Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An interview with Linda Proud, Part 2

And now I'll present the remainder of the interview from Monday, in which we discuss religion in historical novels, how newly uncovered historical facts can affect a storyline-in-progress (or not), marketing historical fiction, and more...

You deal with the subject of religion in a way that feels attuned to the time. I found it remarkable because many historical novels don’t adequately address their characters’ religious beliefs, let alone give readers the opportunity to feel what the characters are experiencing. (I found the “Snow” chapter especially poignant, but there are many other evocative scenes as well.) What philosophers, texts, or other sources served as your greatest inspiration in this regard?

The spiritual aspects where they occur mirror my own experiences. I have been a student of practical philosophy for over thirty years now, and this, as well as studies into the Renaissance, has brought me into contact with all manner of useful texts. The greatest inspirations – apart from the contemporary works of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola – have been the works of Plato, Epictetus, Plotinus and Hermes Trismegistus, but they have been made intelligible by studying the Vedic scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The ‘holy philosophical tradition’ in the West was forced to become esoteric by politicized Christianity and so it hid its meaning in symbol and allegory. This can make it difficult to unpick. But in the East, the holy tradition is mainstream, so reading Eastern mysticism raises the fog. Theologians tell me that you shouldn’t seek to understand one culture by another, but Pico della Mirandola would have disagreed, and that’s my justification. The West gives us the metaphorical truth, the East, the literal truth, but it’s the same truth.

During the process of completing The Rebirth of Venus, the bodies of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano were exhumed to find out how they'd died. Can you explain a little about the historical controversy surrounding their deaths? Did you feel the results of this investigation vindicated your research?

I can’t describe to you the plummeting, sinking feeling that came when I heard that news of the exhumation. Venus had been proof-read and was ready to go. Should I pull it? How long would I have to wait for the results? I wrote to the professor at Bologna who was in charge but he did not deign to reply. Meanwhile I remembered that, over the thirty-three years I’d been working on the project, knowledge-by-intuition had been repeatedly tested and had always triumphed. So I said, ‘Go!’, and the book went.

The results came out the same week as Venus was published (please tell me I am not a character in the novel of some higher power) and all that I had written was vindicated. That’s not so remarkable. I’ve only read about this exhumation in the press, so it’s hard to tell, but I have my doubts as to the quality of the scholarship behind it. For instance, no mention was made, at least in the press, of the previous exhumation in 1947, upon which I had based my theory, and the same old silly stuff about Poliziano was being repeated (that he was the lover of Pico and died of syphilis) even though the exhumation findings showed that he died of arsenic poisoning. There was a remarkable paper written in the 50s by a scholar called Juliana Hill Cotton entitled ‘Death and Poliziano’. Everything that has been discovered in recent times validates the extraordinary claim she made in that paper, that the sudden death of several humanists as the French invaded Florence in 1494 was the result of murder.

The general view has always been that Pico was murdered by his secretary while Poliziano died in any one of a variety of ways, all of them colorfully ignoble apart from one, which must be the true one, that he died of a protracted fever. Following Hill Cotton, I had them both as the victims of murder, but I chose to exonerate Pico’s secretary. The recent studies now point at Piero de’ Medici as the culprit, but in the process of writing I’d followed that thread and not found it to lead anywhere. Venus is not a murder mystery. In the end I stayed realistic and Tommaso never finds out who did it, although he receives some powerful clues. It all rests on that previous exhumation, when Pico’s body was found intact. He had been buried in brocade and not in a Dominican habit as reported. That speaks volumes.

Hill Cotton spent her life writing a biography of Poliziano which she never published. She’s now dead and I’ve not been able to trace it. History needs that biography, and I don’t know where it is.

What do you hope readers take away with them after finishing your novels?

Hope. Hope that magic is real, that life is good, that everything has a plan and a purpose. Love is the part of being human which is wholly divine but it is such a hard path to follow since it requires sacrifice, sacrifice ultimately of our desire to control. I have had incredible feedback over the years but the best I heard, second-hand, was that one reader had been prevented from suicide. And I met one woman who told me she’d never owned a book before Tabernacle but now everyone knows what to get her for birthdays and Christmas and she is building a library of books on the Renaissance. Those kind of stories are thrilling, but they are less to do with my novels than with what they are about. The Renaissance was an incredible period and a fountain of inspiration we can still drink from. What I hope readers will gain is a thirst to find out more for themselves.

Life is no longer dull as it was in the 50s; now it is just plain frightening, and we cocoon ourselves and take the opium of consumerism and mass entertainment. But there is another life, accessed by some through the imagination and arts, by others through theology or philosophy. I hope my books open a door to that world and invite the reader to enter.

