Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Interview with Robin Maxwell

I was thrilled to get the chance to ask Robin Maxwell some questions about Signora da Vinci! I reviewed the book here and really loved it, and also enjoyed sharing Robin's thoughts about stats and readership. I hope you enjoy this interview! (Philippa Gregory fans...be forewarned!!)

What sort of responsibility do you feel to the real people that lived when writing historical fiction about true people?

Massive responsibility. I'm really careful about what I put out there about any historical figure, especially if it's a negative portrayal, because these people are long dead and have no recourse -- no way to rehabilitate their names. Anne Boleyn's reputation still suffers today from the 16th century "spin doctors" who portrayed her as a traitor and a whore. Because I write screenplays as well as novels, I have opinions about historical movies as wells as books. Two of the most egregious cases of character assassination occurred in Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, and in the feature film "Elizabeth".

I'm always a bit uncomfortable slamming Ms. Gregory, as she is so unbelievably successful that my griping might be construed as "sour grapes." And all historical fiction authors owe her a debt of gratitude for truly putting the genre on the map. But back when TOBG was in galleys and our editor-in-common at Simon and Schuster asked me if I'd blurb it (I was a logical choice because I'd written The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn) I was taken completely aback by what I read. The book was certainly a page-turner, but Gregory had taken a character whom I had carefully studied and found to be a bold, courageous woman of her time -- one whose life story deserved a sympathetic retelling -- and ripped her apart in every way possible. it seemed to me that all the most hideous rumors about Anne (and there were many, put forth by her many jealous enemies and Henry VIII's minions) had been trotted out, and because they made for a spicy, sexy, wildly dramatic story, they were set down for readers as fact. Gregory's Anne was conniving and appallingly bitchy. She slept with her homosexual brother George and five other men while she was Henry queen, and was so horribly self-serving that she literally stole Mary and Henry's bastard son and brought it up at court as her own.

I understand that we write fiction and we therefore have some wiggle room, but that is just plain made-up. In no history book does it say that Anne took Mary's child or brought it up at court. That she did this in The Other Boleyn Girl was the most atrocious thing Anne did -- something that broke her sweet sister, Mary's, heart. Now, a few discerning readers who deeply study Tudor history would know this was rubbish, but 99% of readers would not know. And so many people read that book, it was such a phenomenal bestseller, that now you have an entire generation of readers interested in history who believe Anne Boleyn was an arch villainess. If I'd been Henry VIII, and Anne had really been the person Philippa Gregory wrote her to be, I'd have had her head chopped off, too! Needless to say, I declined to give the book a blurb .

In the case of Michael Hirst, who wrote the screenplay for "Elizabeth" (not to mention the entire "The Tudors" TV series) he took some jaw-dropping liberties with several historical figures. He characterized Francis Walsingham (played by Geoffrey Rush) as a homosexual assassin, and William Cecil, Lord Burleigh as a doddering old man in the early years of Elizabeth's reign (neither true). Further, he asks us to believe that at the time Elizabeth first took Robin Dudley as her lover, she had no idea that he was a married man. That she had to be told of his marital status by the ancient Burleigh. More rubbish! In fact, Elizabeth and Dudley had been friends since childhood, and she had stood at the wedding of Robin and Amy Robsart. It is true that much later in their lives (when Elizabeth was consumed with ruling England and Dudley was not such an integral part of her daily life), he took another wife and kept it secret from the queen for two years, throwing her into a rage when she discovered it.

Many times to adapt history to a screenplay format, writers are forced to "telescope" history (pull spread-out events into a closer time-line), and sometimes we meld several characters into one to avoid "a cast of thousands." But Hirst squashed so many years into so brief a span, that aside from the inaccuracies, it made the plot confusing, even to someone like me, who knows the period like the back of my hand.

I think it's important to keep intent true, the basic facts correct, especially where we have access to the facts. What I'm always hoping for are "holes in history" where there are no facts. Then I very carefully and logically extrapolate from those that I do know, and create, or re-create what makes good sense to have happened, or what people would have said. I think that in most cases, truth is stranger and more entertaining than fiction. Add a couple of gaping "holes in history" to play with, and you've got a whopping good yarn.

