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It was on the way from Capri to Sorrento that I realized what I had to do. I didn’t have to write about the real Villa dei Papiri; I could create my own ancient Herculanean villa. Even better, I could give my Papyrus Project a rich benefactor who’d built a replica of the villa (like the Getty Museum) somewhere nearby—like Sorrento, maybe, or the Isle of Capri.

That’s where my heroine and the rest of the crew would stay while they deciphered a rediscovered scroll, one lost in the days just before the volcano erupted. As I watched the swallows careening over the bay, I felt my imagination set free and take flight. I had caught up with my muse once again.

A CONVERSATION WITH CAROL GOODMAN

Carol Goodman and her husband, Lee Slonimsky, chat about writing, Italy, and good tomatoes.

         

Lee Slonimsky:
Like your last book,
The Sonnet Lover
,
The Night Villa
is set in Italy, but this time in the Bay of Naples. What drew you back to an Italian setting, and why a different part of the country?

         

Carol Goodman:
Having made numerous trips to Italy while researching
The Sonnet Lover
, one visit I found particularly memorable was to the Bay of Naples. This breathtakingly beautiful area has fascinated me since I first visited Pompeii and Herculaneum as a classics student in college. I think any writer strolling the streets of Sorrento would find inspiration there.

         

LS:
Certainly many have. Sorrento’s town square is even dominated by the statue of a native poet, Torquato Tasso. So was Italy your main inspiration for the novel, or did something else lead you to this story?

         

CG:
More than most, this book had a very precise moment of origin. My friend Ross Scaife is a professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, and he told me of a grant he’d been given to use multispectral imaging to study the charred manuscripts found at Herculaneum’s Villa dei Papiri. I thought this was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard of and immediately wanted to base a book’s plot around a similar exploration. Ross was generous with suggestions and explanations, and he directed me toward a fine book by David Sider,
The Library of the Villa dei Papiri
. As I constructed my story, though, I realized I had to fictionalize the villa as well as give my characters someplace to relax. I also took many liberties with the scientific process of scanning ancient manuscripts, for which I apologize to Ross and his colleagues.

         

LS:
One of the most remembered and tragic events in history, the eruption of Vesuvius in
A.D.
79 is an interesting choice of subject matter for a novelist like yourself who often works with themes of memory and loss. Has Pompeii long been a subject of fascination for you?

         

CG:
The first time I saw Pompeii and Herculaneum, I was twenty years old. Spending a semester at the Inter-Collegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, I visited a lot of ancient sites. Still, nothing prepared me for walking down an actual street in Pompeii or entering an authentic house in Herculaneum.

         

LS:
Were Iusta and Phineas real people?

         

CG:
Phineas is fictional; Iusta is based on a real person. I first read about her in Joseph Jay Deiss’s book
Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure
. Her story is much as I describe it in chapter five of
The Night Villa
, with a few details changed about the lawsuit. All that is known about Iusta comes from eighteen wax tablets. We don’t know whether she was even in Herculaneum when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Everything Sophie finds out about Iusta from Phineas is, of course, fictional.

         

LS:
All your novels have been filled with classical references of one sort or another, but
The Night Villa
is the first to contain a literal, if fictitious, ancient manuscript, a real character and voice from the ancient world. What was writing in that voice like for you?

         

CG:
I was worried I wouldn’t be able to capture Phineas’s voice or tell Iusta’s story. For Phineas, I reread a number of classical authors: Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Aulus Gellius, and Livy. When writing those sections, I tried to think about how it would sound in Latin, so while composing in English, I used words with Latin counterparts.

As for Iusta, I was immediately drawn to her story, but it wasn’t until the end of the book that I felt I heard her voice. I could have written much more about her, but at least she has the final word.

         

LS:
Was there anything else that inspired you in the course of writing the book?

         

CG:
Your book of sonnets about the life of Pythagoras [
Pythagoras in Love
] suggested to me the nature of the modern cult in
The Night Villa
. I had no idea how important and profound a historical figure Pythagoras was—even more than a mathematician or philosopher.

         

LS:
The Night Villa
includes two of my poems, one written in this plot-oriented manner, and the other a recent poem you liked and thought would fit your plot. That’s the Wilhelmina F. Jashemski poem, which had actually been inspired by reading
The Night Villa
.

         

CG:
It wasn’t until the second draft that I realized it would work perfectly as the poem Sophie wrote for Elgin. You know, you’ve adopted a persona of Pythagoras for your poems and are so adept at writing from the personae I’ve “assigned” you over the years [Zalman Bronsky in
The Ghost Orchid,
Ginevra de Laura in
The Sonnet Lover
], I sometimes wonder if you ever write from your own point of view. I know I sometimes give my fictional characters pieces of myself. For instance, I give Sophie my old Austin bungalow and, of course, my love of classical authors.

