I’m very honoured to be a guest of Andrea Stephenson on the wonderful Harvesting Hecate blog (click on the link above). Here I am writing about Veronica Franco, the woman who was the basis for my character Tullia Buffo, in my book The Return of the Courtesan. Please also take the time to have a look around Andrea’s blog. She writes on creativity, writing, the natural world and the seasons with a clarity and beauty which is quite outstanding.
Hats off – or in this case I think actually my great uncle Norman’s top hat off, to all those of you who nominated my book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. It is on a glorious long list of 150! Not only hats off but hats off with sunflowers. Thank you all so very much!
In order to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN onto the SHORT LIST of six you now have to vote for two books (on the long list) published by two different publishers. So in my case don’t pick another Black and White title. Give a 100 word review of one of them and put the word ‘vote’ in your comment. If you click on the link below you’ll see all the details of what you have to do. Incidentally, I quite understand if at this point you think, ‘Forget it, dearie, I’ve got better things to do with my August and this is simply too much trouble.’
But wouldn’t it be ABSOLUTELY THRILLING to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN onto the SHORT LIST? And if you do, apart from loving you for ever, I will post a picture of myself in my great uncle’s pith helmet. You think I jest? Well, here it is patiently awaiting its elevation to my head! It longs to be placed there, it really does and only you can make it happen.
Oh, and VERY IMPORTANTLY I should add that the deadline for this part of the competition is 23.59 BST on Monday 7th August 2017 so get voting darlings or the pith helmet will stay where it is, sadly gathering dust, forlorn, forgotten and pithed off …
TITIAN’S BOATMAN has had a re-title and a new cover in preparation for its paperback release at the end of July. It has now become THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN and here she is. If you’re a member it’s available on NetGalley. How could you resist the allure of the great Tullia Buffo?
The first book I ever wrote was titled FLYING BEARS. This was a Ronseal-title. There were bears in it and they flew. Not only bears were in the book, there were also twins and magical circuses. I imagined it as the love child of the John Irving book, The World According to Garp, and the Jeanette Winterson book, The Passion. It was never published you won’t be surprised to hear but I loved it because it was the first book I ever completed and as such it had taught me that I could write 100,000 words with a beginning a middle and an end. And then when I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher it taught me about rejection which is useful in its own way albeit bloody horrible. Since then I’ve had eight books published.
I have always loved bears. It has something to do with the fact they spend a great deal of each year sleeping and then when they wake up they (well, some of them) stand in streams while salmon jump into their mouths. Not being much of a cook that way of feeding myself has always struck me as having a great deal to recommend it.
So over the years the people close to me have given me bears of various kinds. Currently on my desk I have the five below.
The two furry ones in the middle I have had since I was a very small child. I’ve no idea where they came from or who gave them to me. They may not even be mine. Perhaps I hoovered them up when my parents moved and when we sold my father’s house.
The brown one on the right is one given to me by my partner a couple of years ago and has a distinctly Germanic look to it. I feel it should be holding something between its paws but have not yet found what that thing might be. My mother had one a bit like this, but smaller, which held a thimble.
The one on the left is the glitziest. It’s really a Christmas decoration but I loved him so much I kept him out of the decorations box which is a bit daft. So here he is on my desk and whenever I pick him up and admire him I transfer glitter to the end of my nose which improves my appearance no end. Sometimes I hang him from the money plant for good luck.
Finally, the little fellow in the middle is on a green stone. I bought him from Watkins, a mind, body, spirit bookshop in Cecil Court in London many years ago. If I’m feeling anxious about doing something I’ll slip it into my pocket. Oh, did I mention I’m superstitious?
Incidentally, bears have staying power. They appeared in my most recent book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN (aka TITIAN’S BOATMAN). In fact I think one of the main reasons I decided that my Shakespearean actor, Terry, is acting in The Winter’s Tale was so I could have a lovely time with bears. ‘Exit pursued by a bear,’ being one of the most famous of all stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. There’s another bear in the book, a small silver one, which is one I own, but have now lost, temporarily. Maybe once it had muscled its way into a published book, it decided to fly away.
The moral of this particular tale is that you can’t keep bears out of anything. Or at any rate it seems you certainly can’t keep them out of my imagination or off my desk.
