BackStory: Five Questions with Michele Finn Johnson
Author of Santo Spirito, 1577
What inspired you to write this piece?
Lord only knows (ha!) what I was researching initially, but I came across a 1547 map that demarked Venice’s prostitution zones and their proximity to religious houses. I couldn’t find this map’s source document online, and so I started researching—why would this map exist? What was the significance of “prostitution zones” (such an interesting phrase on its own) being located next to churches and convents? As soon as I came across a quote from “A Nun’s Hell,” written by a 17th century nun named Elena Cassandra Tarabotti, whose parents placed her in the Venetian convent of Sant’Anna because her parents could not afford her dowry, I was hooked. “A girl lies prostrate, her lips touching the stone floor. A black cloth is thrown over her, and lighted candles are placed at her feet and at her head. Up above her, the litanies are being sung. All the signs suggest that she is dead. She is a witness at her own funeral. From within her she accompanies the singing with tears and sobs, sacrificing all her senses to suffering and pain.” I mean, come on! How could I not take a stab at writing about these poor women!
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
The original draft came fast, mainly because I was under deadline for an online hybrid forms class with Lighthouse Writers Workshop (fab-u-lous). So I had the draft, but I couldn’t let go of the nuns—I read a book “Virgins of Venice,” by Mary Laven, who tirelessly researched these women and their secret lives behind the cloistered walls. Honestly, the whole circumstance of these women surprised me, but the response of the church at the time—suppression of records and damage limitation policies—did not surprise. I loved learning that some nuns built a rapport with their neighbouring prostitutes, and thought a lot about their likely common ground, their shared discomfort, potentially, with their life circumstances.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite? Why?
My favourite and least favourite parts are the same—editing.
On one hand, a draft = a gift; no blank page. But until I’m actually fully “lost” in the editing of a piece, it feels a heck of a lot like homework. Really, no complaints. I mean, how lucky am I to have the time and energy to write?
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
Prior to Santo Spirito, 1577, the most historic period I’d ever written about was the late 1950s and Mamie Eisenhower, in particular (oh Mamie and her curled bangs!). The challenge: getting a true sense of Mamie, since her voice (in history books and documentaries) is overshadowed by Ike. I think this problem might be extrapolated to a lot of women’s voices in history. The reward: stumbling upon a person or a topic like Mamie or Venetian nuns can take you to places real (the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg, which Mamie apparently haunts) and imagined (cloistered nunnery in 16th century Venice) that otherwise you might never know about. I honestly napped through most history classes (Sorry, Sister Raymond Mary!), but writing about people or places in a different place and time has awakened an earnest curiosity.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
As much as I’d like to completely lose my work identity when I write, I’m an engineer. Facts and data are important. Specificity’s important. It’s both a blessing and a curse! I try to set the research and fact checking process aside for focused editing sessions—it’s hard, like giving up chocolate for Lent or something, but ultimately my brain appreciates the break.
Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, jmww journal, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Follow her @m_finn_johnson, or visit michelefinnjohnson.com.
Portrait of Elena Anguissola, painted in 1551 by her sister, Sofonisba Anguissola; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.