As a publisher, what do you find to be the greatest challenge in marketing and selling historical fiction?

Oh, how long have we got? In brief, there is a public out there craving serious historical fiction which educates as much as it entertains, and it is being ignored by mainstream publishers. As I said above, I am not a feminist, but I do get angry about certain things, and one of them is the prejudice about historical fiction written by females. I believe the reason I have not found a publisher in the States is not to do with the quality of my books so much as my name being ‘Linda’ – that leads to preconceptions and criteria which my books fail to meet. Books by female authors are given covers that men would not be seen dead reading. That means that authors of the quality of Philippa Gregory have an almost entirely female readership. That’s a crime!
As for the male authors, they are in denial. They pretend they are not writing historical fiction at all, but literary novels ‘set in the past’. It’s salutary to check the categories which are printed on the back of each novel.

It seems impossible these days that a book be judged by its merits rather than its accord with given ‘product profiles’ and categories. So the greatest challenge is to break down the categories and set books free. We have a polarization between popular fiction and literary fiction, with no real middle ground, at least in Britain (justly famed as we are for our snobbery). I want to see books that are as well-written as they are well-plotted. Readers deserve so much more than they are being given!

Publishing is in such a sorry state. You see, there’s no comeback to make the publishers feel or know public response. You can’t return a book to the shop like you can any other product on the basis that it’s rubbish. You just throw it away and wonder why you wasted your time and money. While a publisher is congratulating himself on selling one hundred thousand copies – on the strength of marketing alone – a situation is being created where people no longer trust reviews or puff and, very possibly, are being put off reading altogether. How can you tell if a book is good or not? – read the first page, not the back cover.

We founded Godstow Press out of necessity. My publisher was bought by a bigger concern and the entire staff changed. The new company didn’t want my second novel, and it seemed impossible that any other publisher would take the second part of a trilogy. Furthermore A Tabernacle for the Sun was not going to be reprinted when it sold its first edition. So we had to do it. But we had a broader agenda, for both my husband and I are sick and tired of reading fiction that gives no reward for the effort. We want reading matter that makes us think, wonder and rejoice. That makes us better people. So from the outset we knew we would be publishing others, and now we have a growing list of titles and, just as important, a growing list of dedicated customers, for we deal direct. Marketing and publicity require you to be brash and pushy, and we’re not, so we build slowly, step-by-step, and almost every day in the mail there’s a lovely letter of gratitude from someone we know only by name. That’s our reward.

I’m very cynical about huge advances, great print runs and sales. Many of these books are just shooting stars, never to be seen or heard of again. I like to tell myself that a real publishing phenomenon is a book which, although it only sold a few copies each week on publication, has continued to sell a few copies each week for ten years – and that’s A Tabernacle for the Sun, which we reprinted. At Godstow Press we are dedicated to the ‘trickle factor’ – anathema to big publishers since the cost of storage is so high. Any profits we make are eaten by storage, but we’re determined not only to make but to keep good books available.

You've been giving lectures on Renaissance-era notables to academic audiences, and have written book reviews for history journals. Have scholars generally welcomed your contributions to the field?

The scholars have been amazing. I have very few formal qualifications and never went to university so, naturally, I was in awe of the historians who, as I did my research, I was forced to meet and contact. Everyone I’ve spoken to, including some of the top guys, has confounded my expectations and been kind and supportive. Some of them are now even on our mailing list.
Whenever I’m asked to do one of these talks, I go into a fever of consternation, but so long as I’m clear, and the audience is clear, that I’m just a novelist, it’s all OK. What I then have to show them is that the novelist has a power of intuition which can often spot things the historians missed, or, through deep immersion, can gain psychological insight into a character. I think people enjoy that approach – they find it a bit of a relief.

Yes, my contributions, such as they are, have been welcomed. It’s all too easy in scholarship to become myopic. The work of a novelist is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, to show a character in the context of his life and times, which often reveals the causes of actions. So I think my work helps scholars to see their specialty in a broader context. But it’s a two-way process, of course, and the contribution of scholarship to my work far outweighs what I’ve given to scholarship. I am entirely indebted to their painstaking labors. What a pity it is that their papers become peer-reading only: we need to revive the middle ground in history books as much as in fiction. It’s all becoming polarized between popular and learned.

There is one particular contribution in Venus which I hope someone will take up. Those murders in 1494 were of men who were at the deathbed of Lorenzo in 1492. That made me wonder about Lorenzo’s death – was it from natural causes as always presumed? Although Venus isn’t a murder mystery, it does revolve on the question, ‘Who killed Lorenzo?’ – and I think the answer I found is very plausible. I hope some historian follows the lead and does the necessary investigation.

