Guest post: Debbie Rix, Author of Secrets of the Tower


I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at a week-long conference on ‘creativity’ at a very trendy advertising agency in London. In the course of their week of activities on subjects as diverse as ‘the importance of curiosity’ and the use of new technology, their final guest ‘spot’, and the one I was invited to fill on ‘The art of storytelling’.

It was hoped that I might have something relevant to say because I have written an historical novel called Secrets of the Tower. Set in medieval Pisa, it explores the real life characters behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In the course of writing my speech for the agency, I did a lot of thinking about the essence of storytelling. I likened it to the making of sourdough. You begin with a starter … an idea, a nugget of information – perhaps a story in a newspaper, or maybe a real-life experience. Then you have to let it grow… to allow it to develop until it becomes a separate entity, a force of its own – something that is both inside and outside its creator.

The starter, or inspiration for my own novel was a real experience. My husband, who is a documentary filmmaker and writer, was making a film about the Leaning Tower and its extraordinary rescue from imminent collapse, back in the late 1990s.   As he arrived in Pisa, climbing out his researchers’ car, he collapsed. It turned out that he had suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital of Santa Chiara, just two minutes walk from the Piazza del Duomo – surely the most spectacular location for any hospital in the world! I rushed out from the UK, leaving my two tiny children behind with my mother and spent the next few weeks caring for him – bringing in food, bed bathing him… everything. Once we were back home in the UK, it took us quite a while to get our lives back on an even keel, but he has made a great recovery. Several years later, I woke up from a dream that was so vivid I had to get out of bed and write it down. It was a fully formed ‘scene’ in which a woman is being crushed against the wall of a tall tower house in Pisa by a horse and rider in medieval dress, taking part in the annual Ferragosto celebrations.

Slowly the idea for a novel about the creation of the Tower took hold. I needed to understand as much as possible about the history of this remarkable building. I read everything I could lay my hands on. As the daughter of two architects I was familiar with the building techniques and terms, and fascinated by the building process. But the heart of any story is the human beings who inhabit it, with all their frailties, emotions and flaws; that is the essence of storytelling. It was only when my husband introduced to me the professor of Medieval History at Pisa university – Professor Piero Pierotti – on a subsequent holiday in Italy, that I found the central character of my novel. Prof Pierotti mentioned the ‘widow’ who had left the money for the Tower to be built.

I was curious. Who was this woman and why had she left the money? It appeared that little was known about her. The professor had a copy of her will – written in Latin and dictated by her in 1172. It is a remarkable document.  The witnesses to her will were a fascinating quartet and indicated that she was clearly a well connected woman: The notary of the Emperor Frederico; Archbishop Villani (The Archbishop of Pisa); the Operaio of the Piazza – the man who oversaw all activities on the Piazza site and ran all the building works of the Duomo, the Baptistery and the Tower. And finally a master mason named Gerardo di Gerardo. He was known to have worked on the tower and some have even suggested that he might have designed it, although the professor thought it unlikely – he was not well educated enough. So why was he at her bedside as she wrote her will in such august company? He was clearly important to her in some way.

And so I had found my heroine and hero – Berta and Gerardo – and the story began to take shape. I developed Berta’s ‘backstory’ – her life up until the point when she made her will and passed away – the year before the tower itself began to be built.   I researched and studied and checked. It was important that the story was set in as accurate and historical context as possible. The ‘old story’ would be juxtaposed with a modern story – in part to simply provide a ‘change of scene’ but also to enable the reader to make the journey back to the unfamiliar twelfth century through the eyes of my modern ‘heroine’ Sam Campbell. The twentieth century story was based loosely on my own experience of caring for my husband. But inevitably, and quite rightly, the characters of Sam and her husband Michael grew and changed until they no longer resembled either me, or my own husband Tony.

My new novel will be released next spring and is set in the canal cities of Europe – Venice, Bruges, and Amsterdam. Once again, the main heroine is a ‘real person’ – the daughter of a fifteenth century merchant explorer named Niccolo dei Conti who travelled across the Middle and Far East for over twenty-five years, taking his wife and four children with him. I have studied his diary and it makes fascinating reading. My story concentrates on what happened to him and his family once they returned to Venice. Once again this ‘old’ story is juxtaposed with a modern storyline. On this occasion, there is an element of the thriller about it.

Throughout my early career as a journalist in television, then as a producer creating big events for corporations and charities – I have concentrated on telling stories. ‘What’s the story?’ is the first question I ask of a new client. Storytelling is central to journalism. No one remembers the facts and statistics that journalists reveal in their reports, but they do remember the human story – the tiny child lying dead, washed up on a beach in Greece – the victim of human traffickers and a bloody war in Syria. Or the tens of thousands of starving people revealed behind Michael Buerk in his memorable report from Ethiopia – thirty-one years ago to this very day. The image of those starving people will stay with me, and everyone who saw it, forever.

I realise that I have been telling stories all my life. Since childhood – when TV was either non-existent, or at least limited, we children inhabited a world of our own imagination. I would sit surrounded by teddies and dolls playing out some complicated replica of home life in a ‘house’ made from an old wooden laundry airer covered in a sheet, at the bottom of our garden.

I have come full circle… I am down at the bottom of the garden once again – in another tiny house of my own creation – a converted summer house that has become my writing retreat; the place where I can escape the demands of my normal life – with its emails, work deadlines, housework, child-rearing – to the world of my imagination, where the stories get told.

Debbie Rix’s novel: Secrets of the Tower is available now from Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and Amazon

Website: www.debbierix.com

Twitter: @debbierix

Facebook: Debbie Rix Author

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