Pandemic Silver Lining: An Unplanned Novel

In her non-fiction book Labor of Love, Suzanne Hoffman told stories about the experiences of Piemontese wine families during WWII. Then, Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky inspired her to write a novel based on the stories she had collected. When the Covid lockdown occurred, she did just that. And voila, Angel of Alta Langa: A Novel of Love & War was born.

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Fellow Baby Boomers no doubt recall the day Kennedy was shot. Although I was only in first grade, seeing my teacher weep and being sent home in the middle of the day engraved indelible memories on my mind. March 16, 2020, evoked similar emotions here in Eagle County, high in the Colorado Rockies, as we experienced our first day locked down. Unlike my six-year-old, empathic self, when the world stood still in my early sixties, I was fully aware of the dangers and uncertainties that threatened us. I shall never forget the tsunami of fear and anxiety that washed through me in those early days of the now-infamous Covid-19 pandemic.

Keeping myself occupied through an isolation of unknown duration created a mixture of unsettling emotions. My small-group Piemonte tours scheduled for summer 2020 were jettisoned to the following summer. We hoped we could travel by then, but when the curve failed to flatten as predicted and the lockdown continued, the light at the end of the tunnel dimmed. I wondered when I could return to Italy with my clients and be with my wine families. Like so many others, my anxiety grew, and depression began to set in. As the second month of isolation dawned, my husband, Dani, came to my rescue when, out of the blue, he said, “It’s time for you to write your novel.”

Author PhotoTreiso, Langhe

A novel? “Yes!” was his emphatic reply. In 2016, I published Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, an award-winning nonfiction book, and believed it was the first and last I would write. A novel based on my copious research for Labor of Love was my dream but not what I considered a realistic goal. Covid changed reality. It changed everything. With my world upside down, I wondered: Why not? At the very least, I hoped that diving into a writing project about Piemonte would ease the pain of separation from the land and her people that had bewitched me in 1999.

Then the tough questions came: Plot? Characters? Period? Title? Living in the mountains, in nature where we were relatively free to roam, provided an avenue to answer those questions. The book became a brainstorming subject on our long, daily, fitness hikes. I had a universe of intriguing and courageous Piemontesi who inspired my characters. The period was easy enough—interwar era, beginning with the Great Influenza through 1946. The plot almost magically materialized in my mind, much to my surprise. Before long, my Angel of Alta Langa odyssey began.

Author photo: Grinzane Cavour, Langhe

As an independently published author, I was blessed to have a top-notch editing and design team for Labor of Love, particularly my editor and mentor, Elatia Harris, whom I met in 2015 through her Facebook writers group. Therefore, my first step in making Angel a reality was to contact Elatia. Not only had she become my most trusted professional resource but also a dear friend who never shied away from honest opinions. I told Dani that, if Elatia liked the pitch, it was a go—although I had no idea whether I could pull it off. She liked it!

Spring gave way to summer, and although Eagle County opened faster than most places in America, we mostly remained secluded. During this preamble to the most challenging work I faced, Angel consumed my every waking hour and invaded my dreams. It became the topic of conversation at all our meals, and my characters began to assume a human dimension. Dani proved, as he had before with Labor of Love, to be my pillar of strength and trusted sounding board.

Elatia and I began our work together in June 2020. As before, emails and phone conferences bridged the distance between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Vail Valley. In our eight years of collaboration, we have only met once face-en-face—in Barbaresco, Italy, at the launch of Labor of Love—but that has not impeded our working relationship.

Author Website: Cortemilia, Alta Langa

When I wrote Labor of Love, Elatia and I developed a somewhat unorthodox rhythm of her editing as I wrote that produced a more polished manuscript ready for copyediting. It got me over the finish line in record time then, so we adopted the same strategy for Angel. Elatia’s near-daily presence in my life as she educated me and worked with me became the saving grace that eased my anxiety about the pandemic and fostered optimism about what then seemed a bleak future. The book project became self-imposed isolation that I could bear.

For three months, Elatia and I brainstormed as the plot and characters took shape. Although that aspect of creating the novel flowed easily, access to research material challenged me the most. With the interlibrary loan system closed for the duration, I sought help from Dr. Google and Mr. Amazon for used books and other resources. I discovered many intriguing volumes to add to my Piemontese history and heritage collection. Through JSTOR.org, I unearthed gems of academic papers.

