Sunday, May 30, 2010

BEA 2010, my first report

I got back from NYC last night, after having an outstanding time at BEA and all of the events associated with the Book Blogger Convention. As expected, I left both energized and overwhelmed by all of the panels, meetings, and conversations with fellow book people. I'm not sure how many BEAs I've been to - this may be my 7th - but based on what I've seen at this particular show, the era of the blogger has officially arrived. There have been bloggers at past BEAs, but never before have I seen publishers actively pursuing and catering to bloggers as I did this time.

This is also the first year that my badge listed my historical fiction interests rather than my library affiliation (how did I not know that I was eligible for a free press pass before now?), and it made a huge difference. There was a lot of historical fiction at the show if you knew where to look, and the press badge helped considerably in that respect. I left the exhibit hall around 3pm Wednesday because my bag became too heavy and uncomfortable to carry; it was too full of books to lug around with me any longer. This meant, though, that I missed the late afternoon signings I'd planned to get to, and I never did make it back to visit some of the publishers' booths.

It wasn't my deliberate intention to do so, but although I did find great-sounding books at some of the larger booths, I concentrated on visiting small and independent presses - Unbridled, Counterpoint, Persea, Severn House, Overlook, Other Press, to name just a few - and seeing what relevant titles they'd be publishing in summer or fall. And every time, I found the representatives very receptive to queries. I came away with numerous catalogs, ARCs, and finished copies I hadn't heard of earlier and didn't even know would be available at BEA. I love this part of the show; there are some things you only learn about by being there.

I'm going to be posting about my book finds in stages because they'll be arriving home in stages. All of my signed titles came home with me on the plane, along with some others I got at The Strand, and the rest were sent back via UPS on Saturday. This means they won't even be leaving NY until Tuesday, so I'll have to live without them for a while.

These are the signed copies I stood in line for. The first and last are contemporary international mysteries, not historical fiction, but the settings and storylines interested me. Descriptions of the rest:

John Calu and David Hart's Trenton is a multi-period novel set in New Jersey, both during the Revolutionary War and today. John Hart, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (and the ancestor of one of the authors), is the protagonist of the early section.

This is the third time I've met Deanna Raybourn at BEA, so of course I had to get a copy of her latest novel, an adventurous mystery set in 1850s Transylvania.

It was a pleasure to meet Mitchell James Kaplan at the Other Press booth. His novel of the Inquisition, By Fire, By Water, has been getting excellent reviews everywhere, and I'm eager to read it myself.

Rag and Bone is 5th in the Billy Boyle historical mystery series. I haven't yet read any, but one of my friends is a fan and suggested I give it a try.

The back cover of Peter Quinn's The Man Who Never Returned indicates that his series protagonist, Fintan Dunne, will be returning to solve NY's greatest unsolved mystery. There's high praise from high profile thriller writers on the back. Looks intriguing. And upon seeing my badge, and hearing me discuss the HNS with the author, the publicist at Overlook offered me a copy of a new Penny Vincenzi saga (WWII-era) coming out this fall. [Edited to say: the Quinn is set in the 1950s with references to the '30s.]

City of Dreams is a multi-period financial thriller, a history-mystery set at various times over the past 200-odd years. Other entries in this ongoing series have been set in New England, but this one's firmly planted in NYC.

And finally, Russian Winter is one of my top finds; somehow I missed seeing the signing on the BEA website, but I came across it randomly and got right in line. It combines history and romance in a literary novel that moves between post-WWII Russia to present-day Boston.

But enough about the books; after all, BEA is really about the people you meet by way of your literary interests. I didn't take pictures (and really should have) and only have time to list some of the highlights, but I really enjoyed meeting my fellow HNS reviews editors for lunch on Wednesday - what a blast that was! My husband Mark and I met up with my librarian friend Rachel Singer Gordon (who was there to do a signing for her new couponing book) for dinner on Tuesday. I got to chat with fellow historical fiction fan Suzanne McGee over lunch on Wednesday and enjoyed a wonderful Italian meal with blogger/reviews editor Andrea Connell (her brand new HF blog is the Queen's Quill review) on Thursday night. Mark's written up our culinary adventures in NYC at Greasy Spoons, his restaurant review blog.

I also caught up with Susan Holloway Scott just before the Book Blogger Convention reception on Thursday evening. The reception was awesome; imagine a room full of book bloggers, authors, and publicists, all meeting up and chatting about bookish things for two hours. Several of my fellow HF bloggers were there; I got to meet Allie of Hist-Fic Chick and Heather from The Maiden's Court in person, as well as many others interested in the genre.

I'm leaving a lot out, but it's hard to encapsulate two hours of meet-and-greet in what was going to be a short post. The number of publishers, authors, and independent publicists at the reception was very encouraging; it was a sign that the publishing world is taking this enthusiastic, growing segment seriously indeed. Contrary to the beliefs of some, we're not a bunch of losers writing about books from our basements in Terre Haute, but a vibrant and necessary part of the industry. (Full disclosure: I live just west of Terre Haute. I hope nobody has a problem with that.) It was a real pleasure to speak in person with so many people I'd known only through our blogs, Facebook, or Twitter. On the latter subject, it was just after BEA in 2009 that I first got a Twitter account, after sheepishly admitting to too many people that I didn't already have one. It is a big time-suck, as I suspected, but also a lot of fun.

More on the convention later on. For now I think I'll find a new book to read before heading to bed.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

An interview with C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

I'm pleased to welcome historical novelist C.W. Gortner to the blog. His most recent work of fiction, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, looks beyond the villainous legends surrounding his protagonist to reveal an intelligent, responsible woman determined to do right by her family and country. Here she reveals her own life story from orphaned Florentine heiress to neglected Queen and wife through the time she finally comes into her own as powerful Queen Mother to a land torn apart by religious turmoil. It's a novel that will have you rethinking all you've been told about Catherine and the infamous Medici legacy.

A regular visitor to Reading the Past, Christopher is a good friend as well as a fantastic writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed his dramatic yet intimate and very human portrait of Catherine's life and times. I'm happy he agreed to be interviewed for Reading the Past, especially given his busy schedule these days! In addition to promoting his new book release, he's also working hard on his next historical novels, The Princess Isabella — which will look at the early life of the well-known Spanish queen — and The Tudor Secret, an Elizabethan-era historical thriller.

Why are you drawn to rulers who have been maligned by history, particularly Renaissance-era women?

Ever since I can remember, I've been attracted to the dark horses of history; my reasoning is, if someone lived a life that was so controversial as to sow a black legend, then there must be more to them than history tells us. And usually, once I start researching, I find there is.

Legends are by their nature simplistic: Catherine de Medici was evil; Juana of Castile was crazy; Anne Boleyn was a home wrecker; Henry VIII was a monster. It's how we pigeonhole complex beings into identifiable stereotypes, and sometimes this has its uses. For me as a novelist, the legend's usefulness is establishing where it started and how it developed; often, what I find out doesn't even make it into the novel itself but rather assists me to understand the psychological and social underpinnings that led up to the blackening or distortion of the person in question, as in Catherine was at the center of a massacre of Protestants and accused of instigating it, ergo, she was portrayed by most Protestant chroniclers as evil. I then research events prior to and after that defining event, because of course the reality is rarely black and white.

As for the Renaissance-era women, I have a degree in Renaissance Studies and have been captivated by the era for as long as I can remember; by lucky coincidence, quite a few famous women of the time have engendered black legends.

Catherine's life has strange similarities to Juana's. Both are strong-minded women with the potential to rule wisely if given the chance; both work tirelessly to ensure their dynasty and country survive; and eerily enough, both find themselves imprisoned by Charles V at different points in their lives. On the other hand, Catherine makes it clear that France and Spain are very different countries with different customs. Did you deliberately try to draw parallels and, later, distinctions between your two heroines?

