Italy 1899: Fiery-tempered, seductive medium Alessandra Poverelli levitates a table at a Spiritualist séance in Naples. A reporter photographs the miracle, and wealthy, skeptical, Jewish psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi arrives in Naples to investigate. When she materializes the ghost of his dead mother, he risks his reputation and fortune to finance a tour of the Continent, challenging the scientific and academic elite of Europe to test Alessandra's mysterious powers. Meanwhile, the Vatican is quietly digging up her childhood secrets, desperate to discredit her supernatural powers; her abusive husband Pigotti is coming to kill her; and the tarot cards predict catastrophe.
I have a confession to make –The Witch of Napoli started out as a 15-page film treatment. I had stars in my eyes. I studied documentary film production at New York University and at the British Film Institute before I became a journalist and book author, and knew the basics of the cinematic craft. So when I stumbled across Italian Spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) while researching my first (non-fiction) book, Best Evidence, I decided she was my ticket to 20th Century Fox.
I’d write a film based on her life. The real-life Signora Palladino levitated tables and conjured up spirits of the dead in dimly-lit séance rooms all across Europe towards the end of the 19th century. Her psychic powers baffled Nobel Prize-winning scientists, captivated aristocracy from London to St. Petersburg, and annoyed the powerful Catholic Church, which suspected her paranormal feats were the work of Satan. Her meteoric rise to fame, her humiliating fall, and miraculous redemption made world headlines at the time – when she died, she earned an obit in a dozen national papers, including the New York Times.
I had visions of a biopic, or even better a Sony Pictures period drama starring Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek. Forty-year old Eusapia was such a wild woman – fiery-tempered, amorous, vulgar, confident – in a Victorian age where respectable matrons were insipid saints on a pedestal, stunted socially, sexually, intellectually, economically. She allowed strange men to sit with her in a darkened room holding her hands and knees and legs (“proper” women would have fainted, or throw themselves off a precipice, if caught in that situation). She flirted and teased her male sitters, argued loudly, slapped an aristocrat who insulted her, flew at men who accused her of cheating (even when she did). Yet she was also extremely kind and generous to anyone in trouble, loved animals, gave to beggars. Her heart was large. I thought she’d make a hell of a heroine. And there was that spooky paranormal twist to her life. I came up with a clever logline – the one sentence summary you use to pitch your film to super-busy Hollywood execs: “Downton Abbey meets the Exorcist.”
But the L.A. crowd told me selling a film treatment was a million-to-one shot. I needed to write the novel first, then option the book. I didn’t want to hear it. I’d never written fiction before. A novel is a nightmare for the amateur, and a challenge even for a pro. It requires playing with a Rubik’s cube of characters, plot, subplots, pacing, dialogue, style, emotional arc – pieces which the writer must move in a certain sequence, and introduce at the proper moment, to propel the tale forward, hold the fickle reader’s attention, and arrive at a successful denouement. Historical fiction raises the complexity another level. Where do you find information on the cost of a plate of pasta in late 19th century Napoli? Was the typewriter around? How many hours was the train ride to Rome? How do you weave the history in without slowing the story and boring readers? Frankly, I was scared stiff. But I finally took the leap. Now that The Witch is up on Amazon, I’m glad I jumped; somewhat surprised I survived; and extremely appreciative of the many positive reviews it has garnered. Kirkus Reviews is featuring The Witch in its current issue (February 2015); it’s found an audience; and sales are climbing. If you’re a film buff, look carefully – you’ll even find multiple cinematic tricks buried in the structure of the novel.
Meanwhile, I’m still determined to see The Witch of Napoli on the silver screen – with Salma or Penelope. Know anybody at Sony Pictures?
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About the Author
Michael Schmicker is an investigative journalist and writer on scientific anomalies and the paranormal. He is the co-author of The Gift, ESP: The Extraordinary Experiences of Ordinary People (St. Martin's Press (USA); Rider/Random House (UK). His first book, Best Evidence, has emerged as a classic in the field of scientific anomalies reporting since its first publication in 2000. He is a contributor to EdgeScience magazine, a book reviewer for the Journal of Scientific Exploration, and his writings also appear in three anthologies, including The Universe Wants to Play (2006); First of the Year 2009 (2009); and Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth (2011). Michael began his writing career as a crime reporter for a suburban Dow-Jones newspaper in Connecticut (USA), and worked as a freelance reporter in Southeast Asia for three years. He has also worked as a stringer for Forbes magazine, and Op-Ed contributor to The Wall Street Journal Asia. He lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. You can find Mike on Twitter @Schmicker