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.
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 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
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 Your book will not be published.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.
There is a very funny book called HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR by Francis Plug (actually Paul Ewen). In it Francis Plug, a deranged, drunken gardener and putative author trawls round literary events, (focusing on Booker Prize winners), in order to gain tips about how to behave when his book is published. His journey is a sort of Dantean descent into hell. My feeling about it even though I am not an alcoholic gardener is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ By the end he is snaffling as many as two bottles of free wine per event and his encounters with writers are becoming more and more chaotic. It seems that Paul Ewen did attend these events because all through the book are the title pages of books signed to Francis Plug by the likes of John Berger, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salmun Rushdie, etc, etc. I presume the encounters are made up but it is noticeable that all the authors are tolerant and friendly in the face of their surreal encounters with the deteriorating and unhinged Plug.
When I first met my editor he asked me if I was willing to do publicity for my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN and I thought it was very sweet of him to ask. I had assumed I had no choice in the matter. This is what you are expected to do now.
It is quite thrilling to discover that some writers won’t do it.
Italian writer Elena Ferrante was very clear that she had a choice and she made her stance clear from the beginning. Here she is in her book FRANTUMAGLIA writing to her publisher Sandra Ozzola, who had enquired what she intended to do to publicize her book, Troubling Love:
“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it … I believe that books once written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say they will sooner or later find readers; if not they won’t.”
LETTER DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1991
Well, she couldn’t be clearer, could she? There is a part of me that loves this. My guess is that a great many authors would love to say this to their publishers but wouldn’t dare! And it has to be said that she’s right because her books which include the bestselling Neapolitan Quartet have certainly found their audience without her doing any personal publicity.
Putting on my reader hat, however, I really enjoy hearing my favourite authors talk about their books and it does make me buy them. At the Historical Novel Society conference last year two people who were outstandingly good at it were Melvyn Bragg and Tracy Chevalier. They both spoke fluently and entertainingly for about 40 minutes or so and then took questions. They were not being interviewed by anyone, they were not on a panel. It was simply them talking. I daresay it takes practice to be that easy in your own skin in front of a large audience. Many writers do not have that practice unless teaching, lecturing or broadcasting is part of their everyday existence, so then what do you do?
Quite a long time ago now I did a very good course run by The Society of Authors about giving an author reading. There were bits that involved breathing deeply and exercising the vocal chords. One of the most interesting bits was listening to someone reading out the same piece (I can’t remember what it was) at two different speeds. The idea being that you took on board how much easier it was to listen to the slower version. At the end we had to give a reading from our own work and all I can remember is the very nice woman who was teaching us saying, ‘Slower, slower, even slower, Vicky… Err, shall we start that again …’
There is a book I love called QUIET by Susan Cain. The subtitle of the book is :The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain admits that she had to persuade her publishers that she wasn’t so introverted that she would be unable to do publicity for the book. To any author out there for whom the idea of a public event holds as much pleasure as doing the Cresta run, I highly recommend CHAPTER FIVE: BEYOND TEMPERAMENT: The Role of Free Will (and the Secret of Public Speaking for Introverts).
Incidentally, one of the most interesting author events I went to was John Berger at the South Bank. The main thing that I remember was how much time he gave himself to think before he answered questions. No one I had ever seen on a public platform allowed themselves that much time to consider their reply. The silence that resulted was both impressive and disconcerting. He also had Tilda Swinton to read out his work. I can’t help feeling that all my problems relating to author events might possibly be solved if I could get Tilda to do that for me.
Now over to you – what have your experiences of going to author events been like? Are you more likely to buy the book of someone who you’ve heard talk about it? Or (and this is slightly more interesting and worrying for a writer) have you ever been actively put off a book by going to an author event?
P.S. It’s worth buying HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR for the author bio of Paul Ewen which has this gem: “His first book, London Pub Reviews, was called a cross between Blade Runner and Coronation Street.”