I actually didn't deliberately seek to draw parallels but I find it fascinating they exist. I hadn't even thought about them both being imprisoned by Charles V! As a writer, I tend to fall in love with my characters as individuals; it's what I most seek as I begin the process of writing, to discover their unique voice. Juana and Catherine challenged me in very different ways. I also have the iron-clad rule that once I start a new book I have to quite literally erase the previous one from my writing consciousness. I know this sounds weird but as a writer, if I carry one book with me into the new one, the new characters suffer as a result. Still, your assessments are very astute: Catherine and Juana do indeed share these qualities while being quite distinct in others.

Your Diane de Poitiers is quite the ice queen! She's beautiful but cold, calculating, and serpentine, though Henri certainly found her alluring (and her experience in the bedroom certainly comes in handy...) Most modern novelists have depicted her relationship with Catherine's husband as an enduring star-crossed romance, though Catherine herself certainly wouldn't see it that way. Do you share Catherine's opinion of Diane?

My sincere apologies to all her fans, for I know she has many, but after my research, I must say I do share Catherine's opinion of her. Given the choice, I'd rather have been Catherine's friend.

I loved reading about all the fashions of the period; the descriptions of Catherine's jewel-encrusted brocade gowns, among others, were absolutely sumptuous. Do you credit your past interest in/experience with the fashion industry for your ability to recreate, in fiction, the costumes of past times?

Thank you! I do love the fashions of the time, too. It's one of the aspects of the Renaissance that first enthralled me growing up: those incredibly elaborate clothes. My interest in fashion is life-long, and so perhaps my studies when I was getting my fashion marketing degree have helped me to recreate the era's apparel in my writing. I took an entire semester of courses in historical costume and had to learn about how clothes of the past were constructed, fastened together on the body, taken apart and recycled (yes, they did recycle: when sleeves wore out, for example, they tore out the usable fabric and used it to make new sleeves).

I thought you did an excellent job portraying Catherine's mystical interests without going over the top. How much of this her visions of the future, for example, as well as those of Nostradamus was taken from the historical record?

Several of Catherine's intimates and her children, including Margot, mention her gift of prophecy or second sight. According to them, she did foresee most of the events I describe in the book, as did Nostradamus those attributed to him.

For research into this rather obscure area, I consulted several psychics, to find out what they see when they enter a state of trance or foresight. I found that many experience their visions as dream-like sequences, often lacking vital sensory data; such as, they'll see a place but not hear any surrounding sounds that might identify it. Their work is often piece-meal, hard to decipher without accompanying training and rigid self-discipline. Nostradamus did train himself and saw many of his visions in water; he wrote them down as verses. To this day, scholars offer different interpretations of what he wrote.

Catherine was an untrained psychic, for lack of a better word; she certainly delved into the occult obsession of the age, as did many well-to-do people of her era, but I do not believe she was a mistress of the occult in any sense of the term. That's part of her legend. Only one of her visions in my book is fictional, though she did make mention of a presentiment leading up to the event's occurrence. All others are based on accounts of people who knew her in life, as well as her own letters. Her meetings with Nostradamus are all drawn from record, too; however, one of his prophecies as quoted in the novel is my invention.

Catherine shows an amazing capability for religious tolerance, one that's remarkable for her time. Yet in history, her accomplishments in this respect have been overshadowed by rumor that infers the opposite. Do you feel her gender is to blame for this to some degree?

Absolutely. Women were seen as the weaker sex, with all the baggage that label implies. Women were by nature considered to be more emotional, more apt to act vengefully or without forethought, more prone to unreasonable passions — in short, unable to withstand life's vicissitudes with equanimity and logic. Of course, this is horse droppings, as we all know, but for centuries after Catherine's death, despite advances made in women's rights and the fact that women had been ruling since the time of pharaohs and before, these strange notions on the temperament of the sexes, which mirror the outdated medical notion of humors, prevailed. Tolerance wasn't a fashionable sentiment in the 16th century; some might say it still isn't! And religious tolerance in a woman would have been seen as a weakness, another sign of her natural inferiority or defect. That Catherine's innate dislike of the senselessness of religious prejudice has been distorted is both a testament to gender bias and to her accomplishments. She's been made into an intolerant harpy dead-set on destroying her religious opponents, when in reality she was the opposite.

While Catherine's years as Henri II's queen showed how her character developed, she doesn't truly come into her own until after his death; she's far more powerful and influential as a mother than as a wife. How do you think Catherine's three sons would have fared as kings, had she not been around to provide guidance?

Historians are divided on important aspects of this particular issue; for example, we hear from one that Catherine's eldest son was a weakling from birth, from others that he was made weak by Catherine's over protectiveness after her husband's death; still from others that Diane de Poitier's dominance over the nurseries while she held sway at court gravely delayed the children's ability to mature. Likewise, there is divided opinion on the sanity of her son Charles and to some extent her favorite son, Henri.

Given the horrifying religious chaos that ensued after Henri II's accident, the constant predations of powerful nobles like the Guises, I'd venture to say that Catherine's sons would have fared much worse had she not been there to guide them. They grew up amongst the carnage of war and the vicious intrigue of the court; they could not help but have been deeply affected, even warped, by what they experienced. She was the sole force in their lives which, for better or worse, always sought to protect them. She made mistakes; what mother does not? But I believe she always meant to do her best.

Ironically, of all her children, the one who was most like her in strength and therefore antithetical to her in personality was Margot. Now, the mind just goes wild imagining what France might have been like had Salic Law prohibiting female succession not been in effect and Margot had had the chance to become a reigning queen of France!

Catherine's life has been subject to a lot of lurid speculation - that she poisoned her enemies (including Jeanne of Navarre), that she was the primary instigator for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, that she dabbled (perhaps more than dabbled) in witchcraft, devil worship and other assorted nastiness. Given that over four centuries have passed since then, how did you go about separating the facts from the myth? What sources proved most helpful?

I must say, my primary helpful source was common sense. This was a woman facing a barrage of serious ideological and social issues, any one of which might explode at any moment and overturn the precarious seat of the monarchy, upon which her sons perched. We tend to see poisoning as a Hollywood convenience item when we envision the era, when in fact it wasn't nearly as easy or common as we think. Poison was notoriously hard to manipulate and more detectable than we assume; physicians of the era were often versed in particular poisons and their accompanying symptoms.

A woman in Catherine's position, facing the challenges she did, would have been reckless, if not downright stupid, to poison someone with as high a profile as Jeanne de Navarre, and on the very fortnight of the wedding between Jeanne's son and Catherine's daughter, no less! Catherine was neither stupid nor particularly reckless. In my novel, I used a theory of why the St Bartholomew's Massacre took place upheld by several leading scholars of the period; and I show her interest in the occult for what I believe it actually was. Even if she had the inclination, Catherine didn't have time to obsessively spend her days studying witchcraft; her life, especially during her older years, is peppered with ceaseless travel, personal worry and crisis.

I found contemporary sources, in particular letters and journals of her contemporaries, quite revealing because they're not subject to the sensationalistic propaganda of later historians seeking to re-create Catherine to suit their agendas. I also found several modern biographies, in particular Leonie Frieda's and Irene Mahoney's masterful works, quite helpful in shedding much-needed light on Catherine from a female perspective. Lastly, Catherine's own letters are telling in that they show a woman of intelligence, perseverance and emotional fortitude, who is nonetheless very Italian at moments in her sense of the dramatic and unswerving loyalty to those she loved. I don't think she ever set out to murder anyone, save for one man - and by the standards of the time and definitions of treason, he merited death. Elizabeth I certainly wouldn't have suffered his mischief for as long as Catherine did; she would have arrested and executed him. It was Catherine's misfortune that she could not, that she was forced to resort to the sneaky back-alley attempt that turned Paris into a slaughterhouse and branded her forever as a callous killer.

Obviously you weren't able to use all of the material you accumulated while researching Catherine. What were some interesting or unique facts you uncovered that didn't make it into the book?

She loved animals. I show this through her relationship with Muet, the long-lived little dog given to her by her daughter Elisabeth, but in reality Catherine kept a menagerie of creatures with her, from parrots to monkeys to dancing bears that followed her coach when she went on progress. Her household accounts show copious and significant sums paid out for the upkeep of her animals, as well as for the lions of Amboise, whose housing facility she did in fact have restored and modernized, after years of serious neglect under Francois I.

