Marty Ambrose has been a writer most of her life, consumed with the world of literature whether teaching English at Florida Southwestern State College or creating her own fiction. Her writing career has spanned almost fifteen years, with eight published novels for Avalon Books, Kensington Books, Thomas & Mercer—and, now, Severn House.
Two years ago, Marty had the opportunity to apply for a grant that took her to Geneva and Florence to research a new creative direction that builds on her interest in the Romantic poets: historical fiction. Her new book, Claire’s Last Secret, combines memoir and mystery in a genre-bending narrative of the Byron/Shelley “haunted summer,” with Claire Clairmont, as the protagonist/sleuth—the “almost famous” member of the group. The novel spans two eras played out against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Italy and is the first of a trilogy.
Marty lives on an island in Southwest Florida with her husband, former news-anchor, Jim McLaughlin. They are planning a three-week trip to Italy this fall to attend a book festival and research the second book, A Shadowed Fate. Luckily, Jim is fluent in Italian and shares her love of history and literature. Their German shepherd, Mango, has to stay home.
Find out more about CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET on Amazon
Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about Claire’s Last Secret, and what compelled you to write it.
Author: The great Romantic poet, Lord Byron, once said, “I awoke to find myself famous.” – Truly, it is every writer’s dream to be thrust into a world of sudden, unfolding adoration for one’s work. But the inspiration forClaire’s Last Secret was more of a nightmare: I “awoke” during my summer teaching hiatus to find myself with a back injury that left me practically housebound on an island, in between writing projects, and feeling like the world was passing me by.
I happened to pick up Daisy Hay’s book, The Young Romantics, and learned that she had found a fragment of Claire Clairmont’s (Mary Shelley’s stepsister) journal saying that the famous Byron/Shelley summer of “free love” in 1816 had created a “perfect hell” for her. Of course, Claire wrote those words when she was almost eighty, impoverished, living in Florence, Italy, having outlived the two great poets and Mary by many decades. Intrigued, I wondered what it would feel like to outlive everyone who had been part of one’s youth. As the lone remaining figure of that famous quartet, she’d been left behind. In that moment, I bonded with Claire and decided to tell her story, but as a fictional memoir.
As I delved into Claire’s life, pieces came together in my thoughts: her illicit love for Byron, her rocky relationship with Mary and Shelley, and her later years in Italy—and I knew I had to tell her story from two perspectives: the young, reckless Claire and the older-but-wiser Claire. Then, there was the mystery of her lost daughter with Byron. Her lovers. Her passion for life. It all coalesced into the kind of genre-bending novel that I’ve always wanted to create.
As I wrote the book, I healed after successful back surgery, wrote a grant, traveled to Geneva and Florence with my hubby to research the book—and awoke to find myself with a new life.
It turned out to be my own summer of awakening.
M.C.: What is your book about?
Author: The book is Claire Clairmont’s story, beginning in 1873 when she lived in Florence, Italy—the last survivor of the “haunted summer” Byron/Shelley. She is living out her final years in genteel poverty, with only the memories of her lost youth. Just at her moment of greatest despair, the appearance of British tourist, William Michael Rossetti, brings hope that she may be able to sell some of her memorabilia to earn enough cash to support her and her niece/companion, Paula. But Rossetti’s presence in Florence seems to begin a cycle of events that links with the summer of 1816 when Claire conceived an ill-fated child with George Gordon, Lord Byron, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and when four tempestuous lives came together around a tragic death. As Claire begins to unravel the truth, she has to go back to that summer of passion and lost dreams to discover the identity of her enemy.
M.C.: What themes do you explore in Claire’s Last Secret?
Author: The book really touches on the theme of memory: what things we remember and why we remember them in a particular way. Claire has spent most of her life believing that the people she loved let her down, but it’s really the opposite; they tried to protect her. Connected to this theme is a secondary one about the interconnectedness of life. In the book, we see Mount Tambora explode in Indonesia in 1815, which causes a massive dust cloud to drift across the earth; when it covers Europe in the summer of 1816, its violent lightening storms are part of what impels Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
M.C.: Why do you write?
Author: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. I love the English language, and I love to spin fantasies with imaginary characters. The drive to create with words feels like something that is just part of my nature.
M.C.: When do you feel the most creative?
Author: It takes me time to settle into writing during the day. I like mornings best, in my home office, surrounded by my favourite books; but, for some reason, I can’t ever start writing until near noon.
M.C.: How picky are you with language?
Author: I’m pretty picky about diction and grammar and will spend a lot of time looking for just the right word—for the definition and the sound in the sentence. I think word flow is most important to me.
M.C.: When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
Author: I love this question and would have answered it very differently a few years ago. When I wrote my Mango Bay mystery series, I can honestly say that I would go into the “flow” experience at times, but I was always conscious of writing. With Claire’s Last Secret, though, it’s the first time that I had the sensation that the words were already on the page and I was simply clearing away the white space. It was an amazing shift for me!
M.C.: What is your worst time as a writer?
Author: My worst year as a writer was 2015. My publisher decided to discontinue its mystery line, my agent retired, and I had a severe back injury. It was not a fun time.
M.C.: Your best?
Author: Two years later: I signed with a new agent, wrote the “book of my heart,” was picked up by a new publisher, and regained my health. Life didn’t just turn around; it became amazing—the dark before the dawn, to quote a cliché.
M.C.: Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
Author: Not really. I’ve had challenging professional and life events that might delay me, but I never stopped writing.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
Author: When I sold, Claire’s Last Secret. It was truly the book that I was born to write, and I loved every minute of it.
M.C.: Is writing an obsession to you?
Author: Of course. I don’t think you can be a writer if you’re not obsessed in some way with creating stories; they become a part of us and we live with them every minute of our lives. I guess that more than qualifies as “obsession”!
M.C.: Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
Author: I think every story reflects some part of the author/creator. I couldn’t have written my latest novel if I hadn’t had some life experience and mature perspective. When I wrote Claire’s Last Secret, I was pretty much housebound with a sense of “having been left behind” as I waited for surgery—and I connected with what it must have felt like for Claire Clairmont when she outlived almost everyone she loved by many decades. I had this emotional connection with her before I started telling her story.
M.C.: Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Thoughts?
Well . . . we live in conflictual times (as I suppose we always have) and maybe the best thing to do is keep pumping the streams of creativity to offset the negativity of life. I always feel that when people contemplate visual art, watch a play, or read a book, they are reaching for something beyond the everyday difficulties. We write for the same reason. It takes us to places that we can only dream of—and then maybe make happen. PS: I love Bradbury!
M.C.: Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?