Q&A with Author Carol Goodman about The Night Villa

Photo of Carol Goodman Q. Many of us here have encountered some "Elgins" in our forays into Academia. Did you base him on any one person or an amalgam of several people? (or can't you answer that one?) Have you encountered an Elgin along the way? Are they always in Classics or is it more widespread? Ha Ha.

A. I think I'd better take the fifth on that one. Really, Elgin isn't based on anyone in particular.

Q. Are you the first person to make a cult of Tetratkys or is there one somewhere?

A. I'm not sure. I don't know of any "cult" called Tetraktys, but I do know that a number of new age groups (many completely benign) revere Pythagoras. In fact, the inspiration for using Pythagoras in the book came from my husband Lee's interest in him and the series of sonnets that Lee has written about Pythagoras (PYTHAGORAS IN LOVE by Lee Slonimsky, might as well get in that plug!).

Q. "flat on the stone floor so that I can see the tiles better." Carol what is this type of expression called? I know you teach writing, it's driving me crazy. It's very well done, what IS it? I looked up a bunch of literary definitions, is it synaesthesia? Or irony? Or what literary technique is it called? Obviously I don't have a clue, but I really love whatever it is. (ginny)

A. I'm not sure either! Sorry!

Q. I was blown away with the use of imagery in these first 112 pages. The contrast between black and white is stark. I first noticed it when Sophie was looking for Ely and "the wind picked up the fluffy white spores from the cottonwood trees."

"The physician referred to x-ray by pointing to the ghostly white shape lurking beneath her rib cage."

What about MLou's eyes looking black in the picture with Sophie's mother? or... mothers ego looked black!

When she entered Ely's room she found it completely black ... one window covered with a black out shade, edges sealed with black electricial tape. A reference to a cave, aha! Is that what you are going for with this contrast black/white?

It took her 5 coats of white latex enamel paint to cover the walls.

Even the brightly colored modern paperbacks are all arrayed like sentinels against the dark. (I loved that image.)

pg. 45 you mention the black/white image beginning with the cool white depths of the fridge. There are references to dark bruises under Ely's eyes and sunlight, overhead lights (white) Agnes's UT sweatshirt accentuates her pallor and the dark rings under her eyes.

Sophie sees Ely's writing as a letter glowing starkly white against the black and then each letters acquires a halo that flames red in the darkness. Oh by the way, Carol, red is another bloody colored used often in this theme.

When Sophie first meets Gus, the cat, she notes the maelstrom of black and white fur, with a white triangle over his nose. On that same visit, Charles describes Ely's emptiness as being like a black hole, dragging everybody into it.

The black crow with the melee of black feathers is mentioned. "They're pyschopomps- messengers sent to lead the should into the underworld. " Is that what the black is all about?

In Naples, Sophie notes the walls of the Hotel Convento are pearly white and when she descends into delirium she lays on white tiles.

Is this a foreshadowing, I wonder of the house of Night in the underworld that Hesiod wrote of, ""ghastly clouds shroud it in darkness."

These many inferences to dark vs. light became a game for me. Good vs. evil? (Andrea (ALF))

A. I was conscious of contrasting light and dark in many of the instances you've cited, but I think some of them were subconscious. Yes, I guess, good and evil would be one way of looking at it-or knowledge and mystery, what we can see versus what we can't.

Q. I know you probably can not answer this question right now, but I must ask, how on earth is Sophie capable of mowing her lawn the first day out of the hospital, then go traveling, climbing steep hills, riding stuffy trolleys, trekking through tunnels etc. so soon after a major injury to her lung? In all reality it is not possible, so my next question is this.....

Is Sophie a human character or is she a figment of a story or dream? (bellamarie)

A. Sophie's not supernatural, she's just a TEXAN! Remember, though, she's been in the hospital a couple of weeks so it's not like she's mowing right after surgery. I do appreciate your skepticism, though. I was familiar with this kind of operation because my mother had had part of her lung removed (not because of a gunshot, thankfully!) and she certainly wasn't doing any lawn mowing. But I did talk to my pulmonologist and asked if a young woman who had this operation could resume normal activities, and his answer was yes. Of course, she is doing too much and there will be consequences to pay ...

Q. What do you mean in reference to Sophie's cutting the grass after her recovery, "Sophie's not supernatural, she's just a TEXAN!" What is a TEXAN for those of us who have only ridden thru once or twice or been to Riverwalk?

A. Okay I was just being silly when I said Sophie was a Texan--in other words, that she's tough enough to mow a lawn after lung surgery. I lived in Texas for seven years--and my daughter was born there--so I have a lot of fondness for the state and for the native's sense of self-sufficiency and pioneer spirit. And it was the best answer I could come up with.