How much time do you spend researching before beginning to write?

Months and months. More if I'm tackling a new subject or new historical figures. On The Queen's Bastard, though I knew my characters Elizabeth I and Robin Dudley, I knew nothing about the man claimed to be their illegitimate son, Arthur Dudley. I trolled around in college and large public libraries to find what amounted to 5 pages of history about the man. I knew nothing about the Spanish Armada, or about horses and horsemanship. All of my protagonists were serious horse people, but I am seriously allergic to horses, so I had to get most of my information from books and from my agent who is, herself, a horsewoman.

For Mademoiselle Boleyn, I was familiar with many of my characters, but it took place in France, where I had never traveled. Books and the internet helped me through that. With Signora da Vinci I was in virgin territory, starting from scratch -- all new characters, a new country that I'd never been in, and an earlier time with its particular political history which was necessary for me to understand on a deep level. Then there were new arenas I had to familiarize myself with -- apothecaries and alchemical laboratories, neo-platonism, and the history of the Turin Shroud. This was certainly my most labor-intensive novel, and there was never a time during the entire writing process when I could put away the research materials. Even working on the last page of the epilogue, I still had books in my lap.

I loved how strong Caterina was. I read in the interview included in the book that you found several research books about women who dressed as men during this time. What might have been some of the other motivations for doing so?

The “Two Joans” of Medieval times – Joan of Arc ( fifteenth century) and Pope Joan (ninth century) were two of the earliest and most formidable cross-dressers in European history, and I can only assume that their motivation were spiritually based. I think it's interesting that while many others were less well-known, enough soldiers, sailors, stonemasons, shoemakers, rogues, pirates and clergymen attempted to pass as men that ordinances and official decrees were enacted in several countries forbidding women to wear men’s clothing. Not only did they dress the part of their male counterparts, they swore, smoked pipes and engaged in strenuous physical tasks. Some even married other women. Indeed, the vast majority of known cross-dressers hired on as soldiers and sailors. Some were motivated by a lust for adventure or patriotism. Others joined the army or went to sea lusting after their husbands or lovers – unable to stand separation from them. But I can't help but think that many of these strong-minded women just wanted out of the dead-end lives in which the vast majority of them were trapped.

What fascinates you the most about this time period?

It was not just the time period but the place at that particular time -- Florence, Italy, 1466. It was, just at the moment that Leonardo came to begin his apprenticeship, in the very cauldron of the Renaissance. The greatest minds alive were re-discovering classical Greek, Roman and Egyptian philosophies that defied the Catholic church in ways that were desperately heretical. The great masters such as Boticelli (who is a character in Signora da Vinci) were producing some of the iconic works of art and architecture that are synonymous with the Renaissance. And members of the the Medici family, who play such critical roles in my story, were at the height of their power, wealth and glory. I had been worried about leaving Tudor England after writing six novels about that place and period, but I found out I had no reason to be concerned. My next book, O, Romeo, takes place in Florence as well, in 1444, and Lorenzo "The Magnificent's" mother, Lucrezia, is the best friend of my protagonist, Juliet.

Why did you choose to write about Leonardo da Vinci's mother?

I had actually wanted to write about Leonardo, who has, to my way of thinking, the most astonishing mind in history. But publishers today are most interested in books from a woman's point of view. Just a little digging proved to me that Leonardo could hardly have inherited his "genius genes" from his father, a cold-hearted, social-climbing, petty bureaucrat. That left his mother as the font of his genius. There was the obvious problem of so little being known about Caterina. But for an author of historical fiction, who prides herself on knowing how to fill in the holes in history, it was a fabulous opportunity. Too, there was much known about the Medici, and life in Florence at that time. And I had the benefit of many great biographies of Leonardo, his works, and the writings in his notebooks. From the child, I was able to extrapolate the mother.

