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The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen
April 10, 2021

April 2021

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

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If you've ever been to Venice, or wished to go, this book will teleport you there immediately! It's obvious that Mrs. Bowen has extensive personal experience with the city, as she knows the ins and outs as only someone who has lived there could. Her characters come to life in a world on the brink of, and living through, WWII. Their connected story is at once sad and resilient, forcing us to think about what sacrifices a mother will make for her child. A must-read for WWII historical fiction fans!

Author Interview - Rhys Bowen

Queenie D had the privilege of talking with Mrs. Bowen about her upcoming novel. We hope you enjoy!

Q: You note in your acknowledgements that you spent a lot of time exploring Venice which was very evident in the book. Tell us about some of your favorite places and why you felt the city would be a good backdrop for a WWII story?

A: I’ve known Venice since my family used to spend time there when I was a child so it all feels familiar to me, but each time I go I discover something new. Obviously favorite parts of the city are some of the popular tourist spots. Standing on the Accademia Bridge and looking down toward Rialto is magical. Having coffee in St. Mark’s Square is perfect (but really expensive these days. My parents did it every morning!) I love attending high mass at St. Marks and listening to the sound of the choir soaring up to that dome. I love visiting La Fenice opera house and going to concerts in the churches. But I love the little things that make Venice special. All those tiny shops—one that sells just masks, one wooden puppets, one handmade books and marbled paper—how often do they get customers for marbled paper? Another just pens. Who uses lovely pens these days? And yet they were all there when I was last doing my research in 2019.

What gave me the idea for a WWII story was when I was attending the Biennale-the big international art festival that happens every two years and I saw that there was a festival in 1940 and 1942. And I thought—who attended? The world was at war. So I looked into how Venice fared in the war and found both sides had agreed not to bomb. Also that Venice had a relaxed attitude concerning its Jewish population. And then the Germans invaded and life changed for everyone. It was the perfect background for a story. I incorporated my aunt’s story—a spinster lady who spent every Easter in Venice. I found myself wondering if it was just the city or whether she had a relationship there we knew nothing about….

Q: Is any part of the WWII story based on real events or characters beyond the basics of the war?

A: All of the festivals that take place are real. The Venetian tolerance for the Jews and then the brutal rounding up by the Germans are all real. The Contessa is typical of a patron of the arts at that time.

Q: You've written over 40 books, many of them mysteries for which you've won multiple awards -- Congratulations on your success as an author! What made you switch over to stand-alone historical fiction?

A: I love writing my mystery series. It is comforting to revisit the same set of characters and give them more adventures. I like writing the whodunnit aspect of mysteries, but there were so many other stories I wanted to tell. I have been fascinated with WWII—I suppose because I was born in the middle of it, my father was in North Africa and didn’t see me until I was three, and growing up in Britain the remains of the war were everywhere—bomb sites, damaged churches and rationing until 1953. It was also a time of heightened emotions, great heroism, brutal deeds, spies and betrayals. So many good stories waiting to be told. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of them.

Q: Towards the end, on page 384, you wrote, "I don't know what makes people act in time of war." I found this very poignant and wanted to explore the idea of how and why so many "good" people could do bad things during WWII. Care to share any thoughts on this?

A: I have often wondered how seemingly decent men could work in concentration camps and then go home to their families. I spent a lot of time in Germany as a young woman and realized that most Germans had no say over taking part. Any hint of opposition to the government and you were rounded up and taken away. Hitler’s spies were everywhere. So if you were drafted into the army, you went. You chose to look away when Jewish businesses were trashed. It became a matter of survival and in times of survival people will do anything to protect their loved ones. I found it harder to understand why British aristocrats could want to help Hitler invade England. (The story behind In Farleigh Field, another of my novels). A misguided sense of wanting to save the country from worse suffering, I decided.

Q: I don't want to give any spoilers, so I will ask carefully, but, I found Caroline's willingness to let her son stay on in America at the insistence of her husband to be somewhat unrealistic. I know, as a mother myself, I would have moved Heaven and Earth to get my child back! But, I'm American and not properly British. Do you think culture has something to do with how she sat back and didn't take action until the Rossi family pushed her to it?

A: I think it was Josh’s manipulation of her—that her son’s shrink said it would be traumatizing for him to fly and the fact that he was now rich and powerful so if it came to a court case she couldn’t possibly win. She feels powerless until Luca gives her new belief in herself.

Q: My last question is a selfish indulgence on my part :) -- I was tickled pink to see the name "Desiree" in your novel! It's such an unusual name and you even spelled it in the unusual way without the accent. Where did you come across this name or what made you decide to use it?

A: I wanted an exotic name for my rock star—a one word name like Beyonce. And of course I was paying homage to you!!

Learn more about Rhys:

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Discussion Questions

1. Would you have been able to make the same sacrifice as Juliet? Why or why not?

2. Did you agree with Caroline's decision to allow her son to stay in the U.S. with his dad? Why or why not?

3. Have you ever been to Venice? Share some experiences, if so!

4. Before reading this, did you have any background knowledge of Venice during WWII?

5. Do you have any personal experience with a "deathbed confession" where you learned something startling or unraveled a family mystery at the behest of your loved one's last wishes? Do tell!

Something Interesting...

From Rhys's most recent newsletter: "What's more the cover has a secret bonus: when you take off the dust jacket look what is inside! Yes, it's actually one of my sketches I did while I was last in VENICE."

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Desiree, aka Queenie D

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