Good Reading : December January 2010
DECEMBER 2009 / JANUARY 2010 ı goodreading 11 cover story felt like that when I was a kid.' The painting, and the novel, were the start of an enduring fascination with Velázquez, and a recent short story inspired by the painting The Water-Seller of Seville was the genesis of Sallie's latest novel. 'With all my work I'm always inspired by a painting or an image from the past. The image speaks to me directly from the past -- if it makes me sound like a medium or something, I don't have any claims to any of that psychic power,' Sallie tells me jokingly. The Water-Seller of Seville reminded her that Velázquez spent his youth in that city. 'And this image of the ordinary people [reminded me that] he's always had an interest in ordinary people -- as well as the rich nobles -- so I wrote this story about how he would have painted The Water-Seller of Seville ... it took me back to Diego Velázquez when he was a young artist, and I did the research around that story ... then I discovered this "Giralda Tower climbing episode".' The episode is a documented visit to the top of the Giralda Tower, in which a group of friends 'which may have included Pacheco and Velázquez' tested out a novel toy: a telescope. 'And I thought, "this is a good place to start a novel",' says Sallie. '[For me], the novel began with that scene of Diego and Pacheco walking up the tower and looking down, and what they saw was the priory, and they saw a woman in the priory ... what's a woman doing in a priory? A beautiful woman, an artist's model, a woman who's a courtesan, perhaps up to no good ...' The Giralda Tower, which was first built as the minaret of a mosque in the 12th century and was later adapted as the bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville, is an important part of Sallie's tale: it is where it begins and ends, and where Paula Sanchez lear ns important lessons about balance. As a creative writing teacher, Sallie doesn't necessarily subscribe to the idea that you have to visit a place to write about it (and she gives me numerous examples of writers she admires who don't), but she believes that it was essential for her visit the city in order to finish A Woman of Seville. 'If I hadn't gone to Spain, I wouldn't have had a clear idea of the Moorish [architectural] influence. Seville is gateways, arches, narrow winding maze- like streets. To go to a place you find out so much more. I chose to write about the Mercedarian convent because it was still there. I could walk through rooms that were similar to [how they were in 1616] or I could get a sense of the spaces, the dimensions. I also went to the top of the Giralda and found out what it was like, and saw that, with a telescope, Diego and Pacheco would have been able to see into the upper echelons of the priory.' She also got a feel for the architecture of Diego Velázquez's childhood. 'I got to see the house where he was bor n. It's now a little business where they make dresses. I stood in the room upstairs where he would have been bor n. It's a little house, not a glorious house, but it has a fountain in the middle, the inner courtyard that's so typically Sevillan. And that really helped fuel the novel.' And then there's Sallie's curious creation, the Ladder Man. The Ladder Man lives on the rooftops of Seville. He uses his ladder to jump from home to home, tending gardens and perfor ming odd jobs in retur n for food and small tips. 'The Ladder Man was bor n of the architecture of Seville,' she admits, adding, 'I couldn't have had that character if I hadn't gone to Seville. Because of the heat of the place, all the entertainment is up high on the terraces. Even the palaces and the convents and priories have these upper levels of living. Because there's no water, and it's so crowded and congested down below -- and it stinks -- you have to go up.' Down on the street, Paula is bound to a rich 'benefactor', the fat, puffy Bishop Rizi. She is hopelessly in love with the devout priest Enrique Rastro, she is alone in the world and she has few prospects. Up on the rooftops is where the Ladder Man courts Paula, and where she escapes from her life as a courtesan, from her unrequited love, from the stink and muddle of the Sevillan streets below: the poverty, loneliness and injustice. It is also where she lear ns to trust again. Sallie admits she finds it hard to write a novel in which magic plays no part. 'The novel really came together when I thought to myself "what's the role of magic in a novel?" To take an imperfect situation, and rectify it [with magic], adds some poetic clarity to it. Magic is that transfor ming agent that aims to help Paula get to where she wants to be in life. I'd like to write more of a realist novel -- but magic is what I do, and what I do best. I don't seem to be able to write about the here and now, and the real.' Sallie's PhD thesis was on the magical realism writers she greatly admires:Toni Mor rison, Isabel Allende and African writer Bessie Head. 'I also think I've been influenced by Alice in Wonderland, that adventure story where you go into this delightful, unexpected world where unusual things happen to you,' she says, bringing us back to the kind of story A Woman of Seville is. Then Sallie has an idea: 'It's almost more of an adventure story,' she says. 'A female adventure story.' A Woman of Seville by Sallie Muirden is published by HarperCollins, r rp $27.99. Photograph of the Giralda Tower is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3. 0 License. Photograph by David Iliff. Giralda Tower, Seville, Spain.