Saturday, May 30, 2009

Aural Neophyte

I've never listened to an audio book before, and considering the amount of driving I do, that's a shame. I took the plunge last week and checked out two audio books from the extensive collection at our local library: BROTHERS, by Da Chen, and THE MASTER, by Colm Toíbín. I decided to listen to BROTHERS first and have made it through three of the ten discs so far, listening only while in the car.

I've always preferred reading to listening to the radio, so I wasn't sure how much I'd like following a story by ear. Add to my natural disinclination for auditory media the distractions of driving in rush hour traffic with a toddler in tow, I expected the experiment to be an "epic fail," as my teens would say. However, I have found myself completely caught up in Da Chen's story (so much so that it's easy to forget that I'm supposed to be driving!). I haven't had any trouble following the plot or keeping the characters straight, and my fear of missing important details h
as not materialized.

BROTHERS is the story of two half-brothers who grow up in China during the end of Mao's cultural revolution and the years immediately following. I've always had a fascination for that period in Chinese history ever since reading André Malraux's LA CONDITION HUMAINE (MAN'S FATE) in college. Da Chen tells the story by alternating chapters between the two brothers, using the first 
person point-of-view for each. On audio, a different reader reads for each of them. Two voices make the listening experience a lively one and aids in keeping the story lines separate. (Given my limited experience with audio books, I'm not sure if using multiple readers is typical or not.) One thing I do find irritating is that one of the readers adopts a breathy almost-falsetto when he reads the lines of female characters, a ploy I feel is completely unnecessary.  I do notice, too, that the audio format draws attention to clichéd sentences or images. Shifts in register or wooden sentences interrupt the narrative flow and distract me from the story, probably to a greater degree than if I had encountered these weaker lines in print. Listening to the story being read highlights, for me, the sound and style of the language. This observation validates one of the strategies I rely on when writing my own fiction--I read each and every passage aloud to check the flow and rhythm. I'll be curious to see if I focus on language to the same extent I have with that of BROTHERS when I listen to my next audio book.

Have you listened to audio books? What has your experience with them been? I'm certainly glad I finally tried. If nothing else, I feel like I'm making a stand against the discouraging truth of there being "too many books, too little time"!

Friday, May 15, 2009

And the Winner Is...

Jackie Hodson! Jackie, it wasn't clear to me by your comment whether you were actually entering the drawing or not, so could you please contact me by email and let me know for sure? If it turns out that Jackie has already read MISTRESS OF THE SUN, I will draw another name.

Thanks to everyone who entered, and to Ms. Gulland for choosing to visit Writing the Renaissance on her blog tour. I hope we've encouraged many new readers to pick up her wonderful book.

Monday, May 11, 2009

MISTRESS OF THE SUN by Sandra Gulland: Interview and Review

Today I'm fortunate to be able to participate in the blog tour promoting the release of the paperback edition of Sandra Gulland's novel MISTRESS OF THE SUN (Touchstone, 2008). MISTRESS OF THE SUN recounts the fascinating story of Louise de la Vallière, the first official mistress of the French king Louis XIV. Set against the "magnificent decadence of the seventeenth-century French court," the story follows Louise from her humble beginnings as the daughter of a lesser nobleman, through the blossoming of her love affair with Louis, to the difficult decisions she must make once Louis decides to share his affections with another woman, the dangerous Madame de Montespan.

I had the opportunity to ask Ms. Gulland some questions about her book and her writing experience.


1. What fascinates you most about Louise’s life or personality? If you could 
ask Louise one question, what would it be?

Mainly I'm fascinated by Louise's horsemanship. She is described as a timid, shy and retiring young woman who also just happened to be able to out-ride and out-hunt the King and his men. There was a puzzle in that I wanted to solve. I'd love to ask her how she learned to ride and hunt so well. It wouldn't have been easy for a woman in the 17th century.

2. I loved the Marquis de Saint-Rémy’s (Louise’s step-father’s) convoluted manner of speaking. Were you consciously invoking the linguistic affectations of the précieuses, the witty women of seventeenth century literary salons?