Q. Rebirth and transfiguration abounds. Carol do you believe in Reincarnation, I wonder? (Andrea)

A. I like the IDEA of reincarnation and I like playing with it in fiction because it makes an interesting story. Just think of the story arc you can have with multiple lives!

Q. Did you write the first section of this book first or did you add to it after you had finished to tie up the ends? I don't think you've missed a thread not mentioned in the first 112 pages. I am interested in the process. (ginny)

A. I think I wrote this pretty much beginning to end, but then I always do several revisions and get a chance to tidy up those loose ends (and I have an editor who insists that I do). Thank you, though. You're probably being too generous. There are probably a few danglers.

Q. How much preparatory reading do you do for your novels? I imagine it varies with different books, but am curious especially about this one.

A. I'm awed by the depth of the reading you guys have done ... as for the reading I do when I'm preparing ...

Yes, I do a lot for each book and I think I did the most for this one. I read up on Pompeii and Herculaneum, of course. HERCULANEUM: ITALY'S BURIED TREASURE by Joseph Jay Deiss, was one of my favorite sources, and Wilhemina Jashemski's book on the gardens of Pompeii and Herculaneum was invaluable and inspired Lee's poem that Sophie supposedly writes to Elgin. I read about ancient mystery cults and Pythagoreanism (Lee has been researching Pythagoras for years so I borrowed a lot of his books) and Neapolitan mythology and folklore. An earlier post mentioned Ovid so I should say that I've kept THE METAMORPHOSES next to my desk since I wrote LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES and have often used it as a source of allusion and inspiration. Oh, and I also remember that I read a number of Stephen Saylor's mystery novels set in ancient Rome. He's my stepdaughter Nora's favorite author and I think he does the Roman time period wonderfully. There's probably a lot else that I'm forgetting right now. Reading for research is one of my favorite parts of being a writer. It gives me an excuse to become totally obsessed with a subject and know it's all for a reason. I think it's the part of me that sort of still wishes I'd gone on to get a Ph D, but in a way I think this is more fun, because I get to obsess about one subject or time period for a year or so and then move on to something a little different. Since my novels often use similar themes of mythology and folklore, though, I find that the research for one often sets up the reading for the next book.

Q. I love the interesting dialog and the very many imaginative details that are included in the novel. I'm wondering how you create the characters in your book. Do you imagine them in some detail as real people and then decide what they might do or say or do you create their words and actions more as they relate to events in the plot? Or...?

A. I like to think that the characters become organic enough that I'm not pushing them around to fill a place in the plot, but following what a person like that would be likely to do or say next. At least for the more important characters. Certainly some of the characters in this book surprised me. For instance, I had no idea that Agnes was the villain until Sophie was down in the pit and Agnes closed the stone over her! In fact, Agnes was originally somewhat styled after my beloved step-daughter, so I had no idea she was BAD! After I decided that Agnes was in league with Ely I thought I'd have to go back and make a lot of changes to prepare the reader for that, but when I went back I found that oddly enough there were a lot of "clues" to Agnes's more sinister personality already in the book, as if I'd always known she was up to no good!

Q. When you are writing a book are you able to simultaneously read the fiction of others? What authors have inspired you?

A. Yes, I do read fiction while I'm writing. I know there are authors who say they can't and that they give up reading fiction while working on a book, but since I am ALWAYS working on a book I'd have to give up fiction for quite some time and it's one of the joys of my life to read fiction. And I read so much that I hope that no one book influences my style too much ... or if it does, I just hope it influences me to write better.

Q. Most versions of the so-called 'Golden Verses' contain in excess of 40 adages which may be interpreted by adherents as precepts for living. What led you to choose to use only the three questions a Tetraktys member must ask himself each night in preference to one or more of the more positive precepts?
Where did I go wrong today?
What did I accomplish?
What obligation did I not perform?

A. These were the ones that spoke most forcefully to me. They actually seemed like a pretty good way of summing up one's day. I guess I've always had a lot of guilt--chalk it up to a half Jewish/half Irish Catholic background--and the idea of asking yourself these three basic questions seemed very powerful. I quickly saw how I could use them in the book.

Q. When Sophie studies the Smorfia tiles looking for patterns that meant something to Ely, as narrator she says: I remember he liked the Fibonacci Sequence, prime numbers, the digits of pi, and palindromic numbers ... As 'the digits of pi' are devoid of pattern why are they included in this list of sequences in which patterns do occur? The inclusion of prime numbers is also somewhat of a puzzle as there is no formula for evaluating the sequence of the prime numbers. Therefore, what pattern could Ely have found in them?

