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Frequently Asked Questions

From the many letters I have received from readers about Miss Garnet's Angel I have compiled the answers to the most frequently recurring questions.

Q: Many of your reviewers said the novel is the best evocation of Venice they have read. How did you get to know Venice and what is your own relation to the city?

A: This is a deeper question than it might seem as I came to Venice in a way which has reverberations for Miss Garnet's own story - which is essentially that of a reversal of a series of life-long prejudices. As a young woman in my teens I was staying in Trieste; I was bored and decided to visit Venice in a rather negative mood of "Might as well go and see the place which all the tourists visit." My snobbish refusal to be impressed began to be tested as I walked from the station towards the heart of the city. By the time I reached the Piazza San Marco, and saw the basilica gleaming like a great gilded pearl before me, all my resistance had evaporated and I fell in love with the place. As with Miss Garnet, it was a turning around of all my prejudices. Later, after visiting the basilica, returning to the station I lost my way and found myself in a shabby deserted campo by a dilapidated church. Above the entrance was a group of stone figures, a boy with a fish, a hound and an angel. Inside the church a strange lop-sided figure, the custodian, lurched out of the gloom holding out his hand and I understood that he wanted money. I found a few coins at which he turned on the lights and pointed to a series of paintings beneath the organ loft. These paintings also showed the boy with a fish, a spotted dog and an angel. I knew that the paintings moved and excited me but I didn't know why - nor what the story told.

Years later I came across the story of Tobias and the Angel and recognised it as the tale of the paintings in the Venetian Church. I returned to Venice many times, but it was only in 1998 that I found myself, again by chance, in a shabby campo by a church which I at once recognised. I learned that it was La Chiesa dell' Angelo Raffaele - the church of the Archangel Raphael. That was the moment when Miss Garnet and her story was born.

Q: The story of Tobias and the Angel comes from the Apocrypha. You speak about this in the book and also in your Author's Note. What research did you do and what did you discover about the origins of this story?

A: There's so much to say on this particular topic that I'm thinking of writing another book about it!

The story is very ancient - it was among of the sacred writings of the Jews before these were organised into an official version some time in the first century AD. For the Jews it is an important record of the first Jewish holocaust, when the northern kingdom of Israel, which was distinct from the southern kingdom of Judah, was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Most of the inhabitants of that northern kingdom, and ten of the so-called 'twelve tribes of Israel', were taken captive and into Assyria - those who were left behind were assimilated into their conquerors culture - and that was the end of the northern kingdom of the Jews.

Tobit is an example of a Jew who tried to retain his Jewish identity in exile - in this case by burying the dead of his own kind. In this sense the story is an example to the Jews in Babylon, a more famous exile at later date in their history. But the story contains many other elements which sit rather oddly with its pious strictures about Jewish lore. For one thing there is a legend found in many cultures in the ancient world called 'The Grateful Dead' - about a man who buries a corpse he finds by the wayside and is later aided by the spirit of the dead man. More importantly for the story I tell in Miss Garnet, the story has clear Zoroastrian elements - and it was these which so fascinated me as they explain the presence of some odd features of the story - the dog, for example.

Q: You explain through Miss Garnet's notebooks how the dog is holy to the Zoroastrians and accompanies the departing spirit when he or she dies and leaves this life. Are there other resonances in the novel?

A: The most fascinating thing for me has been the incidence of synchronicity in writing the book. I wrote the episode about the children dressed as the three kings, before I had researched the Tobias story. And of course I discovered that the place where Tobias goes to recover his father's debt is Media, where the country of the Magi, the tribe which became Zoroastrian priests. So the Magi who visit the baby in the Christian story are actually Zoroastrians - and yet I hadn't known this when I wrote about the Epiphany celebration which Miss Garnet sees from her window and which first sets her off to visit St Mark's.

Another thing: the bridge which crosses the rio by the Chiesa dell' Angelo Raffaele is called La Ponte de Cristo. It occurs in several crucial scenes - when Miss Garnet first sees the truth about Carlo, for example, and without knowing I was doing this I made it a kind of symbolic bridge as well as a very tangibly real one. It is a bridge to various kinds of understanding - if you like. I wrote the ending of the book, where she crosses the bridge, in the first draft, but in the re-writing I explored more of the Zoroastrian features. by then I wasn't too surprised to discover that the Bridge of Separation is the Zoroastrian image for death - and it is a dog which leads the soul across it. The book was full of this sort of seeming coincidence which was how I knew it was coming from the right place in me.

Q: What is the 'right place' in you? What do you mean?

A: We all have a personality - composed of good and bad elements - clever, wise, show-off, mean, cross, funny etc. A book written out of a writer's personality can be successful because the particular personality matches the personality of the times. But it won't last and it's not the kind of writing I would find satisfying.. I think there is also a deeper, more objective part of us and the truest writing comes from that - or perhaps I should say the truest responses, since a writer must still have a good command of language whatever place she writes from. I didn't have to think about writing Miss Garnet - I've thought about it since and seen things in it I didn't realise were there - but in a way it wrote itself out of my more objective side. And of course I was greatly aided by the subject matter: Venice and a resonant ancient tale.

Q: Is there any part of the book you are less satisfied with - with hindsight anything you would do differently?

A: This is a very shrewd question. I suspect all writers, when they come to read their books in print, would do some things differently. Writing is a skill that one inevitably develops as one goes on. In the case of 'Miss Garnet' I would probably re-do, or re-touch is perhaps nearer to it, the opening scenes. These are supposed to recapitulate a familiar theme: woman with small experience challenged by life discovers new vistas etc. The trouble is some readers (and critics) did not understand that I was deliberately playing with a familiar idea in order to subvert and undermine it: nothing in the book is what it seems because I also believe that is true of reality - we don't know the truth about ourselves, or each other. But I'm not sure I got the tone right and I'm pretty sure that this has led to some critics seeing the book as more conventional than it actually is. Next time I would put in a few more signposts (though that is something I'm wary of as well - I don't like things to be too obviously pointed out).

Q: Do you like writing?

A: I'm lucky - I love it; when I'm in full flow I can't wait to get back to it and resent interruptions. What I like less is what happens once the book is written because then it becomes subject to the various pressures of commercial publication. With a book which is not quite mainstream that can be tricky: one's own perception of he book and the publisher's may not match. I was lucky with this book because the picture on the jacket - a striking Carpaccio painting of an angel visiting the sleeping St Ursula - matched my vision of the book and I it also attracted the right kind of reader. It was these readers who produced a word-of-mouth effect which has kept the book selling long after publication. There is another piece of synchronicity about the jacket because although the epigraph is a quote from Ruskin, and he comes into the book, I hadn't known until recently that the Dream of St Ursula by Carpaccio was one of Ruskin's favourite paintings: apparently he often visited the Accademia in Venice to draw and re-draw it.

Q: Will you continue with the kind of themes you write about in Miss Garnet's Angel? Have you another novel to follow this?

A: My latest novel Instances of the Number 3 is to be published in August (Fourth Estate £12.99 - buy from It also explores possible other dimensions of existence and topics on a somewhat philosophical/religious theme. But people have been kind enough to say it is also funny. Although I will always write on serious topics I hope I will always write in an accessible way. I think it is bad manners to one's reader to be incomprehensible. Anyway, it is a mistake to confuse the serious with the solemn: the most serious things must be taken with humour. If there is a god - or some kind of higher ordering principle - I feel sure whatever it is must have a sense of humour!

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