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
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?