Barbara Josselsohn on Secrets of the Italian Island

Barbara Josselsohn

The novelist discusses the Second World War and her influences.
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Barbara Josselsohn, congratulations on your latest novel. What influenced you to write about Italy in the Second World War?

I have always been a fan of historical novels, particularly those that take place during World War Two. I’m very moved by books that explore resilience and the strength of the human spirit during times when people are most tested—and many wonderful World War Two books delve into those themes. As for Italy, it’s a place that makes my heart sing. The art, the architecture, the language, the food, the landscape, and the people—so many sights and sounds come to mind as I think about past visits there. It seemed the perfect location for my story, which pinpoints the intersection between astonishing beauty and the devastation of war.

The novel is inspired by the true events of an island at war, could you explain this history further and how it influenced Secrets of the Italian island?

In the early stages of writing, I knew I wanted to set my book in a remote European castle. I began researching actual private islands and old castles, and my wonderful editor also offered up some possibilities that could serve as inspiration. Ultimately, I discovered the Chateau de Costaérès, a beautiful pink-granite castle on a private French island the coast of Brittany. I learned that the castle was commissioned in the late 1890s by a Polish inventor and mathematician named Bruno Abakanowicz. He would invite artists and writers to visit, and they’d craft their beautiful work there. Sadly, during World War 2, the castle was taken over and damaged by the Nazis. I was so inspired by that castle and the kind of artistic community Abakanowicz built. I sought to create a similar fictional castle filled with the most wonderful artists, inventors, and writers of the day.

The guests on the Isola di Parissi attempt to avoid acknowledging the war outside of the castle. Did your research uncover examples of artists and prominent thinkers ignoring the threat of the Second World War in this way?

I didn’t quite find evidence of artists and prominent thinkers who ignored the threat, although quite possibly there were some. This was more personal to me. I know how often people try to look the other way when danger looms. I know I do that. My fictional castle was a place that celebrated art and music and the incredible magic of the human mind for generations. I completely understood why these people would make themselves believe they were safe—and how catastrophic that decision turned out to be. 

What resources helped create this elusive and fairytale-esque Castello del Poeta (Castle of Poets) set in Italy?

The Chateau de Costaérès has been repaired and still exists today, although the island on which it sits is private and closed to visitors (just like the fictional island in my book). My resources included travel and tourism websites that offer up current-day photos of the island and information about it. I also looked closely at places, fictional and actual, that nurtured artists and celebrated great thinking, if only for a limited time. I re-watched the movie “Camelot” with my book in mind, and I read up on the community of expat writers who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, writing some of their most iconic work during or about that period. 

What challenges did you face while writing and researching the historical side of the novel?

The most important challenge was trying to make all the details historically accurate. I did a great deal of research on the rise of Fascism in Italy and the events surrounding Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany, followed by its surrender to the Allied Forces and the subsequent Nazi invasion from the north. But the tiny details mattered too! It seemed that I was constantly stopping my writing to research everyday things: what styles of clothing would my characters wear? What kind of furnishings and appliances would be in the castle? What kinds of writing implements would the characters have access to if they wanted to write a note? What trees and flowers would surround them, and what tools would be available to Patricio as he devised his invention? What minerals would be in the rocks on the coastline that he could make use of? I did some of this research before sitting down to write, but when questions came up, I’d always stopped writing to get the information I needed. I’m the kind of writer who likes to solve problems at the time, rather than returning later to fix things!

Why did you choose to write with a dual perspective of Mia’s story set in 2018 and her Grandmother’s narrative in 1943?

As I started to imagine the story, I found myself thinking about all the mysteries in my own family tree and wishing I knew more about the generations in my past. So I decided I wanted my story to include a present-day protagonist who must find answers, and who sets out to do just that. I admire Mia so much for taking that on. If you open my book to the dedication, you’ll see that I dedicated the story to my grandparents and three great aunts, who are now gone. I wrote how I wish I’d known them better. I think that in telling Mia’s story, I was in some way telling of my own yearning to do what she does.

Mia walks in her Grandmother’s footsteps throughout the novel, how does this journey help shape her identity?

I think that by walking in her grandmother’s footsteps, Mia begins to understand why her grandmother was the troubled person she was: a person who rarely smiled, who kept to herself, who found comfort in the night sky, and who felt love but also was scared of it. By the end of the book, Mia begins to realize that the best way to honor her grandmother is by living life fully and openly – the way her grandmother might have done, if her early life had been different. 

Is there a historical figure from the Second World War that you admire and why?

Oh, so many! Anne Frank, of course comes to mind. Simon Wiesenthal. But what also comes to mind are the people whose names are not well known, but who showed bravery, strength and heart under the most awful of circumstances. Last October, my family and I visited Hawaii and spent a day at Pearl Harbor. From the memorial site, you can see the remains of the USS Arizona, which was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. The remains of the ship are now the final resting place for more than 900 sailors.

I would add that I have heard many Holocaust survivors and their families speak about their lives. It astonishes me, how these survivors went on to have families and live wonderful lives. I admire them so much.

What’s next for Mia and her story?

I can tell you that Mia goes on to live life exactly as her grandmother would want her to! I know what happens to her, and I may return to tell the next chapter of her story at some point. If you are interested in knowing about other characters in the book, you don’t have to wait that long!  Book 2 of my Sisters of War Series is the story of Giulia, one of Annalisa’s two sisters. It’s coming out later this year!

Barbara Josselsohn is the author of Secrets of the Italian Island, published by Bookouture.