I also discovered that Catherine brought several items we use today to France for the first time, including artichokes and a first modern version of the side-saddle. She believed brewed tobacco could cure certain ailments and sometimes smoked it; and she's credited for introducing the use of female underpants to the French court. I have no idea what the fine ladies wore before she arrived; one assumes they went commando :)

How was the writing process for this novel different than that for The Last Queen, given that the latter book was independently published before getting picked up by Ballantine?

Like Last Queen, Confessions was written years before it was acquired. In fact, had my fabulous agent Jennifer Weltz not rescued me and sold the books at auction, I was going to independently publish Confessions next. The press even had a cover designed and layout started. And as with Last Queen, I had to do revisions under the guidance of my editor Susanna Porter to get the novel into shape for publication by Ballantine.

However, while I revised many of the scenes in Last Queen and added a few new ones, Confessions required a more extensive effort. My first draft started out being over 1,000 pages long, if you can imagine (those were the days when I was a naive aspiring author who thought word counts really didn't matter:) I then cut it back to 800 several years later, did another revision a year after that, which took it back up to 826 pages, and then cut it back to 500-something for delivery to Ballantine. Naturally, once she read it Susanna saw a lot that needed addressing, so I can fairly say this was my most challenging book to date, because of the amount of re-working involved.

When a book is completed, or at least the way I write, it's like a tapestry, with every thread contributing to the whole. Start snipping a thread here and re-weaving one there, and suddenly you have a tangled mess on your hands. By the time I was done with this book, I was exhausted and in a daze. I had no idea what I'd done because I felt as though I'd been working on it for years - which, in essence, I had. Susanna, my assistant editor Jillian Quint, and Jennifer contributed enormously to the book's shape and kept me afloat. Catherine's overly eventful life makes her a tough subject for any novelist; the sheer number of personalities and issues are daunting. I do hope I've done it, and her, justice. She certainly drove me with her characteristic tirelessness.

On a personal note, I want to thank you for inviting me here today, Sarah. You've been an important friend and mentor to me since I first began publishing, and a true champion of the genre.

Thanks very much, Christopher... I appreciate your taking the time to respond to questions for this interview!

C.W. Gortner's The Confessions of Catherine de Medici was published by Ballantine on May 25th at $25.00 ($29.95 in Canada). For more information, visit his website at as well as his historical fiction blog, Historical Boys.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A report on Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills

For all of the buzz created in the publishing world when Tiger Hills was purchased a year ago (Penguin India reportedly paid seven figures for it, the largest advance they'd ever offered for a debut novel), there's been little discussion about it so far online. It's been described as an Indian Gone with the Wind crossed with The Thorn Birds, which describes both the scope of the novel and its strong sense of place. There is a star-crossed love story within its pages, but not the one I expected; I also didn't realize that it would be elegantly crafted literary fiction rather than a more easygoing, popular narrative. But no matter. I still thought it was a wonderful book.

Mandanna has created an entire world within its 460 pages, one full of complex social dramas, rich cultural traditions, and deep emotions. The breathtaking landscape casts a magical light on its inhabitants and their interactions with one another. Perhaps the tone is a little nostalgic, as the author's describing a region and people she knows well — though she currently resides in Canada, south India is her home — but such is the spell she casts with her writing that it didn't lift until long after I'd closed the book. I wasn't sure I was going to write about it here (this wasn't a review copy, and sometimes it's refreshing to read a book you don't have to review) but the nagging sense that I really ought to spread the word about it made me give in. I knew I wouldn't be able to concentrate on my current read unless I did.

The story plays out amidst the undulating hills, coffee plantations, and picturesque local villages of Coorg, a small principality nestled within the Sahaydri mountains of southern India. It spans over fifty years, from 1878 through the coming of World War II. The opening scene seemed a bit over the top at first, given that it describes how the birth of the heroine, Devi, was heralded by the arrival of over a hundred herons. Perhaps she would turn out to be too perfect for words. This turns out not to be the case at all. Devi does grow to be exquisitely beautiful, but what this dramatic passage shows best is the mystical relationship between the land, animals, and the people of Coorg — an emphasis carried through most of the book.

The only girl born to her family for over sixty years, Devi grows up restless and spoiled, her whims indulged by her loving parents and grandmother. She and Devanna, a serious-minded boy whose mother died in tragic circumstances, become as close as "two seeds in a cardamom pod," playing together in the crab streams and jungles adjacent to their village. But from the moment young Devi meets Machu at the "tiger wedding" held in his honor — a grand celebration meant to glorify the hunter who kills a tiger — she determines that she'll marry no one but him. Devanna, however, knows the only woman he'll ever love is Devi.

Devanna shows an aptitude for math and botanical study, and his abilities are noted by the head of the local mission school, a German transplant to Coorg who treats Devanna like a son and prepares him for a brilliant scientific career. But when one well-meaning but selfish action results in terrible, unforeseen consequences, it warps the future of everyone concerned, so much so that the pain extends through later generations. I honestly didn't know if I'd make it through these gut-wrenching scenes, they were so difficult to read. Fortunately, both the book and I survived, though I wouldn't say I emerged unscathed. Neither does anyone else.

In a way I felt I arrived in Mandanna's Coorg as a tourist who decided to stay. I was caught first by the magnificence of the landscape, flora, and fauna, then slowly introduced to its people's customs, ceremonies, and traditions. Only later did I get to know the characters. They don't reveal their inner selves to strangers easily, though after a while I didn't feel like a stranger any longer. The novel's historical focus becomes more political in the later sections, though European influences on Coorg (the missionaries, the coffee planters, the prestige of an overseas education) are seen throughout.

Tiger Hills presents universal themes such as our relationships with our surroundings, the unpredictable patterns of our lives, and the happiness we evoke and stifle in one another, and the author's rich, mesmerizing language brings them all to life. And in composing this eloquent hymn to her homeland, she made me believe that Coorg must be the single most beautiful place on earth.

Tiger Hills was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) in April at £18.99; Grand Central will publish it in the US next March, and Viking Canada is the Canadian publisher (also March). While not distracting, there are a surprising number of copyediting mistakes (misplaced apostrophes, missing commas) which I hope will be fixed in future printings.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

L is for Lavinia

I'd meant to post a review of Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House long before now. I took it as my plane reading for a trip to San Diego in mid-April, but I didn’t expect to be so glued to the pages that I'd carry the book around with me everywhere. It traveled with me on the train heading north to San Juan Capistrano, meaning that I spent the 90-minute ride on an 18th-century Virginia plantation rather than gazing out at the ocean and palm trees. I read it in the evenings and on meeting breaks and sadly turned the final page on my last day there. Unfortunately, I have difficulties composing reviews at 30,000 feet, and then I got caught up in other assignments, so this review is a bit delayed. But better late than never.

The Kitchen House is the most absorbing book I've read this year. I became completely immersed in the lives of the characters; Grissom creates a world so tangible and real that I felt like I was living right alongside them.

The novel is told from the dual first-person perspectives of Lavinia, a white indentured servant, and Belle, a mulatto slave who's the secret illegitimate daughter of Captain James Pyke, owner of a large tobacco plantation. In 1791, seven-year-old Lavinia, orphaned after her Irish parents die on the voyage across the Atlantic, is sent to live and work with the kitchen slaves on Captain Pyke's estate. They quickly absorb her into their large extended family. Over the next decade, Lavinia grows up alongside the other children of Papa George and Mama Mae: doing chores, preparing delicious Southern meals (there's one recipe in the back of the book), and acting as house servants to the Pykes at the big house.

