Today, we have a symphony of applause for Carmela Martino's new young adult book Playing by Heart, out now from Vinspire Pubishing!
She could compose anything . . . except the life she wanted.
Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, being the “second sister” means she'll likely be sent to a convent instead. Emilia’s only hope is to prove her musical talents crucial to her father’s quest for nobility. First, though, she must win over her music tutor, who disdains her simply for being a girl. Too late, Emilia realizes that her success could threaten not only her dreams for her future but her sister’s very life.
Playing by Heart is inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time--mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi.
What was the spark that ignited this book?
I actually started out writing a picture book biography of little-known 18th-century mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. My undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science, yet I’d never heard of Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was a child prodigy, fluent in seven languages by age eleven. By age fourteen she was solving difficult geometry problems. She went on to write an acclaimed math textbook. But in her early 30s, she turned her back on her celebrity life to devote herself to helping the poor.
Intrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. It was a challenging project, especially because not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. I kept writing and revising, but I kept getting rejected. One of those rejections was from the Candlewick editor I worked with on my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. Both sisters struggled to please a domineering father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness. And that was the spark that led me to write Playing by Heart. (For more about the Agnesis, see this site I created.)
Since Playing by Heart is heavily fictionalized, I changed the characters’ names. The narrator, Emilia Salvini, is a musician and composer inspired by Maria Teresa Agnesi, with an older sister modeled on Maria Gaetana Agnesi. I also incorporated a romance because I thought that would make the novel more appealing to a YA audience.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out?
I had a terrible time selling this book! I was devastated when the editor who suggested I write the novel turned it down. But I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The novel did well in several contests, including taking first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”
I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in a drawer. I focused on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually make a comeback. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.
Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her service to the poor, I thought one of the Catholic publishers there might be interested. As it turned out, none were a good fit for the biography. However, Vinspire Publishing was there accepting pitches for YA fiction. With nothing to lose, I pulled Playing by Heart out of the drawer.
Dawn Carrington, Vinspire’s editor-in-chief, liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Three months later, Dawn sent me an email that began, “Thank you for submitting Playing by Heart for consideration . . .” I thought for sure it was a rejection. But she went on to say she wanted to publish the manuscript! Of course I was thrilled, but I was nervous, too. Vinspire is a small press based in South Carolina. They publish only paperback and ebook editions and they typically don’t pay an advance. They are not a Catholic publisher, but they do focus on being “family friendly.” After weighing the pros and cons of working with a small press, I signed the contract. (If you’d like to know more about Vinspire, I’m going to have a great interview with Dawn at TeachingAuthors.com on Monday, Oct. 2.)
By the way, my experience with Vinspire led me to pitch the article “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” that will appear in the forthcoming 2018 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM). For the article, I interviewed three award-winning authors who share their advice and experiences working with small presses. Two of them are fellow VCFA alums Laura Atkins and Nancy Bo Flood.
Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?
My husband is retired and typically around while I’m working. It can be distracting if he turns on the radio or TV, so I often play classical music in the background to drown out the noise. Usually it’s Mozart or Vivaldi. For Playing by Heart, I had to research the music my main character would have known and played. So, for my new soundtrack, I created a Pandora station of baroque music that included the works of Sammartini, Pachelbel, and Rameau. In the novel, Emilia plays works by the last two composers.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?
Given that my novel is set in 18th-century Milan, I had to do a TON of research. I Googled such things as: Did women’s gowns have pockets? And how many layers did women wear? I also had to do lots of setting research. I looked at photos online in books that showed what homes and public places looked like both inside and out. There’s a scene inside the Duomo of Milan, the main cathedral, which was being used even though the exterior wasn’t yet completed. Fortunately, I found an engraving of what it looked like in 1745.
What was special about your VCFA graduating class?
As I mentioned in my 2016 Launchpad interview, my class seemed to “click” right from the start and we continue to be a tight-knit group. Seventeen years after graduation, we still have an active Yahoo group. We share industry buzz, celebrate sales, commiserate over rejections, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. We also occasionally get together for mini-reunions.
This photo was taken at one we had in Chicago in 2008.
Left to right: Carolyn Crimi, me, Gretchen Will Mayo, April Pulley Sayre, and JoAnn Early Macken.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
My advisors were Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Resh Thomas, Carolyn Coman, and Amy Ehrlich. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers and mentors. I still use some of their lessons in my own classes—always making sure to credit them, of course. I left the program amazed at how much my writing improved over the two years of the program.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Carmela. And welcome, Playing by Heart -- Brava!
Carmela Martino is a writing teacher, freelance writer, and author of short stories, poems and novels for children and teens. She is co-founder of TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers. Four members of the TeachingAuthors team are graduates of the Vermont College MFA program.
Of her VCFA class, Carmela says: "I graduated in Summer 2000. Our class was nicknamed the Hive by the faculty because we were always 'buzzing' about something. We called each other Bees."