The man with the blue sleeve being outdone by lush peonies. It could happen to any of us and also a nice quote from the Historical Novel Society about TITIAN’S BOATMAN:
“This book is a wonderful collection of chapters, all of them exquisitely crafted, most of them small – some very small, like the golden tesserae on the ceiling of St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, an image drawn from the book.”
THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY
An afternoon walk with THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE is always enjoyable. Here he is worried that he might be outdone by some very beautiful wisteria … Of course nothing can be more beautiful than him …
And here he is in contemplation of the handkerchief tree or if you’re that way inclined Davidia Involucrata, a deciduous tree from SW China that happens to be in my local park. Family Nyssaceae (don’t ever get me to spell that again).
If you want to visit him he will welcome your attendance in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He always has a lot to say for himself unless he’s on loan which is wearisome.
1. Don’t – you fool! Are you insane? People have sex but it doesn’t mean you have to write about it. Don’t, don’t, don’t …
2. However if one of your main characters is a Venetian courtesan (as in my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN …) do not think you can skip them. Sex, after all, was the currency of the courtesan and if you avoid them everyone will rightly think you are a coward.
3. If you feel you have to, make sure you mother and father are six foot under. Whatever it takes – literally is best but metaphorically will do. Dead, dead, dead … ashes to ashes … because you simply cannot imagine them reading … oh dear God … (puts fingers in ears and closes eyes and sings la, la, la…) and you can’t afford the twenty years of Freudian therapy to call them by their first names let alone . . . No, sorry, dead parents is the only answer.
4. Now convince yourself that no one you know will ever read them. Your book will not be published. No one will ever read them other than you.
5. If you are writing Renaissance sex scenes read Renaissance pornography. Pietro Aretino’s Ragionamenti are bawdy, funny, satirical and you will pick up some useful descriptions and metaphors … ‘Rubbing his rod and olives’ was one I particularly liked and would never, ever have dreamed up. Also you will never view nuns and monks in the same light.
6. If your book is going to be published do not read through the sex scenes obsessively at the editing stage and fret about those elderly aunts who are approaching 90 who might read them. Do not do that whatever you do, especially if they disapproved of one of your earlier books in which someone swore once or twice (OK it was the ‘c’ word) … and in which your main character had sex once or … Oh good lord, she was tied to the banisters in the first scene, wasn’t she? Excuse me while I . . . delete . . . delete . . . dump memory . . . dump memory . . .
7. Now where was I? In fact who am I? It is probably best not to say to your agent or your editor when in a state of high anxiety, ‘Are the sex scenes alright?’ because it will only embarrass them and you and really what are the poor dears going to say to you? If the answer is ‘no’ where do you go from there?
8. Once the book is published if at all possible obliterate said sex scenes from your mind completely, so that when your partner after a phone conversation with a mutual friend looks at you quizzically and says ‘She’s enjoying the sex scenes…’ you can immediately respond, ‘What sex scenes are those?’ in an entirely natural tone of voice.
9. If you end up in the Bad Sex Awards blame your agent and editor and comfort yourself with the thought that at least one person has read your book and all publicity is good publicity… and then make a secret vow that you will never write another as long as you live. Never, never, never … to quote King Lear. Oh, dear and look what happened to him …
10. If you bump into your neighbour and he looks at you in a curious way and says, ‘Oh, I’m half way through and I’m … (very, very long pause here broken by his mobile going off) … excited … err, sorry I have to take this call.’ Do not overanalyse any aspect of what he has said. Just don’t. And it’s probably best to delete the whole scene from your brain immediately along with the sex scenes.
11. Make a vow that you will never write another one as long as you live.
What do you think about sex scenes in novels? Like? Loathe? Laughable? Oh, go on – do tell. I’m absolutely not looking for comments on mine because I didn’t write any, did I?
There’s been a bit of a debate recently about whether historical fiction writers should add bibliographies to their books or not. Hilary Mantel, a woman who likes to put cats among pigeons, commented in an interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch on her “cringing” contemporaries in historical fiction who “try and burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”
She goes on to say this: “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complimentary.”
My immediate response was a highly sophisticated one. ‘Fuck right off dearie.’ I mean – what got into her? A case of getting out of bed the wrong side? Too much steak for breakfast?
A few things come into play here for me:
- My father was a historian and I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to him grumbling about inaccurate historical detail in TV dramas. At the time I remember wishing he’d shut up so I could follow the story
- I studied history at Oxford not particularly happily
- My last two books – FAR AWAY and TITIAN’S BOATMAN have been historical fiction and I’ve attached bibliographies to both of them.
