TIPS ON WRITING SEX SCENES

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The back of Titian’s Boatman’s jacket

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 Your book will not be published.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?

MY NON-CRINGING BIBLIOGRAPHIES …

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BOOK CONTAINING A NON-CRINGING BIBLIOGRAPHY

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:

  1. 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
  2. I studied history at Oxford not particularly happily
  3. 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!

far-away

… AND ANOTHER ONE.

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.

PIETRO ARETINO: POET, PORNOGRAPHER, PIMP …

Titian’s painting of Pietro Aretino 1545

How do you bring the past alive? This is the question that any writer of historical fiction has to ask themselves. In writing my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN I had the problem of evoking Renaissance Venice, so imagine my delight when I came across this quote when I was browsing through the introduction to a selection of Aretino’s letters by Thomas Caldecot Chubb:

“His letters are indeed a source book for his era. Whether I were an historical novelist, or a serious social historian, I would turn to his writings as a gold mine.”

And I have to say a gold mine is exactly right because Aretino wrote about everything you can think of art, food, sex, politics, war, friendship, tarot cards and rosaries. And his letters are written to dukes, doges, kings, princes and emperors as well as artists (including Titian), courtesans, and even his own gondolier. They range in style from the earthy to the arty  from the grandiose to the comic. They bring Renaissance Venice to life in an extraordinary way and I can’t recommend them highly enough if you’re at all interested in this period of history. It is like reading a mash-up of Nigel Slater, Brian Sewell, AA Gill and Clive James, with every now and again a bit of Claire Rayner thrown in. Oh, how he loves to give advice, especially about the affairs of the heart!

Here he is on a painting by Titian of St John carrying a lamb in his arms:

“The lamb he bears in his arms is so lifelike that it actually drew a bleat from a passing ewe.”

Part of the charm of his letters is that through them you meet the whole of Venetian society from the top to the bottom. He writes to Titian’s son telling him to come home and get back to his studies and he writes here in a rage to the acquaintance of someone who has crossed him

“Tell your ruffian friend that I have decided not to order his moustache cut off… The reason is that it would be cheating the executioner if he were not allowed to hang him uncarved up.”

He wasn’t above taking a pop at Titian if he didn’t think his painting was up to scratch. This is what he had to say about the above painting which he sent to the Duke of Florence:

“Truly it breaths, its pulses beat and it is animated with the same spirit with which I am in actual life, and if I had only counted out more crowns to him, the clothes I wore would likewise have been as shiny and soft yet firm to the touch as are actual satin, velvet and brocade.”

So who was this man whose volumes of letters contain (according to Chubb) approximately 4000 pages of begging, fawning and flattering and 4 or 500 pages  which are as readable now as if they’d been written yesterday,  who  was nicknamed the scourge of princes, who was Titian’s great friend and propagandist, who wrote poems and  pornography as well as these wonderful, infinitely quotable letters?

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Titian’s first portrait of Aretino

Aretino was born in Arezzo in 1492, the son of a cobbler. At the age of 14 he began as he meant to go on by being thrown out of school for composing a sacrilegious sonnet. He left home and went to Rome where he lost his job as a household servant for stealing a silver cup. He bummed around being at various times a hostler (certainly a hustler!), a pimp, a  mule skinner and a hangman’s assistant. He returned to Rome and came to the attention of Pope Leo when he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant that made witty and indecent jibes at  every important person in Italy including the Pope. Leo (the pope) was amused, summoned Aretino and gave him a position in his household, presumably on the basis  that it was better to have someone like him pissing out of rather than into his tent.

After various escapades, including backing the loser in the next papal election, an attempt on his life and the writing of 16 filthy sonnets to accompany a series of indecent paintings titled The Modes of Intercourse, Aretino wound up in Venice in 1527. It was in Venice, which was then at the height of its splendour, that he did most of his writing. If ever a man and a city were suited to each other it was Aretino and Venice. It was to be his home for the next thirty years until his death in 1556.

I hope this post will have whetted your appetite to explore more (and indeed read my book!) but finally for all you cheese lovers out there  this is how to respond on that day which will inevitably come when you receive the gift of an ENORMOUS cheese!

“I assure you that I do not believe that from the udders of all the herds of cattle and the flocks of sheep that Apollo ever looked upon, would have come, in their whole lifetime, enough milk to make a cheese as enormous as the one that you … made me a gift of… When I saw it, the admiration it aroused in me, went into conference with the appetite which its excellence and handsome appearance evoked …”

Dear God, how big was it? But you see what I mean? The perfect thank you letter and proof that he was a man incapable of writing a dull word even about a cheese!

The Chubb book: The Letters of Pietro Aretino published by Archon Books in 1967 is more difficult and expensive to come by but better in my opinion. There is also a selection of his letters published by Penguin Classics in 1976 which can be tracked down more easily and cheaply in the usual second hand book markets. Also available is The Ragionamenti (The Dialogues) which is said to have influenced Rabelais. It is a series of conversations between two elderly harlots about the lives of wives, nuns and courtesans. It is both filthy and funny, a deliberate mocking of the classical dialogues of Plato. Pornography certainly but also a scathing satire on society.