What other historical novels do you consider to be the pinnacle of the genre?

Anything by Mary Renault. There are others, of course, who write as well if not better, but Mary’s strength is that she believed in the good and in nobility without any trace of sentimentality. Content has to be as important as style, and content depends ultimately on the content of the author. Other novels: A Man on a Donkey by Hilda Prescott, and A Portrait of Hadrian by Marguerite Youcenar. The star of contemporary writing to my mind is Lindsay Clarke, but his books are more mythological than historical.

Dare I ask, now that your trilogy is complete, what projects – writing, publishing, or otherwise – will you be pursuing next?

Although I do have more than one idea for the next novel – which looks like it will be set in Elizabethan England – I’m not being given the opportunity to do anything about it. For one thing I’m looking after my mother in her extreme old age and what spare time I have is dedicated to teaching creative writing and to various talks and workshops arranged for the next twelve months, each of which requires a lot of preparation. One friend said that this is my jubilee year, when I’m to give back, which is a reassuring idea, if only because a year is a finite unit of time!

I’ve long dreaded this moment, since my path seems to fork, one way leading to continuing with Renaissance study, the other to a new novel, set in another period. The signs are, at the moment, pointing to the former. But I crave that experience of seeing something new, something I have not thought up, appearing on the page, which can only happen in creative fiction.

Anyway, I shall follow my intuition step-by-step. It has never failed in the past. Right this moment, as I’m preparing a talk on Lorenzo de’ Medici – a deeply complex, dualistic character who is utterly wonderful – I would love to do a biography of him. He is meanly represented these days by historians. If we persist in looking at the past through the spectacles of modern cynicism, we shall always fail to see what is there.

As to publishing, at Godstow Press we are working on a collection of lectures by the visionary Sir George Trevelyan and, after that, a reprint of Lindsay Clarke’s amazing novel, Parzival. And that’s another problem with publishing today – even great works are not reprinted if mass sales cannot be anticipated. What we need is a renaissance of integrity and service for the public good. That’s what Godstow Press is all about.

Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to answer questions for this interview!

To recap, The Rebirth of Venus was released in February 2008 (£14.00, pb, ISBN 978-0-9547367-6-7). It may be obtained, along with the first two novels in the trilogy, directly from Godstow Press or from standard sources like Amazon UK.

Monday, April 28, 2008

An interview with Linda Proud, part 1

I'm pleased to be presenting this interview with Linda Proud, author of a trilogy of historical novels set in Renaissance Florence. I'd first read her novel A Tabernacle for the Sun (1st edition Allison & Busby, 1997) ten years ago after spotting the HNR review, which called it "historical fiction at its best." Pallas & the Centaur (Godstow Press, 2003) and The Rebirth of Venus (2008) complete what she terms the Botticelli Trilogy. No other novels I've read about the Renaissance put all the pieces together so well, showing readers the leading personalities of this incredibly creative period in European history as well as delving deeply into the philosophical changes behind it.

The interview is based primarily on the final novel in the trilogy, released in February 2008 by Godstow Press, the publishing company founded by Linda and her husband, David Smith. All three can be read independently, but to absorb the period and storyline more fully, readers may prefer to begin at the beginning, with Tabernacle.

The Rebirth of Venus picks up the story of Tommaso de' Maffei, the protagonist of the first two books, as he approaches middle age. It is now 1505, and Tommaso, a tutor at a London boys' school, finds his heart has grown empty. Disconnected from the principles of philosophy he absorbed in his youth, as a disciple of Florence's famed Platonic Academy, he is unable to interest his students in their lessons. John Colet – Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, an early proponent of English humanism, and Tommaso's mentor – decides to send him back to Italy to revitalize his spirit. As Tommaso makes the journey back home, he continues writing an account of his earlier life for his traveling companion and friend, Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, which he first began in A Tabernacle for the Sun.

Tommaso's account of the 1480s and 90s, which alternates with his pensive story of self-discovery years later, places readers into the very heart of the Florentine Renaissance. As Tommaso interacts with and learns from many Renaissance-era notables – philosophers Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano, painter Sandro Botticelli, religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, and of course Lorenzo de' Medici himself – readers will not only absorb but experience what it was like to be an active participant in this exciting, transformative age. The Botticelli Trilogy is an impressive achievement; the novels are refreshingly different from other historical fiction, in terms of the language used, the depth of the philosophical issues discussed (and they are presented as fresh and enlightening, rather than stuffy and dry), and the time period described. I highly recommend them all.

The novels can be obtained directly from the Godstow Press website or from standard sources such as Amazon UK. Linda also blogs about historical fiction and publishing topics at I hope you enjoy reading this interview; Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.


