Marissa Moss is the author of the new young adult novel Caravaggio: Painter on the Run. She has written more than 40 children's books, including Amelia's Notebook, Nurse, Soldier, Spy, and A Soldier's Secret. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Q: You describe Caravaggio as "in some senses the first modern artist." Why do you think this is the case, and why did you decide to write a novel for young adults about him?
A: Caravaggio is the first major artist (by that I mean he was highly in demand and one of the richest paid painters in Rome) to work basically by himself.
He didn't have a big studio full of apprentices -- like he himself trained in. Partly because of his personality, partly because each part of the painting was important to him. There weren't parts he would relegate to lesser students.
He made an enormous amount of money, but there are no records of him owning anything -- no big house, no estate, no horses, even. He lived in cheap rented rooms and gave money freely to his friends.
I think Caravaggio's personality and story will resonate with young people because he was so rebellious, both in his artistic vision and his behavior.
He envisioned a completely new kind of painting, one based on real people, revealed in otherworldly light. He fought against church dogma and strictures with his brush and against authority figures, like the vicious Roman police, with his attitude and sass.
Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate his era, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I did an enormous amount of research, reading widely and spending a lot of time in Caravaggio's Roman neighborhood (he moved a lot, but always in the same area) and following his footsteps to Naples and Sicily.
I wanted to get to Malta, but that part I had to rely on books for information.
Q: When you're writing fiction about historical figures, what do you see as the right blend between the historical and the fictional?
A: You can't have anything that's anachronistic, but you need to be careful not to weigh the story down with too much historical detail. It's a fine balance, but the story has to be clear throughout, while staying true to the history.
Q: You've written for different age groups. Do you see any differences in your writing process depending on your audience?
A: Interestingly enough, no. I do the same amount of thorough research for a picture book as for a novel.
Nurse, Soldier, Spy is an example, the story of Sara Emma Edmonds, who dressed as a man and fought in the Civil War.
I did the research and wrote the picture book first, focusing on how Sara became a spy and her first mission, but her life was so fascinating, I went on to write a YA about her, A Soldier's Secret, about her entire experience in the Union Army, starting with her enlistment, ending with her being mustered into the Civil War veteran's group, the only woman to be so honored.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm actually doing something completely different: an adult graphic memoir called Last Things that will come out with Conari next May. It's more illustration than I've done in a very long time, which is a challenge.
But the bigger challenge is taking this intensely personal story about my husband's death from ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease) and framing it as a visual narrative readers will find compelling. I hope it all works!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb