We are thrilled to welcome author Anna Hoghton into The Reading Realm today to talk to Steph Elliot about her new magical, historical adventure story The Mask of Aribella…
Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about The Mask of Aribella?
The Mask of Aribella is a magical, middle-grade novel set in eighteen-century Venice. Aribella is the daughter of an impoverished lace-maker who lives on the island of Burano. On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, she discovers that she has a secret power – when angered, flames shoot from her fingertips.
Frightened, Aribella runs away, only to be rescued by a magical organization of masked heroes, each with their own special skill. Aribella and her new friends swear to defend Venice, and that means facing the evil secret rising from the Island of the Dead…
This is a story about friendship, belonging and believing in yourself.
The Venice setting is so vivid and rich. What made you choose it and have you had the chance to visit?
Yes, I have! I’ve been a few times now, at different stages of my life. I’d definitely recommend writing a book about a place you love to visit!
It was actually my first visit to Venice as a teenager that inspired the story. I remember sitting in St Mark’s square and imagining Rodolfo’s cloak flicking around a corner. Venice is such a magical place. I don’t think anyone who visits the floating city can be immune to its magic. Stepping into the city feels like entering a storybook or some other world. There’s a quote by Fran Lebowitz that sums this up rather beautifully: ‘If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is. Venice is better.”
Not only is Venice beautiful, with its countless domes and spires rising above the water, but because of its unique history – as a Republic ruled by the fearsome Council of Ten and a Doge – there are lots of strange secrets and mysteries to draw upon. For example, the Lion’s Mouth stone letterboxes that are carved into the walls of the palace. Here, informers were once able to post the names of their fellow citizens if they thought they were up to no good… Those accused were said to disappear in the middle of the night – sometimes never to be seen again! I used the Lion’s Mouth as a device in ‘The Mask of Aribella’ and there are many more examples of where I’ve drawn on real history to create my fantasy. Venice is definitely a place of blurred boundaries, where you’re not sure where sea ends and sky begins, or what is real and what is imagined – but magic is certainly abundant.
What does a Mask Maker do and what would you wish for your mask to look like if you visited the Mask Maker?
A Mask Maker makes a mask for a person with powers. This mask helps them in a lot of ways: it stops their power hurting them when they use it (which is a big problem when powers first appear), it enables them to breathe underwater and to become unwatchable… as well as many other things. Mask making is a top-secret process and there are lots of Mask Maker Codes that must be abided by.
Oh, that’s such a good question! In truth, I’ve thought about it deeply but never really come up with a satisfying answer. I think that’s what’s so intriguing about your mask, you won’t know what it looks like until you see it and then you’ll recognise it like your reflection… I’m a cancer horoscope, which is a water element, and water or the sea feature quite heavily in my thoughts and creative work so maybe something watery… with some gold stars, because I love them. But I’m still not sure… It’s funny because I can picture all my friend’s masks exactly but my own evades me. Maybe that’s the way it is for everyone? I’d love to know what you think your mask would love like.
Rodolfo is such an incredible character – maybe even my favourite. Did you have a favourite character to write? And will we see any more from these characters?
Thank you! I do love Rodolfo, but my favourite character is probably Seffie because she’s fierce and brave and doesn’t do what she’s told but, at the same time, she’s also soft and kind and impossible big-hearted. If she’s in a scene, I know that there’s bound to be some mischief and mayhem to write. Besides, she can talk to animals, which is probably one of the best powers in the book. I also like Fin’s sense of humour so he’s fun to have around too and I like his vulnerability. And Theo just has a heart of pure gold… I love them all really.
What was your inspiration when creating the ‘Book of Mysteries’? Is there a real-life Italian version we should be aware of?
The Book of Mysteries was actually quite a late addition to the plot. It was a way for the children to find out things on their own, without the filter of adults. I think that’s what the magic of reading is when you’re growing up. It’s being allowed access to your own imagined inner-world, one that isn’t mediated through the adults around you. So, while this device felt important, the Book of Mysteries is actually one of few details that wasn’t drawn from a real-life Venetian version… although there could have easily been something similar in the Republic.
If you were ‘unwatchable’ for the day, like the magicians in your book, what would you do?
If I was unwatchable for a day, I’d sneak into all sorts of parties and ‘out-of-bound’ areas of beautiful places. I’d use this power to see and do all the amazing things the general public doesn’t get access to. I’d walk directly under Stone Henge at night and look up at the stars through the rocks and let the majesty and gravitas of that place seep into my bones. I’d get as close as I can to big animals – giraffes, tigers, elephants, and monkeys – and watch them in their element. If I had a little magical help with time and travel too, I’d go to Venice and stay in the fanciest hotel suite. I’d swim in people’s swimming pools and glimpse how other people live. I love stepping into other worlds. I often think that reading is a little like being unwatchable because you get to jump into another world and be there without being seen. I would hope that I had a friend to be unwatchable with me. Experiences are always better shared.
Aribella is surrounded by people who love her throughout the book. She’s really blessed to find and make some incredible friendships. Why was this such an important theme for you to highlight in this story?
It’s funny, this question took the longest to answer because, at first, I wasn’t sure I agreed with the statement. When I wrote the book, I thought of Aribella initially as an outsider who always felt a bit different, whose Papa was too sad to give her the love she needed and who had lost the love of her Mama that she so deeply craved. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that you were right. She was always loved, whether she knew it or not. And this love is what enables her to triumph and stay strong even when it seems like all hope is lost. I truly believe in the power of love – of both loving and being loved – and of loving yourself too. This is what Aribella has to learn and what makes her strong enough to find her own power and use it for good. I think we all have unique strength and gifts inside us that is only realised fully through the transformative power of love. In this increasingly isolated and often hateful-seeming world, I believe that cultivating true friendships is more important than ever.
Finally, can you describe The Mask of Aribella in three words?
Magic, Venice, and Friendship.