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Friday, February 6, 2009

An Author Answers My Impertinent Question (and a Giveaway)

If you read any other book blogs you've likely seen several posts about the new book SIGNORA DI VINCI by Robin Maxwell, a book that imagines the life of Di Vinci's mother. I was offered a copy of this book for a giveaway on my blog (details are at the end of this post), with the hope that I'd review it and maybe allow the author to guest post. I declined the review option because I just don't think that this is my kind of book. However I couldn't pass up the chance to ask the author a question that has been bugging me for a long time so I sent the following email to Ms. Maxwell:

I really enjoy historical fiction. I like when an author creates a character and puts him/her in a real-life historical setting, interacting with real historical figures in a way that fits into history. I also enjoy when real historical figures are the main characters, especially when there is enough known about them to create an "it could have happened this way" scenario. But what I'm not such a fan of is what you've done in this book: created a character based on (from what I can tell) the very few details known about a real life person. So much of the book is complete speculation. I'm partial to "truth" in historical fiction - I go for a bit more *historical* and a bit less *fiction.* So what I want to know is, why did you write this story in this way? What is the draw for you as a writer? What is the appeal for the reader?

Impertinent, much? After I sent it I worried that I might have offended her but luckily I did not. Ms. Maxwell was gracious enough to respond that "it was a good question" and to give me a thorough answer/explanation. Her response is lengthy but interesting and I do hope you'll take the time to read it.


Response by Robin Maxwell:

In all my seven novels, I've never chosen to use an entirely fictionalized character for my protagonist, mainly because I feel there are so many real historical figures with mesmerizing stories that it wasn't necessary to make one up. That said, I have had as my protagonists, figures about whom there are mountains of biographies and histories written -- Elizabeth I, as an example. I tackled different parts of her life in four of my books (Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, ages 25-26; The Queen's Bastard, 27-54; Virgin, 13-15; and The Wild Irish, 60-67). I was meticulous about sticking to the facts, but that was easy, as there were so many of them at my fingertips.

However, in The Queen's Bastard, one of the three main voices in the story is Arthur Dudley, the young man who claimed to have been the illegitimate son of Elizabeth and Robin Dudley. Out of all the history books I scoured looking for references to him, I found perhaps five pages of documentation. He was an English spy in the years before the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and he was arrested in Spain, brought before King Phillip II, and deposed by Phillip's English secretary for five days (that written deposition still exists in the Spanish State Papers with the King's comments written in the margins). What I read convinced me that there was a better-than-even chance that Arthur Dudley was who he claimed to be. Whether he was or wasn't, I figured this person had a fascinating life and needed his story told. Cloaked as he is in shadows, he remains one of my favorite characters in history.

In To the Tower Born I took two young women -- one the 18 year old Princess Bessie (Elizabeth of York, who was said to have been Richard III's lover before she became the mother of the entire Tudor Dynasty -- Henry VIII's mom); and Elizabeth ("Nell") Caxton, daughter of the first English printer/publisher, William Caxton, and plopped them down at the center of the mystery of the lost princes in the Tower of London. Strangely, very little has been written about Elizabeth of York, but I as least had skeleton of her whereabouts during the time in question. Of Nell Caxton, I had exactly one sentence of history. That she (daughter of the most celebrated non-royal of the period) obtained a divorce from her husband in London on a certain date.

From that simple fact, and from what I learned about William Caxton (three good biographies) I was able to envision a fascinating life for Nell. That she grew up within the walls of Westminster, where her father's printing press and bookstore were located and where the royal family (including Princess Bessie) held court. William was deeply respected, patronized and much beloved by every person in the royal family, and I thought that the two girls, of a similar age, might have been thrown together and even allowed a friendship. I deduced that Nell and Bessie were two of the best educated young women in England at the time, and I knew for certain that Bessie was smack in the middle of the high drama that led to Richard III's becoming king, and the disappearance of her little brothers. From this starting point, I did a great deal of detective work and research to formulate a unique solution to one of England's greatest mysteries -- one that I am proud to say has been lauded by the Richard III Society.

With regard to Signora da Vinci, the truth is that I really wanted to write a novel about Leonardo, as I believe him to possess the greatest and most creative mind in all of history. But for some years now, publishers of historical fiction have been fixated on novels told exclusively from a woman's point of view. My proposal to do a Leonardo book was very coolly received. But I was not going to be deterred. The more I read about him and the fabulous figures of the period, like Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici, Sandro Botticelli, the groundbreaking and courageous philosophers that defied the Catholic church with their Platonic Academy of Florence (see the bonus page on my website), the more determined I was to write about the period -- and not from an outsiders point of view. I wanted to be smack in the middle of all the hoo-ha. And right inside Leonardo's head.

That left his mother. I had only a couple of clusters of facts to go on -- that her name was Caterina, and that the day after her son was born out of wedlock, his biological father and grandfather came and took the infant from his mother and brought him up in their loveless home. Much later in life, a woman named Caterina came to live with Leonardo (the only female ever to do so), and two years later he paid for her funeral. That left me with either a gaping chasm, or a delightful "hole in history" to fill. I chose to see it as the latter.

