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Rosa Fedele on painting and evoking settings in fiction

  • Submitted: 23rd March 2016

We welcome Rosa Fedele to the blog today who wrote the captivating novel The Red Door. It’s all so evocative and visual so interesting to see how and why she wrote it and the illustrations she painted to go with it and to set the scene. There is a cuppa and a cake involved of course but today I’m sitting back and letting Rosa do all the talking. That’s what I love about chatting with authors, you can just sit back and let them paint such fascinating insights into their world – the ones you both have in your heads – and venture into it, with the author as your personal guide.

Rosa, it’s over to you: (Read the booktrail of The Red Door here)

Rosa Fedele by Craig Peihopa

Rosa Fedele by Craig Peihopa

The first reaction I encountered at the announcement of my first novel was: “Why? Why ever did you decide to write a book?” The question is usually accompanied, even now, by the scratching of heads, and incredulous or uncomprehending looks.
Well, really, is it such a leap from creating pictures with a pencil or brush, to conveying images with words?
“But, is this something you’ve always wanted to do?” they persist.
Funnily enough, when first I started to write, I had no idea what I was doing. In fact, I was so embarrassed that I started the project in secret, waiting until the house was empty and I was sure to be completely alone.
But, quite simply, yes. I have always known I would write and illustrate my own books; it was a natural progression. I grew up on a rich diet of illustrated stories – the works of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Beverley Nichols, Hauff’s Fairy Tales, E.C. Pedley’s Dot and The Kangaroo and this – newly rediscovered during our recent move – Norman Lindsay’s “The Flyaway Highway”. Lindsay, a master of portraiture not well-known outside our country, had a wonderfully silly side, unapologetically writing his own jolly and deliciously nonsensical stories, generously laced with illustrations and innuendo.

Rosa Fedele Drawings 1
See how disrespectful I was as a child, wantonly defacing this lovely old book by colouring in Norman’s drawings!
Now, the thing is: I love old houses. A lot.
Sometimes my heart aches profoundly at the sheer beauty of a building and I will stop and stare dumbly at the shimmering tarnished Gothic copper roof of a turret, the sun flashing off stained glass windows or the swirling ochres and russets of a Sydney sandstone wall, wishing desperately for the owner to appear at the door, smile and welcome me in for tea and biscuits.
One day, I was strolling through Glebe (one of the oldest suburbs in Sydney), admiring the old mansions, and I happened upon one house in particular. But it was more than a house; the magnificent old building riveted and mesmerised me and in the following weeks I was drawn back to the site over and over. The mansion is fronted by a brightly painted door, a glossy façade, and I imagined what the door might mask and what it could have concealed over the last 150 years: nasty, shameful secrets, possibly a poor family’s misfortune and tragedy, rotten crimes and heaven knows what other unholy messes … and a story began to form.

ROSA fedele house
I researched the origins of the house. I drafted thumbnail sketches of my main protagonist and her beautiful new home and, slowly, she came to life. Very soon, I was hosting a whole colony of characters in my head.
Set in 1983, The Red Door is about the new owner of an old Sydney mansion ‘Rosalind’, who begins to believe she is being watched by one of her tenants, the mysterious resident in Number Three, a reclusive man who happens to share his name with two teenage sisters, victims of a sinister and brutal murder which took place in the 50’s. Her peace of mind slowly erodes as a fascination with the unsolved crime becomes obsession – consuming her life, shaking relationships with her newfound friends and leaving a trail of devastation.
As the story unfolded, I’d paint a picture to illustrate exactly what the chair in Beadles’ window looked like or how the iconic old Balmain Garage used to look before developers tore it down.
A reviewer recently said of The Red Door “… I found the observational style reminiscent of Henry James’ novels – fine detail and expertly written dialogue …” After I collected myself up off the floor and back into my chair, I thought: Wow! I’m glad I was able to successfully convey the language and landscape of inner city Sydney with words because, quite frankly, it’s far easier to turn to a No. 10 Filbert and a tube of paint when I’m struggling with commas, clichés and characterisation!

ROSA fedele chair
Does it help to observe with an artists’ eye? I think so. We are taught not just to look, but to see. Just as Amsterdam has its own pearly and intimate light, perfectly captured by Vermeer and de Hooch, and the English countryside its own gentle grey-blue drifting clouds, so masterfully interpreted by Constable, Sydney has a particular atmosphere of its own. The sky’s blue is so startling it can burn retinas, the edge of every leaf is knife-sharp, the heat can singe nostril hair and our birds don’t twitter or chirp – they screech.
I suppose having a portraitist’s eye also helps: I watch how people integrate with their environment and each other, the inter-personal dynamics, mannerisms, the tilt of a head, a finger rubbed nervously across a philtrum. Another peculiar thing: characters will take on a life of their own – just when you’ve got the plot sorted, the little buggers wander off and do anything they bloody please! Halfway through the story, my main girl’s behaviour was infuriating me. So, I tore up all the old sketches and painted her as I preferred her – a no-nonsense woman with tenacity and resilience – and slowly she started to come around and see it my way …

It was a joy to write and illustrate The Red Door. Readers who also love the pictures can easily hop online and order their very own limited edition print or giclée.
Yes, there’s a sequel. Yes, it’s again based around an old house in Sydney. No, I won’t tell you much more, but here’s how I’m developing one of the characters on canvas:

ROsa fedele drawing of a woman
I certainly hope one day someone will love my books well enough to handle them until dog-eared and tattered, or gleefully take to the illustrations with a packet of coloured Derwents.
And, lovely readers, if you ever see me lurking in front of your beautiful old mansion, please do invite me in for tea.
Rosa x

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