A. I think I meant to suggest that these numbers meant something to Ely. He found patterns where other people might not find any. That could be a gift ... or it could be a psychological problem.

Q. Now that's we've finished, may I ask what the FBI is doing in Italy. It makes no sense, as to the best of my understanding, the FBI looks at so-called Domestic crimes, and other agencies are more or less looking at foreign crimes.

A. Hm ... I'll have to look back in my notes, but I think I figured that the FBI, although they wouldn't have jurisdiction in Italy, might still be able to do surveillance on an organization they were following in the United States. And, as it turns out, Ely was lying about his involvement with the FBI in Italy.

Q. Agnes as the "bad guy" is confusing to me ... did we have enough hints?

A. I thought there were plenty of hints that Agnes was a bit unhinged from her first appearance. Sophie comments on her odd fascination with ancient cults, for instance, and her low self esteem.

Q. Is Sophie going to have a sequel?

A. No sequel planned. I think Sophie's been through enough. She needs to go back to Texas and kick back with a couple of Shiner Bocks at Las Manitas.

Q. At the beginning of Chapter 9 there is an episode when Sophie is on the train and a young girl and a man with an accordion get on. When they leave Sophie asks herself "What was that all about?" and then discovers her watch has been stolen by the child.

Like Sophie, I'm asking myself What was that all about? Why is this passage in the novel? What is the purpose or meaning of this incident other than Sophie is now bereft of her watch? Is it just for local colour - to indicate time passing as Sophie waits for the train to move on - or did I miss something?

A. Aside from providing local color--and a fair warning to tourists to the Naples area to watch out for pickpockets--I saw that scene as a mini "Mystery" rite. It was meant to mysterious and stagey (it is staged), and it also contains some of the elements of a mystery rite--a child playing a role, the corruption of innocence, an enigmatic figure playing a musical instrument. I experienced part of the scene myself on the Circumvesuviana--the child, the accordian player, the irate woman who may or may not have been the child's mother. Luckily, I didn't have my watch stolen, though.

Q. While reading all our posts and how we were researching and tying clues together, did you see where we missed some things that would have given us more insight to what the ending would be?

A. I think you were all very astute readers.

Q. Did you feel at any time when we were posting our likes or dislikes or indifference about Sophie's character that you could understand where we were coming from?

A. Sophie's not perfect. I can never predict how any reader will respond to any character. I'm just happy if you keep reading.

Q. Was it your intent to have Sophie seem strong physically and yet weak emotionally because of her losses? Is this athletic Sophie YOU, Carol?

A. I tend to write characters who, like myself and the people I know, have many strengths and weaknesses. Oh, no, I'm not so very athletic. I do have asthma, and so can relate to Sophie's breathlessness.

Q. When you said in your interview this book would make people see religions in a different way, is it because of the cult mentality of the Tetraktys and their behaviors or did you feel with the Pythagorean theory, Sibyls, fortune tellers and the mythological practices along with the mention of the fanatical Catholic upbringing of Sophie and Agnes's fear of the nuns this all would give reason to ponder?

A. Gosh, did I say that? I suppose I might have. I did find that in doing the research for the book I saw the beginnings of Christianity differently. I hadn't realized there had been so many different versions of Christianity in the beginning. Also, I think it's easy to forget when looking at a modern cult that Christianity once had the status of a foreign cult. As for the last part--I tried to include a sympathetic nun in the book. The one who leads Sophie by the hand. She's based on an experience I had in the Naples hospital when I was a student and my roommate fell ill in Naples. When we were leaving, a nun took me by the hand and led me to the food pantry and loaded up our backpacks with cheese and bread--all without ever saying a word. She must have thought my roommate and I were starving!

Q. Since the scrolls were the essential story plot from beginning to end, would it be fair to assess ultimately, the theme of the book was about the keys to possessing "The Power" overall? (the trident in Little Mermaid and Poseidon, the scrolls for the church/ cult/Iusta/Phineas/Calotoria, and the answers to Sophie for her book and possibly her finding closure)

A. Hm ... not sure what you mean. For me the key in any novel I write is for the narrator to find some closure to whatever experience is keeping her from moving on with her life--in this case, Sophie's unresolved grief over the dissolution of her marriage with Ely.

Q. Why the mention of the Little Mermaid quilt on Agnes's bed and Sophie going to the mermaid shows? Were those clues dropped along the way or did I read more into it than what you intended?

A. Well, originally The Little Mermaid quilt is there because my step-daughter Nora had one. Then I liked the idea of playing with the Siren/Mermaid theme. Just a reminder that myth is all around us. I saw the mermaid show and Ralph the diving pig at Aquarena Springs when I first moved to Texas. I would put them in every book I wrote if my editor would let me.

