Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels with my Books #7: To Italy with Jean Burnett

Fran Kempton at work in her study

I’m delighted to welcome Jean Burnett to the Travels with my Book spot. Jean’s extensive travels have inspired her historical novels, which she writes under her own name and also as Fran Kempton.

Jean has also written a travelogue, Vagabond Shoes, and compiled and edited A Victorian Lady in the Himalayas, the memoirs of intrepid Victorian traveller, Maria Caroline Bolitho.

In our interview, she’ll be focusing on her latest historical novel, The Devil’s Tune, published under the pen-name Fran Kempton. This is the first of a planned Italian trilogy, featuring a composer, an artist, and a dancer.


Jean, welcome to my blog! I read The Devil’s Tune when it was first published and I really enjoyed it, so I’m glad to have this opportunity to spread the word about it. Can we please kick off by pinpointing your book’s geographical settings. 

It’s set in Naples, Southern Italy. References to Naples are also in my second book in the series, as yet unpublished.

Please whet our appetites with a brief description.

It’s a novel of music, murder and revenge, set in sixteenth-century Italy, based on the life of the composer Carlo Gesualdo, prince, composer and murderer – or to give him his full title, Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza.

(Gesualdo is best known for his madrigals and eerie sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late nineteenth century – find out more about Gesualdo here.)

The book is narrated by Laura Scala, maidservant to the prince’s murdered wife. She swears revenge on the prince and pursues him throughout their lives with disastrous results.

There’s also a cameo appearance from the artist Caravaggio.

What is special about the location?

It’s such a dramatic location, historically and geographically.

What is your relationship with (Italy) and how much of your life have you spent there?

I have always loved Italy and I worked there for several months. I agree with Henry James: “Why be anywhere when you can be in Italy?”

What is special about the people native to Naples?

I think Neapolitans past and present are a bit mad, probably because they live next to a volcano!

Your protagonist, Laura, comes from Sicily. What challenges does she face dealing with Neapolitans? 

She finds the city overwhelming and dangerous. There were many Spanish soldiers in Naples as it was ruled by Spain at the time.

What are the distinguishing features of Naples in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?

The volcano, Mount Etna, overshadows everything. The city is huge and chaotic. The bay is absolutely beautiful. There are/were huge gulfs between the rich and the poor. The princes and dukes may have gone, but the Mafia is still very powerful.

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to Naples?

Enjoy! The food, the art, the scenery, and the people. But beware of pickpockets and bottom-pinchers!

“Only in Naples” – name three things that could only exist/happen there!

  1. You find the best ice cream in the world in Southern Italy.
  2. Museums always seem to be closed ‘for restoration.’
  3. The banks are the slowest in Europe, including their ATMs.

Which other authors’ books set in Italy would you like to recommend?

The English novelist Amanda Craig has set some of her novels in Italy (Tuscany). Of course, there are the fantastic Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri, also shown on TV, and I recommend the cosy crime/humorous Auntie Poldi books by Mario Giordano, all set in Southern Italy.

Where is your latest book set?

My current work-in-progress, about the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, is set In London, with flashbacks to Italy.

Where will your next book be set?

The third book will be set all over Europe, but especially in Italy.

Jean, thank you for sharing your passion for Naples and Southern Italy with us, Jean, and for giving me permission to reproduce the following extract from The Devil’s Tune, in which the narrator, Laura, has just arrived in Venice.


cover of The Devil's Tuen
The first in Jean Burnett’s planned Italian trilogy

EXTRACT FROM The Devil’s Tune by Fran Kempton

I wandered along the bank of the canal feeling tired, dirty, and hungry. The few coins in my purse would barely buy a night’s lodging – a meal was out of the question.

Later, moonlight gleamed down on me as it had done once before on a road in Sicily. All around me the gently susurration of moving water and the rustling of foraging rats provided the only sounds, except for the loud rumblings of my empty belly. Without another thought, I curled up at the water’s edge, too tired to care about the danger. The next moment I had tumbled over into the canal in the darkness, my bundle still clutched in my hand.

Later…

An old woman sat in a chair near the window mending a shirt by the light of one flickering candle. She looked up in astonishment at the man’s bedraggled burden, holding up the candle for a closer inspection.

What have you brought me, my son?’ Gaetano dropped me on to the floor unceremoniously. ‘I fished her out of the canal, mother. She needs help.’


To find out more about Jean Burnett/Fran Kempton, visit her website, www.jeanburnett.co.uk.

NEXT MONTH:

We’ll have a complete change of scene and climate when Helena Halme takes us to her native Scandinavia.

PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Or take a trip to the Cotswolds any time, through the pages of my own novels and novelettes.

Author:

English author of warm, witty novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Staffroom at St Bride's School series, both set in the Cotswolds. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors and for the children's reading charity, Read for Good. Public speaker for the Type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF.

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