Friday, June 26, 2009


Letters to Leonardo
by Dee White published by Walkers Books Australia
Release date: 1 July, 2009

On his fifteenth birthday, Matt Hudson receives a card from his dead mother – she isn't dead!
A powerful story told by Matt himself as he learns to deal with his mother's mental illness by writing letters to Leonardo da Vinci.

This morning, as promised, I have Dee White with me to talk some more about her intriguing YA novel: Letters to Leonardo, published by Walker Books Australia and being released this coming week on July 1.

Today we focus on the research process. ... Enough from me.

Welcome Dee. It is a delight to have you here.

I'm so pleased to be catching up with you again Mabel. Last time we met it was to talk about your wonderful picture book Connie and the Pigeons.
As you know, I've been so excited about Letters to Leonardo coming out, and it's such fun flitting through cyber space and visiting people to talk about my book.

Dee, you indicated 'Letters to Leonardo' has been a long time (10 years) in the making. Can you remember/explain the germ idea/s that set this story in motion. Did it start with a general topic, a specific idea or with the character whose story you wanted to explore?

The idea came from a friend of mine who told me about a man she worked with who got a letter on his 21st birthday from his supposedly 'dead' mother. I thought what an amazing story that would be. So I guess it was the idea that started me off, and from that came my main character Matt. He sort of took off and started telling his story. As I wrote, his character developed and he started choosing his own direction - and luckily for me, he allowed me to follow him and write down everything he 'said'.

Once you had established that the story focussed on an isolated and troubled boy with an absent mother and a disinterested father - where did you go from there?

I had to develop a background story - and answer a lot of questions. Why had his mother been absent? What was his father apparently disinterested? I think also in the back of my mind this title had popped into my head, "Letters to Leonardo" and it seemed to fit this story - and Leonardo da Vinci seemed just the person for artistic and sensitive Matt to write o - plus I'd always been interested in Leonardo da Vinci myself.

What were the main areas of your research?

I had to do a lot of research on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci, and like Matt, the more I discovered about Leonardo the more obsessesed I became with him - even to the point of having a little statuette of him sitting on my desk watching over me while I write.

Leonardo da Vinci seemed like the ideal mentor figure for my main character Matt. Like Matt, Leonardo was artistic and a seeker of truth.

I also did a lot of research on bipolar and on the mental health system.

Which areas were most research intensive?

The research for all three areas was very intensive.
Leonardo da Vinci seemed like the ideal mentor figure for my main character Matt.
Like Matt, Leonardo was artistic and a seeker of truth. Once I'd decided to use Leonardo da Vinci, I read several biographies and did lots of internet research to find out as many similarities as I could between him and Matt. I wanted Leonardo's inclusion to add depth to the story, but I also wanted it to be relevant.

Next I looked at how I could incorporate Leonardo's works into the story. That's when I studied each of his paintings to try and understand what was behind them, and how they could be related to what was happening to Matt.

Many of Leonardo's works had been lost so I had to focus on the ones that hadn't been. I found some amazing books on the internet including Discovering the Life of Leonardo da Vinci by Serge Bramly, I Leonardo by Ralph Steadman, Leonardo da Vinci The Complete Paintings by Pietro C Marani and Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood by Sigmund Freud.

I also did a lot of research on bipolar because I wanted to have a deeper understanding of how it felt to have bipolar and how it affected the way you lived.

Research into the mental health system was important too because I wanted to be as accurate as I could with how Matt's mother was treated within the system. I actually had to do the research twice because ways in which patients were treated and cared for changed so much over the decade it took me to write the book. In that time, mental health facilities were closed down, and patients were then treated in psychiatric facilities attached to hospitals.

Tell me about the research process. Where does research begin for you? In your head? Talking with friends? Reading books on allied themes? Library and/or internet search?

Research for me is so exciting - like going on an adventure. It's amazing what the most innocuous book or article can reveal.