Few major historical events penetrate the characters' daily lives; this isn’t a political drama but a social one. Despite her low status, Lavinia thinks of the kitchen house as her home, and she loves her fellow servants as her own family. She takes comfort in their presence, and their warmth and closeness permeate the novel. However, everyone’s isolation from the wider world on this large, self-contained estate serves to enforce their powerlessness. This holds true even for those with white skin. Captain Pyke’s despondent wife, Miss Martha, and her son, Marshall, react differently to the unbearable situations they're forced to confront. The way they express their frustrations warps everyone’s relationships with one another. Eventually, after her period of indenture ends, Lavinia must choose between her family and her race, and the consequences don't become fully clear until it's too late. Likewise, Belle hesitates to ask her father for her freedom, and her decision leads to further misfortunes.

Grissom's strong storytelling, full of suspense and tension, keeps the narrative flowing at a good pace. Also remarkable is how she allows readers to envision the social structure of antebellum America from both sides of the racial divide, through the eyes of one young woman caught between them. (There are gradations of status in both the white and Negro worlds, too.) Some of the twists the novel takes are truly heart-wrenching, yet I can’t imagine – given the reality of the times – that things could have happened any other way.

Also, although we know the year the novel begins (1791), we aren’t given the plantation’s name (Tall Oaks) or its location (southern Virginia) until later on. While I found the plotline unpredictable, and Lavinia’s predicament unique, the seemingly ordinary setting made me stop and think. The individual tragedies in The Kitchen House could easily have happened elsewhere, on many real-life plantations in the pre-Civil War South — but if they did, how would we ever know? What evidence would be left behind? And that could be the most disturbing thought of all.

An unusual yet gripping coming-of-age story, this eye-opening novel about racial conflict in early America and the real meaning of home and family is highly recommended.

Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House was published by Touchstone/S&S in February at $16.00, and I appreciate their sending me a copy for review. I'm including this one as my L entry for Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What I'm doing at BEA

A week from today, I'll be landing in NYC and getting ready for an exciting week of books and book-related conversations at BEA. Before that, though, I have to make it through a crazy week of meetings and deadlines. This is going to be my busiest week all year. I'm looking forward to Friday in a major way.

This is a tentative schedule of things I plan on attending at BEA. I'm looking forward to meeting many other bloggers in person, on Friday at the blogger con in particular, but even though it's huge, it's surprisingly easy to randomly run into people in the exhibit hall. I know I won't get to all of these events, but I'll do my best.

Tues, May 25th
I'll be at Library Journal's Day of Dialog at the Javits all day, then dinner with a friend (Indian food in the East Village = yum) and a trip to the Strand that evening, assuming we're still awake.
Also, 4:30-5:30pm is the BEA Editor Buzz panel, and I'm going to try to get to it; Anne Fortier's Juliet will be one of the books talked about (her publicist's told me a signing will take place on site as well).

Wed, May 26th
10-11am, Mitchell James Kaplan signs By Fire, By Water, set in 15th c Spain, at the Other Press booth (4340).
10:30-11:30, a trio of signings at tables 22, 23, and 24 - Soho Press publishes excellent mysteries with an international flair. James Benn's Rag and Bone, part of his Billy Boyle WWII mystery series, is the only historical of the three.
11am-noon. Rock star librarian Nancy Pearl signs Book Lust To Go at booth 4330-B.
At 11:30 I'll be having lunch with my fellow HNR editors from the US... all six of us in the same place for the first time ever.
2:00-3:30pm, AAP Annual Librarians' Book Buzz. Learn what books the publishers are promoting to librarians for the fall (it's open to everyone, of course).
3:00-4:00pm, Bernice McFadden signs the Harlem Renaissance novel Glorious at booth 4504.
4:00-4:30pm, Anna Godbersen signs two YA historicals at table 19.
4:00-5:00pm, Mary Osborne signs Renaissance YA novel Nonna's Book of Mysteries at table 25.
4:15-5:15pm, Jonathan Evison signs West of Here (sounds like a multigenerational epic about Washington State) at the Algonquin booth, 4259.
5:00pm Lug bag of books to mailing center, fill up box, mail box, return to hotel and collapse. If not yet full, drag bag of books on shuttle bus back to hotel.

Thurs, May 27th
9:30-10:30, Kathleen Kent signs The Wolves of Andover, a prequel to The Heretic's Daughter set in 17th-c England and Massachusetts, at table 26.
10am-10:45am, Deanna Raybourn signs The Dead Travel Fast , a 19th-century mystery/adventure set in Transylvania, at the Harlequin booth, 3922.
10:30-11:30, William Martin signs his latest history-based thriller City of Dreams at table 23.
11am-noon, Stacy Schiff signs her nonfiction bio Cleopatra at table 8. This overlaps with the next panel. Tough decisions will have to be made.
11am-noon, NBCC panel on the next decade in book culture, how reviews will be transformed, etc., etc. There's a similar panel at each BEA, and I try to attend to see if anything new and interesting will be discussed. Sometimes there is!
11:30-12:30. Lauren Belfer signs A Fierce Radiance, a WWII-era novel about the birth of penicillin, at table 1.
4-6pm, Book Blogger Convention author & blogger reception. Not sure where this is yet.

Fri, May 28th, I'll be at the Book Blogger Convention.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Book pile, with cat

In some ways this is a filler post as I work on another visual preview, but I thought I'd give a glimpse of some recent arrivals. Tortie is diligently guarding the books from the other cats until I can put them away on shelves (the books, that is). These are a combination of Book Depository preorders that just arrived, PaperbackSwap trades, and Bookcloseouts purchases, though one (Anne Fortier's Juliet) came from the publisher. I'm deliberately winnowing down my to-be-reviewed pile so I can get caught up on these and other reads. Here they are in order.

Hue and Cry is a mystery about a young lawyer in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1579, first in a series. This is the new paperback release, and the beautiful cover says "historical mystery" all over it; the lettering towards the bottom of the image is strategically placed.

The Return
by Victoria Hislop tells the story of a modern woman who visits the Alhambra and gets caught up in a tale of the Spanish civil war after coming across some old photographs; a multi-period story. Mine is the UK trade release, though it also came out in the US a few months ago. Amazingly, someone put their signed copy up on PBS, and their loss is my gain. I'm looking forward to this one.

For BEA goers, Anne Fortier's Juliet is one of the titles that will be showcased at the Editors' Buzz panel on Tuesday 5/25 from 4:30-5:30pm. From the back, it's a multi-period historical novel "on the scale of The Thirteenth Tale and The Birth of Venus" about a modern-day young woman. She begins a perilous journey into the history of her 14th-century ancestor, Giulietta, who loved a young man named Romeo. More details at

I bought William Newton's Mistress of Abha because of the fascinating setting, the Middle East in the early 20th century: "a tale of empires, wild daring, devastating love, and an utterly surprising heroine." This is the UK hardcover, from Bloomsbury UK, and I discovered afterward that it'll be out from Bloomsbury USA this fall.

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna is a novel I've been anticipating for a while; I thought I'd preordered the paperback so was delighted when a beautiful hardcover showed up. It's been described as a Gone with the Wind for India.

Carol Thomas's Sea Between and Deborah Challinor's Isle of Tears both come from HarperCollins New Zealand so may be a little harder for those outside NZ and Australia to find, but geography isn't a deterrent for me when it comes to finding new historical places to read about. I've never read Challinor (her White Feathers, set during WWI, is also on this pile) but she's a bestselling author in NZ, which sounded promising. Her Isle of Tears is a family saga about a woman trying to survive in both the Maori and Pakeha (of European origin) worlds of 1860s Auckland. Sea Between is the story of Charlotte, an activist for women's rights in 1860s Canterbury, NZ.

I was amazed to get Indu Sundaresan's Shadow Princess on PBS so soon after its publication, but who am I to complain? It's the story of two royal sisters of the Mughal empire, Jahanara and Roshanara, and their rivalry after their father's death. I'm sure it will be informative to read an Indian author's perspective on Indian history (the same holds true for Tiger Hills).

On to the next column of books. Imogen Robertson's Instruments of Darkness is billed as an atmospheric mystery set in 1780 Sussex. Mitsugu Saotome's Okei: A Girl from the Provinces, set in Japan's Aizu mountains in the late 19th century, describes itself as an epic tale of romance for fans of The Last Concubine. First published in Japan in 1974, this is the first English translation, from the UK's Alma Books.

