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Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

Authors on Characters

Penmore Press authors offer a rich and entertaining array of short reflections on characters and how they were created in the novels.  READ

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Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

From Flesh and Breath to Canvas

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick has been writing ever since the day she printed her long name on her first library card. A native of Connecticut, she graduated magna cum laude from Fairfield University with a degree in English and earned a master’s degree with distinction from Trinity College, Hartford. She has been awarded a scholarship from Wesleyan Writers’ Conference (2008), two Nigel Taplin Innovative Teaching grants (2008, 2011), and a fellowship from the Hartford Council for the Arts Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation (2010). A student of novelists Rachel Basch and Louis Bayard, Mary has participated in the 2014 Yale Writers’ Conference historical fiction workshop and has presented at Auburn University’s Writers’ Conference (2012), the Association for Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston (2013), the Italian American Historical Association’s conference in Toronto (2014), and annually at Mark Twain Writers’ Conference in Hartford, as well as at the University of Connecticut’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, in Waterbury, Connecticut (2015-2019). Her research has taken her to Venice, Fiesole, and Naples, Italy, the Deep South, and monastic communities in Tuscany, Vermont, and Connecticut. Mary is an Associate Faculty member at Post University, Waterbury, Connecticut. She mentors aspiring writers of all ages.

Mary’s first two novels, Thirst (Fireship Press, 2012) and Plagued (Fireship Press, 2014), are set in the Venetian lagoon during the seventeenth and fifteenth centuries, respectively. Thirst is being adapted for the operatic stage by composer Gerard Chiusano and librettists Mary Noonan-Chiusano and Robert Cutrofello. The opera, tentatively entitled The Thirst of Venezia, is Maestro Chiusano’s thesis for his doctoral degree at Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

Orla’s Canvas released in 2015, was Mary’s first book with Penmore Press. The novel is a first-person coming-of-age tale about a young artist set against the backdrop of Civil Rights-era New Orleans. The novel took First Place for fiction in the 2016 Connecticut Press Club’s annual contest and Third Place in 2016 NFPW (National Federation of Press Women) competition. In addition, it was recently a Finalist in the 2017 Kindle Awards. It is available in audio, narrated by Billie Bryant.

Painting Mercy, Mary’s second book in the anticipated Orla Paints quartet, released by Penmore Press in 2018, took first place in the Connecticut Press Club’s annual contest and second place in the 2019 NFPW (National Federation of Press Women) competition. Novel three, The Contessa’s Easel, released in 2021, also garnered a Connecticut Press Club Honorable Mention. En Plein Air, the final novel of the Orla Paints Quartet, is now available at Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble.

Mary spent several weeks in Italy this Spring doing research for an anticipated collection of short stories entitled, “Here If You Want To Find Me.”

Mary has reviewed books for the New York Journal of Books, Southern Humanities Review, America, and other journals. Excerpts of her memoir-in-progress have appeared in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, Italian Americana, and Healing Ministry, among others. Her short story, “The Rule,” appeared in Voices in Italian Americana.

With her husband, Wayne Sharnick, Mary leads her writing students and family and friend groups on slow travel tours of Italy, the country she considers her second home.

Coming Soon!

En Plein Air

It is summer of 2001, and renowned American painter Orla Castleberry is in Naples, Italy, as part of a project to call attention to human trafficking perpetrated by the Camorra, a notorious criminal organization. With the help of friends in unusual places, she is able to meet the lawyer who fiercely prosecutes the Camorristi on the rare occasions when any of them are brought to trial for justice, as well as the lawyer who defends them — and usually succeeds in winning their acquittals: Orla’s realistic depictions of the abuse of young women, and of the nuns who labor to rescue them, are intended to increase public awareness and aid, but they also provoke the Camorristi into menacing Orla and her family.
It seems a godsend that Orla, her physician husband Celestino Bacci, and their ten-year-old twins Luisa and Lucca can move to Manhattan for the academic year of 2001: Orla with an endowed professorship, Celestino working with an AIDS research group. The twins get to attend a progressive school, and Orla gets to spend time with her adopted daughter, Mercy, and Mercy’s husband, an entrepreneur with the Windows on the World restaurant, high in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Orla’s joy is marred only by concern for her lifelong friend Tad Charbonneau, his health compromised by the AIDS virus and family stress.
And then, on September 11th, everything changes.
Loss after loss shakes Orla’s considerable confidence and fortitude, causing her to question her life’s work. Does art really matter? Can it ever make a difference?