Given that you've spent over thirty years studying and writing about Renaissance Florence, what about the period first caught your attention? Why does it continue to fascinate you?

In my early 20s I suffered from agoraphobia, brought on by a series of catastrophes – loss of love, of home, of job – and I became extremely withdrawn. I found solace in looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings and rather fell in love with Edward Burne Jones. Then one day I asked myself what ‘pre-Raphael’ meant, and this led me to Botticelli. After having read several art historical books on him, I wanted to know more about his life, about where he lived and when. Discovering he lived in the same city at the same time as Leonardo da Vinci, I wondered what they might have said to each other. Novels tend to begin with such questions.

However, what really captivated me was something – someone – else. Reading a book about Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence in Botticelli’s time, I came across a couple of lines on the character of the poet, Angelo Poliziano, and knew that they were defamatory. I was so certain of it that I wrote Wrong! in the margin. And then I sat and stared at what I had written, for I had never heard of this man before, so how did I know that I wasn’t reading the truth? It was a sense of simpatico. It seemed to me that he was probably a Cancerian and had been misunderstood. I’m a Cancerian myself and, at that time, felt thoroughly misunderstood. So my first piece of real research involved finding the birth date of Poliziano, and I had to go to a more specialist library for that. Sure enough, he was born in July. That was the first moment of frisson, of knowing things I had no right or reason to know.

There were to be very many more, and just as peculiar. It frightened me at first, but I learned to trust it. For instance, when I decided to write a novel, I thought that I must have a fictional protagonist, one that would not be tied by historical fact but who could move around at my will. The first character I created was called ‘Raphael da Volterra’ but as research deepened, I discovered he had existed. So I created his brother, Tommaso. There’s a possibility that he existed, too, but frankly I don’t want to know.

Most of the research, which took eleven years, was into the life of Poliziano, although he was to become just one character of many and really the novels are about Tommaso, but I hope I have gone some way to redeeming his character. Even five hundred years later, falsehoods put about by his enemies and those who murdered him are still being perpetuated by otherwise sound historians. Lorenzo de’ Medici would not have made a life-long friend of a self-serving pedophile!

Poliziano became my guide and my muse. Just reading the books he had read himself put me in touch with the classics and gave me the education I never received at school or college. Despite all creative writing classes, essentially we teach ourselves how to write, but if you keep good company in your reading, your style develops by osmosis. Poliziano was my best and closest companion.

Most novels about the Italian Renaissance focus on its leading families, artists, and literary notables, but barely touch on the transformative philosophical changes that took place -- the actual looking back to ancient texts for inspiration in art, religion, literature, methods of learning, and so forth. Did you deliberately try to write something different, to tell a story that hadn't previously been told in fiction?

No, there was nothing deliberate about it, it was more personal than that. What appealed to me was that things I was interested in, astrology, natural medicine, magic – things which, in the 70s, were very ‘alternative’ indeed – were real to these characters. In a way, I was following in the footsteps of Mary Renault, whose novels set in ancient Greece had either turned me into a Platonist or brought out a philosophy which until then had been latent. So I was attracted by Marsilio Ficino and the Platonic Academy. Starting the novel just happened to coincide with my going to a school of practical philosophy, and at that point life and imagination began to fuse. As a child in the 50s I had found daily life so incredibly dull that I’d developed a very strong faculty of imagination and a private world closed to others. Now I was coming out into the light like a butterfly from a chrysalis, released by these philosophers and poets of the fifteenth century and the art they inspired. The agoraphobia lifted off not long after the project began.

The characters in your novels clearly belong to their own era, and not to ours. How did you manage to leave behind modern times so completely and inhabit the mindset of a man, a fictional disciple of the Platonic Academy, who lived over five hundred years ago?

It was not a conscious effort. Although my husband would disagree, especially when I’m parking the car, I believe I think like a man. As a child I had always preferred to play with boys rather than girls, was always a cowboy and never a cowgirl, let alone a mother or a nurse, so I wasn’t aware that there was a potential difficulty in crossing genders in writing. I was aware of the difficulty in crossing nationalities but as I began to visit Florence, I discovered that the Tuscans are very akin to the English in character although, of course, more demonstrative in their emotions. And as I say, the mindset of a Platonist was already my own.

To be honest, in my own judgment I thought Tommaso was too emotional and feminine, and that everyone would notice. Instead, something curious happened. I heard from several male readers that the novels made them cry. I wanted to put a banner around Pallas and the Centaur with the legend, ‘The book that makes men cry!’, but my husband dissuaded me.