By the end of August 2020, I was ready to write.

Author photo: Perletto, Alta Langa

Once I had chapters to share, I formed a focus group of book-loving friends I knew would be open and honest with me. Connecting with them through the nascent book kept my spirits up and eased the isolation. I expected criticism but mostly received complaints about the time they had to wait between chapters. That was a good sign. With such motivation from these seven women, the words began to flow—perhaps too well. By late March 2021, I sent the manuscript to my copyeditor. She prefers to remain anonymous, so I’ll just refer to her as OT. 

I prefer overwriting, then working with Elatia to drain any molasses that slows the pace. She left the more precise surgical extraction of needless text to OT. This was my first experience working with OT whom Elatia considered to be an expert in tightening text and quickening pace. Quite pleased with what I considered to be a well-polished manuscript, I suffered when OT returned chapters with copious comments and “deleted” notations in the tracked changes column. Lots of tears flowed. When I complained to fellow author and childhood friend, Jack Caldwell, he offered great advice. “If you like your copyeditor, fire her.” At that point, I did not like her, but I soon realized how much better the book flowed. I began to love her. Elatia’s calm demeanor and sage words were balm for my troubled soul through this painful, but crucial, process. 

Finally, by July 2021 I had a manuscript ready for proofreading and design. That task fell to the Empress of Grammar (and design) Ellen Pickels. Her eagle-eye in catching little things that make big differences brought home to me the dangers of error blindness and the value of hiring a proofreader. Designing the interior of Angel proved a bit more time-consuming given the abundant words and phrases in the translation glossary that were hyperlinked in the e-book edition. By late September 2021, after nearly 17 months, the first phase of my Angel odyssey came to an end.

In hindsight, I should have waited another six months to release the novel, during which time I could have sent out advance review copies. However, I chomped at the bit since I was traveling to Piemonte for the first time since October 2019. This was a book inspired by the lives of people I lovedI wanted to share the birth of the book with them. 

As the pandemic wound down and normal life returned, I felt my spirit renewed. I had completed a successful debut novel, a feat I believe was only possible because of the bizarre circumstances that isolated me from the distractions of everyday life. Although my readers’ requests for a sequel have motivated me to write another novel, 18 months have passed since Angel’s publication, and only now do I feel ready to return to the universe of my characters. Angel taught me that, through the worst storms, there are silver linings. I pray that, by the time Angel of Alta Langa’s sequel, Bud Break, is finished, all will be well again with the world.

Thank you for sharing your story, Suzanne. I imagine other writers had a productive time during Covid, but I also know of many who couldn’t muster the mental energy for writing. Best wishes for Angel of Alta Langa.

Angel of Alta Langa: A Novel of Love & War by Suzanne Hoffman . . . a fast-paced, spellbinding saga of heartwarming emotion, unimaginable evil, gut-wrenching suspense, and abiding love. From the vineyards of Barbaresco and the forests of Alta Langa, to the putrid cells of Turin’s infamous Le Nuove prison, two young Piemontese girls come of age amid the horror—and the humanity—of Italy’s darkest years of the twentieth century.

Mussolini’s Fascist Italy is a perilous time to come of age, especially for two socially disparate, plucky girls who forge an unexpected friendship. Social norms do not constrain them. Sara, a spirited Barbaresco farm girl eschews that life to nurse the poor. An even greater calling awaits her. Doretta, the strong-willed daughter of a Fascist Jewish banker, yearns for a life as a lawyer. Together, Sara and Doretta look squarely at the future, seeing what adults do not see—cannot bear to see.

Teenage Doretta creates an obsessive mortal enemy when she fearlessly confronts budding Mussolini acolyte, Baldo Volpe. He pursues Doretta for years to come, using his power as a member of the feared secret police to harm those she loves, including Sara. As Europe teeters on the brink of war, powerful widow Cornelia Bottero, who united Doretta and Sara as girls, involves the young women in her clandestine efforts to rescue Jews from the hell of Hitler’s Germany. Italy’s surrender in 1943 transforms Cornelia’s mission from rescue to resistance. Sara joins as a battlefield nurse. She heals, but Doretta, now aware she has a formidable enemy in league with Piemonte’s Nazi occupiers, fights. Will her life be the price to save those she loves?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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