Eleanor Herman's Mistress of the Vatican , "the true story of Olimpia Maidalchini, the secret female pope," is the only nonfiction book in the bunch, but from the first few chapters, it reads like a lively novel. My copy of Warwick Collins' The Sonnets says on the front cover that it's a signed and limited edition of 1000 copies, and so it is. Huh, I didn't notice this until just now; the inside page lists it as number 318. Why do people give these books up? Written from Shakespeare's perspective, it recounts the three years (1592-94) when the London theatres were closed by the threat of plague.

Xu Xiaobin's Feathered Serpent, described as "one of the foremost works of 20th-century Chinese literature," is a literary family saga spanning five generations of women from the 1890s to 1990s. I seem to have many Asian settings in this pile. The next is David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, at right. I preordered this from Book Depository long before I received it from Booklist to review. This has happened a few times, and I'm so glad the assignment obliged me to read it early, because it's a literary masterpiece. Its unusual setting is Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki harbor that served as a trading outpost for the Dutch during Japan's isolationist period. If you're fond of literary fiction, you might want to make plans to read it. (Booklist starred my review, and the novel deserves it.) This means I have two copies, but I like the UK cover better.

James Houston's Bird of Another Heaven centers on a half-Indian, half-Hawaiian woman who became a confidant to Hawaii's last king in the late 19th century, as seen from the viewpoint of her great-grandson. I haven't heard much about this book (from '07) but the setting intrigues me.

Last is Maria McCann's The Wilding, an Orange Prize nominee, set a generation after the English Civil War. Cat from Tell Me a Story liked the author's descriptions of English rural life and the process of cider making. It sounds delicious.

Monday, May 10, 2010

All for a good cause

Just a note that there's a signed copy of Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre up for grabs at the Book Blogger Convention's charity auction, with proceeds to go to First Book. Bidding opened tonight at 10pm EST and will continue through 5pm EST on Friday, May 21st. They've started bids for my book at $20, quite a ways below list price, and I'll be curious how high it goes. It's already got one bid, half an hour in, which I find very exciting. It's all for a good cause, so if you'd like to get in on the action, visit the BBC auction page and leave a comment with your bid amount. My book's halfway down the page, and there are many other great items up for auction as well - other signed books, publisher prize packs, bookstore gift certificates, a literary lunch with some well-known authors ... so please stop by and check out what's available! (Per their rules, the auctions are limited to US only.)

Friday, May 07, 2010

Book review: Lynn Cullen, The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve is seen from the viewpoint of Sofonisba Anguissola, the first major female artist of the Renaissance. A brilliant portraitist whose aristocratic father encouraged her efforts, she was constrained by her sex – study of anatomy was forbidden to women – but her talent was noted in the highest of high places. Lynn Cullen’s novel, based on her life at the Spanish court of Felipe II, contains a lively but uneven mix of royal intrigue and artistic insight; I found myself absorbed by the former, though wanted more of the latter.

Sofonisba’s remarkably lifelike portraits demonstrate her excellent eye for detail and her understanding of her subjects. Her fictional voice follows suit. Spanning a nine-year period, from 1559 to 1568, Cullen’s novel opens just after Michelangelo has discovered Sofonisba, at twenty-seven, in flagrante with one of her fellow pupils, the maestro’s assistant. (This is an imagined incident.) Filled with guilt about her unanticipated indiscretion and worried about her reputation, she swiftly accepts the King of Spain's invitation to tutor his young queen, Elisabeth of Valois, in the art of drawing and painting and to serve as one of her ladies.

Cullen’s nuanced portrayal of the complicated royal marriage is the novel’s highlight. As Catherine de Medici’s daughter, Felipe’s teenage bride knows the duty she must fulfill, yet she's full of youthful frivolousness, and she knows nothing about how to win a man’s heart. The standoffish Felipe, either protective of her immaturity or consumed by his passion for his mistress – Elisabeth can’t tell which – leaves her to herself until she welcomes his attention. While the King’s feeble son from his first marriage, Don Carlos, develops an obsessive puppy love for Elisabeth, she becomes fascinated by her husband’s illegitimate half-brother, the adventurous Don Juan, whose youth and handsome form prove a harsh mirror for the much older king. Their mutual attraction doesn’t go unnoticed.

Sofi becomes friend and confidante to the young woman she calls My Lady, accompanying her as the court makes the rounds of the royal pleasure palaces and lending a willing ear to her troubles. The King, however, remains enigmatic. Is he a devoted husband or a cold-hearted man who’ll do anything to secure an heir? No one can know the inner workings of another couple’s marriage, and in this case, Elisabeth doesn’t even know this herself. The Queen’s difficult position as a beautiful bird in a gilded cage earns Sofi’s sympathy and casts a new light on her own romantic dilemma.

This fictional Sofonisba is a keen observer, but for an independent woman who blazed a trail for other female artists, her personality is surprisingly self-effacing. The story sweeps along nicely with lavish descriptions of court intrigue, jests, games, dances, and discussions between members of the royal family, sometimes with no first-person commentary for pages on end. Subplots involving her companion/maid and former lover shed light on her character, but as Sofi the lady-in-waiting comes to the forefront, her creative ambitions seem to fade in importance. Most of the painting she does accomplish takes place offstage.

Sofonisba Anguissola was an extraordinary painter who electrified the 16th-century art world. As such, I relished the scenes where her genius was allowed to flourish on the page. I also appreciated being introduced to a different set of Renaissance royals and the social concerns of the day, from the Inquisition’s growing influence to New World foods and medicines. A welcome addition to the ranks of royal fiction, The Creation of Eve is a novel I eagerly picked up each evening; the writing was more than capable, and the Queen’s plight made for gripping reading. Still, I wish Sofonisba could have played a larger role in her own story.


The Creation of Eve was published in March by Putnam at $25.95; thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m very pleased to present this interview with Guy Gavriel Kay. Although his epic historical fantasy novels use invented settings and characters, they are deeply grounded in the history of a real culture. Under Heaven, his eleventh work of fiction, takes place in the land of Kitai, an analogue of Tang Dynasty China – a golden age in which art, poetry, literature and trade all flourished.

Under Heaven presents a panoramic view of this ancient land, as seen by its movers and shakers as well as seemingly minor personages shaped by their leaders’ decisions. In this formalized society, one rich in cultural symbolism, everyone knows his or her place, and their speech is precisely chosen; the language used in the novel reflects this reality. Women navigate this male-centered world with care, knowing that a subtle approach will be most effective.

Guy’s novels inspire me to learn more about the historical settings he depicts through the lens of the fantastic. For those new to Chinese history, Under Heaven will be sure to spark your interest in a fascinating civilization. Also, if you’re a historical fiction reader who wouldn’t normally consider fantasy, you may just change your mind. The carefully researched background of Under Heaven, combined with its multifaceted characters, complex political drama, and emotionally moving storyline, makes for an engrossing and thought-provoking read.

The story opens as Shen Tai, second son of a retired general, honors his father’s memory by burying bones left on a remote, abandoned battlefield. Years earlier, Kuala Nor was the site of a devastating confrontation between the Kitan and Taguran armies; now it is a starkly gorgeous, forbidding place of lingering ghosts. Although Tai fulfills his duty alone, his courage and piety are noted in high places. When he receives word that he has been granted an overwhelming gift of 250 Sardian horses by the enemy court, it transforms him into a major player on Kitai’s political stage. Now Tai must re-enter a world of dangerous intrigue, a journey that begins even before he sets forth toward the capital city.

I’d like to thank Guy for answering my questions in such detail (this is a lengthy piece!). I should disclose that he is a friend of mine, but I’ve also been reading and enjoying his novels for over twenty years, and I thought Under Heaven was an absolutely wonderful book. He and his novels always provide me with much to ponder about history, fiction, language, the fantastic, and the intersections among them — and this interview is no exception.

I understand Under Heaven had a fairly long gestation period. How long had the concept for the novel been floating around in your mind before you began the formal research and writing?

I’d had vague notions of a ‘Silk Road-based’ book since 2002 or so. The next year I started doing some reading in the subject, without any specific time frame involved (that’s pretty normal for me, in early stages) but I was also reading in other topics and periods. In 2004 I decided two things. I would do focused reading and research for that book and then start it, and I’d do it back in Provence, with my family, where we’d lived before, but not for ten years. All was tidily planned, down to the trunk of books I took over. Tidy plans don’t work for me. I was flat-out ambushed on our arrival in the south of France again by sights, sounds, smells, history, and despite some futile resistance, ended up seguing (I was hijacked!) towards the research and interviews and then the writing of Ysabel.

The original idea never left me, though, it just shifted ground somewhat when I resumed in 2006 ... and by then it was much more securely focused on China itself (with my long-standing tendency to put a ‘spin’ of the fantastic on history) and even more specifically in the quite staggeringly interesting Tang Dynasty. So, in various ways, I’ve been living with this book for seven or eight years now.

You mention that your gateway into Tang China was through the master poets of the era, and the character based upon Li Bai plays a major secondary role. What qualities in his work drew you into learning more about his world?

I love that ‘major secondary’ phrase! It is about right, too! Li Bai is the most-loved poet in Chinese history, a legendary figure for his life as much as his art. His only rival for ‘greatest poet’ is his near contemporary, Du Fu (both names have different spellings in earlier English renderings: Li Po and Tu Fu). They knew each other, the concept of ‘friendship’ is an absolutely central motif in Tang writing (and comes into the novel), and I was deeply caught by aspects of each. For Li Bai, there is a kind of Byronic (for English readers) glamour and romance to his wide-ranging, hard-drinking life and legend, and he also engages with a push-pull between a desire to withdraw and write and travel, and an attraction at times for the luxury and power of the court – which he never formally served. Du Fu had a more ‘duty-driven’ world view, felt guilty that he wasn’t doing enough for the state in a time of crisis and, in addition, his poetry is amazingly powerful and movingly personal about life during war time. He’s like another of my all-time favourite poets, the Greek Nobel laureate, George Seferis, in the way in which tragedy and war caused him to grow so much as an artist. It is profoundly affecting.

Under Heaven incorporates many iconic elements and terms from the historical cultures upon which it’s based: the pipa players of Kitai, the kumiss-drinking nomads of the northern steppes, the Weaver Maid story from Kitan mythology… not to mention the Heavenly Horses themselves. At the same time, you make it clear that this is an imagined world. What was your reasoning behind using these specific words, as opposed to – as other writers might have done – inventing a new word or phrase to mean a lute, fermented mare’s milk, etc.?

A great question, Sarah, the sort that could elicit a really long answer if we aren’t careful. I’ll try to be careful: in essence, the balancing act for me as I work towards and also slightly askew from ‘real’ history is often intuitive. I want the reader to be aware of the inspiration and origins of each of these historical fantasies, to ‘feel’ which periods I am taking as my basis. That can include words and phrases that link to those. At the same time I don’t want to pretend I ‘know’ what various historical figures really thought or felt about their spouses, children, horses, enemies (or the horses of their enemies, or the spouses, for that matter!). So I am always spinning a little towards and then from actual phrases, places, shifting ground slightly, to leave the reader conscious of 'difference' but also aware of bedrock. By now it is a largely instinctual process for me.

In the introductory note to the Under Heaven ARC, you write that “using the fantastic as a prism for the past, done properly, means a tale is universalized in powerful ways.” I understand the point, of course – that an invented setting frees people from focusing on a specific timeframe and setting – but do you think that straightforward historical fiction, if done properly, has the potential to accomplish the same thing? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts!

Absolutely it can. I take that as a given! It is true of fiction and of non-fiction history, both. When Barbara Tuchman wrote her classic on the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, the title is as clear a statement as one can have: she saw that terrible century as a mirror of the equally terrible 20th century and wrote with that in mind. I have never offered the view that straightforward historical fiction cannot offer this kind of illumination; many novelists work with the past specifically to do this. (Others just want to offer romance and diversion, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. We need these things too, in our lives.) My thesis in the passage you quote is more diffident: I am suggesting that an often derided or overlooked form of writing - fantasy, or the fantastic - contains within itself strengths and dimensions often overlooked, or never considered, by writers, readers, critics. That it can be a potent tool for treating the past, but certainly not the only one.

You must realize I had to ask you that question! Along these same lines, when The Last Light of the Sun appeared six years ago, you spoke about your own method of using the fantastic to depict the past: including supernatural elements as a way of portraying the world as people living in an earlier era would have imagined it. I noticed this approach in Under Heaven as well. For instance, ghosts of unburied soldiers who died at Kuala Nor have an actual presence, reflecting the beliefs of the Chinese culture of that time. Interestingly, some writers of historical fiction, in the last year or two, have been using a similar technique to illustrate historical people's beliefs in the otherworldly. Elements of the fantastic have been creeping into "straight" historical novels, which are categorized as such rather than as fantasy. Examples include "bone magic" in Sandra Gulland's Mistress of the Sun, witchcraft in Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, among others. (I'm deliberately excluding zombie mashup novels, which are a whole different ballgame!) How do you feel about this approach, and do you think it has resulted (or will result) in an even broader readership for your novels?

Well, I have long had a dislike of ‘smugness’ about our beliefs as to earlier societies (or even contemporary ones in a different part of the world!). You know, along the lines of, ‘It is so quaint, they believed that if you threw inscribed tablets in the grave of someone newly buried, you could get magical aid in your wishes!’ or, ‘They actually thought that dancing counter-clockwise around an oak tree...’

I had played a bit with this in earlier books, but with Last Light it became a starting-point motif of the novel. I would make the world of the book be as the peoples who had inspired it (Vikings, Celts, Anglo-Saxons) more or less believed it to be. That meant the presence of faerie and a deep, and in some cases traumatizing, inner tension between formal religious teachings and folk wisdom or even the evidence of one’s own senses. In a book that was very much about the passing of old ways, this felt right for many reasons. I remember discussing this in essays, interviews, a couple of speeches back then and being intrigued at how ‘novel’ it seemed to many people, within and outside of historical fiction. Generally historical fiction, it seemed to me, had tried to ‘explain’ the mythic or folkloric beliefs, rationalize them. Sometimes this is enormously creative. The wonderful Mary Renault, in The King Must Die, is a good example. I was suggesting that employing the fantastic in a new way could achieve a different, but equally compelling result.

It pleases me a lot to learn that others are exploring this now, too. I’ll throw out a slightly worried thought, though: if one writes as if there were witches in Salem, or in other settings, is one by some form of implication endorsing the witch hunts? That would be a negative offshoot of such explorations, for me. The key to analyzing that time (to many such times) is evil done, often to the vulnerable, in the name of doctrine and fearful belief. (And compassion and understanding as to that fear is part of it.) But the falsity of those beliefs is critical. In other words, this is a method or an approach that can have ripple effects. On the other hand, I really like the effect of ‘strangeness’ that small elements of the fantastic can bring to historical fiction ... Dorothy Dunnett, for example, had no qualms about using these delicate infusions of the supernatural. In the end, a writer can get away with almost anything ... if he or she is good enough!

My own sense for years has been that borders, boundaries, categories are all blurring, and I see it as a good thing. We’re a ‘categorizing species’ and readers have tended to exemplify this! We often want ‘more of what I liked before’ and this encourages certain kinds of label packaging and also tends to make some writers repeat themselves (commercially smart, creatively destructive?). As genres and styles start getting mixed together, I think it encourages writers and readers to stretch themselves. I’ve always had a generous (and generously responding) element of historical fiction readers among my own readership, and my guess (my hope?) is that you’re right ... that as more authors push aside this rigid classifications of all kinds, it’ll make it even easier for people to find books that explore these boundary spaces.

Given that one of the themes in Under Heaven is how historians shape people’s perceptions of events, did you find this to be a major issue, yourself, in the course of your research?