The reason why I do it is not particularly to “burnish my credentials”. I mean what the hell does that mean anyway? It’s because I think the reader might be interested to read some of the books that have fired my imagination. As a reader I like bibliographies and often track down books from them. I appreciate the fact the writer has taken the trouble to do it. It is work to put together a bibliography. It would be much easier not to do it.
I do not in any way feel cringing.
There is of course another element in play here. In creating a bibliography you are giving away your sources. I like that because there’s a part of me that likes to demystify the process of writing. I want you as my reader to know that fiction writing is not a mystery carried out by magicians. You too could read these books and you might write this sort of book. It sort of democratizes it in some way. Sometimes it does occur to me that a reader might read the books in my bibliography and go, ‘Well, you got that wrong didn’t you?’ Or even, ‘So that’s where you pinched that from,’ but so what? Bring it on!
As a reader of historical fiction I give the writer a fair amount of latitude. After all it’s fiction. I did a history degree and I know the difference; fiction is much more enjoyable! When I read it I do not assume every little thing is accurate. I expect the main big things to be right i.e. the date of a battle or the date of some one’s death but sometimes things can be disputed. For example no one knows exactly when Titian was born so as a writer you take your pick within a certain range and stick to it.
However I very much like the idea of someone who has read my book then reading the things I have enjoyed in researching the book: Pietro Aretino’s letters are great fun – he’s fantastic and I’d like as many people as possible to have the pleasure of reading him. And aren’t you curious to read the letters and poems of a Renaissance courtesan, Veronica Franco? Those closest to me have had me banging on about them for years so why not spread the love? Don’t we all take pleasure in word of mouth recommendations? Why not make that easy for the reader? Books I have read and not enjoyed like Paul Morand’s Venices, an unbearably portentous book, I didn’t include.
One of the characteristics of a cult leader is that it all comes from them personally. It is their genius as opposed to the fact that they might have cobbled together a bit of CBT, a bit of EST and a bit of mindfulness and mixed it with a bit of charisma and bobs your uncle. Never trust an individual who doesn’t acknowledge their teachers, who doesn’t acknowledge their sources, who makes it all about their genius. I don’t want you to think it’s all me. I don’t want you to think it’s all my talent as a writer because that’s not what I believe.
I like the idea of you following your nose into my research material and may be thinking, ‘Oh, look at this juicy element. Why didn’t she use that?’ I’d quite like that. I’d like to know what your story might be. I don’t want it to be mysterious because it isn’t. I remember when I was in my twenties and all I knew was that I wanted to write but I had no idea what to do or how to do it. I did courses, I had teachers, I read books on writing, I joined writing groups. I still have teachers. All those elements contributed to me becoming and staying a published writer.
So what do you think about bibliographies? Apologetic cringing or an act of generosity to the reader? Do you think I have been burnishing my credentials? I’d be very interested to know and when I say interested that’s in a slightly Tony Soprano/horse head in the bed sort of a way. Only joking. I just want you to realize this is an entirely cringe-free zone from a non-cap doffing person. Excuse me, dear reader, while I walk backwards away from you in a suitably groveling, servile manner while begging you for comments … Oh God, what happened there? Maybe Hilary was right all along. PS You should all read her books – every one of them. Every single one. She’s a genius, she really is. She’s just completely wrong on the subject of bibliographies.
There’s nothing like spotting your book – TITIAN’S BOATMAN – in the window of your local independent bookshop to make your day utterly frabjous. The next line of JABBERWOCKY by Lewis Carroll is ‘He chortled in his joy.’ Exactly right. That’s me chortling. Thank you Nomad Books!
The Man with the Blue Sleeve (Titian 1510) at the start of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in Putney a few days ago. Is that sleeve light blue or dark blue he wondered? Today he decided it was light blue when the women raced (they won) and dark blue when the men raced (they won). He is a winner after all. But he wants to make it clear that he wouldn’t be seen dead in anything other than a gondola. And that he doesn’t like to exert himself in any way whatsoever. Well, that’s all clear then. Oh, and he knows you would like to buy my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN in which he figures in a very gratifying way. Buy it and you will find out all about him. He knows you want to. Or at least go and visit him in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He is definitely worth it.