I had much more trouble with the female characters than the male ones. For some reason in the first drafts the women came out disneyfied. I had an idea about women which every ounce of my own being contradicted. Somehow or other I woke up from this stereotypical and male view of women, looked at myself, studied the women I admired, and started to create some real characters. All historical novels today seem to feature a ‘feisty’ female, but often they are 21st century women in period dress. I had to discover the real strengths in these women of the Renaissance and what I found is that women then, as women now, have a depth of character which is uniquely feminine. Being feminine doesn’t mean looking beautiful and having an empty head: it means having strength and stamina, having wisdom. Being a strong woman is not being a masculine woman, not at all. It is being feminine. We have allowed ourselves to be led astray with regard to gender differences and women fight to slough off an identity which was never true. So there is no point in wanting to be a man – being a woman is great!

Although I’m not a feminist in the accepted sense, I do find it infuriating that no records were kept of these women – the documentary evidence of their lives is shockingly thin. I went all the way to Montepulciano to find out what I could about Maria Poliziana, only to discover that there is nothing to be found. Not so much as a record of birth or death. I’ve no idea where she was buried or when. That’s amazing, that history recorded only half the population. But to think that means that men considered women to be of no account would be a mistake. One only has to read what the men said about them.

As to the difference in time, obviously one has to discover through research what they had then which we don’t have now, and vice versa, and strike out all references to, say, tomatoes, or any metaphor with a modern basis (‘he was galvanized into action’). Among the good companions a writer should keep are literary folk a generation or so older. They have a great sense of language, of what is modern and what isn’t. One had me check the date of every word – every word – against The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which is the big one, but not the biggest). She allowed me to use anything up to Shakespeare’s date, but nothing after it. That was a terrific exercise in revision and what sense of authenticity I’ve achieved has been due to that.

One of the joys of writing historical fiction is that you have the opportunity to use an ennobled, heightened form of the language which is denied to us today. Language has changed so much, not just in the last five hundred but in the last fifty years. It’s so thin and denuded these days. I couldn’t bear to write a book set in modern times for that reason. Whenever you read books that have both contemporary and historical sections, the contemporary parts seem to lack all vigor. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas charts this decline of language brilliantly, from the gorgeous cadences of the 19th century to the guttural gobbledegook of the future.

How did you decide to frame your novels around three different paintings by Botticelli? Was this the idea from the beginning?

From the beginning I knew that the plot of A Tabernacle for the Sun would be mirrored by his Primavera but as a character, Botticelli was to be a minor one. There’s really not much known about Botticelli’s life and I didn’t want to go making it up. The title of that first book came from a psalm which I just happened upon. I loved the poetry of it, and the multiple implications of its meaning (both the man, the cathedral, the city, the world – each is a tabernacle for the divine light, like Russian dolls). That I didn’t call the book ‘Primavera’ rather shows that, at the time, Botticelli was a subtle inspiration rather than a guiding spirit. I don’t remember how the second one came to be called ‘Pallas and the Centaur’ but I think it happened when I was in the Uffizi and gazing at the painting, which was so obviously set in the period of the novel, the early 1480s. For a long while that novel had had the title ‘The Altar of the Moon’. Each book has worn and discarded several titles until the final one, which becomes the final one only because it’s not replaced by any other! But when it became ‘Pallas and the Centaur’, and the cover was obvious, it was then that I began calling the whole work The Botticelli Trilogy.

One of the original titles for the third was ‘The Birth of Venus’ but, dammit, Sarah Dunant got there first. And I was grateful because my story wasn’t really about the birth of Venus – Tommaso had already been in love once before. So Rebirth, which is the English for Renaissance, became the obvious choice, the Rebirth of Venus.

Each novel has taken roughly ten years to write. It was back in the late 90s, when I was doing the first draft of Venus, that a musician-philosopher I’d been in contact with by email asked me if I knew that all three paintings had once hung together at the Villa Castello. This was one of those numinous, otherworldly moments where I wondered if I were really the author or just a character in the story of some higher power. Because, no, I had not known that. Having been told it, I forgot about it. It only re-emerged in consciousness as I was struggling to find an ending to Venus. And as I followed where it led, I found it was offering more than that: it was tying up the whole trilogy, not something I had thought of having to do.

Another numinous moment was when I discovered that the tabernacle psalm was Ficino’s favorite and he used it as an incantatory Orphic hymn.

You mention that you make every effort to stay true to the historical facts. Can you describe examples when you discovered a fact that had the potential to change your storyline? What did you do?

I can’t remember any specific examples, but it did happen, because I do remember screaming and tearing at my hair. But each time I found that if I stayed with history, no matter what pain it caused in rewriting, the story became deeper and richer and threads started up which became vital later. I really learnt to trust this. But there were just as many occasions when I found that ‘research’ was more a process of ‘verification’. Some of my ‘facts’, I have to say, remain to be verified, but since history does not contradict them at the moment, I let them remain.

