More than an an­cient site


Timeless Travels Magazine - - FOCUS ON TROY -

The site of Troy is not lim­ited to its an­cient ru­ins and mu­seum. It is now an ex­pan­sive 144,000 m² wide na­tional park with sev­eral at­trac­tions, such as Achilles’ and Ajax’s tu­muli, sev­eral an­cient ru­ins, beau­ti­ful beaches and stun­ning views. Around the park, there are also the world fa­mous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites such as Alexan­dria Troas, As­sos, Apol­lon Smintheon, Par­ion, and Mount Ida

peo­ple. Those who have a plan and need to keep to it, and those for whom one step leads to an­other in the road and from there you never know where you are go­ing. I dare­say I have taken some wrong turn­ings in life, but at the time they al­ways seemed more in­ter­est­ing than the one that was ahead of me. In the end, I sup­pose it’s a meta­phys­i­cal ques­tion – there are just so many turn­ings! Ter­ror and ex­hil­a­ra­tion in equal mea­sure as you make your choice.

The same is true when it comes to writ­ing. Ev­ery novel I have ever done, has had that same mix: ter­ror and ex­hil­a­ra­tion. Right turn, wrong turn? Only when it comes to writ­ing I have grown to re­alise that in or­der to get it right, you do have to get it wrong. Be scared, try the wrong path, not know what you are do­ing. I’m a great be­liever that if every­thing goes your way you have no un­der­stand­ing of what it is like to fail. I don’t think be­ing alive is OK if you don’t know how to fail. There is some­thing about al­ways be­ing suc­cess­ful that means that you have no vul­ner­a­bil­ity and you don’t un­der­stand any­one else's ei­ther. And cer­tainly for a writer that’s not good enough. You need to be able to in­habit some­one else's dark side.

Does it take a long time to re­search your nov­els?

It took five years to re­search the Bor­gia nov­els. The de­tec­tive nov­els were eas­ier. The rea­son that peo­ple read thrillers is be­cause they want an adren­a­line fix; a great plot, the book you can’t put down, though you also need char­ac­ter depth and to write well. In other words, it’s not as fall­ing off a log as it seems to be.

But af­ter writ­ing six thrillers I be­came im­pa­tient with the con­stric­tions of the form: the way there had to be an an­swer, the ends had to tie up. Yet life isn’t like that. The ends re­main un­tidy and un­tied. My last thriller, Map­ping the Edge told the story of a woman who leaves her sev­enyear-old daugh­ter to go away for a week­end and doesn’t come back. The novel gives two com­pletely dif­fer­ent ver­sions of what hap­pens to her while she is away and you have to de­cide which is true. Be­cause when peo­ple dis­ap­pear, for those left be­hind there isn’t an an­swer; all you have is your imag­i­na­tion and that is ter­ri­fy­ing. Some peo­ple loved it! Oth­ers hated it. But for me it was a way of leav­ing thrillers be­hind.

How did you come to write a book about nuns?

The Birth of Venus,

the first his­tor­i­cal novel I wrote, was set in Florence in the 1490s and was the story of a young woman who wanted to be a painter. It has a pow­er­ful gen­e­sis that novel. I’d be­come in­tox­i­cated by what it would be like to have lived in Florence dur­ing the mo­ment when this revo­lu­tion [i.e. the Re­nais­sance] was un­fold­ing. To ex­pe­ri­ence the shock of the new.

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? Did women have a re­nais­sance?

Of course, as I went deeper into re­search, I dis­cov­ered that in the 30 plus years since I had stud­ied his­tory, the dis­ci­pline had changed. What used to be the story of dead white men was be­ing cracked open by young schol­ars to re­veal the role of women, or peo­ple of colour. And the work done on women was like watch­ing a box of fire­works ex­plode in the dark­ness: such colour and power and lights. Sud­denly I wasn’t just writ­ing one book, I was writ­ing three! One about a painter in Florence, an­other about cour­te­sans liv­ing in Venice. And then there were the nuns. And what an un­told story they were.

By the mid 16th cen­tury half of all mid­dle class or no­ble women were in con­vents. Be­cause in or­der to get mar­ried they had to pay dowries which were get­ting ever more ex­pen­sive. The men could stay bach­e­lors, have af­fairs, keep a cour­te­san but the women had to be pure. So as soon as they reached pu­berty, the age of temp­ta­tion (!), they were mar­ried to the only bride­groom who of­fered a cheap deal: Je­sus Christ.

So what did you find?

