In Danielle Trussoni‘s ANGELOLOGY, a young nun who’s been living in a convent since she was twelve years old, finds herself at the center of a battle between fallen angels and the scientists who’ve uncovered their secrets. It’s a thriller with literary appeal. There are chases, murders, and puzzles to solve—all testing humanity’s power over evil.
In this interview, Danielle and I talk about the process of writing and selling this book, including the fascinating tidbit that she didn’t set out to write about angels at all. Hope you enjoy our talk, and please feel free to jump into the conversation.
I want to talk to you about the dreaded unknown in this business. Our books were on submission at the same time, and I remember talking to you during that nervous wait. Everyone was saying the publishing market was at it’s worst, and I think both of us wondered if we’d just spent a lot of time writing books that wouldn’t sell. Talk to me about that process and how you coped with the wait and the self-doubt.
There is no doubt that writing is a labor of love. Every day that one goes to the desk and writes without a contract (or even an agent for many of us) is an act of faith. I have been doing this, however, for years and years and so perhaps the anxiety is something that I have gotten used to. I understand what it means to work on a book that doesn’t make it into the world. I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2000 and graduated in 2002 with a manuscript (a novel) that was never published. It was heartbreaking, but I kept trying and eventually wrote FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH, my first book, which was a memoir.
I began to write ANGELOLOGY—my debut novel which was published on March 9th—without any real sense of what the industry was going through. I knew, of course, that novels are often difficult to sell. But I knew I wanted to write this novel and so I went ahead anyway. I quit teaching and worked full time on ANGELOLOGY.
And then, in the midst of all the awful publishing news, your book went to auction, and you had serious interest from both publishing and film companies. Tell me what was happening behind the scenes.
I was actually helping with a family emergency when the book went out to publishers and so the whole thing was a little surreal. Luckily, we had a lot of interest in the book almost immediately. My agent set up phone interviews and soon I was speaking with a number of incredibly smart editors about how the book could be edited and shaped. Then, a few days after ANGELOLOGY sold to Viking, there were three offers to purchase the film rights. It was surprising, especially because the film agent I had for Falling Through the Earth had passed on representing ANGELOLOGY and so I thought that the film rights would be more difficult to sell.
I was pretty shocked when I read this book. I wasn’t at all surprised at the marvelous writing, but I was surprised how different this book was from your first. FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH was an unflinching look at being raised by your father after the damage he was dealt as a Vietnam War tunnel rat. And now, you’ve not only moved on to fiction, but an intricate thriller, at that. Where did the idea for ANGELOLOGY come from, and do you see a connection in these two books?
I am the kind of writer who takes inspiration from a million places and then just begins writing. I discard a lot of material and rewrite endlessly. I started with Evangeline (who is the heroine of ANGELOLOGY) and I knew that I wanted to use certain settings—a convent, World War II Paris, the mountains of Bulgaria) but I didn’t have the central concept of the book until after I began writing. I went to a convent and stayed there for some time interviewing nuns and doing research in the archives. While I was there, I came across a lot of books about angels and became incredibly interested in the idea of the role that angels have played—their placement between heaven and earth, the ethereal and the material, their function as messengers of the divine. I came to love the ambiguity of their position and the possibility they offered narratively.
Fascinating that you didn’t begin with angels at all! Tell me about writing this book. How did you balance research (WWII, the legend of Orpheus, Paradise Lost, Rockefellers, convents) with story? Tell me something about your daily discipline, where you got stuck, how you got unstuck.
Reasearch was a huge part of writing ANGELOLOGY. I spent lots of time in the library, but I also went on research trips. I revisited the mountains in Bulgaria, went and found locations in Paris and spent a lot of time in museums studying Renaissance paintings of angels. The visual component of my research was probably the most rewarding, and also helped me to find the right physical descriptions for the creatures in my book. There is a gorgeous, eerie quality to the way angels have been traditionally represented. It makes our contemporary images of angels—especially the cute cherubs—seem utterly silly.
Some of this book is so horribly, deliciously dark. Even from the very beginning, when we learn about the young girl the convent was named after. Would you tell the story of Rose, and did you make that up, or did you pull from history?
The story of Saint Rose is real or, at least, it is considered real by those who venerate her.
Although she knew she risked being late, Sister Evangeline paused at the center of the hallway. Here, the image of Rose of Viterbo, the saint after whom the convent had been named, hung in a gilt frame, her tiny hands folded in prayer, an evanescent nimbus of light glowing about her head. St. Rose’s life had been short. Just after her third birthday, angels began to whisper to her, urging her to speak their message to all who would listen. Rose complied, earning her sainthood as a young woman, when, after preaching the goodness of God and His angels to a heathen village, she was condemned to die a witch. The townspeople bound her to a stake and lit a fire. To the great consternation of the crowd, Rose did not burn but stood in skeins of flame for three hours, conversing with angels as the fire licked her body. Some believed that angels wrapped themselves about the girl, covering her in a clear, protective armor. Eventually she died in the flames, but the miraculous intervention left her body inviolable. St. Rose’s incorrupt corpse was paraded through the streets of Viterbo hundreds of years after her death, not the slightest mark of her ordeal evident upon the adolescent body.
I want to finish up with some fun movie gossip. Who bought the rights to your book, and what can you say about the movie version so far?
Will Smith’s production company ended up buying the rights. Marc Forster—who directed the last James Bond film—will direct and Michael Goldenberg, who adapted Harry Potter for the screen—will adapt the screenplay. I know that they are moving forward quickly and that the screenplay is being written. I’m meeting with Michael Goldenberg this week to talk a bit about the adaptation and the sequel to ANGELOLOGY called ANGELOPOLIS. I’m really excited to see how the film reinterprets the book.
Can’t wait to see it! Thanks, Danielle, for your time and for your books.
***To read an excerpt from Angelology, please click here.