Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Q&A with Jan L. Coates



Jan L. Coates is the author of the new children's picture book Anna Maria and Maestro Vivaldi. It focuses on the composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Her other books include the middle grade novel The Hermit. She lives in Nova Scotia.


Q: What inspired you to write Anna Maria and Maestro Vivaldi, and how did you create your character Anna Maria?


A: This is a story that I first began writing 15 years ago – it was then called “The Fingerpainter.” I just love the whimsical idea that making music and fingerpainting have a lot in common.


It became Anna Maria’s story when I read that Vivaldi had once worked with a group of young musicians in a Venetian orphanage; Anna Maria becomes his protégé. There was a real Anna Maria dal violin, but my story is fiction.


I first listened to “The Four Seasons” when I was pregnant 30+ years ago – I had read that it was good music for growing babies😊 When my kids were a little older, we listened to the audio version of “Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery” over and over. I have a violin from the early 1900s that belonged to my grandfather, and that’s part of where the story came from, too.


Q: Why did you decide to include synesthesia in the story, and what do you see as the relationship between music and imagery?


A: I’ve always enjoyed music that paints pictures or tells stories as I’m listening to it, especially if it’s purely an instrumental piece. I first learned about synesthesia from a dog kennel owner whose young daughter has synesthesia. In her case it’s a colors/numbers intertwining, but many people have Anna Maria’s type, which is specifically chromesthesia – sound-to-color synesthesia.


Apparently, many people have synesthesia but don’t realize they’re seeing the world, experiencing music, differently from most people. Many well-known creatives are/were synesthetes, including Billy Joel, Duke Ellington, and Van Gogh.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: Yes, lots of research about synesthesia and into life in early 1700s Venice. In particular, I needed to dig up information about the Ospedale della Pietá, and Vivaldi’s work with the Figlie del Coro.


The illustrator, Francois [Thisdale], had lots of questions for me about the clothing the musicians would have worn, the color of Vivaldi’s hair (he is known as the Red Priest, but most often wore a wig in public), and the grille, behind which the Coro performed. I read conflicting reasons for that grille – a) it was to protect the young girls’ chastity/purity, and b) it was to hide their scarring and disfigurement from disease from the wealthy audience members.


It was impossible to find the Marco Ricci paintings that inspired Vivaldi’s four sonnets which in turn inspired his violin concertos, but I was able to find some of his other art, which Francois referenced to create his images in the book.


One surprising thing I found out was that it was common for people with little money to drop their children off at the orphanage so they would be more well-fed and educated. This is why Anna Maria refers to herself as the only “true” orphan.


Q: What do you think Francois Thisdale's illustrations add to the story?


A: I can’t say enough about Francois’ thoughtful, detailed, and beautiful illustrations. It was really an honor to get to work with him (he’s one of Canada’s best picture book illustrators), and we had more communication than I’m used to having with illustrators.


I’ve admired his work for years, and I was absolutely thrilled to learn he was going to bring Anna Maria’s story to life with his gorgeous images. He told me many times how inspiring he found my story.


From the perfect endpapers, to Anna Maria and Vivaldi’s facial expressions, Francois really outdid himself with this book. He’s an avid cyclist, and he loves Italy, so he was happy to include some of the Venetian architecture. At the outset, he had planned a trip to Italy to work on these paintings, but then Covid happened. I’m so proud of this lovely book – a friend recently said she’d be using it as a coffee table book, which made me smile.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m taking some time off to spend the holidays with my two 1-year-old granddaughters in Ontario.


In 2023, I’ll begin working on a picture book to help children living with chronic illness in the family for a nonprofit organization on Prince Edward Island. I’m also hoping to do the art for that book (as yet unwritten and untitled😊)


I’ve been working on a picture book about iconic Canadian landscape painter Doris McCarthy for a few years now, and I’m continuing to tweak that manuscript about this amazing woman.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I read picture books all the time, and I started playing around with watercolors about five years ago. As a kid I gave up on drawing when others were better at it than I was. I’m loving painting now! I’ve illustrated two picture books so far, and I also do watercolor greeting cards, soul smiles – I’m having fun with those, combining words and pictures. It’s never too late to try something new!


Thanks for the chat!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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