There was one thing where I ignored history and stayed with the story, and that was the dating of the Primavera. My novel hinged on it being painted in 1478 and not in the 1480s as thought by art historians. It’s always said that you should give your story its head so, in respect of that, I did. One art historian, however, was so impressed by my reasoning that she went off and did some research, enough to convince herself that I was right, that the painting had been done for Giuliano de’ Medici and not for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who acquired it in the 1480s. It seems now that the idea is meeting general acceptance – I often see it dated ‘1478’ – although to my mind it has yet to be proved.

You present all of your historical characters as multifaceted individuals, rather than promoting a particular angle -- and this is true even for controversial figures such as Savonarola. Today's readers remember him mainly for the Bonfire of the Vanities, but your novel made it possible to understand why Florentines of the time found his reforms so appealing. While writing, did you have to consciously break away from any preconceived notions you had about him, or about any of your characters?

Yes, all the time. I learnt early on that if you have good guys and bad guys what you have is two-dimensional characters. Being my first novel, when A Tabernacle for the Sun kept being rejected, I presumed it was because it was rubbish, but the Arts Council thought otherwise and gave me a grant to spend some concentrated time writing yet another draft. I went back to Volterra, twenty years after my first visit, to find ‘missing factor X’ – that something which was eluding me which would make my book irresistible to publishers. It was in Volterra that I suddenly realized that Tommaso’s brother, Antonio – who was instrumental in the Pazzi Conspiracy and therefore my villain – had had a good side. It was a powerful realization. Everyone wants to be happy; everyone acts for what he/she considers to be the best. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are labels which historians slap on. We are all of us both, it’s just a question of degree. The book was accepted within a week of finishing the last draft, by a publisher who had stayed up all night in his office reading it.

Savonarola was exceptionally difficult. My own views about him are more negative than I’ve expressed in the novel, but I was conscious that, for many, he is a candidate for beatification. I wrote the book as a warning to those many friends who, all good souls, would be seduced by such a figure were he to rise again. But, as St Matthew said, you can only tell him by his fruits, which is to say, you can’t tell by looking at him. Another of my good companions was George Eliot, and her view of Savonarola in Romola was very positive. So I allowed myself to see him through her eyes, for the sake of balance. (But if her Tito had been one of my characters, by golly, I would have redeemed him.)

Another character just as difficult was Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, who I had every reason to deplore. A pallid, pious doormat who set out to destroy Poliziano, and started those ugly rumors which still persist. It took me years to find the Clarice I could love, pity and admire, and the moment I understood her was one of those epiphanies that burns the retina of the memory.

Out of all the historical characters that appear in The Rebirth of Venus, were there any whose personalities you enjoyed re-creating the most?

Well, I think it has to be Botticelli! Having relegated him to a minor character in the first two books, it seemed only fair and just that he play a larger role in the third, and there was more historical information to go on, but it was contradictory. He is usually portrayed as a convert to Savonarola who gave up painting pagan mythologies and turned to Christian works, but according to the records he played host to the young thugs who were seeking Savonarola’s downfall. I love these contradictions: you have to chew and chew until they make sense.

I made myself familiar with Dante, as he was Botticelli’s passion, and I entered that passion and shared it with him. Out of it came this somewhat inscrutable character who becomes withdrawn as life around him grows difficult and finds solace in his art (which, now I think about it, was my own condition when this all began). My favorite passage in the book is when he has become so neglectful of his person, so dirty and stinky, that Tommaso pushes him in the Arno, only to discover that Botticelli can’t swim. I like to do that passage at readings, although my husband says it gives a false impression about Botticelli, which is true enough. It was only a phase. The Botticelli that appears at the end, the truly grumpy old man who’s putting on the act of being mad to amuse himself at the expense of others, and who goes to Castello to see his three paintings hanging together, was never deliberately planned or thought up: he just emerged. That’s what I love most about writing, when what appears on the page is as new to you as to anyone.

Watch for Part 2 of this interview on Wednesday!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Your favorite historical fiction websites, please.

I've arrived at the chapter in my manuscript that will list resources on historical fiction for librarians and readers. I'm looking for ideas on what else to include. What websites do you find most valuable in keeping up with historical fiction, letting you know what books are out there, etc?

I'm not looking for blogs (though I'll include some) so much as online bibliographies, lists, guides, discussion forums, and things of that sort.... sites that are fairly extensive and/or comprehensive on a given subject. I include a number of these on this blog's sidebar, and there are some others in v.1 of my book, but what other sites am I missing? "Historical fiction" in my definition includes all the subgenres... historical mystery, sagas, historical romance, historical fantasy, historical adventure, alternate history, etc.