Such riches! I used to walk Ital­ian cities that I thought I knew well, only to re­alise that I had been walk­ing past build­ings – so many of them – that had once been con­vents. Only now I wanted to know what had been go­ing on in­side. Who were those women? How did they live? Of course, all those schol­ars I was study­ing were ask­ing the same ques­tions. And the an­swers were amaz­ing: from the rebels who didn’t want to go, to those who were so pas­sion­ate for God (or so an­gry with their par­ents) that they be­came vi­sion­ar­ies, to those who found so­lace in study, in run­ning the in­fir­mary – no fe­male doc­tors in the world out­side – writ­ing plays, or singing or play­ing even com­pos­ing mu­sic. It was a gift to a nov­el­ist. And from it came Sa­cred Hearts, set en­tirely in a con­vent – one that still ex­ists to this day – in the city of Fer­rara.

Is it hard to blend his­tory and sto­ry­telling well?

The his­tory is quite com­pli­cated; it’s a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal struc­ture, peo­ple live un­der a dif­fer­ent re­li­gion, in a dif­fer­ent

cul­tural and moral uni­verse, and it’s quite a chal­lenge to ask peo­ple to en­ter that world. You can’t do it su­per­fi­cially. If you write it like a pot boiler, peo­ple won’t get their teeth into any­thing rich enough. They won’t ex­pe­ri­ence the 'jour­ney' of time trav­el­ling, which takes imag­i­na­tion, theirs as well as mine. So, of course, I have to write well. On the other hand, not so 'well' that all you no­tice is the style. I am also driv­ing a story, the need to know what hap­pens next, so it’s a del­i­cate bal­ance.

The found­ing fa­ther of the BBC, (it's un­fash­ion­able to quote him now), Lord Reith, used to say that the BBC should: 'En­ter­tain, in­form and ed­u­cate.' I ac­tu­ally think that I could ap­ply those three words to every­thing that I’ve wanted to do. You have to en­ter­tain - you have to, it’s the way you pull peo­ple into an­other world. But if you do that well enough you can also of­fer them more; things they didn’t know. A world to learn about. The great­est com­pli­ment I re­ceive is when a reader says: “I loved that book of yours on nuns. I learned so much. I was telling my friends about it.” And then they stop and add. “But I never felt I was be­ing ‘Taught' be­cause at school I didn’t re­ally like his­tory.” And I think. “Yes! I did it! “

Were these his­tor­i­cal nov­els dif­fi­cult to write?

Sa­cred Hearts was in some ways the hard­est. Be­cause, as a mod­ern woman you can feel very an­gry on their be­half since they had no choice. And when I started writ­ing I know I had that anger my­self. So much so, that for a while I couldn’t write it.

But then I re­alised that I was mak­ing the clas­sic mis­take: ap­proach­ing the past as a 21st cen­tury woman. And, yes, to me, it was un­bear­able. But for them, liv­ing in 16th cen­tury you have to ask what was the al­ter­na­tive: be­ing mar­ried off at 14 or 15 to a man who you don’t love, be­ing a breed­ing cow of chil­dren, bury­ing ba­bies, dy­ing in child­birth, no agency of your own, while your hus­band sleeps around and gets syphilis. While in a con­vent at least you might found some so­lace: write plays, com­pose mu­sic, you had a space and if you were into God you could have a pro­found re­la­tion­ship with Him with­out wor­ry­ing about any of the other stuff. Sud­denly it doesn’t look so ter­ri­ble com­pared with the other op­tions.

Do you have a favourite his­tor­i­cal per­son?

I fall in love with who­ever I am work­ing on, and so my re­cent one is Machi­avelli. I was fright­ened of him at first be­cause he was too fa­mous, and in a sense too in­tim­i­dat­ing and too ar­tic­u­late, and be­cause I’m not a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, I thought I wouldn’t 'get' him.

But ac­tu­ally, when some­one comes to you through his­tory, you see you only what they have be­come. Not how they got there. And when I went back to a young Machi­avelli it was qui­etly rev­e­la­tory. A smart, 20 some­thing young man, newly mar­ried in Florence, not from a wealthy fam­ily, just get­ting a first job in govern­ment, hav­ing to watch his back all the time, not hav­ing enough sup­port be­hind him, and then given the big­gest job of all - sent to ne­go­ti­ate with Cesare Bor­gia.

And sud­denly I had a hu­man be­ing. And the more I read about him, the more

I liked him. I knew he was a 'bit of a lad', that he had a sense of humour and he got on with his col­leagues well. I knew he thought on his feet, was spin­ning on a dime all the time. I could hear his voice when I read his dis­patches and I could hear his think­ing. So, I grew re­ally fond of him. And I re­ally liked the idea of his young wife, who has no place in his­tory, save for a cou­ple of let­ters where you can just hear her voice: ‘the baby looks just like you’ etc and I thought: well, she’s not scared of Machi­avelli, so why should I be? And so, I found my way into him. I loved his smart­ness and wit and the fact that he wasn’t fa­mous or rich or im­por­tant and he was learn­ing on the job. So many peo­ple have been scared of him, think­ing he is the devil in­car­nate – in fact ex­actly like the Bor­gias - and it is so un­fair to all of them.

