Sarah Dunant: Utterly Seduced by the Past
(Originally ran on Shelf Awareness)
Q: Blood and Beauty is so well written that it appears effortless, but many readers may be unaware of just how much research and inspiration goes into crafting quality historical fiction. Can you share a little of your process?
A: Ah—this is a very interesting question. Because, of course, if people were aware of the effort that a book takes, then the final experience—reading it—wouldn’t be working for them.
But you’re right. The easier the read, the more work has been done. And I think that is particularly true of writing within history. Because the more truthful and accurate you are to the actual experience of the Borgia history—and by that I don’t just mean what happened, but the larger, deeper world and culture that explains why those things -happened—the more authentic and rich you can make the journey—the time travel—for your reader. But of course getting it “right” takes a huge amount of research and time.
Having said that, the work is also wonderful. Because it is the time when I get happily lost in history. I find it so exciting as the picture of the past starts to deepen, as the more I read, the more I start making connections, feeling the characters move and grow like animated sculpture coming out of a block of marble.
My process is decidedly pre-technological. I sit for months in libraries with notebooks and work my way through stacks of research books covering everything, from politics to herbs, literature to music, weapons of war to theology, education and medicine—anything from the period that I can lay my hands on. Gradually I fill up six or seven notebooks with facts, quotes, images, thoughts and ideas. Then as the story (for the story is always in there) starts to blossom, I can adorn it with all manner of truths and accuracies that you, the reader, don’t notice, but I do. It gives me not just all the colors and shades of paint I need for the canvas I am painting, but also the confidence to apply them. Then when I can sit no longer at a desk, I go traveling. I visit the places to get a feel of them. In the case of Blood and Beauty, there is a huge amount still to be seen, albeit some of it ruined or changed by history: Cesare’s campaigns can be followed, town to town, fortress to fortress, across northeastern Italy.
But the final pleasure is when the book is out and people say, “Oh, that bit when . . .”—whatever it is that has caught their imagination—“how did you think of that?” And it is always something that was there in history. But it has gone through the alchemy of fiction so that it feels juicy with atmosphere and color, rather than dry fact. That is my job. And how I love it. However much effort it takes.
Q: What was the most surprising fact or aspect of the Borgias that you discovered in the course of your research for this novel?
A: If I am truthful it was about a disease. I’d had an inkling during the writing of The Birth of Venus that the arrival of sexual plague, which would later be known as syphilis, was a powerful moment in Italian history. But it was only when I got my teeth into the Borgias, when I watched an invading army take over Naples and loiter there, having sex with the local prostitutes, and realized that some of those soldiers were back from the New World with Columbus and had contracted and carried this new disease home with them, that I understood just what an extraordinary history this was. And then Cesare gets infected. . . . And oh, what a horror! The agony, the shame and the public disfigurement. It was perfect: a literal metaphor for the world of Renaissance corruption. I think that was the moment when I knew the book was going to be richer and deeper than just a story of fantastic events.
Q: There seems to be renewed interest of late in all things Borgia. To what do you attribute this fascination?
A: In an era when we are obsessed by celebrity, it was inevitable that history would start to provide us with new ones. And once we had squeezed the Tudors dry, the Borgias stand out as perfect fodder. They have all the ingredients: glamour, beauty, tribal loyalty, sexual misdemeanor, power, corruption, and high-octane emotional drama. The trick is to sort out what is fact and what has grown up from layers of gossip and slander (just as it is with today’s celebrity); to strip it away to get to the truth. Which, as ever, is actually stranger than any fiction you could make up.
Q: On a related note, what, if any, are the parallels you see between the social and political machinations of the Borgias and today’s socio-political arena?
A: Oh, so many. Italy and all of its city-states (which I liken in the novel to a bag of spitting cats) are a perfect illustration of how warring political factions operate, the likes of which we have everywhere today. They tell such a modern story—of the lengths people will go to take and keep power; of the way alliances are made, kept, and broken based on pragmatism rather than idealism. The truth is that modern politics were born in this era. That is why Machiavelli writes The Prince about Cesare Borgia. It is a consummate study of how power works and how it corrupts. And how the end defines the means.
And then there is modern Italy: full of corruption still, with north and south in opposition to each other and a mafia presence based on family loyalties with a fat old charismatic politician, Berlusconi, still managing to control the show by ducking and weaving, and even having “bunga bunga” parties with prostitutes. I see images of Berlusconi and I think of Rodrigo Borgia. Except I rather like Rodrigo better! And then there is the Catholic Church, with its hidden sexual scandals and male-dominated power structure. I mean it is Blood and Beauty! The parallels are so powerful they make your eyes water.
But the other thing that is amazingly modern is the subversive power of gossip and the media. There was no direct media at the time of the Borgias, but there was a network of diplomacy by which gossip flourished and flowed through the pens of ambassadors and chroniclers. So you can trace slander against the Borgias emerging from one conversation and then sliding like slime into the public domain. Think of all the celebrity gossip you have ever read and how the more shocking it is, the more you remember it. Think about the fact that later you may find out it wasn’t true—just selling newspapers or fodder for celebrity TV channels—but that once said, it cannot be unsaid. Well, the Borgias’ history was like that. Mud sticks. I am not saying they weren’t at times brutal and corrupt. They were. But then so were the times in which they lived. My job is to allow you to put them in context. To enjoy the drama, yes, but also see through the propaganda.
Q: As an author who has written both contemporary and historical -fiction, do you find one genre more challenging (and, conversely, rewarding) than the other?
A: There is no contest here. I have been utterly seduced by the past: the imaginative challenge of sinking deep into history and re-creating an essentially alien wild world that the reader can see, touch, smell, hear, sink into, and experience. It is a bit like writing good science fiction backwards: everything in the world you create has to make sense. With the added wonder—if you do your research—that it was actually -happened.
And then, of course, you can say so many things about the present (I hope my answers above have shown that). But you can say it subtly, so that it enters the imagination of the reader on a different level. While I suppose one should never say “never,” I cannot imagine ever wanting to write a novel set in the present again. Everything I want to say about human behavior, sexuality, power, politics, and the endless emotional complexity of being alive—all of it can be said through the past. And while I am saying it, my head is busting with facts, places, ideas, and an ever-growing cast of outrageous characters. Even when I am in despair that I cannot do them justice, I am in awe of their presence.