Using the voluminous materials I had about Leonardo (1,080 pages of his writings alone!) I was able to extrapolate the character of his mother, the one person who would know the man best, from the inside out. That still left me with the problem of how she would insinuate herself into the all-male society of Renaissance movers and shakers, to get the inside scoop on "The Shadow Renaissance". So I disguised her as a man. Women did cross-dress all through the middle ages and the Renaissance (see the link to my bonus page).

So while you might see the whole story as far-fetched, it is all within the realm of possibility. Clearly, a reader must be able to suspend disbelief to enjoy Signora da Vinci, but if I had not expanded Caterina's character the way I did, I would never have been able to tell the story I wished to tell. I figure that readers get a unique and richly imagined perspective on history, one that is intimate and emotional while still planted firmly in deep research.

Please visit me at my gorgeous new website ... it looks just like Renaissance jewel box.


Giveaway Details

If you'd like a chance to win a copy of SIGNORA DI VINCI please post a comment on this website answering any one of the following questions raised by Ms. Maxwell's post:
  • Is a historical fiction novel told from a woman's point of view more or less likely to grab your attention?
  • Were you aware of the compromises author must sometimes make in order to get their books published (like having to tell Leonardo's story through his mother rather than on its own)?
  • Did this post change your opinion on "fictional" historical fiction? In what way?
  • Or you can visit Ms. Maxwell's website and tell me one thing you liked about it.
I'm willing to ship this book anywhere in the world as long as I can do it for less than $20 US. That's as much as I'm willing to spend on shipping, sorry.* So if you think your mailing address fits into my budget then please enter ... and good luck! Oh, and I'll draw a winner next Friday (2/13).

* I'm shipping from Maryland in the United States, in case you're wondering.


Anonymous said...

What a great question and an interesting perspective. I prefer more history in my historical fiction too, but I think the worst is when an author just comes up with things I'd never imagine and which I think are inappropriate. (I can't imagine Elizabeth I ever having a child. There is just no way she could have hidden it. No offense, but royal lives were unbelievably public and she couldn't have carried a baby to term without everyone knowing and she's been so intensely studied that it would have come up by now.) I can see them doing so to get published, though, and that's an angle I hadn't considered. Thanks to Robin Maxwell for letting us know about this. And her website is certainly impressive!

Now, this book, I would be okay with, because fictional characters in historical settings jive a bit better with my strong bias in favor of completely accurate history and can't go against beliefs I already have.

Amanda said...

Oh I love this interview question. It's great! As a history major, I tend to get really annoyed with authors who go against historically accurate information. BUT, I love Robin Maxwell's The Queen's Bastard because she stuck well within all the historical information that we do know. She didn't change anything to fit her story. But there is so much of history that we lost and don't know. So I love her speculative historical fiction.

Please enter me in this contest. Thanks!

Alyce said...

It makes sense to me that publishers would want authors to write what there is a demand for, but I wasn't aware of the particulars (in this case demanding main characters who are women).

I personally prefer main characters who are women because I am a woman. I like to read about how women were treated throughout history, and what their lives were like.

Does this mean I always want to read stories about women? No! If a book is well written it doesn't matter what the gender of the protagonist is.

That was a great question, and a very nice response from the author!

The Daily Rant said...

Thanks for stopping by the blog.

Of course you've heard Louis Prima - you grew up with Uncle Nino and Granpa Nick!! :)

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

Great question and answer from the author. I'm always a little mystified about the forces that dictate the things that we get to read or watch on tv. I am more interested in the story and whether I will find it to be an interesting and compelling one moreso than I care about whether it is written from the perspective of a man or a woman. How do they draw such blanket conclusions. It seems to me that there would be room for both. Is it the feeling that women are looking for romance plays into it, and that is most easily told from a woman's perspective?

Kristen said...

I was originally going to comment simply that I enjoyed reading this post, but then I learned I might, by the luck of the draw, win a copy of the book - which works in nicely with the answer to the third question:

Did this post change your opinion on "fictional" historical fiction? In what way?

Ordinarily, I'd not have been interested in getting a copy of this book. I've never read one piece of historical fiction, because I was never interested. Fake history to me has always been like fake gemstones. Give me a cheap, real one over a lab-manufactured one, please.

But the author's answer to your question had me riveted from beginning to end.

What fun to imagine what might have happened in the days and weeks for which there is no record - and how cool a way to, as much as possible, get to know historical figures through the hours upon hours of research good historical fiction writers have done.

Yes - this post changed the way I look at historical fiction.

And, as to number one, I'd be more interested in picking up a book of historical fiction told from a man's point of view. We already know a lot, from literature, about how women viewed their position in the world in the "old" days. I'd like to get some insight into what it was like for men (which is why I was so interested in reading two old books I picked up at a library sale: "When a Man's Single" by James M. Barrie - 1888, and "The Husband's Story" by David Graham Phillips - 1910).

sharon54220 said...

That was a great question and the answer was very eye-opening. To be honest, I've really never read historical fiction, so this would be a great way to start. Thanks for the contest.

Susan Elliott said...

