Poet Stephanie Hemphill has a bent for history and dark subjects, having unleashed her signature novel-in-verse prowess with prize-winning results before on Sylvia Plath (Your Own, Sylvia, 2007) and the Salem witch trials (Wicked Girls, 2010).
But in Sisters of Glass she turns to a literally lighter topic, glassmaking in 15th-century Venice, to conjure up a page-ripping family drama involving two sisters torn between tradition and following their hearts. We were eager to speak with the Illinois native to learn the story behind her latest historical venture that young teens should devour.
Check out more novels in verse for teens.
So why Venice and why the Renaissance?
This book is for a slightly younger audience, which is a bit of a departure for me. It was suggested that I write about glassblowing on Murano, and I picked this time period because that is when cristallo—clear glass—came into being.
I could have picked any number of years in the Renaissance, but I chose the late 15th century because I wanted the father to be Angelo Barovier, who’s credited with inventing cristallo, a big moment in glassblowing history. The detail that really sparked the idea for me writing this initially was that Maria Barovier, the main character, was actually one of the first women to open her own enameling furnace.
How much of the family dynamic between Maria and her father did you invent?
There was no material on their relationship, so this is really all imagined. All I knew is that Angelo Barovier had a daughter. I could find very little information on this time period and this family.
I felt like that was a great jumping-off point for fiction because I didn’t know what the story was, so I didn’t have anything holding me back. I felt like I had a lot of material from my own life from having a younger sister, and I wanted to tell it from the younger sister’s point of view because I wanted to put myself in a different position and see what that would feel like.
You incorporate a number of sonorous glassblowing terms here—fornica, frit, conciatore, moile. Why did you feel it important to include them?
I always want my books to have some sort of informational content so that you’re learning something along with having some fun. This is a marriage-plot book, and I’m really excited for that. I like that and love Jane Austen. She was kind of an inspiration for the type of book that I wanted to write, and her books always use the language of the time, but I also really wanted this to have technical practicality. Poetry is about specifics too, so I feel if you don’t get things exactly right and use precise language, you’re missing out.
Along with this marriage plot, what parallels do you draw to the modern family?
I think I’m always putting my own modern spin on a traditional story of the time period—I can’t help it. I idealize what might have been possible for Maria, if that’s what you’re asking, because I like strong female characters who make their own decisions. It’s not that that would have been impossible; it’s not impossible, but it’s less common. This book makes it seem like of course she would marry whomever she was in love with. That’s not the case. In this situation, I felt like that was the right choice for the character.
In relation to today, I feel like women are sometimes pulled between career and family, and I guess the pull of this was what’s she going to do with her desire to use her talents, as opposed to what her family obligations are, so I think that’s the modern parallel. That’s been a pull for many, many years now, and I don’t think it’s changed.
But I don’t think you can’t do both, and I’m not making a judgment, because Giovanna does go forward with her marriage into the nobility, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong choice about that—you just have to do what’s right for your heart. I think that’s what the book is saying.
So do you think women are still feeling the same kinds of pressure today?
Yeah, I do, I do. That they have for hundreds of years? I do. I actually think that in some ways we’re struggling with those same issues.
Sometimes I think we haven’t come a long way, baby…
Right. My hope is that this book will inspire young girls to realize you always have a choice and to go with what you feel is the best decision for you—even at a young age, because Maria’s only 15 in the book. There are a lot of pressures a 15-year-old girl deals with. It may not be the pressures of marriage anymore, but there are the pressures of where am I going to go to school, what am I going to do with my life—we see that in people at a very young age now.
Do you think you’ll ever move away from the verse-novel form?
I do at some point think I might try a prose novel, but the ideas I have lend themselves better to verse. I may also consider writing something contemporary, but I’m so in love with historical fiction that I have a hard time leaving it. I love the research, and I love immersing myself in a different time period and drawing parallels between what’s contemporary in that time period and what has and hasn’t changed. That’s just a personal thing. And there are plenty of amazing contemporary writers, so I don’t feel as if we don’t have enough books for the here and now—not that there aren’t a lot of great historical-fiction writers, too, but that’s an area where I do OK, so…
I like this form a lot because it allows you to slow down or speed up different details in a way that a prose novel has to be a little more conventional. There are definitely exceptions to this, but I feel the verse format is what I know how to write better. At some point I’ll probably try it, though, because I always like to give myself a new challenge.Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.