Sous le nom de plume Michael Gregorio, Michael G. Jacob et son épouse Daniella de Gregorio ont publié quatre polars à succès.
Sous le nom de plume Michael Gregorio, Michael G. Jacob et son épouse Daniella de Gregorio ont publié quatre polars à succès mettant en scène le jeune magistrat prussien Hanno Stiffeniis, ancien élève du philosophe Emmanuel Kant, dans les méandres de l’empire napoléonien.
Tous deux vivent aujourd’hui à Spoletto, en Ombrie, dans le centre de l’Italie, où Daniella enseigne la philosophie et Michael l’histoire de la photographie ; c’est le cadre qu’ils ont choisi pour ce nouveau roman
Interview with Michael Gregorio
Your Money or Your Life takes place in Renaissance Italy. Is this a period you are particularly drawn to?
I love art and I live in Italy, so the Renaissance is on my doorstep. Giotto painted the Life of St. Francis in Assisi, just twenty miles away. Perugino lived and worked in nearby Perugia. Filippo Lippi frescoed the cathedral of Spoleto, Umbria, the town in which I live. Every little village has its secret store of treasures, and I’ve been to visit most of them. On one of these outings, I came across the work of a little-known painter named Giovanni di Pietro, who was nicknamed ‘Lo Spagna’ on account of his Spanish origins. Giovanni Lo Spagna… Spanish John… I was fascinated by the name, and so curious about his life that I made a point of going to see every church or chapel that he had painted in Umbria.
Where did the idea for the story originally come from?
One day my wife and I went to Gavelli, a tiny fortified town on top of a mountain. Spanish John worked up there in the winter of 1523. I was enthralled by the remote beauty of the place. How in heaven’s name had he ended up painting pictures in such an isolated spot? We visited the church of St. Michael the Archangel, and saw the frescoes he had done there. One painting in particular caught my eye. I had never seen anything like it in a church before. What was the story behind it? And what was the story of the artist? Clearly, he was a skilled professional, though he never became famous like Raphael, another pupil of Perugino’s that he must have known well. How had Spanish John ended up as a decorator of village churches, an illustrator of local legends and minor miracles? While we were inside the tiny church, admiring the fine frescoes, there was a sudden rumble and the earth began to quake. What must Gavelli have been like in 1523, I wondered. There was no gas, no electricity, no central heating, just lots of snow and plenty of earthquakes… I realised straight away that I had the material for an unusual short story – a down-at-heel Renaissance painter, a mysterious commission, wild Nature, earthquakes. All I had to do was write it.
Is the story based on true events in the painter’s life?
Not at all! I invented everything, including the miracle which Spanish John eventually paints. The real Spanish John was much more successful than my character. Giovanni di Pietro was nominated Captain of the Arts in Spoleto in 1517, and he also married a noble lady. No, I tried to imagine what Umbria was like in that period, the sort of life that a poor artisan painter might have led, the kind of adventures he might have had. Historical fiction fascinates me. You use historical facts to enhance the story, but the story itself belongs to you, and you dress it up – or down – with accurate historical detail. You want the reader to ask questions about life in the past, but you mustn’t be pedantic.
The men who paint the church frescoes in the story are nothing like the idea we have of ‘artists’ today, nor are they treated the same way. Do you think the respect that artists command today is a recent phenomenon?
Life was hard for everyone in the Renaissance, but it was especially hard for painters. They were workmen paid by the square metre. Can you imagine laying flat on your back in a freezing church for years and years, painting something as immense as the Sistine Chapel, while the Pope kept urging you to get a move on and finish the job? People today have a Romantic notion of the artist as a privileged ‘creator’ of fine things, working in splendid isolation in his ivory tower, making lots of money and enjoying himself, but the lives and achievements of people like Spanish John tell a very different story. They were struggling to survive for a crust of bread in a world where no¬body would pay them if they didn’t produce the goods on time. We have worked under similar conditions while writing novels to meet a deadline, and there is nothing remotely ‘Romantic’ about it, I can tell you! Maybe Spanish John and I have something in common…
How do you organise your working day as a writer?
I get up early, take a shower, get dressed, have breakfast, then I sit down and start writing. My wife and I write historical crime fiction together. We have published four novels in English, and another one in Italian. Daniela doesn’t really like short stories, while I love them, so I also write any shorter fiction that we are able to publish. Sometimes short stories are commission¬ed for anthologies, other times they’re just ideas that attract me. Please, don’t ask me where these ideas come from, because I couldn’t tell you! I began to write as a hobby many years ago and I have never lost my passion for it. I write the blogs for our website, too, so I’m never short of something to work on.
Who are the writers you admire most/who inspired you to become a writer?
I have always been a voracious reader of novels. I read most of the great ones when I was young – Cervantes, Melville, Fielding, Dostoevsky – and I went on to study Eng Lit at university. My all-time favourite novel is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I have re-read at least thirty times, I’d say, but maybe more. The richness of the language, the twists and turns of the plot, the sparkling humour, the amazing variety of characters, both good and bad – it’s a mystery story that I would love to have written! I soon discovered other books to fall in love with – Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, Raymond Chandler’s novels, James L. Cain’s, the great noir writers of twentieth century America. Then Le Carré, Elmore Leonard, Bill James, Robert Goddard. Nowadays, I’m a keen fan of writers like Alan Furst and Hilary Mantel, who work within an historical context. They are doing what Daniela and I set out to do when we began to write about the young, inexperienced magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, who features in our crime and mystery novels, which are set in Prussia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. If you like to read, I think, then one day you will want to write. That’s what happened to me, anyway.