What is the worst thing that you have read about the Bor­gias, that is un­true?

I think the most egre­gious slan­der is with Lu­crezia. She has be­come the by­word for how you slag off women. You slag them off sex­u­ally, and once their sex­ual in­tegrity is gone they have noth­ing. So, as soon as some­one sug­gests that she was sleep­ing with her fa­ther or nu­mer­ous part­ners, then very eas­ily she is seen as to­tally im­moral, ca­pa­ble of mur­der or poi­son, and the fact was – how shock­ing is this? - I couldn’t find a scrap of ev­i­dence to prove this, al­though I could see how the ru­mours started.

There is an amaz­ing part in the first novel, Blood and Beauty, one where her first mar­riage ends - she is a pawn in the mar­riage game – they need to an­nul the union to move onto an­other. And they do it on the grounds of non-con­sum­ma­tion be­cause they have no chil­dren. I think it is highly likely that the mar­riage was con­sum­mated and when they tell her hus­band that, he says to an am­bas­sador: 'I have known her an infinity of times and the Pope only wants her back for him­self ’. And in that mo­ment, in­cest as a ru­mour is born. It’s a bit like read­ing some­thing in a tabloid news­pa­per which you later dis­cover is a to­tal fab­ri­ca­tion, but you can’t un­think it be­cause you have read it. Lu­crezia be­comes the big­gest whore – you’re read­ing scur­rilous po­ems about her by the end of the year; about how she is sleep­ing with her brother and fa­ther. And it is the eas­i­est thing to do to a woman. Once her chastity is gone, she is no­body. So it was re­ally im­por­tant to me to re­ha­bil­i­tate her as I thought that that was out­ra­geous.

Do you have a favourite city?

I would have said up un­til re­cently that my favourite city was Florence as I live in it, but I have be­gun to find my­self fight­ing with the over­whelm­ing num­ber of tourists and I have be­gun to feel that the col­li­sion of Airbnb, bud­get air­lines and cruise ships have reached a kind of tip­ping point. And I’m not sure how much any­one 'feels' the city any­more as they spend so much time in groups hurtling around. This is hap­pen­ing not just to Florence, it is clearly in Venice too, and Barcelona and Am­s­ter­dam.

There is a thing go­ing on at the mo­ment where every­body needs to per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing and it seems to me what they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing is fad­ing i.e. their own foot­steps are wip­ing out what is in the past. I don’t know what to do about this, as it’s about in­di­vid­ual free­dom, but I am wor­ried. I think the im­print of the past is feel­ing chipped around the edges as if there is just too much present as­sault­ing it. And also the econ­omy – that in Florence now seems to be all tourist leather shops and cof­fee and cheap glasses of wine, so the area that I live in, around Santa Croce, used to have a lot of ar­ti­sans, but they are all go­ing now. It’s as if all those things that made it spe­cial are be­ing wiped out by peo­ple com­ing to see what they were. So, I don’t have a favourite place any­more – I’m look­ing!

What is next? Are you writ­ing an­other book?

I am think­ing about an­other – though I haven’t started writ­ing. I’m slightly in limbo as we’ve just fin­ished a BBC r4 se­ries [When

Greeks Flew Kites], a way of look­ing at the present through the prism of his­tory. It’s taken a huge amount of time and en­ergy and I am re­cu­per­at­ing right at the mo­ment.

I sup­pose it’s my old dilemma: I love mak­ing ra­dio; the chal­lenge, the col­lab­o­ra­tion, the el­e­ment of per­for­mance. But I miss the si­lence and the dif­fer­ent in­ten­sity of writ­ing. Though I am also scared, be­cause go­ing back into writ­ing is an­other kind of pain bar­rier. So, more ra­dio or an­other book? I’m with Machi­avelli in this, I be­lieve in For­tuna – we will see what comes. It is not in my hands!

I think the im­print of the past is feel­ing chipped around the edges, as if there is just too much present as­sault­ing it

Sarah’s lat­est Re­nais­sance novel about Machi­avelli and Lu­crezia Bor­gia In the Name of the Fam­ily, is now out in pa­per­back and avail­able at Water­stones and on Ama­zon. You can lis­ten to Sarah's lat­est his­tory ra­dio pro­gramme, When Greeks Flew Kites as a pod­cast. For more in­for­ma­tion about Sarah and all her work see www.sarah­

Bar­tolomeo Veneto's por­trait of a Re­nais­sance woman in 1515, thought to be Lu­crezia Bor­gia

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