Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why I Love...the strong ballsy women of history

We are pleased to have a Why I Love" post today from author Robin Maxwell, whose new book, Signora da Vinci was our most recent giveaway. Thanks Robin!

I wasn't sure whether to list this first or last, but I guess I'll get it out of the way, even though it may sound crass and self-serving. I love the heroines of history because they've provided me with a successful career in writing. Every time my husband and I drive through our front gates and clap eyes on the 22 acres of jaw-droppingly beautiful high desert property we call home, we mutter outloud, "Thank you Anne. Thank you Elizabeth." It was the sale of my first novel, Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, to NBC and Hallmark for a 2-part mini-series that made it possible to buy our land and build our first house. Secret Diary is now in its 25th printing and has been translated into 13 languages. Since then, the mother and daughter have graced the pages of four more of my historical novels (The Queen's Bastard, Virgin, The Wild Irish, and Mademoiselle Boleyn).

Grace O'Malley -- pirate, rival to Elizabeth I, and "Mother of the Irish Rebellion -- will soon come to life on the big screen. Last year that book and the screenplay I adapted from it were optioned by a wonderful young Australian producer, Monica O'Brien. With an A-list director attached, a huge budget and a brilliant cast of stars ready to roll in 2010, the movie will leave me sitting pretty for the rest of my life. Okay, that's out of the way. Now onto more cerebral arguments.

Ferreting out a great and original historical woman upon whom to base a novel is getting more and more difficult, as tons of historical fiction is being written today. All of us HF authors find ourselves tripping over each other as we troll the Tudor era to either find a fascinating female (that's what the publishers want) who has not already been written about yet; a new angle on a much-written-about figure; a fictional maid, seamstress, confectioner or rumored-to-be offspring of a virgin queen (Ella March Chase's The Virgin Queen's Daughter and my own The Queen's Bastard). C.W. Gortner scored a coup with his totally original and brilliantly written The Last Queen, about the Spanish sister of Katherine of Aragon, finally putting to rest the idea that the woman deserved the moniker "Juana la Loca" (Juana the Mad). I, myself, discovered there was much more leg room outside of Tudor England and took myself to Renaissance Italy for my seventh novel, Signora da Vinci. Certainly there have been wonderful books set there (Sarah Dunant's Birth of Venus and Karen Essex's Leonardo's Swans), but relative to 16th century England and Ireland, Italy is a wide open field to play on.

Once I've found a character that appeals to me, the real fun begins. I've never chosen to write about fictional characters. I like the Real McCoy, even if there are only three facts known about that person. Using extrapolation, psychology, detective work, my personal understanding of human nature, emotions and motivation, I begin filling in the "holes in history." When you're dealing with a period 500 years in the past, there are lots of them. These sometimes gaping chasms are what I, as an author of historical fiction, live for.

That was the case with Leonardo da Vinci's mother, Caterina, who is the protagonist of Signora da Vinci. With so little known, the sky was the limit. I had a rare opportunity to create something from nearly nothing. I took the tiniest cluster of cells, no larger than a fetal blastula, examined the medium in which it developed (the Italian Renaissance), the world into which Caterina was born and grew, her ancestors and associates, until she blossomed into a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being. I did, however, have a wealth of information about the mental workings of her son, Leonardo, in the form of his work and his notebooks. One volume of just his writings is 1,080 pages long. In this case, from the child I extrapolated the mother.

Once I have the research under my belt I'm ready to rock 'n roll.

I first decide what story I want to tell. Where I want it to start, what questions or mysteries of the period that I want to solve, and where I want to end it. Then I go into this zone -- it's hard to describe -- where I slip into the shoes of my heroine, inhabit her brain and start looking out at the landscape from behind her eyes. Though I had very little to go on with Caterina, I did know that she was an Italian village girl in 1451 who became pregnant out of wedlock, and had her infant son ripped from her arms the day after he was born, and that he was taken to live with his father's family. I think it was that "emotional image" that informed my novel.

Just meditate on that for a moment. How would you feel if you'd had your child taken away from you? Then I added into my premise that it was Leonardo's mother, not his father, from whom he inherited his "genius genes." Since we know quite a bit about his father -- a social-climbing, icy-hearted petty bureaucrat -- I felt I was on solid ground making this assumption. So suddenly I had this brilliant, gutsy young woman who decides she is going to watch over and protect her child, no matter the odds, no matter what she has to do to achieve that goal.
Then I picked up the thread -- the narrative -- by following the career of Leonardo da Vinci, about whom there is a massive amount known, from age thirteen when he went to Florence to apprentice with the great Maestro Verrocchio, who was the court artist of the Medici family. Voila! I suddenly had my world and all the characters in it -- Leonardo and Caterina da Vinci; Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici, his fabulous mother Lucrezia, and his brother -- the Brad Pitt of his day -- Guiliano; the young but already famous artist the Medici had adopted as their son, Sandro Boticelli; members of Lorenzo's heretical philosophical society, "The Platonic Academy;" and the mad monk Savonarola, who loved nothing more than burning heretics at the stake.

To me, the idea of spinning a tale of these characters at that time in history is my idea of a whopping good time.

I suppose another reason I love these women is that their live stories were the antitheses of my own. I was brought up as a nice Jewish girl in a middle class suburb in New Jersey who lived a rather mundane existence and had issues with her authoritarian dad. It was hard-wired into my brain to try to make everyone else happy, not to make waves, to go to college and work at a profession before settling down and having two kids. How could that compare with beheaded mothers, Henry VIII so desperate to marry you that he broke with the Catholic Church, or fighting hand-to-hand with pistol and sword on the deck of your own pirate ship, or solving the mystery of the disappearance of the little princes in the Tower, or hobnobbing with kings and popes, or escaping the amorous advances of the lascivious Francois I?

How could you not love the women who literally changed the course of history? Who were the first feminists, and who paved the way for the rest of us? What a great escape writing about them is!

Finally, this career has brought me many dear friends who share my love of these great ladies. My first, back in my Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn days, was Vicki Leon, who wrote the astonishingly researched and laugh-out-loud series of Uppity Women books (Uppity Women of Ancient Times, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance and The New World). The glamorous Liv Tyler look-alike, Michelle Moran, came to one of my book store events and introduced herself several years before her success with Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen. C.W. Gortner and I gab almost every day about writing historical fiction and the take-no-prisoners world of publishing. I count my favorite Tudor historian (and now author of what she calls "Historical Entertainments" like The Last Wife of Henry VIII) Carolly Erickson, as a pal. Karen Essex and I have strangely parallel writing careers -- starting out as screenwriters and segueing into historical fiction (and even writing about the same figure -- Leonardo da Vinci). Sandra Worth, Susan Scott Holloway and Anne Easter Smith correspond with me via email. So the love of women in history has brought an embarrassment of riches in friendship in the present.

Vicarious adventures, entree into the inner circles of the most fabulous figures who ever lived, a successful career and wonderful friends. Now I ask you, what's not to love about that?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post Robin. I am really eager to read Signora da Vinci!