Donna Meredith Interviews Marina Brown, Author of “The Orphan of Pitigliano”

DM: I have a theory that every great novel begins with one strong emotional scene or character or idea that ignites the author’s passion. What spark initiated your desire to write The Orphan of Pitigliano?

MB: Honestly, I think it was a series of experiences I had had in Pitigliano over the years that coalesced into what became the first scene in the cave with Giuliana and her parents. Here we come to see their tender relationship, the importance of Etruscan artifacts, their Jewish dilemma, and the dangers, both real and mysterious, they will face. My inspiration was drawn from real events: prowling the caves beneath Pitigliano, going out one night with real tomb robbers, hearing stories from a Russian rabbi about Jewish folk beliefs, and an actual patient of mine when I worked in psychiatry who was seemingly felled by the “Evil Eye.” They all contributed.

DM: Your novel reflects your extensive knowledge of the Pitigliano area of Italy. What type of research was involved?

MB: The whole area is filled with Etruscan ruins…from tombs to strange excavated “tunnel roads.” I read extensively on Etruscan building, art, and beliefs, as well as consulted with Professor Nancy De Grummond, an archeologist and Etruscan specialist from Florida State University. There is a wonderful ghetto museum within the city’s walls, as well as many recorded interviews with Jewish survivors of that period. Since I speak Italian, I also spent many afternoons on stone benches talking with the old people of the town who loved to tell me about life there then, about the Allied bombing, about life during the Nazi-era.

DM: Jewish mythology plays an important role in the story. How did you get interested in these myths? What inspired your focus on the evil eye in particular?

MB: In the case of Jewish mythology, I had worked as a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York many years ago. There was an interesting patient, a rabbi from Russia who was a great story-teller. On my night shift, he would tell me stories of “the old country” and folk beliefs. I never forgot them. The Evil Eye’s power, of course, is believed in many countries. It has to do with jealousy, and people go to extremes to avoid someone who may covet what they have…and curse them to get it away. In addition to the Italian patient who had fallen ill and whose family believed it was because of “il malocchio,” in Italy, I had lived near an old woman’s house where people would come to her every week for love potions, to have the Evil Eye “lifted,” to perhaps place a “maledizione” (a curse) on someone else. This was only 15 or 20 years ago. The Evil Eye is still going strong.

DM: Etruscan caves and pottery are featured prominently in the novel. Why did these artifacts speak to you so strongly?

MB: Archeology is interesting to many people, and of course, in Italy—home of Romans, and influenced by the Greeks—their artifacts are revered and pretty ubiquitous. But for me, Etruscan pottery, funerary sculpture, and so on, are unique. The faces are rather primitively painted in bright colors, almost childlike. They are frequently represented smiling, as if carrying secrets on the brink of being shared. Their tombs are filled with couples whose sepulchers are topped with their stone facsimiles laughing together and sharing a hug, or alone, where a happy, fat man might be seen popping snacks into his mouth.

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DM: I know it’s like asking which child is your favorite, but did you create a character that you particularly loved? If so, explain your choice.

MB: Giuliana would be my first choice. I don’t often “fall for” the protagonist, because sometimes the secondary players, like character actors in a movie, get the most dramatic behaviors. But Giuliana truly grows over the course of the novel, becomes stronger, maturing, finding how to become her true self—and a strong, and in a way, magnificent woman at the end.

DM: How about a character that intrigued you the most—surprised you by their choices?

MB: Enrico. There was something about him, a conflicted man in so many ways, trying to counter so many opposing forces, to skirt so many dangers, mourning the loss of his identity—really, of his soul—and in the end, well, you have to read the book to know his end!

DM: Do you plan a sequel? If so, any thoughts on the direction it might take?

MB: There is one loose end at the finish of The Orphan. One character in particular who might have seemed to be “looking on” during the novel, but around whom there linger questions that need to be answered. This character, for me, seems to have a potential for a great story. Because I love Italy—well, foreign locales in general—we might go back there. But the world is large, and people can get into trouble all over the place!

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