I love Saint-Rémy, as well. I wasn't thinking of the précieuses, but rather, simply, of a not-very-smart, stuck-up sort of man who puts on airs. It was fun turning his ordinary phrases into puzzles of complexity.

3. Did any of your characters surprise you by what they said or did as you wrote the novel? Were there any instances where the biography of an individual conflicted with the direction you wanted the story to go in, and if so, how did you resolve this conflict?

I knew from the beginning that Louise would leave her children, but I didn't know how it would work out. Biographers tend to judge her harshly for this, but I didn't see evidence that she didn't love her children. Quite the contrary. As I got to know her better, I began to understand.

4. Have you read Alexandre Dumas’s novel Louise de la Vallière? How does your Louise differ from his?

I have not read any of Dumas's work — yet. I started to read Louise de la Vallière, but then put it aside because I feared getting entangled in his imaginative interpretation of the history. Perhaps now I should read it. I’d be interested to see how they differ.

5. What was the most challenging part of writing this book? The most interesting?

I am — I guess one could say — an “open-minded” agnostic (raised atheist), and the most challenging part of writing this novel, for me, was getting into the intensely religious and superstitious head-space of my 17th century characters. This was crucially important to understanding the 17th century, and especially important to my main character, Louise de la Vallière. This realm of the research also proved to be the most interesting. Researching convent life at the time reveals worlds of horror (where the convents were stand-ins for prison), but also worlds of peaceful intellectual and artistic flowering, worlds where women could be (at last) free to rule their own domains. It varied greatly from convent to convent.

6. Who is a character (from any place or era) that you wish someone would write a novel about? Are you tempted to try?

I'm constantly noting in my margins of books: “This would make a great story!”

From the Sun Court era, I’ve tried a number of times to find a way to tell the story of La Grande Mademoiselle, the King’s eccentric, rich cousin and an early feminist. I’m reminded of a painting I bought, the image of a mountain. The artist told me, “I looked at that mountain for years, wondering how to paint it.” La Grande Mademoiselle is my mountain. 

I’d love to see (or write) a convincing and well-researched novel about the Man in the Iron Mask. (Back to Dumas here, of course!) If I were to write it — and I may, some day — I might explore one possibility that’s cited, that it’s really The Woman in the Iron Mask. 

Lauzun’s story fascinates me: his crazy relationship with La Grande Mademoiselle, his courtship for the King’s favor, his “true but chaste” love and heroic rescue of Mary of Modena. (It’s possible that La Grande Mademoiselle’s story could be told in this way — as well as the story of the Woman in the Iron Mask, since Lazun and "the Mask" were in the same prison. Perhaps I’ve just outlined a novel in answering this question!)

In any case, there are so many stories, I could go on and on (and ON). For me, there has to be something in a character that hooks my curiosity. 

7. What are some habits you have developed as a writer that have made you more productive?

The converse of this question is: Have I developed habits that have made me less productive? The answer to that question is YES: I’ve become accustomed to reading (and answering) email with my morning coffee instead of diving into my writing. And now, along with my email, I have to — of course — take a peek at Twitter.

But to answer your question, it's a question of tricking myself into working. Fear helps (especially fear of failure). Deadlines help too. Once I begin a draft, I've learned to move it forward daily until I reach the end. No looking back! I set daily minimums and chart my progress in a journal. I know from experience that just one day off equals three days of floundering, so I really try to hold to the daily goal. 

8. How does promoting the paperback edition of a book differ from promoting the hardcover?

The biggest difference seems to be, at least in my case, that the publisher 
promotes the hardcover, and the author promotes the paperback. For the hardcover, my publishers arranged book tours. For the softcover, I arranged my own Blog Tour (including this blog: thank you!). 

Thank you, Sandra! Your enthusiasm for the seventeenth century shines through, especially in the intriguing ideas you have for future novels. I'll be recommending MISTRESS OF THE SUN to all my reading friends and looking forward to your next novel.


I just finished reading MISTRESS OF THE SUN today and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. I found it a bit hard to connect with the child Louise in the first fifty or so pages of the novel, but once Louise moved to the French court to serve as attendant to Louis's sister-in-law, the English princess Henriette, something clicked and I was completely drawn into the story. Despite her obvious strengths, Louise retained an endearing fragility that made me root for her up to the very end. Far from a celebration of the sordid titillations of court life, this novel tells the story of a young woman who finds herself in her struggle to reconcile her convictions with her love.

I find it interesting that in the interview above Ms. Gulland acknowledges that getting into the "religious and superstitious headspace of [her] 17th century characters" was the most challenging aspect of writing the book, because I think she did an excellent job of doing so. So many times writers of historical fiction minimize the question of religion and its effects on their characters' outlooks and choices. Gulland's Louise, however, constantly struggles with her scruples. Highly spiritual by nature and formed in her faith by her father and a nun aunt, Louise has a difficult time reconciling her illicit love for Louis with her moral standards. Her sin never becomes any easier for her bear and leads her to embrace life as a religious once Louis's demands become too onerous. I admire how Ms. Gulland respects the fact that the real Louise did forsake her position in order to take the veil and how, in fact, the author prepares us for this choice by showing Louise's struggles from the very beginning. It would have been easy for Ms. Gulland to depict the choice as either imposed upon Louise from without or only tepidly embraced by her, but neither of these would have been true to the real Louise. Despite her weaknesses and faltering, Louise never loses her faith; in fact, her suffering strengthens it.

I found Ms. Gulland's depictions of life at court well-researched and vividly presented. She captures the superficiality and theatricality of the Sun King's court, its emphasis on "seem" rather than "be," on appearance rather than essence. These dichotomies are captured in Louise's love for "Louis," but her dislike of the "King." A genuine, trusting soul, Louise ever struggles in this duplicitous environment, yet finds the inner strength and determination to overcome its temptations. Her innocence is not an insipid, unthinking blandness, but the ferocious purity of the wild stallion who shadows her journey.

This is the first book I've read by Sandra Gulland and I look forward to reading more. MISTRESS OF THE SUN is a well-researched and engaging ride through the treacherous terrain of the French court--and the human heart.


Ms. Gulland has graciously provided a copy of the paperback edition of MISTRESS OF THE SUN for a lucky reader to win. If you would like to be entered in the random drawing, please leave a comment here with an answer to this question: 

Louise de Vallière was an amazing horsewoman. On a scale of one (You couldn't pay me to climb up on one of those beasts!) to ten (I'd give Louise a run for her money!), how good a rider are you?

Comment with an answer and your name will be entered once; comment and follow the blog (new followers always welcome!) and your name will be entered five times. The winner will need to email me her mailing address so I can forward it to Sandra's publicist. The contest is open from now until midnight PDT Thursday, May 14. Winner will be announced here on the blog Friday morning. Bonne chance!

Friday, May 8, 2009


SIGNORA DA VINCI  by Robin Maxwell (NAL, 2009) is an entertaining and imaginative re-creation of the cultural cauldron of sixteenth-century Florence. The story is told by Caterina, a village apothecary's daughter who, after a brief liaison with a nobleman's son, gives birth to a boy destined to become one of Italy's greatest creative minds. Snatched from her by his father's family, Leonardo is doomed to lead the anonymous life of a bastard until Caterina takes charge of his destiny--and hers. She convinces his father to apprentice him to an established artist in the city. Determined follow Leonardo, Caterina disguises herself as a man and establishes herself in Florence as Cato, Leonardo's apothecary uncle. Educated in philosophy and the alchemical arts by her father, Cato/Caterina befriends the legendary humanist Lorenzo de' Medici and becomes a member of his Platonic Academy, a secret philosophical society established to further knowledge of the ancient arts. Eventually, Caterina and Lorenzo fall in love and she reveals her true identity to him alone. Together, the couple works to advance Leonardo's career while their circle battles Fra Savanarola, the Church reformer who seeks to curb the excessive luxury and pagan influences that saturate Florentine society. Even as she watches her son's genius flower, Caterina cannot escape the decline of her lover's health and great changes that overtake the city she has grown to love.

I applaud Ms. Maxwell for broaching a difficult subject and a setting that is little exploited in historical fiction. It was thrilling to see the likes of Sandro Botticelli, Pic de la Mirandola, and Marsilio Ficino coming to life in the pages of a novel. Lorenzo de' Medici was a fascinating individual, and the author does an excellent job of creating a character who was vastly learned yet at the same time politically savvy and personally engaging. The book's settings, from artists' botegas to noblemen's villas to Caterina's own apothecary shop, are vivid and historically authentic. The tension between the new philosophers and the Church authorities is well-drawn, though rather categorical; the author's sympathies in this struggle are never difficult to discern. Ms. Maxwell's writing style is accessible and engaging; I found myself completely drawn into Caterina's story and eager to discover how everything would play out.

The strength of the book lies in the relationship that binds Caterina and her son. Caterina recognizes Leonardo's giftedness from the beginning and encourages him to pursue his unconventional interests. Some of my favorite scenes are those where the young Leonardo explores the world and glories in the wonder of things. There is a true sense that Leonardo's genius unfolds precisely because Caterina provides the acceptance and love that encourages him to take risks. Caterina loves Leonardo with ferocious devotion, sacrificing marriage and living a life of deceit in order to be near him. For decades she lives as a man; although this opens up for her opportunities to which she never could have aspired as a woman, the strain of this double life gradually takes its toll. In this sense, Caterina mirrors in her personal life the sacrifices countless Renaissance scholars, artists and philosophers were often forced to make in order to expand their knowledge and pursue their dreams.

SIGNORA DA VINCI is an enjoyable and absorbing read, and I thank Ms. Maxwell for opening up the world of Renaissance Florence to readers of historical fiction. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of SIGNORA DA VINCI

Robin Maxwell is the author of seven historical novels, most of which are set in Elizabethan times. Her latest novel, SIGNORA DA VINCI (NAL, 2009) explores the Italian Renaissance through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci's mother, Caterina. It has been called Maxwell's "most remarkable novel yet" (Michelle Moran), a "sparkling epic" that "continually delights with intriguing details" (Vicki Léon).

I had the opportunity to ask Robin some questions about her research and the writing of her novel, and her enthusiasm for a Renaissance familiar to few shines through.

1. What were the challenges of writing about Renaissance philosophy for the modern lay reader?

Thanks for asking. Executing this philosophical aspect of SIGNORA DA VINCI well was critical to the book's success. It was central to the story, but it had the potential for being dry, dense, and hard-to-understand. I realized that these days, most people don't spend much time thinking about or studying philosophy of any kind, no less Renaissance philosophy or its origins -- Platonic and Hermetic thought, and even further back, Egyptian magic and astrology. Learning about this subject was utterly fascinating to me, but I wasn't sure it would be to anyone else.

It was a leap of faith in my readers, I suppose, thinking that if I presented the subject clearly, if it was relevant to and truly forwarded my story's plot, and if it was intrinsic to the book's main characters -- Leonardo da Vinci, his mother Caterina, and Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici -- that not only would my readers find it fascinating, too, but they would learn something about western civilization's evolution out of the Dark Ages into the brilliant light of the Renaissance and what is known as "Early Modern History."

Some of my favorite scenes in the book are set at gatherings of Florence's "Platonic Academy," where all the brightest lights of scholarship, the arts and politics, met to discuss classical philosophy -- itself an act so outside the parameters of the all-powerful Catholic Church and so heretical, that it was literally a burnable offense. Yet these courageous individuals were so persistent, so obsessed with the idea of learning the truths of humankind and the cosmos, and the road to true spiritual enlightenment, that they risked everything to continue.

The other challenge was learning the philosophies myself -- I'd never studied them before -- the Greeks, the Egyptians, Hermes Trismegistus, alchemy and astrology (the only "sciences" in those days). I realized that though Plato was the basis of all modern thinking, I didn't know anything about his writings. So I went onto and typed in the words "understanding Plato," and voila! Up popped a booked called UNDERSTANDING PLATO by David Melling. It was a fabulous book that perfectly explained in layman's terms what the man and his thinking were all about. I also relied heavily on the brilliant Frances Yates (four of her books) to learn about alchemy and Hermeticism.