Examples of types of things I'm looking for are Fictional Rome and CrimeThruTime.

If you have a copy of my previous book, this is for Chapter 15, which is, in fact, the last chapter... I'm nowhere near done, however, as I still need to update the intro and the earlier chapters with historical novels published during 2008. But I'm getting there.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Whole lotta shakin' going on

Until I read about the earthquake on the news this morning (5.2 magnitude, with an epicenter 85 miles south of here) I had no idea why I'd woken up at 4:30am wondering why the roof was shaking. Anyone else feel it?

In other news, the Editors' Choice titles from May's Historical Novels Review were posted earlier this week.

From Hutchinson has acquired three more historical novels from Alison Weir, two about the Tudors and one about the Plantagenets. (The Lady Elizabeth was an Editors' Choice for May.)

Finally, in celebration of National Library Week, I thought I'd share the following video. You have to sit through the intro to get to the funny bits. Now you know what I do all day... and doesn't every campus have its resident ghost? I know ours does.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Free access to Greenwood databases for National Library Week

This post came from the Fiction_L email list, a discussion list for readers' advisors in libraries. My book Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (from 2005) is online, along with a number of guides to other genres, via Greenwood's Reader's Advisor Online database. If you want to see what it's all about, register for free access throughout National Library Week (which begins tomorrow, 4/13).


Libraries Unlimited is providing free access to the Reader's Advisor Online during National Library Week April 13-19, 2007. (And of course, the Blog is free everyday!)

Simply follow the link to You will be asked to register, then simply click the Reader's Advisor Online title on the product list. For subsequent visits during Library Week, just enter your email address.

The Reader's Advisor Online is based on the Genreflecting series published by Libraries Unlimited. More than a database, this sophisticated finding tool gives users multiple ways to browse and find related reading and read-alikes. It includes recreational nonfiction as well as fiction. There are many special features, including the Genre Tree, the Read-Alike Finder, the Read-Alike Quick List, and the saved list for creating handouts for your patrons and flyers for your library.

Laura Calderone
Managing Editor, Electronic Products
Libraries Unlimited

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Various historical fiction tidbits

I'll be back to posting book reviews and longer pieces eventually, but for now I'm wrapped up in my final content-intensive book chapter - which is on alternate history - after spending a full three weeks editing and proofreading HNR (and it's not over yet).

There has been some historical fiction-related news coming through, however, so without further ado...

Booklist's April 15th issue contains their annual Spotlight on Historical Fiction. Much of the content is reserved to subscribers of the print magazine or Booklist Online, but there are several pieces freely available to all. Among them is Brad Hooper's article, Core Collection: Historical Sagas, his review of Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, his Top 10 Historical Fiction: 2008, Hazel Rochman's Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth, and Joyce Saricks' article At Leisure: Revisiting Historical Fiction. My review of Philippa Gregory's The Other Queen is also published in this issue; here's a link for those who subscribe.

From the New York Times, via Shelf Awareness: "Kurt Andersen has won the 2007 David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction for his best-selling novel Heyday (Random House). Mr. Andersen, a columnist for New York magazine and host of Studio 360 on public radio, will receive $1,000."

Yes, there is an annual prize for American historical fiction; this is the first year the Langum Prize was open to commercial trade press publications in addition to university presses and small presses. If you'll be publishing a novel with an American setting during 2008, why not consider entering to win next year's prize? Judging by this and the many other accolades that Heyday has received, mine is a minority opinion; I wish I'd enjoyed it more.

Tehelka, a weekly newspaper from India, interviews Richard Zimler, author of Guardian of the Dawn and other novels of Sephardic Jews. I reviewed Guardian a while ago for HNR and consider it an undiscovered treasure. The review was reprinted on the Loaded Shelf forums.

From The Bookseller (UK): Bernard Cornwell's next novel will be about the Battle of Agincourt.

An interview with Sally Gunning (The Widow's War, Bound) from the Cape Cod Times. If you haven't read these books, historical novels set on Cape Cod in the 18th century, you're missing out.

From the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, observations on historical fiction as they relate to Mary Swan's The Boys in the Trees, set in small-town Canada in 1888.

Also some deals:

Lorenzo Borghese's THE PRINCESS OF NOWHERE, Antonio Canova's masterpiece sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte lies in the crux of this historical novel which centers on the romance and relationship of Camillo Borghese and Pauline Bonaparte in early 19th century Rome; the statue, presently at Galleria Borghese, depicts the extremely complicated and passionate woman that Canova, who was hired by Camillo, witnessed, to Lucia Macro at Avon, by Ian Kleinert at Objective Entertainment.