What a terrific question. You are permitted to take a bow. I need to try to stay brief again! The short answer is that we all write (and read) from within our own culture, time, worldview. I actually see this as one of the many strengths of being upfront, prima facie, about treating the past through the window of the fantastic ... it is dead-honest about limitations in our ability to ‘go back there’. In fact, the motif you note in Under Heaven, the use of ‘long view’ perspectives on events in the novel at times is meant partly as a commentary on what you are raising here. So, in fact, it was less a major issue in my research than it is a major issue in my book! I’ve been fascinated by this for years. In Lord of Emperors, several books back for me, one of the (several) meanings of the title is that the writer, the artist, the chronicler of an age or an emperor is, in a sense, the lord of emperors – because he can define the figure or time for posterity, if effective enough.

Do you think this concept can be applied to fiction writers, too, if their work is effective enough, and (I should add) sufficiently widely read? Not that it has to involve historical characters specifically, but it makes me think about Wolf Hall, for instance, and the number of people who now see Thomas Cromwell in a new light because of it.

I almost tucked my thoughts about this into the last (long!) answer. Should have known you’d lure me there! I think an even better example is Shakespeare and Richard III, where the world’s view of that king was (brilliantly) shaped by a piece of propaganda theatre written on behalf of the Tudor usurpers! That’s certainly a work of fiction, ‘inspired’ by real events (and by shrewd political calculation). Consider also Procopius, the chronicler of Justinian’s reign ... his ‘official’ histories are boring and dutiful, and largely unread. His Secret History is scandalous, libellous, salacious, even obscene as to Theodora. And keeps being reprinted. I think Wolf Hall is a fine novel that might (just) gild its lily a bit ... the intent to force or evoke a rethinking of Cromwell and More feels just a little didactic. But as to your core point: some who revered More via “A Man For All Seasons” might indeed shift their thinking, others who had no idea of More or Cromwell may need ... another reverse-revisionist work in forty years to offset Mantel’s? In the same way, Josephine Tey created a vogue for Richard III with The Daughter of Time, even a fan club for him, and current writers on those turbulent, incompletely-documented times have to try to steer a path between two wildly polarized views, don’t they? There is another snag here: some writers might decide to do a ‘revision’ on some famous figure just ... because they can. It might sell books. It is fun. What happens if readers find ‘truth’ in these? Antony Beevor, the British historian wrote last year of coming out of the film of The Da Vinci Code and hearing a man say to his date, ‘It really makes you think, doesn’t it?’ Ouch, Beevor said, in effect. Ouch, I concur.

An underlying motif in your novels deals with how women operate within the limitations imposed by their society, what roles they have to assume in order to achieve any kind of influence… and how society responds to them in turn. One could, for example, write an essay comparing and contrasting Spring Rain and Wen Jian, or Wen Jian and Ysabel, for that matter (and someone probably will!). What continues to fascinate you about this topic?

I suppose I could be flippant and say: what’s not to fascinate? I have always argued that good books involve interesting things happening to interesting people (ideally, written in interesting language). As a writer, I simply add to my resources if I can find ways to make the women characters compelling, and for me that does not mean giving them actions or a scope for action that runs drastically counter to history. I’ll bend things slightly, but not wildly. Jehane (a female physician in The Lions of Al-Rassan) is based on the fact that there were such women doctors. I give her rather more ‘range’ than would likely have been the case, but the profession, especially in her culture, is legitimate. In Under Heaven one of the things that truly fascinated me was the relationship between the courtesans in the ‘pleasure district’ and the students preparing for the grand civil service examinations in the capital city. There is a tremendous amount of scholarship (and poetry!) about this and I loved it. The Tang courtesans, incidentally, are the direct antecedent of what we know rather better today: the Japanese geisha culture.

Many readers use fiction as a gateway into learning more about a historical society, and anyone who reads Under Heaven will get an excellent sense of your knowledge about – and appreciation for – Tang Dynasty China. How do you feel about readers using your novel as a way of understanding the spirit of the actual time and place?

Flattered, honoured, trusted? It has next to no commercial benefit, but one of the things that has pleased me most over the years has been the response of scholars in a given field to a book I write inspired by the time and place they’ve spent a professional lifetime engaging with. I’ve been very generously and enthusiastically treated by many of these academics in widely divergent fields; I think they ‘get’ why I use that slight spin of the fantastic, as a way not to create ethical problems with ‘real’ lives and to acknowledge the dimension of ‘evoking’ but not ever claiming a complete rendering of another time. I do always have a brief list of books or articles to read in each novel, and try to offer a fuller one online at, which is the authorized site on my work. I love the idea of the novels opening doors or windows (pick your metaphor!) for readers.

When I initially told some people, earlier this year, that I was reading a 600-page epic fantasy based on early Chinese history, they were both fascinated and daunted by the concept. For most English-speaking readers, the Tang Dynasty isn’t as familiar a setting as King Alfred’s England, Renaissance Italy, or, dare I say, the Tudor era. Do you think it worked to your advantage, in some sense, that this was a relatively untapped area, or did you feel the subject matter was somewhat of a risk? Or wasn’t it a concern at all?

Another risky question, as it might invite an essay! In this case, I think I was originally daunted myself by the scale of Chinese history. That’s why the first notion, as I mentioned above, was for a Silk Road book, that more or less sneaked up on China – at some then-undetermined time. A few years later, with a growing fascination/obsession with the Tang, I pretty much knew that that was where I was going. (I had an email this month from a professor of Asian Studies who wrote that she’d read all of my books and she knew I would end up in the Tang Dynasty because ‘how could you not?’. Well, I’m glad someone knew what I was going to do!) One thing I don’t do, or try not to, is become didactic, lecturing. I don’t want the books to ever feel like a lesson in a period. As a reader I dislike these, especially the info dump aspect. I am aware that they can sell very well, and many people do like the sense that with their guilty fiction pleasure they are gaining factoids of knowledge – it just isn’t what engages me for a three or more year labour. To put it another way, I’ve often said that I prefer the stiletto to the hammer ... I’d rather stab you in the ribs with my themes, so subtly you don’t know the knife is there until it is too late, as opposed to pounding you on the head with those themes! That makes me (and perhaps other writers) sound fairly aggressive, I suppose.

Fair warning?


Under Heaven was published this month in the US by Roc in hardcover ($25.95), by Viking in Canada ($34.00), and by HarperVoyager in the UK (£18.99). For more details, see or the author's authorized, international website at

Saturday, May 01, 2010

An interview with Sarah Dunant, author of Sacred Hearts

At the beginning of our conversation, British novelist Sarah Dunant expresses mixed feelings about the US tour for the paperback release of Sacred Hearts. With a whirlwind of cities to visit, thousands of miles from her London residence, it’s clear she feels more at home in 16th-century Italy than in her Florida hotel room. At the same time, Dunant accustoms herself to the strains of travel in order to speak with readers about subjects that touch her deeply: the lives of women from the Renaissance, the blossoming of artistic creativity, the politics of religion, and the intersections among all of these.

I first picked up Sacred Hearts at last summer’s BookExpo America, where I met Dunant during her signing at the Random House booth. I found myself captivated by her tale about strong-minded women constrained by their time in history and their reactions to the world around them. All of the historical details in Sacred Hearts illuminate the period and bring it to radiant life; they’re also layered seamlessly into an emotionally involving story.

Remaining focused on the subject at hand, Sarah Dunant speaks avidly about Italian Renaissance history. This isn’t a surprise, given that she’s spent the last decade immersed in the era. She throws out names of historians whose work informed hers – Kate Lowe, Guido Ruggiero, Dava Sobel – but what comes through most clearly is her passion for the past and its inhabitants. While many novels focus on the Borgias and the great male painters like Leonardo and Michelangelo, far fewer delve into ordinary women’s lives. This gives her a niche in the market, and a rich vein of material to mine and translate into her acclaimed historical fiction.