All that was left for me as a writer was to fit this preposterously complex glut of material into the story I wanted to tell in an interesting and entertaining way, one that a broad audience could understand. My main technique was to impart the knowledge through dialogue between my main characters, which in itself was fitting, as so many of Plato's works were written as just that -- dialogues between his teacher, Socrates and himself.

2. I'm intrigued by the feminist angle that colors your depiction of the Platonic Academy (concretized in the prominence given to the Egyptian goddess Isis). Could you elaborate on this a bit? How open were Renaissance philosophers to the power of the feminine?

Another great question. I think the most shocking aspect of Renaissance philosophy was that when you dug into its deepest roots, you realized that it went far beyond 15th century Italian men studying and lionizing the ancient Greeks. Because the Greeks were studying the far more ancient and pagan Egyptians. And at the bottom of Egyptian thought was their belief in Isis, the original "Earth Mother" -- progenitor of all gods and goddesses, bringer of life itself, and the figure responsible for the first-ever "resurrection."

Then you had Plato, who believed women and men were equals!!! That noblewomen should receive as fine an education as men and should be allowed to participate in the public sphere -- even hold office. How radical is that?! Of course, by the time this stuff was revealed to the men of the Italian Renaissance, the "Goddess" was long-dead and there'd been 1,500 years of the Christian Church that had beaten women into the ground and made them irrelevant except as sex-objects and brood mares. Women had no rights in 15th century Florence, and it was the rare female (like Lorenzo de' Medici's mother, Lucrezia who, by the way, is a major character -- at age 18 -- in my new novel, O, JULIET) that received a good education (or any education at all).

So while the Renaissance men might have been studying these principles in the Platonic Academy meetings, for the most part, their wives, mothers, sisters and mistresses were still stuck in the traditional life of Italian women -- barely allowed to leave their fathers' houses as girls, and their husbands' houses as wives, and bearing children until they dropped dead. Why do you think I disguised my protagonist -- Leonardo da Vinci's mother -- as a man? If she'd been a woman she would never ever have been able to gain entree into the world I was determined to explore in this book.

3. If you had written the story from the perspective of Leonardo himself, how would the story have been different? What aspects of his life would you have focused on?

Actually, my first thought was to write a book about Leonardo, because he was -- and remains today -- much more than just an astonishing artist. He had the most original mind of any man of any century. He was an inventor, scientist, philosopher, atheist, believer in Nature as God, vegetarian (when such a thing was a heretical act!), a homosexual, a believer in freedom of the human spirit, and that learning did not come from books but from personal, first-hand experience. However, the publishing business today -- especially in the historical fiction genre -- is quite fixated on stories told from a woman's point of view. So I was forced to revise my thinking.

If Leonardo had been the lead character, I would have tried to delve more deeply into his psyche. For an individual to emerge as a full-blown, half-a-milennium-ahead-of-his-time genius just after coming out of the Dark Ages is mind-boggling to me. Since I was determined to illuminate the "Shadow Renaissance," the Medici, the Platonic Academy, and the Turin Shroud hoax, I probably would have placed Leonardo squarely in the center of that world, rather than his mother, Caterina. In retrospect, it might not have been quite as appealing a book as it was with Caterina, because with her as the protagonist, she was able to observe an all-male "inner circle", secretly, through female eyes, as well as have a love relationship with a man. If I'd only had Leonardo to work with, I would have been writing primarily about homosexual relationships and truthfully, though I have several close friends who are gay, I'm not familiar (from an "insiders" point of view) with that kind of sexuality.

4. I know authors often don't have much say in the cover design for their books, but is there a specific reason why the designers chose not to feature one of Leonardo's many portraits of women on the cover of SIGNORA DA VINCI?