Q. I was a little taken with Sophie going to the church in the end since she so strongly disliked the fanatical Catholic religion growing up. Are we to believe Sophie had a change of heart with her Catholic faith in then end, or was that just a way for her to find the statue and Iusta's confession?

A. I think there is good and bad in Catholicism, as in any faith. (See good nun story above.)

Q. Was the saying, "many are the narthex bearers, but few are the Bacchoi." to represent anything in particular? Was it a clue in some way? I really didn't tie it into anything other than Noah's Ark and the survivors of the volcano.

A. It's supposed to indicate the idea of being chosen. Ely and Agnes would believe that they are the chosen.

Q. How did you decide to have Odette's voice become the voice to help save Sophie in the end? Was Odette's voice Sophie's own subconscious voice helping her when her conscious was not clear enough to think it through? I was a bit troubled a with Odette's voice being the saving grace here, but then as a Christian believer there have been times my mother or other loved ones who have passed away have given me direction and insight to help me in situations by hearing their voices spiritually so I decided to be okay with Odette's voice helping Sophie escape.

A. I really liked the character of Odette and was sorry to have lost her in the early pages of the book. I liked the idea of having her come back. As to whether her voice is in Sophie's head or real ... that will have to remain a mystery.

Q. Did you enjoy reading our posts, and at any time did we offend you with any of our comments? If so I apologize in advance.

A. Yes, I did enjoy reading your posts! No, I wasn't offended by any of them. I realize that every reader's experience of the book will be different. I'm happy if the reader is engaged enough to keep reading. I may not be as tough as Sophie in all ways, but I'm certainly tough enough to take a little criticism. Thank you for asking, though!

Q. This would make a fantastic movie. I'm surprised nobody has optioned it. Are there any plans for the future to put it on the screen?

A. No, but if you happen to sit next to a famous movie director on a plane, please do pass the book along to him or her. (Ditto for Oprah.)

I did just want to say a thank you to everyone who read the book and joined in the discussion here. It's been wonderful reading your comments. Writing can be a lonely occupation, and hearing all your voices has certainly livened up my days these last few weeks. Thank you all so much.

I also noticed that there was a question about Italian recipes in one of the posts and I remembered that around the time I wrote the book I also discovered Giada De Laurentis on the Food Network (there's a special in which she travels to Capri) and fell in love with her Everyday Italian recipes, which you can find on the Food Network site or in her books. It's true that it's hard to duplicate the quality of the tomatoes, but if you have access to some fresh mozzarella and good olive oil you can come up with a reasonable facsimile (ummm ... now I'm hungry for Italian food).

Happy reading and good eating to all of you.

Q. Please tell us about your book that will come out in 2010. You said the setting was in upper NY state, and I have to ask -- is it in the Saratoga and the "Yadoo" venue?

A. My next book, ARCADIA FALLS, is set in upstate New York, not far from Saratoga. The venue is another artists colony that's become a boarding school in the present (so think of it as a combination of LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES and THE GHOST ORCHID). The artist's colony I was thinking of for this book, though, was more Byrdcliffe than Yaddo and I picture the setting as closer to Woodstock, NY than Saratoga. The narrator, Meg Rosenthal, has left her Great Neck home (coincidentally where I live!) with her teenaged daughter after the unexpected death of her husband. She gets a job teaching at the Arcadia School which was founded by two women artists in the late 1920s. While researching the fairy tales written and illustrated by the women she uncovers a secret from the early years of the colony. There are more fairy tales than Greek myths in this one and a lot of moody upstate New York weather. Out in March 2010. I hope you'll all take a look at it.

Also ... (since you asked!) My husband, Lee Slonimsky and I, have written together a new urban fantasy series under the pseudonym Lee Carroll. The first book is called BLACK SWAN RISING and will be published by Tor in the summer of 2010. Although the urban fantasy genre (that means it's fantasy but takes place in the real world--as opposed to taking place in Middle Earth or Narnia) might not be your usual cup of tea, I urge you to take a look at BLACK SWAN RISING. I've tried to incorporate a lot of the elements that my readers have enjoyed in my "Carol Goodman" books (i.e. a strong woman narrator, imaginative writing, and mythic elements) into these books. BLACK SWAN RISING takes place in New York City and features Garet James, a jeweler and daughter of a gallery owner, who finds a mysterious silver box in an antiques stores which opens a door into another world. Oh yes, there's also a sexy vampire and an assortment of fairies ...

Again, thank you for reading THE NIGHT VILLA and discussing it with such verve and enthusiasm.


Carol Goodman