What other books would you recommend about this time period?

Here are some of my research "bibles" of the period, though you'll find a more complete bibliography at the end of the book.

David Melling, Understanding Plato
E.J. Homyard, AlchemyFrancis Yates, Renaissance and Reform; The Italian Contribution: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition; The Rosicrucian Enlightenment; The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age
Serge Bramly, Leonardo, The Artist and the Man
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, arranged, translated and with an introduction by Edward MacCurdy Charles Nicholl, Leonardo Da Vinci – Flights of the Mind
Christopher Hibbert, The House of Medici, It’s Rise and Fall
Hugh Ross Williamson, Lorenzo the Magnificent
Michal Levey, Florence
Philippe Aries and George Duby, A History of Private Life – Revelations of the Medieval World
Rudolph M. Dekker and Lotte C. Van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe
Valerie R. Hotchiss, Clothes Make the Man; Female Cross-Dressing in Medieval Europe


wisteria said...

I enjoyed this interview with Robin Maxwell, as a fan I appreciate the discourse. Thank you for sharing and asking such great questions.
I have an interview upcoming with Sandra Worth who wrote The King's Daughter about Elizabeth of York. You might be interested in reading her thoughts.
Again....thanks for the post. :)

Meghan said...

Oh, I am so 100% with Robin Maxwell on Philippa Gregory and Anne Boleyn. Way to take a whole bunch of lies and pretend they're true, continuing the process of slandering a woman who appears to be cultured and intelligent according to all other reports. And I was bugged by the Elizabeth I movie as well. Maybe I should read more of her books after all!

Lenore said...

I read TOBG and it got me interested in Anne and Mary so I did my own research and learned more about it. Did PG have an author's note that she she was radically fictionalizing? I don't remember. It was a great story though!

Meghan said...

Actually, I feel a little bad about the vehemence of my comment now. Phillipa Gregory can certainly write and she is writing fiction, true, so she has some leeway on her side, but such inaccuracy is hard for me personally to take, and I rarely find people who agree with me. I got a little excited. I've been spending waaay too much time in academic history. ;)

S. Krishna said...

Very interesting interview, these were some great questions!

Gay said...

Historical fiction is not history, and for that reason, authors feel they have wiggle room--some take more than others. Personally, I think stretching the truth is one thing, but flying in the face of it another, particularly since we have a whole generation of readers whose knowledge of the past is likely to be based on the historical novels they've read rather than on actual history they've studied.

Ms. Gregory is a talented author who certainly knows her way around sentences and paragraphs. The success she achieved with bending the story to suit the public's desire for "kiss and tell" sensationalism is an unfortunate reflection on both the author and the reading public at large.

lisamm said...

I always thought the 'fiction' part of historical fiction was the part where the author needed to fill in the blanks- the unknown and unknowable blanks- but that the 'historical' part should be fact (dates/places/people). I think PG is a wonderful author and am surprised to learn that she took such creative license with the existing facts. I guess it's probably safe to say that she won't be writing any blurbs on Ms Maxwell's books anytime soon! And vice versa!

Literate Housewife said...

Is there something that says that a woman can't be strong, courageous, conniving and bitchy all at once? To me, that is what makes Anne Boleyn the wonderful woman/character she was. I have read and loved TOBG. Anne Boleyn and Scarlett O'Hara are my favorite heroines. Sure, I love and sympathized with Mary Boleyn just as I did with Melanie Wilkes, but they did not capture my imagination in the same way. Neither book would have been as memorable to me if Anne or Scarlett wasn't involved.

I know full well that Anne was a real person and that I was reading fiction when I picked up TOBG - just as I did when I picked up Signora Da Vinci. TOBG got me interested in Tudor history and I've done a lot of reading about that time as a result. What was nice was having a frame of reference for Henry VIII, his family and his counselors when I started reading the biographical and historical articles and books. I find that comes in handy. I am never confused between Thomas Wolsey the man and Thomas Wolsey the character. If I were, it would be my own fault, not that of the authors of the fiction I had read.

