Sarah Du­nant

Award-win­ning nov­el­ist, journalist, broad­caster and critic, Sarah Du­nant has a pas­sion for both Florence and the Re­nais­sance, which means she brings his­tory to the best seller lists. Matilda Hick­son finds out more about her love of Machi­avelli, Lu­crezia B

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Did you al­ways want to be a writer?

No, in fact when I was very young, I wanted to be an actress. It was my dream through­out school, where I acted in all the school plays and even through Uni­ver­sity at Cam­bridge where I stud­ied his­tory, but took part in a lot of the­atre and was the Foot­lights 'girl' as we were known then, per­form­ing at the Ed­in­burgh fes­ti­val. Though I loved his­tory and art (and al­ways had), I was sure that this was what I wanted to do, un­til I hit a re­ally stupid and ob­vi­ous thing af­ter I grad­u­ated.

Up un­til then I had been do­ing dozens of other things as well as act­ing: study­ing for O lev­els and A lev­els, go­ing to lec­tures, get­ting weekly es­says in; work­ing in­cred­i­bly hard. Then, I left uni­ver­sity, found an agent and got my eq­uity card, and sat wait­ing for the phone to ring. And sud­denly I re­alised that you can’t act on your own! Some­one has to em­ploy you to do it! That I had en­tered a very pre­car­i­ous busi­ness where I would, of course, be un­em­ployed. And that shocked me, as I’d al­ways been so hap­pily busy!

So what hap­pened next?

I was lucky. My fa­ther worked for Bri­tish Air­ways, which meant that I had the means to travel al­most any­where in the world for al­most noth­ing. Now this also meant that I had to travel alone, but I was quite ad­ven­tur­ous. I took a ticket to Tokyo, where I lived and worked for many months, then trav­elled back over­land through much of Asia. And dur­ing that jour­ney – it was an amaz­ing time - I re­alised that I didn’t want to act (a good thing, since I am sure now that I wasn’t that good at it!) be­cause be­ing un­em­ployed would drive me mad. So I came back and the next job I got was work­ing for BBC Ra­dio 4 on an arts pro­gramme called Kalei­do­scope.

That’s a fan­tas­tic first job!

Once again, luck. There were no jobs be­ing ad­ver­tised but I wrote a cheeky let­ter to the head of talks and doc­u­men­taries at Ra­dio 4. In fact it wasn’t a fab­ri­ca­tion. I had spent much of my teenage years lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio and I loved speech ra­dio; plays, doc­u­men­taries, all that stuff, so I could write to him with loads of ideas as to what I thought the BBC should be do­ing for this new gen­er­a­tion of baby b0omers who were chang­ing the world – you can see, I think, how out­ra­geous I must have been – and, oh by the way, I did have a de­gree as well.

And it hap­pened that they were re­struc­tur­ing the depart­ment, and that he clearly had a soft spot for pas­sion­ate, fast talk­ing women (I worked with some great women that he had hired be­fore me) and I got a six-month con­tract.

And that was the be­gin­ning, be­cause al­though I was pro­duc­ing, it meant do­ing in­ter­views and writ­ing and I grad­u­ally re­alised that that was what I wanted to do. A few years later, I started writ­ing in earnest, while still earn­ing my liv­ing in ra­dio and since then I’ve al­ways had a foot in both camps. It’s been per­fect, if oc­ca­sion­ally a lit­tle fi­nan­cially un­sta­ble! There has been the per­form­ing as­pect – pre­sent­ing pro­grammes, and then the writ­ing, which gives me the soli­tude, and the con­trol, and the end­less hard work on which I’ve al­ways thrived.

And you wrote a TV drama?

When I first started writ­ing, I wrote with a good friend, one of those mates with whom who you would go to a late night Truf­faut film and then ar­gue un­til 4am in the morn­ing about its struc­ture, how it worked, what it meant. We both wanted to write, so we de­cided to work to­gether. We wrote two thriller nov­els in the mid 1980s and then both went our sep­a­rate ways. But be­fore then we were com­mis­sioned by the BBC to write a con­tem­po­rary thriller about the de­vel­op­ment of Dock­lands, when Thatcher was in power and the face of Lon­don was chang­ing. We set it partly in a com­mer­cial ra­dio stu­dio (a world I knew well; at the time run­ning the Arts Pro­gramme for Cap­i­tal Ra­dio, the main pri­vate sta­tion for Lon­don). Every­one in­volved in the pro­duc­tion was young and po­lit­i­cal and pas­sion­ate about the way that art can take on big sub­jects, so it was a labour of love, though the labour part was pretty in­tense too!

Would you like to have writ­ten an­other TV drama?

Not re­ally. You know how it is; you take one step in life and then the next one fol­lows and sud­denly you find your­self go­ing in a dif­fer­ent direction. From my ra­dio work, I got of­fered a job pre­sent­ing a BBC TV arts pro­grammes called The

Late Show and by then I had fin­ished a solo novel and was ea­ger to get on with more. I wrote de­tec­tive thrillers while I was pre­sent­ing the show (and hav­ing two chil­dren with a lovely man – I did say I like to keep busy!). It sounds silly per­haps, but I think the world di­vides into two kinds of

But as you wan­der through the city comes an­other shock: the fact that ev­ery fa­mous name on the tourist trail be­longs to a man. So, I started to ask my­self: where was the other half of the pop­u­la­tion?

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