Interview: Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, author of The Awakening of Miss Prim

NZ Booklovers recently caught up with Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, author of the delightful and rather enchanting book The Awakening of Miss Prim.

Hello Natalia, and thank you so much for sharing the village of San Ireneo de Arnois – and the delightful Miss Prim and her friends – with the world. Like me, I am sure our NZ Booklover readers will devour every page, and we greatly appreciate you sharing with us today.

Thank you very much, I’m very happy to be here with you.

In just one sentence, how would you describe The Awakening of Miss Prim to someone who hasn’t yet read it?

I’d say it’s the story of Prudencia Prim, a young librarian, covered in academic qualifications, who arrives in San Ireneo de Arnois, a village that has declared war on the modern world.

I am in love with the village of San Ireneo de Arnois and its ideals. Where did you find your inspiration for it?

Thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Many people ask me about the whereabouts of San Ireneo. The village doesn’t exist, it’s an imaginary place, but it’s inspired by the European tradition. Europe was built on small communities near abbeys like the one in the book, with an economy based on craftsmanship, solid families, ancient traditions and a very ordered life, in which each thing was done in its own time. That was the model I drew inspiration from to write the book. And that’s how San Ireneo was born, a place where people’s lives have a human scale and where tradition and culture are understood as treasures. In a world that’s so fast and so noisy, I think that’s what makes many readers ask me whether such a place exists, and wonder where it is.

The children in the story receive an unusual education. What books do you feel a child’s education should not be without? And how do you feel about Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women?

In order to create the educational environment of San Ireneo I drew partly on my own experience. I was born into a big family in which the library was open to the children, so we read everything we could get our hands on, from when we were very small. This included the classics, a lot of classic books. I think that’s a great recipe. I think the love for good books should be bred into children, and, above all, I think they should be freely allowed to approach them. Read them poetry, stories, myths, legends and all-time “good old books”. Little Women is a part of that, but there are many others. From Treasure Island to Around the World in 80 Days, David Copperfield or Pride and Prejudice. And all this without forgetting a very important aspect: reading should be a pleasure, not an obligation.

How familiar are you with the classical languages?

Quite a bit less than I would wish, but as far as possible I try to keep the dead languages I learnt at school as alive as possible, particularly Latin. Classical Greek and Latin poetry, in bilingual editions, is a good way to do that. As is the old Roman liturgy, with its wonderful texts –a fascinating way to approach them.

Do you see much of yourself in Miss Prim, and, if so, in what ways?

There are many ways. I share a love of beauty and delicacy with Miss Prim, a sensibility towards whatever is small and simple, a care for details, and a passion for literature and art. But although it may seem strange, there’s also a lot of myself in the Man in the Wingchair, who’s passionate about the search for truth and a lover of reason, philosophy and even theology. I’m very interested in all of that.

The book inspires a lot of thought about the ideas behind marriage. Which character’s views do you align yourself with?  

The ideas about marriage that are debated in the book are old ideas, ideas which belong to a store of knowledge that humanity has been accumulating for centuries. And I believe it’s worth knowing about them. That’s why the book talks about love, in all its forms. It’s a love story, even though it’s not only a love story.

Could you share three interesting facts about yourself that readers would be interested to know.

What a difficult question! I think readers are more interested in books than in writers. Three things? I’m a journalist, and I specialise in financial information, so my job is completely opposed to the type of life I’ve described in the book. I’m very classical in my reading. I’m very fond of British and Russian 19th-century literature, classical and medieval poetry, and Victorian children’s books. And my greatest weakness is the countryside. I live in Madrid, but whenever I can I escape to Galicia, a wonderful region in the north of Spain.

What are you reading right now?

I’m re-reading An Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, a perfect book to read in springtime.

What’s your writing quirk?

It’s very simple, but very boring: re-reading, re-reading, re-reading, and correcting, correcting, correcting. Thomas Mann said that a writer is a person for whom writing is a far more difficult task than for ordinary people. I think he was completely right.

What’s next for Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera?

I’d like to write another book, of course.


Read the NZ Booklovers review of The Awakening of Miss Prim.

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Emma is an ardent writer, reviewer and editor. She currently lives in Orange, NSW, where she shares her time between writing, undergraduate studies in Linguistics and French (oui, c’est vrai!), and her “day job” as a yoga teacher. Emma especially enjoys reading women’s fiction, contemporary fiction and the classics.

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