To me, used to seeing fiction about Henry VIII and his wives dominating bookstore shelves, it’s refreshing to hear that Dunant, on her tour, has found American readers to be genuinely interested in what fascinates her most: “the tiny triumphs of people in history.” She acknowledges readers’ current obsession with famous names; it would be hard not to. “It’s what I call the historical celebrity version of life,” she says. “It’s very easy [for readers] to go back into history when it’s celebrity-led.” However, while she praises the research skills of novelists like Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, her own interests lie elsewhere. “I find the most interesting material isn’t about kings and queens. What about the people on the margins? This new research being uncovered by young, smart historians … the fabric of history is being changed, and it ought to be reflected in historical fiction. You can’t always find a famous person to write about.”

The opening pages of Sacred Hearts reveal a startling truth about late 16th-century Catholic Europe. Most noble families could afford to marry off only one daughter due to the high cost of dowries. The remaining women were sent off to convents, willingly or not.

Thus we have her novel’s premise. In the year 1570, Santa Caterina, a Benedictine convent in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, is torn apart by the arrival of sixteen-year-old Serafina. She brings with her two things that the nuns find desirable: an expensive dowry and a glorious soprano voice. Livid at being forced into the convent against her will, after her parents refuse to let her marry her music tutor, Serafina rails against her situation and determines to find a way to free herself. Suora Zuana, Santa Caterina’s infirmarian and dispensary mistress, takes Serafina under her wing, setting in motion a intricate set of alliances and betrayals that destroy the convent’s hard-won tranquility – and at a time when the forces of the Counter-Reformation seek to impose even greater restrictions on convent behavior.

One doesn’t expect a nunnery to be a hotbed of excitement, a belief Dunant admits to holding herself at first, but the claustrophobic setting has the effect of augmenting the novel’s drama. After all, the hundred women of Santa Caterina are forced to live, pray, and die together, interacting with one another constantly, all within a square of three city blocks walled off from central Ferrara. Friendships build, factions develop, and personality clashes ensue. In one memorable scene, Madonna Chiara, the convent’s pragmatic abbess, reveals that newly-arrived nuns fear boredom the most, yet it’s one thing she’s never experienced there.

While doing research for the previous two novels in her Renaissance trilogy, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan – bestsellers both – Dunant became aware of the large number of convents in Italian cities. Women had a very narrow set of options, and most had no choice in their future. Due to the unique demographic structure in place, she explains, younger sons from aristocratic families became professional bachelors – circumstances out of which, in Venice in particular, the courtesan culture developed – while extraneous daughters became nuns. Convents required smaller dowries than potential husbands did.

Two types of primary sources proved most helpful in her research: church court records involving nuns – which she terms “gold dust” for their content-rich material – as well as words written by the nuns themselves. With noticeable empathy for their situation, Dunant recounts several stories about women who objected to their forced imprisonment and made their feelings known – via polemical protests, in letters to people on the outside, and, in the most dramatic cases, through self-injury and attempted suicide. When I ask how society reacted to the literary protests made by one of these reluctant nuns – Arcangela Tarrabotti of 17th-century Venice, who published a polemic mentioned in her author’s note – Dunant apologizes; she’s not sure. “It’s later than my period,” she says. She remains in her characters’ present, not wanting to be influenced by circumstances they wouldn’t know themselves.

Madonna Chiara’s near-lifetime spent behind convent walls belies a remarkable sophistication. In a discussion with Suora Zuana about Serafina, she offers a devastating but realistic comment: “She is only a young woman who did not want to become a nun. The world is full of them.” How does one approach a topic which would grate against most 21st-century women’s feminist viewpoint? In fact, Dunant identified so closely with Serafina’s fiery rebellion that she found the novel difficult to write at first. “Yes, I was angry. I found myself swimming through treacle for the first couple of months. It was all too foreign, too weird. My 21st-century sensibility, my feeling about equality, was going incandescent with rage on their behalf.”

And then: “I almost fell into my own trap!” she says. She avoided the problem faced by many historical novelists – imposing modern attitudes on the past – by asking herself a new question: what alternatives did the women have? To illustrate her point, Dunant runs down a list of threats faced by married women of the time: “Bearing children for as long as they’re capable – the childbirth statistics were horrendous – VD, including syphilis…” In contrast, convent life offered advantages as well as, perhaps, some perks. Nuns voted in convent elections, doctored patients (as Suora Zuana does), and adapted and performed music for a sequestered public. The scene in which Serafina unleashes her angelic voice for the first time, to immediate and deliberate effect, is especially moving. Dunant names the convent music performed by Musica Secreta as one of her inspirations; in fact, she and the group collaborated on a CD described as the soundtrack to Sacred Hearts.

These were just some of the creative accomplishments of cloistered women not permitted to their counterparts on the outside. Learning this, Dunant found a major breakthrough in her writing, and seen from this new perspective, the convent became a “mysterious, richer, and more interesting place.”

To create period atmosphere, Dunant spent a week in a convent near Milan. While acknowledging that things are very different today, since women now become nuns by choice, she took inspiration from observing and participating: “The silence, the routine, the institutionalization of worship… celebrating mass eight times a day, every day.” Readers experience Serafina’s listlessness as she’s awakened from a sound sleep to participate in religious services. Although the office of Matins is no longer held at 2am, Dunant’s on-site stay forced her to experience sleeplessness – and, perhaps, imagine how these heightened states may have left the 16th-century soul open to ecstasies and visions.

The nuns’ religious faith features greatly in the novel, though not to the point of preachiness, and there are lighter moments, too. Humor is often found in short supply in historical novels. It’s almost as rare, as, say, attractive young men in a Renaissance convent. However, there are exceptions to the rule. (There are no men in Sacred Hearts, alas, although sex scandals involving nunneries, Dunant tells me, turn up in old records and archives.) Suora Zuana’s compassion and quick wit prove surprising to Serafina, who isn’t sure whether to trust either one, but the gossip they share brings them closer in friendship. Like her older heroine, Dunant uses humor as a tool for drawing people in, and it works. Her first three books were detective novels, written à la Raymond Chandler, but with a female detective – and plenty of dry wit. “Humor has always been a part of how I convince as I write,” she says.

I find Chiara, Santa Caterina’s abbess, to be an especially intriguing character. A woman of prominent family who’s a master at balancing town-gown relations, her no-nonsense governance has kept the convent running smoothly for years, at least until Serafina arrives. The notion of convent hierarchies surprised Dunant, particularly how they mirrored the power structure in Italy itself – and the reality that many abbesses chose to put their family before God. “These were smart, astute, well-educated women, women used to being listened to.”

Readers are used to seeing powerful families in Italian-set fiction, and Sacred Hearts is no exception. This is no accident, says Dunant, explaining that city-states in Renaissance Italy were controlled by families. As she relates, “The subtext behind the Council of Trent” – the ecumenical gathering that sought to impose greater restrictions on nunneries, which Chiara guards against – “was to break the power of the family. It sought to grant abbesses their power for only four years, rather than for their lifetime. This was Rome, trying to centralize the power of the convent.”

The complex interplay among family, politics, and faith is threaded throughout Sacred Hearts. In our conversation, as well as in the book, Dunant emphasizes the differences between the 16th-century and our more permissive, secular society. “In the past, people weren’t as bombarded by imagery as we are now. Most of the imagery they saw was religious. This semi-naked body in pain, the Crucifixion, is a powerful image for these women. They talk to it. It was their companion.” In one revealing scene, Suora Zuana reflects on how much Christ has taught her, and not just about religion. She uses her observations of his contorted, injured body to add to her repository of medical knowledge.

Ironically, despite the author’s goal of accurately depicting life in a religion-centered society – something of intense contemporary interest with the advent of radical Islam – the portrait used on the cover of the original Virago (UK) edition was changed for the US market. Random House felt the image too closely resembled a woman in a burqa. Sometimes the present intrudes on the past more than we’d like!

As for what’s next: Sarah Dunant expects to remain in Italy, examining the power of the family, likely during the same 100-year period of history. Whatever she decides on, readers can look forward to her creative, historically-based depictions of human nature: another fictional journey through people’s minds and hearts, both secular and sacred.


Sacred Hearts was published by Random House US in paperback in April at $15.00. Virago is the British publisher. (author photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson)