We had a chat with CSM Short Course tutor, Elise Valmorbida, to talk about her new book, The Madonna of the Mountains, and her amazing short courses at Central Saint Martins.
Can you tell us what your new book, The Madonna of The Mountains, is about…
I think of this novel as an Italian Mother Courage, but that’s a kind of shorthand. I can’t do better than the online description of the audio-book: “The Madonna of the Mountains is about what unites family and community and also what destroys them. It is about love and enmity, envy and generosity, two men, one God (and his mother) and the undying bond of a mother to her children. Set in the Veneto in Northern Italy and spanning nearly three decades following the First World War, The Madonna of the Mountains is a fierce, sharply observed and richly detailed account of a woman’s fight to keep her family alive and thriving—at whatever cost.”
What inspired your new book and is it a work of fact or fiction?
The Madonna of the Mountains is inspired by lots of different things. My Italian roots. An interest in migrants and migration. Years and years of random notes and notebooks. Two World Wars. Italian Neorealist cinema. Mother Courage, 1900, Le Quattro Volte. It is a work of historical fiction, so there are real historical events and figures (as much as my characters know about them, without our luxuries of education or hindsight). And there are other ‘facts’ in there too: bits of family anecdotes from long ago, painstaking research, countless trips to Italy, books, museums, archives, films, interviews, as well as my own personal observations and experiences. With all this research in my head, I felt free to imagine the characters and their stories.
Upon your courses you teach many techniques that enable writers to develop characters and the worlds they will inhabit. Are these techniques you often practise when working on your own writing?
Yes indeed! I believe that to be a confident teacher of an applied art or craft—creative writing, design, drama, whatever—you need to be a practitioner. I’ve been writing books, and teaching creative writing, for two decades. Beyond the basics, I know that I teach differently now because I write differently now. I learn from my own writing practice, and this experience helps me to help students—we solve creative and technical problems ‘from the inside’. My students often encounter the same challenges I do. How to resolve a plot issue. How to stage-manage a crowd of characters. How to write in a different voice. How to balance research and storytelling. How to edit. And there may be other challenges after a story is written and edited, like… what to do with it next?
You teach Creative Writing – Fact or Fiction – Beginners and Creative Writing – Fact or Fiction – Intensive. Why did you choose these specific titles for your courses?
They’re long titles, aren’t they! Well, first things first, you have to know what’s on offer, i.e. creative writing. (If you’re after etching or fashion design, there are other classes to try.) Then I had to let you know that this is about fiction or non-fiction, rather than poetry, journalism or copywriting. On the beginners course, you try your hand at many different ideas and techniques, while learning to share your work and handle feedback. It’s a term of eight classes with set assignments every week designed to explore the essentials, from first inspirations to developing a distinctive voice. The intensive course is a workshop only for people who’ve done a creative writing course before. I set bespoke assignments if you need them, to hone a particular skill or focus on a particular issue. You bring your work in progress: a novel, or short stories, a scrapbook of ideas, a script… Or it may be a persistent twinkle in your mind’s eye. It’s intensive—rather than ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’—because creative writing isn’t measurable in neat stages. It’s intensive because it requires discipline and focus, you know how to give and take constructive criticism, and you know you want to write.
Why did you choose to run a writing course within an established art, design and fashion college?
I studied Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins, so it’s my alma mater. I loved my years here—although “here” is now King’s Cross, whereas my student days were spent at Long Acre, Southampton Row and Charing Cross Road. We were much messier then! In the years after college, while working full-time as creative director, I wrote my first novel, mostly in traffic jams and on weekends. I quit corporate employment to launch Matilde Waltzing in Australia. When I returned to London, I was offered a full-time role as creative director at a great agency, but I was yearning for a more flexible working life and a little more time for writing. I set up my branding business, word-design, and proposed a creative writing course to Dani Salvadori who was running DALI (Developments at London Institute) at the time. “We’re better known for our visual side,” she said, “but let’s offer it and see what happens.” That was 20 years ago, and I’m still teaching at CSM!
What is the most effective “first step” for any aspiring writer?
Someone recently said to me: “There’s a story I want to write, but I don’t have the time.” An answer fell out of my mouth: “Your first creative act is to make the time.” It’s my pesky little teacher’s motto now.
Do you think finishing a project is important?
This is a subtle question. Many creatives amass fragments, scraps, junk, abandoned projects, half-finished things. This is the way it should be. It’s the nature of the creative process. I feel some satisfaction when I’ve polished a work to the best of my abilities, but it’s also liberating just to doodle. Finishing is important if it’s important for you to finish. And when is any creative work finished? You get some sense of completion if there is a physical object to perceive, such as a bound book, or an artwork on show, or a film that has gone all the way through post-production. But every creative project can be tinkered with endlessly. Any artefact is really a moment, a pause in the process of making. The object itself is a venturing forth. The reader, the critic, the viewer—each perceiver ‘finishes’ the work. And even then, you hope that the conversation is to be continued…
What is the most important tool for a writer?
It has to be your brain. Your dreaming, perceiving, remembering, noticing, analysing, feeling, connecting, randomising, organising, editing brain.
Which piece of work, in any discipline, do you think everyone should experience/hear/read/see and why?
What about the complete works of William Shakespeare? He is no-one, or everyone. And his work is everything—endlessly inventive, profound, timeless, diverse…
Can a non-creative become creative?
“I’m not creative,” some people say, “I don’t have an imagination.” I’ve heard this from new writers, experienced journalists and concrete thinkers in every field. They find it difficult to ‘make things up’. But we humans with our big brains are designed to premeditate, to change our plans, to anticipate outcomes, to imagine different possibilities. Imagination keeps us safe. It even keeps us alive. Until next week happens, next week is a work of imagination. The past is also a work of imagination. A healthy person who claims to have no imagination has probably just had it boxed in. Authorities—school, parents, work—can be adept at this. After years, the box might look like all that’s left. It might feel effortful to get your creative spirit out of the box, but it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing inside. In fact, imagination likes being exposed. The more you nurture it with light and water and air, the more it grows and flourishes. It’s never too late. BUT you need to be open to learning, to ‘failing’ and working at it.
What is the best bit of advice you have received?
Be like a traveller in a new place—learn to enjoy uncertainty and confusion.
What advice would you give to an aspiring creative?
Elise Valmorbida’s novel The Madonna of the Mountains is published in the UK by Faber & Faber on 29th March 2018. Liberty London Fabrics designed the bespoke jacket and endpapers of this hardcover first edition, launching their new partnership with Faber. You can buy the book from Amazon, all good booksellers, or direct from the publishers. Signed first editions are available from Goldsboro Books.