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Powell’s Q&A: Sarah Dunant

Describe your latest book.
Sacred Hearts is a novel about rebellion, obsession, ecstasy, friendship, betrayal, and love, both carnal and spiritual. The time is 1570. The place, a convent in the Italian Renaissance city of Ferrara in which 100 women, young and old, are married Christ, though many of them never chose him as their bridegroom. Some have made their peace with God. Some love him so much that they pursue him through visions and self-mortification. Others earth their frustrations through different pleasures: singing, composing music, studying medicine, copying manuscripts, or writing. Enter Serafina. Sixteen years old, passionately in love, and determined to get out even if she has to bring the convent down around her to do so.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Being a hostess in a Japanese nightclub. I was 23, fresh out of university, on the road, needing to make some money to travel onward, and I found myself in Tokyo, where it was too expensive to live without working. At that time "foreign" hostesses, or Geijin as we were called, were more of a rarity than they are today. Our job was to sit with businessmen, pour their drinks, have conversations so they could practice their English, and maybe dance with them. I know, I know, it sounds pretty dodgy, but I have to tell you that it was in fact much more innocent than it sounds. Tokyo was a safe but exciting city, the culture extremely foreign despite the superficial western gloss, and very interesting to live in. Along the way I made good friends both in the other girls, from all over the world, and in some of the men who came in. It was exactly the kind of education you could never get from staying at home!

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Rose Tremain: Restoration.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Last year, after I had finished Sacred Hearts, I went back to the convent in Ferrara in which the book is set. Amazingly it is still an enclosed convent (i.e., the nuns are there for life after they enter), but if you visit at a certain time, one of the nuns will open the door for you and take you on a short tour to the wonderful 13th-century chapel where they still pray eight times a dayif you visit at a certain time, one of the nuns will open the door for you and take you on a short tour to the wonderful 13th-century chapel where they still pray eight times a day. I even went to listen to them sing Vespers. In the 16th century, Vespers was one of the most beautiful and dynamic moments of convent life, with hundreds of visitors packed into the public church, often swooning with pleasure at the sound of such "divine virgin angels." In contrast, alas, what I heard that day were the voices of 17 rather croaky elderly women, more magpie than nightingales. (Sometimes the present does not feel like an improvement on the past.)

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
This is a trick question for me because all my favorite shoes (of which I have many ) share one thing in common: they are all silver. If you don't believe me check out my website: www.sarahdunant.com. I want you to know that though I aspire to be a serious novelist, rather like my 16th-century nuns, many of whom smuggled the latest fashions into the convent in their dowry chests, I think fashion is an art as well as a pleasure.

Why do you write?

To try and make sense of the world, and because I don't know what else to do.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Oh, really! Who in their right mind is going to answer with the word "author"? However, I want you to know that I once turned the hotel room thermostat up to 11. (This, for those that need more information, is a reference to a seminal rock movie.)

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
Machiavelli. He was one of those extraordinary figures in history who really did think outside the box of his time. During his lifetime, he was a consummate diplomat and handled foreign policy for the great city of Florence. He also met some of histories more challenging characters: Leonardo da Vinci, Cesare Borgia. He went on to fall foul of the Florentine state and was tortured and exiled (that would be the downside of being him), but had the courage to write a dazzlingly original piece of political philosophy in The Prince. What more could one ask for a full lifetime? From his letters, it's also clear that his wife loved him!

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Where did I leave the car keys?

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Great Books Set in Convents or Monasteries

When you set yourself the challenge of writing a novel entirely set in an enclosed community, you obviously wonder how others have done it before you. Convents and monasteries are hot houses of dramaConvents and monasteries are hot houses of drama, both secular and spiritual, and can make wonderful novels where all manner of strange events take place. These following five books, each in their own different way, show that brilliantly.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

÷ ÷ ÷

Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Birth of Venus
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  2. In the Company of the Courtesan Used Trade Paper $1.50
  3. Sacred Hearts
    Used Hardcover $5.95
  4. Restoration: Tie-In Edition
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  5. The Prince (Bantam Classics) Used Mass Market $2.50
  6. The Name of the Rose (Harvest in...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50

  7. Mariette in Ecstasy Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. The Bell Used Trade Paper $3.50
  9. The Abbess of Crewe Used Trade Paper $7.00

Sarah Dunant is the author of Sacred Hearts

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