How do you write about beautiful cities like Venice and Oxford? Impossible cities! How do you do them justice? How do you get under their skin. How do you write about a place without sounding like a tourist guide or like everyone who has ever written about them before? I’d wrestled a bit with the question of beautiful cities in the Sam Falconer crime series that I wrote, which was set partly in Oxford, my home town.
For many years I could not write about the city at all. It felt like an implacable, indigestible lump of compacted experience and my attempts were either grossly sentimental or unpleasantly savage. The way that I dealt with Oxford in the end was to have my protagonist, Sam Falconer, be severely at odds with the environment she was brought up in. Conflict of course creates drama. There is no drama in a person having a happy childhood and loving their home town. None whatsoever. It’s the grit in the oyster after all, which creates the pearl. Here is Sam returning home after quite a long absence:
“The Radcliffe Camera sat squat and golden in the autumn sunshine. However malignant Sam felt towards Oxford, she could never view the Camera with anything other than wonder and affection … Memories crowded in on her. Every step she took brought forth another and another. Overwhelming and insistent, they poured into her until she felt she would burst. Like a crowd waving placards they announced themselves one by one: Look at me! No, me! They pushed and elbowed and the sickness in the pit of Sam’s stomach grew.”
By JUMPING THE CRACKS the last in the series, Sam has an office in the Cowley Road and has ‘come home.’ It only took me four books to get her there!
One way of dealing with beautiful cities is to mine the area between their beauty and the reality of how someone may be feeling. Because most of us have probably had the experience of being in a beautiful place and feeling we ought to be happy when in fact we have, for whatever reason, felt as miserable as sin. “Look at me,” a beautiful city announces. “Aren’t I beautiful? What – you’re not happy? Well, if you can’t be happy here there must be something the matter with you because there certainly isn’t anything the matter with me?” If you’re in the wrong mood it can be a bit like engaging with someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. No fun at all. The simple and obvious fact is that beautiful places do not necessarily make people happy. The gap between the beauty of a place and how we are actually feeling can make us feel worse.
So now to Venice. A startling place – a place beyond imagining even. In TITIAN’S BOATMAN there are two Venices, that of the 16th century and that of the 21st. How do you get under the skin of 16th century Venice? Well, my way in was through the people living there – the painters, the boatmen, the courtesans, the poets, the nuns and the patricians. In the 21st century part of my book, Terry, an actor, is not at all happy when his boyfriend Ludovico suggests they visit Venice. Here he is talking through his anxieties:
‘Don’t Look Now,’ Terry said.
‘No, the film Don’t Look Now, when they go to Venice it doesn’t end well.’
Ludovico burst out laughing. ‘I promise you it won’t be anything like that.’
‘And then there’s Death in Venice of course,’ Terry said. ‘It might be tempting fate … and I’ll have to get myself some clothes.’
‘Your clothes are fine.’
‘But it’s Italy, the country of the bella figura. It’s Venice one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I’m too fat and not well dressed enough. You know how they stare at you.’
In the end, of course, despite his sartorial insecurities Terry does go to Venice with Ludovico but that first visit does not go entirely to plan.
Don’t Look Now is a famous film directed by Nick Roeg starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and is one of the most unsettling films you could ever chance to see. It is on my list of “very good but so disturbing that under no circumstances am I ever watching it again as long as I live” films. It was based on a Daphne du Maurier short story. Death in Venice is the Thomas Mann novella and also a famous film with Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach, a composer (in the book he’s a writer) who travels to Venice and has his world turned upside down when he sees a beautiful boy, Tadzio. The film is excellent albeit extremely melancholic. In his autobiography Bogarde said that he kept wanting to talk to Visconti about the role and each time he tried Visconti answered, ‘Have you read the book?’ When he replied that he had Visconti just replied, ‘Well, read it again.’
Now over to you. In terms of Oxford and Venice what books/films have you read or seen that you’d recommend. And while you’re about it tell me about your experiences in beautiful cities – the good, the bad and the ugly.
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?
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.