I think that historical fiction is taken way too seriously - and I am saying that as someone who loves the genre. Authors of fiction entertain. Authors of history educate. If I wanted to learn about something, I'd head to non-fiction. Like I said earlier, good historical fiction will prompt me to want to learn more about a historical figure, place or time. When I inevitably discover that what I found in the novel wasn't as it was in reality, I don't feel cheated or get upset. I knew what I was getting when I picked up the novel. At least with historical fiction, you know that there is a slant, things made up and/or turned about for dramatic purposes. The authors admit as much when they discussed how they wrote the book. Historians are able to hide their agendas and biases behind their cloak of non-fiction. I only wish that historians and their work were viewed under this same microscope.

Meghan said...

Jennifer, let me say one thing: academic historians are always criticized for their bias by other historians. Trust me, none of us escape. Everyone's book and article gets reviewed, in detail, by other professional historians, and we do know and mostly ignore those who let their own opinion cloud their work. History is a debate and we are always conscious of what has come before and what we can make closer to the truth. I can't say no historian has an agenda or bias, but if they do, everyone knows about it, and often they are mentioned by name as wrong and torn apart in other articles and books on the subject. My own dissertation is a work to correct one of these, which is based more on misconception than the history that actually exists, and trust me, I will be subjecting these guys to far more analysis and criticism than any historical fiction author will ever have to take.

The only ones that do get to say more or less whatever they want are the "pop historians" who are often praised for not having a bias by people who haven't read much else. It's a shame that these are the only authors we see on shelves in bookstores. I wish more historians who have spent their entire lives in the field wrote books for popular consumption, rather than just those who thought, "oh hey, I like history, I'll write a book about it!" A couple do - A.J. Pollard, David Starkey (who is fabulous), and Michael Hicks to name a few in the periods I like.

Sorry, personal soapbox there. Perhaps history taught to schoolkids is sugar-coated (wrongly), but those of us who are actually figuring out what to say to the next generation are doing our best to get rid of that.

As for the rest of your comment, well said. =)

Serena said...

I want to thank Robin Maxwell for her candidness and ability to clear up some falsehoods. I have not read The Other Boleyn Girl, but I have seen the movie and it surprised me how evil Anne seemed. I thought maybe there was more to the story.

I cannot wait to read Maxwell's book.

Literate Housewife said...

Meghan, I stand corrected on the historian comment I made. I was overexcited about this topic. There's no easy answer to the questions raised here about historical fiction. I definitely will be reading Robin Maxwell's novel about Anne Boleyn to see how the two characterizations differ.

Heather J. said...

Great post! I did enjoy PG's books (I've read several but not all) but I assumed there were some exaggerations in there.

As for the historical vs. fictional debate, I'm on the side of more history and less fiction. Unlike some of the commenters above, I DO want to learn things from historical fiction, and I DO hope that I'm getting more history than fiction. At the same time, I don't take it all as fact, and I often do additional research after reading if a topic has really caught my attention. But I hate to find that what I've read in a book either directly contradicts the truth or can't be substantiated in any way - that really bugs me.

Anonymous said...

Erm...I thought the topic was "Signora da Vinci?" The issue of acceptable literary licence aside, what bothers me about this is that, for much of this interview, Maxwell is setting herself up as a better alternative to Gregory (whom she freely admits is a more successful author--money-wise). She does this mostly by talking about what's __wrong__ with Gregory from her viewpoint (but only vaguely, few specifics), rather than by describing her own work and what's __good__ about it. Now, whether she is right or wrong about Gregory, this doesn't sound like a confident writer standing on a great piece of work, but a...whinger, at best, and at worst, a mud-slinging politician who can only tell us what's wrong with the other guy. Not inspiring to someone who isn't already a faithful Maxwell reader- or a Gregory reader, for that matter.

If I ever do become inspired to read any of her (Maxwell's) books, I'll be certain it's a library copy!


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