wrestling with conflicts of their own. Is Venice – magical city that it is – really capable of untangling such a complex thread of hurt and healing the mysteries that haunt them?
Mum relished this book because of its genuine family feel. The characters feel deeply Australian and entirely relatable, an authentic family whose warmth, flaws, and virtues only make them more real. Mum also loved the story’s gorgeous setting, something I got to hear more about from Barbara Hannay as she filled me in on her writing process and her love of Italy:
Congratulations on a novel that manages to be deeply Australian and yet full of international colour, a story particularly relatable for women in the second half of life who are facing unexpected new beginnings.
BH: Thank you. I really appreciate this comment.
A novel focussed around a travel destination will inevitably have a strong sense of place, almost as if the setting is another character. How important is this sense of place to you?
BH: Sense of place has always been extremely important to me. Whether I'm writing about the Australian outback, war torn London, or a tourist destination as old and romantic as Venice, I try to offer precise, unique details that draw the reader into the scene. I'm careful not to get bogged down with too much detail, however. The setting is a trademark feature of my books, but my biggest aim is to provide an emotionally compelling read.
How did your own experiences of Italy inform your novel? And how does an old and storied city like Venice speak to you about the reconnection of family and the healing of griefs? What role do you think travel plays in the idea of fresh starts?
BH: I do love Italy. I first visited there at the end of a nine week holiday in UK and Europe and although I'd enjoyed all the places I'd been to, Italy (and Venice in particular) seemed to ramp up the sense of history and art and romance to a whole new level.
Having studied art at school, I swooned over the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the fascinating treasures in Pompeii, but I think Venice stole my heart because it was so unique. I was there during the acqua alta, the high tides, when the Grand Canal came right into our hotel. I was fascinated that a city with so much grandeur and history could be poised in such a fragile relationship with its surroundings.
However, I can't honestly say that Venice initially spoke to me as setting for a story. I tend to work the other way. I find an emotional situation first (such as a widow who wants to reconnect with her grown up family) and then I decide who the characters are and where the story will take place. I realised that I wanted an overseas setting and so chose the place that had made the biggest impact on me. Yes, travel is great for making a fresh start, but those mind-broadening adventures can work in two ways, both for tourists and for migrants, as happens in this story.
Daisy and her family are proof that life never really gets any easier, but that we continue to grow through its challenges. What is one message you hope your readers take away from Daisy’s story?
BH: I think the big message in this story is about honesty. It's about being honest in relationships and honest with ourselves. Leo has kept a secret from Daisy. Bronte and Marc's marriage is in jeopardy because they haven't been totally honest with each other. Anna needs to be honest with herself about what she really wants in life and so, in fact, does Ellie. Sometimes it takes an outside influence or experience – such as travel – to help us to look at our lives with fresh and honest insight.
Is Daisy based on anyone you know, or is she purely a creature of invention?
BH: Daisy is mostly invented, but I'm the mother of daughters who've pursued artistic careers and one of my good friends has a clever son working in Silicon Valley, so there are threads from real life woven in. As someone who's never been overflowing with confidence, I think I can also identify with Daisy's desire to be stronger and more heroic. And I'm a gardener, so we might have quite a lot in common, actually. <grin>
I’m always fascinated by writers’ processes. Please share a little about the process of writing Meet Me in Venice. Do you have any rituals or habits that feed into your work as a writer?
BH: I'm a morning person. My perfect writing day starts quite early, when I wake and lie in bed, thinking about my story. If a scene starts to roll with pieces of dialogue flowing, I have to leap up and start typing before I lose it. I like to write a thousand words a day. If this happens before breakfast, the day is mine, but more often than not, I'm still trying to find those final words when it's almost dinner time.
I'm not much of a plotter. I like to have a starting situation and an idea about my characters and a few guide posts, but I also like to surprise myself along the way.
Although I live in quite an isolated corner of Far North Queensland, I'm lucky enough to have a husband who's also a writer and he's always happy to brainstorm with me when I need to toss ideas around. I'm also in daily contact, by email, with writer friends. Those regular chats have also become a great habit that helps me keep going.
Who or what inspires you?
BH: This is a huge question. I'm not sure I could single out any one particular person or experience. So may wonderful authors have inspired me throughout my life, beginning with Ethel Turner when I first read Seven Little Australians at the age of eight. For Meet Me in Venice, however, which is all about family, I do want to mention my entire fabulous family. As I say in the Acknowledgements at the end of the book – (their) love laughter and tears sow seeds of inspiration every single day.
And finally, for those who haven’t travelled to Italy except through the pages of Meet Me in Venice, what are three absolute musts for when they do eventually get there?
BH: Gosh, I'm sure these choices would be different for everyone, but I think Venice is still No 1, especially for Australians as it's unlike any place you will have experienced. Do enjoy the canals, the galleries and cathedrals, but also wander in those narrow back streets, just as Ellie does.
Siena is possibly my second favourite Italian city. It's absolutely steeped in medieval history, and again has beautiful, narrow cobbled streets and gorgeous piazzas and vistas at every turn. Another place that is lesser known and harder to reach, but absolutely fascinated me, is Matera, way in south of Italy (in the heel of the boot). This is the world's second oldest city after Damascus, where people lived in caves in the hillside until the 1950s. It's just fascinating to stay in a hotel set in a cave, with rough rocky walls painted pristine white. But then, sorry, I can't stop at three. There's the Amalfi Coast and the Lake Como district and Tuscany and Cinque Terre. Truly, everywhere in Italy is beautiful and enchanting and you can't really go wrong wherever you choose.
Be right back — just packing my suitcase!