One of the recent stars of ABC's The Bachelor has the same name as the author above. I'm assuming they're different people (though likely related to one another) unless someone tells me otherwise.

Conn Iggulden's fifth and sixth untitled books in his historical novel series on Genghis Kahn, to John Flicker at Bantam Dell, in a significant deal, by Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Literary Management, on behalf of Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath (US).

For those keeping track, v.2 in the Genghis Khan series was just published. I can't resist keeping the original spelling from the Publishers Marketplace entry, which makes the great Mongol warrior sound like someone's crazy uncle from the Bronx.

Cathy Marie Buchanan's THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL, based on historical events surrounding the life of Niagara's most famous riverman, William Red Hill, a sweeping love story between a privileged daughter of a disgraced family and a working class man whose mysterious ability to predict the whims of the Niagara renders him both a hero and a pawn in the battle for the survival of the falls themselves, to Pamela Dorman at Voice, in a significant deal, in a pre-empt, by Dorian Karchmar of the William Morris Agency. Canadian rights to Iris Tupholme at Harper Canada, by Hyperion. UK rights to Arrow.

Friday, April 04, 2008

How to become a bestselling historical novelist

Publishers Weekly's March 24 issue just hit my desk today (I see them a week late) and I was pleased to note it was their 2007 Facts and Figures issue. Earlier this year, letters went out from PW to publishers asking them to submit sales figures on titles that sold more than 100,000 copies during 2007. Only sales to bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries counted. Book club editions and overseas sales did not.

The complete results are here, but to make things easier for you, I'll be pulling out some info on historical novels that made the list, for the hardcover fiction category at least.

There are no historical novels in spots #1-15 on PW's list. These places are dominated by thrillers, particularly James Patterson (who has a ridiculous 5 titles there), mysteries, Jodi Picoult, and of course Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, with 2.2+ million copies sold. But as for the rest of the list, we find the following. The numbers in parentheses indicate total sales as reported to PW.

#16 - Rhett Butler's People, Donald McCaig (606,304)
#19 - World Without End, Ken Follett (552,165)
#21 - The Chase, Clive Cussler (478,195)

Others, all with sales from 250,000 to 100,000 copies, in descending order:

Everlasting, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon
The Boleyn Inheritance, Philippa Gregory
Mark's Story, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
The Double Agents, W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV
The Ravenscar Dynasty, Barbara Taylor Bradford
The Bone Garden, Tess Gerritsen
The Heir, Barbara Taylor Bradford
Peony in Love, Lisa See
Loving Frank, Nancy Horan
Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th, Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen
The River Knows, Amanda Quick
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
Away, Amy Bloom
Up in Honey's Room, Elmore Leonard
The Lady in Blue, Javier Sierra
The Quest, Wilbur Smith

Based on this information, it would seem that being a bestselling historical novelist (in hardcover) during 2007 required one or more of the following:
  1. Writing a highly anticipated sequel to a beloved historical novel that also happened to be a bestseller.
  2. Having your previous XX novels, historical or not, be bestsellers.
  3. Garnering uniformly stellar reviews and having your publisher back your efforts with a large-scale marketing campaign.
  4. Being (a) a famous political figure or (b) an author of the Left Behind series or (c) an author who died in 2007, leaving behind a manuscript for a final novel.
  5. Writing a very good book that appeals to an awful lot of different people. (Yes, probably self-evident, but...) Extra points if it's so good that it receives award nominations in two or more fiction genres and/or works extremely well with book clubs.

"Veteran novelists and Media Stars Make the Top Grades," reads the article's subtitle, which covers a lot of it. Taking a closer look at the list... there are few commonalities in terms of historical setting, and there's a mix of thrillers, literary titles, romances, sagas, alternate histories, and other things that are hard to categorize. Several are first efforts in historical fiction from bestselling authors known for their work in other genres.

PW compiles separate lists for trade paperbacks and mass market, which you can also read about, but I'll mention a few huge sellers in trade paperback as well, such as Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, with 1.0 to 1.4 million sales apiece in 2007. The last three, of course, were Oprah picks. Philippa Gregory's The Constant Princess had sales of 318,000, while The Boleyn Inheritance added 242,000 sales in trade paperback to its hardcover total of 211,000 (in the same year).

Which ones have I read? Only Rhett Butler's People, which I thoroughly enjoyed (with a few small caveats) and The Boleyn Inheritance (ditto). Among those in trade, I've read Pillars of the Earth and The Constant Princess, both of which I liked, but I wouldn't put either on a list of all-time favorites.