“The Venice Sketchbook is that rare book, both epic and personal, and utterly compelling. Two women, decades apart, escape to Venice, each forced to grapple with the influence of world events on her own life. This is a tale brimming with secrets, romance, and possibilities, cast against the colorful setting of irresistible Venice. I was utterly captured.” ―Barbara O’Neal, bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids and The Lost Girls of Devon
Earlier this month the latest standalone novel, The Venice Sketchbook from New York Times bestselling author, Rhys Bowen was released. The first of two books coming out this year, The Venice Sketchbook is a must read for anyone who enjoys a mystery, especially one involving a secret that’s been kept for more than sixty years. As she facing the end of her marriage, Caroline Grant receives an interesting bequest from her great-aunt Lettie; a sketchbook, three keys and one word, Venice. Once in Venice, Caroline must discover the mysteries of her great-aunt’s past in a city filled with history, art and beauty.
In this interview, Rhys shares about when her love of Venice first began, a few of the favorite characters she’s written during her career and a sneak peek at her next book (in the Royal Spyness series) that releases later this year.
When did you first come up with the storyline for The Venice Sketchbook?
It’s been a story that’s been brewing for years. My aunt used to spend every Easter in Venice. She was a typical English spinster, very prim and proper, and I remember wondering why Venice? What if she had someone she met there and a life we knew nothing about. So that started it. And on a recent visit to Venice I was at the Biennale, the big open air art exhibition, and I noticed that they had held the event in 1940 and 1942. I thought—who would attend in the middle of a world war? And that was the spark of the story during the war.
You’ve had a lifelong love of Venice. What are some of your favorite memories of your own time in the city?
When I was a teenager my parents rented a little villa just outside Venice. We’d drive in and my parents would give my brother and me some money and say “See you at five o’clock” and we were free to explore, swim, eat. My memories of those days are magical. That absolute freedom no child would ever have now. But more recently so many good memories—watching the Regatta Storica (the historic boat race with all the gondolas decorated and men in period costume) and simple things like sitting on a floating dock , eating Frito Misto for dinner and thinking that all was right with the world.
I love how you tie the present to the past in your books and of course I always love reading books that involve a mystery/family secret. Was there a particular part of The Venice Sketchbook that you enjoyed writing the most?
The first chapters were my favorites: the adventure of being a teenager, falling in the canal, being rescued by a handsome Italian and then climbing into his boat at night. These are every young girl’s fantasy, aren’t they?
The hardest part of the book was knowing what was going to happen to Juliet, to those she loved, during the war. There was no way around that outcome but I really wished I could create a better ending for them.
If you could have met any of the characters in the book in real life, who would it be?
Obviously I wouldn’t mind meeting a rich and handsome Italian man—either Leo or Luca. Probably Leo—I rather feel he had more joi de vivre and sense of humor than his grandson.
But I’d also like to meet the Contessa. I fell in love with her when I only expected her to be a very minor character.
Do you come up with the titles of your books during the plotting/writing process or once the book is complete?
This was my working title from the very beginning. Sometimes the publisher lets me keep my title, sometimes we debate over it until we come up with a compromise.
In addition to The Venice Sketchbook, the next book in the Her Royal Spyness Series is coming out later this year. Is it difficult to go from writing one of your stand alone novels to getting back into the setting of one of your mystery series?
Writing the Royal Spyness books is always a joy. It’s such fun to revisit those characters, to chuckle at the awful things Queenie does and to make Mrs. Simpson say bitchy things. It’s rather like going home for a reunion each time. Very different from the stand alone that are often quite intense to write.
Out of the series and stand alone novels you’ve written which character has been your favorite to write?
There are several I’m particularly fond of: Queenie the awful maid is fun to write, Zou Zou the eccentric princess, and granddad is a favorite. I also enjoy Sid and Gus and Ryan O’Hare in the Molly books and in my stand-alone I enjoyed the youngest sister, Phoebe in In Farleigh Field.
Do you keep a journal to jot down different story ideas when you’re in the midst of writing a book?
I have a big white board for the book I’m working on with a time line, things we need to know. And I have a notebook to jot down ideas for future stories. I’ve found that if I don’t write down a brilliant idea it is gone by the time I want to recall it.
You’ve won twenty honors to date, including multiple Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards. What was the first award you won as an author?
I believe it was my first Agatha—best novel for Murphy’s Law.
What do you enjoy the most about meeting fans of your work?
I love meeting fans at book signings and conventions. Sometimes I’m amazed at the distances they have traveled to meet me. Two women came to Phoenix from Portland OR just to see me. One woman drove from New Orleans to Houston once. Amazing! But what really touches me is when readers tell me that my books have helped them through difficult times. I’ve had so many of those letters this year telling me that my books have kept them going through the isolation of the pandemic.
You have another novel releasing later this year, can you give us a sneak peek?
It’s a Royal Spyess novel and it’s a Christmas book. It’s called GOD REST YE, ROYAL GENTLEMEN and it takes place on the Sandringham Estate when the royal family is there for Christmas. Georgie and co are staying in one of the houses on the estate , enjoying a classic English Christmas until it seems that somebody might be trying to kill the Prince of Wales…