The truth is, authors have very little (if anything) to say about their covers. The figure on the cover of SIGNORA DA VINCI is Raphael's "Veiled Lady," and the background is from something else. They are both evocative of the period and very beautiful, but I objected at first to the artwork because I felt the woman didn't reflect Caterina (at least the way I saw her). I doubt she would have had such fine clothing, being the daughter of a country apothecary, and of course she's disguised as a man in most of the book.

Actually I wanted another of Raphael's paintings ("The Madonna of the Chair" which you can see on my website at the top of the "Passport to the 15th Century" pages, the one called, "Was the Mona Lisa Leonardo's Mother?" In this, a much less "noble" looking girl is holding a baby boy in her arms and they're looking at each other with such love, that I thought this was a more appropriate cover -- it was so much a book about the love between a mother and her son. But I got shouted down.

That said, I think its the most gorgeous of my covers to date. Clearly, the designers were looking for an image that would make somebody pick the book up and want to buy it. In this, I think they succeeded brilliantly. Moreover, I personally wish I owned that dress the veiled lady is wearing!

5. How did you grow as a writer in writing this book?

Writing deeply about people who risked their lives to pursue their non-conforming religious/spiritual beliefs helped me to come out of the closet myself on this issue. I can now say, proudly and unflinchingly, that I am an atheist. I remember seeing Sebastian Junger (THE PERFECT STORM) a few years ago on Book TV at the National Book Fair on the White House lawn being interviewed by Laura Bush and stating, without batting an eye, that he was an atheist. I thought then, "How brave. Could I ever do the same?" Since writing writing SIGNORA DA VINCI I discovered the courage, in this deeply religious country of ours (and in the conservative community where I live), to speak truthfully about my anti-religious leanings.

6. What trends do you see in the field of historical fiction and how do you feel about them?

Aside from the ubiquitous "headless women running away" used on 99% of historical fiction novels' covers, I'm getting pretty tired of publishers only allowing us historical fiction authors to write from a woman's point of view. Of course I know that for the longest time women were shut out of history entirely, but I think the "women-only" trend is an over-reaction (like bra-burning during the early feminist movement) that was once useful, but has run its course. In my new novel, O, JULIET (to be published in 2010) I was able to convince my publishers to allow Romeo to have a first-person voice in the story, as well as Juliet. In the future, I hope to be writing more from the male point of view (as well as the female). To me, it doesn't matter what sex your protagonists are, as long as they're remarkable people.

There's a lot here to discuss here, so jump in with your comments! I'd like to thank Robin for her willingness to be interviewed and the insightful answers she provided. I wish her all the best with SIGNORA DA VINCI and her new book, O JULIET, scheduled for release in 2010. Visit Robin's website to learn more about her books and to read some interesting features she has posted about the historical context of SIGNORA DA VINCI.

To conclude this spotlight on Robin Maxwell, my next post will feature a short review of SIGNORA DA VINCI, which I very much enjoyed reading.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Name that Plant

Did you know a palm tree planted in the sixteenth century is still alive and thriving in Italy? The tree, protected now inside an octagonal greenhouse, was planted in 1585 in the Orto Botanico di Padova. Padua's botanical garden is the oldest academic garden still in existence at its original site, and its ground plan survives nearly unchanged. The university established the garden in 1545 in order to cultivate native and exotic medicinal plants. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, medical students took two courses on medicinal plants: a theoretical course based on the lecturs of Dioscorides, and a practical course which involved identifying and studying the plants growing in the garden. The numerous surviving examples of maps of the garden written in different hands suggests that the students had to identify the plants growing in the different beds. This practical training helped them avoid administering incorrect plants when preparing medicines and treating their patients.

The palm, a Chamaerops humilis, is often referred to as the "Goethe palm." Studying the palm in 1786 helped the famous German writer articulate his ideas about evolution, which he published in an essay entitled "Metamorphosis of Plants." The palm is presently the oldest plant in the garden, following the death in 1984 of a chaste tree whose presence was documented since 1550. The garden also houses both a magnolia and a ginko planted in the mid-1700's and considered to be among the oldest specimens in Europe.