The Contessa's Easel by Mary Sharnick

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The Contessa’s Easel

The acclaimed Orla Paints Quartet continues! “I know you never knew your grandfather, but now you can touch what his hands touched and create beauty…. Be like him, dearest Orla; recognize, make, and be beauty in an often ugly world.” These words were to have a profound effect upon Orla. Orla Castleberry returns to her New Orleans home after a year as artist-in-residence at Manhattan’s New York University. Her topical exhibit “Portraits of AIDS” has earned world-wide praise and notoriety for its realistic representations.
Orla prepares for her next exhibit, to be held in Fiesole, Italy, in celebration of the forty-fifth anniversary of the town’s liberation from Nazi occupiers. The portraits she paints will also be featured at a premier book launch for The Orphans of Fiesole, written by her friend, immigration attorney and historian Tad Charbonneau. The book is based on letters and photographs composed by Orla’s own grandfather, so the project becomes intensely personal. Orla takes to heart the words of William Faulker: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as tragedy, loss, and surprises transform the lives of her friends and family, even before she boards the plane for Italy.
It isn’t only Orla’s understanding of the past that changes, however. Her future, too, will change remarkably. For years, Orla has sidelined her longings in order to be and do what others needed from her. Now, her love for the truth of art is leading her to discoveries of love.

Painting Mercy by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

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Painting Mercy

Second place winner in NFPW’s 2019 National Communications Contest.

The sequel to prize-winning Orla’s Canvas, Orla, now twenty-four, has been studying and painting in New York City. It is 1975. Saigon has fallen to the Communists, and Vietnamese refugees have been invited to settle in New Orleans by Archbishop Hannan, a former paratrooper and military chaplain in WW II. Orla’s childhood friend and forever confidant, Tad Charbonneau, is practicing immigration law in New Orleans, where he mitigates challenging adoption cases involving children, many of them bi-racial, recently airlifted from Saigon and in need of new families. On her way back home for Katie Cowles’ wedding and a summer painting in misspelled St. Suplice, Orla reconnects with Tad and contemplates her future. While she anticipates marriage and family with her undisputed soul mate, she discovers upsetting news about Tad’s sexuality and learns that her forty-three-year-old mother is pregnant. Adding to her troubling personal revelations, Orla becomes involved in the devastating costs of war for former GI and Katie’s brother Denny Cowles and Mercy Cleveland, a Vietnamese orphan who eventually becomes as essential to Orla as her art. Orla once again calls upon her art to make sense of loss and gain. Through her craft she reimagines how Love and Home might look, finally charting a future for herself she had not previously considered possible.

“Painting Mercy unfolds with an artist’s eye and process. Mary Sharnick’s characters are a testament to the deep and necessary silences creativity requires and how art communicates in unforeseen ways” — Elizabeth Cutrofello, American Theorem Painter

“Painting Mercy is emotionally resonant and a beautifully drawn portrait of complex, all too human characters grappling with the very notions of family, love, and home.” — Tom Santopietro, author of Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters

Orla's Canvas by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

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Orla’s Canvas

Winner of the Connecticut Press Club 2016 Communications Award for Best Novel for Adults, and third place award for the 2016 National Federation of Press Women’s in adult fiction.

Narrated by eleven-year-old Orla Gwen Gleason, Orla’s Canvas opens on Easter Sunday, in St. Suplice, Louisiana, a “misspelled town” north of New Orleans, and traces Orla’s dawning realization that all is not as it seems in her personal life or in the life of her community. The death of St. Suplice’s doyenne, Mrs. Bellefleur Dubois Castleberry, for whom Orla’s mother keeps house, reveals Orla’s true paternity, shatters her trust in her beloved mother, and exposes her to the harsh realities of class and race in the Civil Rights-era South. When the Klan learns of Mrs. Castleberry’s collaboration with the local Negro minister and Archbishop Rummel to integrate the parochial school, violence fractures St. Suplice’s vulnerable stability. The brutality Orla witnesses at summer’s end awakens her to life’s tenuous fragility. Like the South in which she lives, she suffers the turbulence of changing times. Smart, resilient, and fiercely determined to make sense of her pain, Orla paints chaos into beauty, documenting both horror and grace, discovering herself at last through her art.

“In Orla’s Canvas, Mary Donnarumma Sharnick paints a luminous portrait of a small Louisiana town struggling with the need to change. Young Orla views the world with the sensitivity and sensibility of the painter that she is, looking long and hard at the people she often loves but does not understand. Sharnick writes unstintingly about race and class and the violence we perpetuate in both large and small ways every day. Ultimately, though, this story, Orla’s story, is about the great power of love and art. Read this book and be prepared to have your heart and soul expanded.” — Rachel Basch, author of The Listener

“Orla’s Canvas is the vibrant, engrossing story of a young artist coming of age during the violent upheaval of the civil rights era in the Deep South. With understated intensity and elegant lyricism, Donnarumma Sharnick brings her characters to life as authentic human beings, with flaws and virtues alike. The young narrator’s journey in search of the redemptive power of art is resonant and compelling.” — Joan Lownds, author of Man Overboard

“Taking as her canvas the Civil Rights era in Louisiana, Mary Donnarumma Sharnick tells the affecting story of Orla, a remarkable young heroine with the soul of an artist. The novel is both a gripping look into a historic moment in American culture and a poignant coming-of-age story readers won’t forget.” — Chantel Acevedo, author of The Distant Marvels