Behind the Book: Memoirist’s first novel draws from life
by Danielle Trussoni
When you open the pages of my novel Angelology, you will enter a secluded convent nestled next to a wide, mirror-dark river; you will climb into a narrow gorge cut deep into the granite of an Eastern European mountain; and you will sit in a shadowy lecture hall filled with students during the Second World War. You will meet a young woman named Evangeline, whose family history has drawn her into a centuries-old hidden society of scholars who practice the ancient discipline of angelology, the theological study of angels. You will become acquainted with nuns; a handsome art historian named Verlaine who rushes into Evangeline’s quiet world and changes her life; and a nefarious group of angels called Nephilim.
As you can imagine, the places and characters in my book are extremely different from my “real life” as a 30-something mother of two. In fact, the world of my novel could not be any more different from my daily life. And yet, looking back over the process of composing Angelology, I see that many of these settings and characters were inspired by places I have visited and people I’ve met. The art of studying how the imagination works is a nebulous one, but it is interesting for me to try to pick through the many experiences that have contributed to Angelology.One of the main settings of the novel is the convent of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. As a girl, I went to a Catholic grade school where many of my teachers were nuns. One of the requirements of my parochial education was attendance at mass each morning at 7:30, and so we were forever going back and forth between the school and the church. My parents went to church on Sundays (their one session per week) and thus I was in church six mornings out of seven, sitting on a hard wooden pew, often gazing at the angels painted throughout the church. I don’t remember a single prayer or hymn from that period of my life, but I do remember the way I felt looking at the golden figures hovering upon the walls. It was as if I might be able to adopt the wings of these heavenly creatures and gain the power to escape the dim church. I found some relief from the sobriety of mass in the beauty of the angels. Perhaps the seeds of my novel began then, as a child daydreaming in church. I had forgotten about of my interest in angels entirely, however, until I went to a convent called Saint Rose Convent to speak with the nuns who lived there. My great-aunt Drusilla was a Franciscan Sister of Adoration living at the convent, and I had decided to visit her home to interview the Sisters living there. I knew I wanted to write a book that involved the Sisters, but at that time I had no clear vision of what I would write. I spent many days at the convent, following the Sisters through their daily activities. There was a beautiful chapel in the convent where the nuns went to pray. One night, when I was walking back from the chapel, I found myself in the convent reading room, a small space filled with religious books. One shelf of the library was filled with books about angels. I took a stack of books down, sat in a comfortable chair and began reading. Within hours I was aware that angels would be at the very center of my book and that I would use the convent I had visited as one of my primary settings. While my decision to use the convent as a primary setting was a surprise, using the mountains of Eastern Europe was something that I had long hoped to do. I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, for four years with my husband, the writer Nikolai Grozni. My husband had taken me to the Rhodope Mountains and I had fallen in love with the stark, craggy landscape. We went together to an underground cave called The Devil’s Throat, an UNESCO site with an amazing waterfall that flows into an underground river, and I knew I would one day write about it. In Bulgarian legend the cavern formed the entrance to the underworld where Orpheus descended to save Eurydice. Some years later, when I was writing the first draft of Angelology, I decided to incorporate the cave and the legend into my novel. Who can say what alchemy brings such disparate elements as Orpheus, a convent, angels and a cave in Bulgaria together to create a novel, but in the course of writing this book I understood that all of one’s reading, travels, friendships and dreams contribute to the final result. I can only hope that the experience of reading Angelology is as surprising and enjoyable as the experience of writing it. Danielle Trussoni is also the author of the memoir Falling Through the Earth. Angelology is her first novel, and has already been optioned for film. She and her family divide their time between New York City and Bulgaria, and she is working on a sequel to Angelology. Photo credit: Kalin Ruichev RELATED CONTENT Review of Falling Through the Earth