         

LS:
Were there any particular books you read during your research for
The Night Villa
?

         

CG:
I read a lot of nonfiction books for research. For those interested, the most useful were
Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure
by Joseph Jay Deiss,
The Library of the Villa Dei Papiri at Herculaneum
by David Sider,
The Cults of Campania
by Roy Merle Peterson,
The Cults of the Roman Empire
by Robert Turcan,
Romans on the Bay of Naples
by John D’Arms,
Earthly Paradises: Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology
by Maureen Carroll, and
Vesuvius
A.D.
79
by Ernesto De Carolis and Giovanni Patricelli. For the history and atmosphere of Capri, I read
The Story of San Michele
by Axel Munthe,
Siren Land
by Norman Douglas,
Capri and No Longer Capri
by Raffaele La Capria, and
Greene on Capri
by Shirley Hazzard. It was fun but also hard work. The next book is going to be set in New England.

         

LS:
No more trips to Italy?

         

CG:
Not for a little while, but I was thinking we could go hiking in New Hampshire.

         

LS:
Sounds good to me.

READER’S GROUP QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1.
The Night Villa
continues the intersection of past and present narratives common in Carol Goodman’s other novels, but with a much-greater expanse of time between the two threads. Does this make for a more dramatic narrative? What other effects does the gulf of time separating the two stories have?

         

2. Part of the plot is tied to a historical event: the eruption of Vesuvius in 79
A.D.
What kind of shadow does this famous event cast over the novel?

         

3. How sympathetic a character did you find Agnes? Does her background fully explain her behavior?

         

4. Do you see Phineas as fundamentally decent, a pompous ass, or somewhere in between?

         

5. Cults play a significant role in this novel, past and present. How do you define a cult? Have you ever known a cult member? Why do you think people join them?

         

6. Who is your favorite character in
The Night Villa
? Least favorite?

         

7. The multispectral imaging technology used in
The Night Villa
has the potential to revolutionize the study of ancient manuscripts. What exotic or ancient world would you like to know more about?

         

8. Do you think Sophie was right to complain bitterly about conditions at the Hotel Convento? Or was she acting like a “spoiled American”?

         

9. What genre of writing do you think
The Night Villa
falls into?

         

10. Like previous Carol Goodman novels,
The Night Villa
brings its geographic setting vividly alive. Is there a place you have visited that has artistically inspired you?

         

11. Sophie is horrified in
The Night Villa
by the loss of her boyfriend, Ely, to a cult. Have you had a similar experience of distance developing in a relationship—perhaps if not because of a cult, then because of an addiction or an all-consuming hobby? If so, how did you handle it?

         

12. One characteristic of literary fiction is that characters are not static and may undergo genuine changes during the course of a narrative. What character or characters undergo transformations in
The Night Villa
?

         

13. Certainly Sophie’s impression of Elgin changes during the novel. Did yours? If so, do you think Elgin changed, or was it simply that you got more information about him?

         

14. When ex-lovers reencounter each other after years have passed, the results can range from animosity to the flame being resparked. Have you ever had such an encounter? What happened?

         

15. How do the issues in Iusta’s life relate to problems faced by contemporary women? Are they drastically different?

C
AROL
G
OODMAN
is the author of
The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, The Drowning Tree, The Ghost Orchid,
and
The Sonnet Lover. The Seduction of Water
won the 2003 Hammett Prize, and her other novels have been nominated for the Dublin/IMPAC Award and the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her fiction has been translated into eight languages. She teaches writing at the New School University in New York City.

BY CAROL GOODMAN

The Night Villa

The Sonnet Lover

The Ghost Orchid

The Drowning Tree

The Seduction of Water

The Lake of Dead Languages

The Night Villa
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Ballantine Books Trade Paperback Original

Copyright © 2008 by Carol Goodman
Reading group guide copyright © 2008 by Random House, Inc.

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

B
ALLANTINE
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
R
EADER’S
C
IRCLE
and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Goodman, Carol.
The night villa: a novel / Carol Goodman.
p.                                     cm.
1. College teachers—Fiction. 2. Women classicists—Fiction. 3. Excavations (Archaeology)—Fiction. 4. Cults—Fiction. 5. Pythagoras—Fiction. 6. Herculaneum (Extinct city)—Fiction. 7. Italy—Fiction I. Title.
PS3607.O566N54                                                      2008
813'.6—dc22                                                                                          2008008519

www.randomhousereaderscircle.com

eISBN: 978-0-345-50938-3

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