LOVED reading author's response with all the details. Frankly, I am NOT more interested in historical fiction told from a woman's point of view -- and I love historical fiction. Unlike you, I am not such a stickler for more historical than fiction but oftentimes I find myself looking up the historical info out of curiosity to see how much is "true"... I think it's a shame that a publisher is influencing authors in this way... unless, of course, the author feels the resulting book is better than what her original idea was... I wonder how Ms. Maxwell would say that this book is now better than her original idea to write about Leondardo. I think I will like this book but I would have bought the other one for sure just because of the allure of Leonardo...

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I love the one-question interview! I do it on my blog, too.

No need to enter me. I'm just dropping in to say thanks for the e-mail. I've got this listed on Win a Book for you.

The Giveaway Diva said...

to answer your second question, i never thout that the publishers had such impact on the writers and what they write, i always thought that the author came up with the amazing book and that was when it would be presented to publishers!

Unknown said...

I definitely like historical fiction. I have been reading it more and more lately. Perhaps that's just because there seems to be more and more books in this genre lately? I have to say I prefer books written from a female perspective or about a woman.

I've had quite a few non-fiction articles published in magazines and ended up going with what the editors wanted just to make my life easier. I can only imagine the compromises an author has to make for books. A worst case scenario would be if an author ended up writing about something they aren't interested in just to be published.

Serena said...

Heather what a well thought out answer from the author. I really enjoy historical fiction no matter if its told from a female or male point of view.

Its sad that the publishing industry would assume that readers are only interested in historical fiction from a female pov. Unfortunately, authors face these types of compromises all the time.

I'd like to be entered into this contest. Thanks.

Savvyverseandwit AT gmail DOT com

Anonymous said...

I'm very aware of the compromises. Sometimes it's not just about what the author wants to write about but what people would like to read. Ultimately, fiction is fiction and putting the word history infront of it only means that it uses historical themes, names or events. It doesn't promise any accuracy.


Renee G said...

Although I enjoy reading historical fiction written in a woman's voice. I have trouble reconciling the need to write in this voice to sell fiction, when the reader would much rather hear the story from someone else's viewpoint.

Although I am interested in reading this book, I see it more as a voice of the time, rather than as the voice of a da vinci.

Gwendolyn B. said...

Wow. Such an interesting post/interview! I did not find your question impertinent - just honest. Personally, I tend to want more history in my historical fiction as well, but I am flexible. If the details have enough historical accuracy that it COULD have happened the way the author imagines, I'm willing to go for the ride. One sort of "historical fiction" I have not been able to embrace, and I don't know the technical genre name, is when a modern day author takes another author's fictional character (think: Sherlock Holmes) creates new fiction around that character. Maybe someday I'll make that leap, but I just can't do it right now.
Thanks for the chance to win a copy of this book. I'm looking forward to reading it one way or another!
geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com

tanabata said...

What a wonderful response to your question! I actually don't mind my historical fiction to be heavier on the fiction side, especially as in this case when not much is known so we can only speculate what their life might have been like.

I'm aware that authors sometimes have to conform to a certain requirement, which all comes down to what the publisher thinks they can sell, but it does seem kind of sad. I'm curious how the trends, in this case historical fiction from a woman's point of view, start in the first place.

I actually was recently listening to a podcast with a British crime writer who wanted to set his latest book in Asia but the publisher didn't go for it since crime books set in the UK apparently always sell more (in the UK). He got around it partly by having British bad guys go to Thailand but it was interesting to hear the discussion.

Anyway, I'd love a chance to win this one. Thanks.
tanabata2000 at gmail dot com

(BTW, I'm in Japan but usually the postage for a single hardback book from the US is about $12 - $15, in my experience anyway).

Anna said...

I'm glad you shared the answer to your question. I found it very interesting, and I'm intrigued about the character she created from few facts.

I'd love to be entered in the giveaway. I'll tackle the first question. To me, it doesn't matter whether the POV is male or female. I might be able to relate more to a female, but that depends. Usually, I just look for a strong voice, an interesting character who can carry the story.

Diary of an Eccentric

Sara said...

I'd like to be entered. AS for the first question, a woman's perspective is always nice, so yes they suck me on faster. I like any hisrtorical novel told from an outside angle. Makes the story more lively, IMO.

Sararush (at) hotmail (dot) com

Sara said...

The misspelling of historical was a typo...sorry!

Anonymous said...

Hey! Count me in please. Thanks.

As for your first question: Considering the fact that virtually all the historical fiction books that I've loved (not just liked, but loved) have been told from a woman's point of view, I'm going to say yes, it is more likely to grab my attention. Maybe I identify with them better because I am a woman, I don't know. Anyway, you can reach me through my blog or at tiffanyak1986(at)hotmail(dot)com.

avisannschild said...

Ooh, what a fabulous post! I'm glad that Robin was open to answering your "impertinent" question! I have to say I am more interested in historical fiction (or any fiction, actually) written from a woman's point of view. And I love the idea of historical fiction that fills in the gaps of recorded history (as long as it's well-researched and plausible). This post has definitely made me want to read this book more, so please enter me in the giveaway!

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