I suppose the first thing for me is working out what I want to find out and then I interview people, read books, visit libraries, go on the internet - go wherever my research takes me. It's very easy for me to get side tracked I'm afraid.

How did you deal with conflicting reports or evidence?

I find that books are still the most reliable forms of research because information on the internet can be taken from someone else's internet post, and so the information can be innacurate all the way along the line.I try to verify my information from at least 3 reliable sources, but this isn't always possible.

Can you describe how you came to make the connection between Matt and Leonardo? What were the main elements?

The more I reseached Leonardo da Vinci, the more I discovered that he and Matt had a lot in common. They were both taken away from their mothers when they were young and essentialy grew up without them. They were both artistic, sensitive and seekers of truth. And they both had strong father figures who controlled their lives to a certain extent - particularly when they were younger.

At what point did you realise/decide this story would work better as a journal than a narrative - and why?

Right from the start, I wanted to write the story as letters. I felt this would bring readers closer to my character - really allow them to know him and understand what he was going through. Originally the story was all letters, but now it's a mixture of both letters and narrative and I think this works really well because it allows you to see Matt's day-to-day life and then see what's really going on in his head through the letters.

Research can be such an addictive process. How did you know when it was time to stop? Did you have difficulty sorting what to omit/what to include? If so, what was the hardest to let go?

That's a really good question Mabel. I think I mentioned earlier that it's really easy to get side-tracked by research, but I think that's okay because your brain stores the extra information up for later use. I suppose I stopped researching when the book was written.

I must admit that Sue Whiting, my editor at Walker was fantastic in helping me incorporate Leonardo's works seamlessly into the text. Otherwise, I think I would have included ALL Leonardo's works if I could have-and full colour photos too:-)

What did you learn about the research process?

I learned that research is always full of surprises and that you shouldn't be afraid of letting it take you in a different direction because this can add dimension to your story.

Well Dee, that is my last question. Thank you so much for being here and sharing more of your writing journey with me and my readers. I wish you all the best on the rest of your tour and particularly for your cyber launch on July 1.

Thanks for having me Mabel. It has been great catching up with you and Connie again. Must fly as I have a cyber plane to catch to my next destination,

* * * * *
To follow Dee's blog tour with her book: Letters to Leonardo visit the sites listed below

23/06/2009 Dee introduces her tour at
24/06/2009 Sally Murphy at
25/06/2009 Sally Odgers at
26/06/2009 Susan Stephenson at
27/06/2009 Mabel Kaplan at [YOU ARE HERE]
28/06/2009 Vanessa Barneveld at
29/06/2009 Dale Harcombe at
30/06/2009 Claire Saxby at

01/07/2009 CYBER BOOK LAUNCHat with a cross to Robyn Opie at

02/07/2009 Adele Walsh at
03/07/2009 Brenton Cullen at
04/07/2009 Sandy Fussell at
05/07/2009 Dee White at
06/07/2009 Dee White at
07/07/2009 Overseas stopover



Letters to Leonardo is available from major bookshops and online from:


  1. Hi Mabel, thanks for having me here. This blog tour is so much fun. I've really enjoyed talking to you about research process - finding out about Leonardo and his work was so interesting.


  2. Thanks Dee, Sorry about the date on the top. I couldn't make it say Saturday 27 June for love or money - even at 2am this morning so gave up and went to bed!!!

  3. Even more information about your book, Dee. Great stuff. Now I know I'm going to enjoy reading it, can't wait.

    Thanks, Dee and Mabel.

  4. I think Mabel's comment about research being addictive was spot on. I love researching. But sometimes stopping is very tricky. And as for moving on to the next phase ...

    Thanks for the great questions and answers, Dee and Mabel. Getting inside a writer's head is so instructive!

  5. Thank you Trish and Book Chook for dropping by - Isn't it wonderful the way a good book is never exhausted - always something more to discover. And yes! From my bruises you can tell I am addicted to the research part of writing and have to kick myself to get on with the writing!