I posted a review yesterday about a fascinating novel called SIGNORA DA VINCI by Robin Maxwell. Today, I am so excited to have Ms. Maxwell stopping by. She took time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about her latest historical fiction novel:
Booking Mama: SIGNORA DA VINCI is such a wonderful book -- there are so many interesting topics covered within the pages. I know that there is not a lot known about Caterina, but how exactly did you come up with the idea to write a book about her rather than Leonardo?
Robin Maxwell: My original interest was in Leonardo. To my thinking, there is not another figure in history with a more fascinating mind. But publishers of historical fiction today are focused on stories from a woman's point of view. There are very few who will publish a book with a male protagonist. So I began looking for a significant female in Leonardo's life. Because of his sexual orientation, there were no significant female lovers, or wives or daughters. So I began exploring his mother. When I first discovered how little was known about Caterina, I was a bit taken aback. But once I'd taken in all the material about da Vinci himself -- his works of art and his written word compiled from his notebooks in a 1,080 page tome, and the masses of material about the world into which he stepped as a young apprentice in Renaissance Florence in 1466 -- I worried no more. I realized that I had a nearly blank slate when it came to Leonardo's mother, and that I would be able to extrapolate her character by studying her son, and her actions by following the monumental happenings of the period.
Booking Mama: I was amazed by how many huge historical events you covered in this novel. How much research did you conduct while writing SIGNORA DA VINCI?
Robin Maxwell: It's hard to explain just how much research I did for this book. After six novels set in Tudor England and Ireland, I was faced with all new characters, a new earlier time, and a country with its unique and complex political landscape. I needed to know my way around the city of Florence in those years, as I'd never even traveled to Italy. Luckily there was one research book that had maps of the city at different times in history, so I had that open almost all the time, plotting my characters' movements from here to there. One reader was astonished when I told her that I'd never been to Florence, as I'd described it perfectly. Plus there were themes and throughlines that were new to me -- apothecaries and alchemical laboratories. Secret societies and the philosophies they studied. The immense canvas of Renaissance art and architecture. I nearly went blind reading and taking notes, calling up information on the internet and printing it up for further reference, then fitting all the pieces together into one impossible and very detailed book proposal (which I later used as an outline for writing the novel).
Generally, once I'm partway through the writing -- one to two hundred pages into a book, I can put aside the research material and just write. Not so with Signora da Vinci. This was so detail-intensive that until the very last page of the epilogue, I was sitting there in my overstuffed writing chair with my yellow pad in my lap and research books to the right and left of me, looking up references till the final sentence. Of course you can't flaunt your research, either. I remember what Rosalind Miles once said when we were sitting on a panel together and she was asked about research. She said "Research is like a ladies slip. One should always be worn, but it must never show." Writing this book was exhausting! When I was finished with the first draft I felt like my brain had been fried. For a few months afterwards, I had memory lapses, difficulty remembering simple words, and even a bit of disorientation. I'm okay now, but it'll be a long time before I attempt another book that requires that kind of research.
Booking Mama: I was completely fascinated by the whole idea of the "Shadow Renaissance" - that many brilliant minds of 15th century Florence, Milan and Rome were involved in esoteric studies (even though the punishment would be death.) What part of the Shadow Renaissance do you find the most interesting?
Robin Maxwell: What intrigued me was that virtually every head of state in Europe, despite his claims of piety, had some interest or involvement with esoteric or occult practices. Everyone hired on Greek tutors at their courts so that they could study Plato and Hermes Trismegistus (whom they believed was a great Egyptian sage). Even Pope Alexander (the first Borgia to wear the papal crown) had his Vatican apartments painted with pagan images. For whatever reasons, in Italy during these times, certain men and women were ready to crawl out of the darkness of medieval thought and consider that perhaps human existence was a bit brighter than the hellfire and damnation that the Christian Church promised was everyone's destiny. How can you not love the individuals -- the courageous members of Florence's "Platonic Academy" -- who risked burning at the stake to study spiritual enlightenment? It thrilled me when I found a way to insinuate Leonardo da Vinci's mother into that august society.
Booking Mama: One of the most interesting parts of the book was when Da Vinci "created" the Shroud of Turin. I really have to know, how did you come up with that idea?
Robin Maxwell: About six years ago I read a non-fiction book -- The Templar Revelation -- by a couple of English journalists, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, who were certainly influences on Dan Brown's writing The Da Vinci Code. They introduced me to the idea that there was hidden pagan symbolism in Leonardo's works, and mentioned their belief that he was behind the Turin Shroud hoax. When I was fashioning my proposal, and needed a good plot twist for the end of the book, I searched the Picknett/Prince bibliography and found that they had written another book called Turin Shroud. I based my fictional storyline on the extensive research and experiments they conducted that proved to me that Leonardo was, indeed, behind the hoax. I give them an extended acknowledgment at the end of my novel.
Booking Mama: You have written a few other historical fiction novels about different countries and different time periods. What time period in history do you find the most interesting? If you could "time travel," where would you go?
Robin Maxwell: I kind of feel -- with Renaissance Europe -- "Been there, done that." So if I had to pick one time, it would be the antediluvian world, in the great civilization I believe existed before the great flood (the end of the last Ice Age) around 12,000 years ago. That's when I believe the great Pyramid of Giza and the sphinx were built. And I take Plato at his word -- that Atlantis was not a myth but the true history of the world. In fact, my one yet-to-be-published novel in a genre I call "historical science fiction," is called Poseidon In Love -- about the god-king and his beloved earth-woman wife, Clea'ta. If I could time-travel, I'd like to get some answers about the first great civilization on earth, and why it came to an end.
Booking Mama: I certainly hope that you are working on another historical fiction novel. Are you in the process of writing another book? If so, when can we expect to read it?
Robin Maxwell: I'm mid-stream on a second novel set in a bit earlier part of the Italian Renaissance, 1444 Florence. It's called O, Romeo, and it's a story of the star-crossed lovers seen through the eyes of Juliet. I believe it's set to be published in March, 2010.
Booking Mama: I am selfishly asking this question because I am always dying to know what other's reading tastes. Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?
Robin Maxwell: I don't love all the books by any one author, but here are some of my all-time favorite titles. Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible; Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife; Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner; Stephen King's early scary books, as well as the non-scary quartet of novellas, The Four Seasons; Ann Patchett's Bel Canto; and in non-fiction Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods. Right now I'm reading C.W. Gortner's wonderful Tudor mystery The Secret Lion, and David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
Booking Mama: Is there anything else that you'd like Booking Mama's readers to know either about you or SIGNORA DA VINCI?
Robin Maxwell: I hope that Signora da Vinci will make readers think about the horrors of religious persecution in all its forms. Early Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire, but later the Christians -- now Catholics -- turned that around and started in on everyone they considered heretics -- whether it was pagans and atheists (of which Leonardo da Vinci was one), Jews, Gypsies and Protestants. Then the Protestants got too full of themselves and started burning witches. Even among different Protestant sects there is dissension. There are some today that feel the Israeli Jews are persecuting Palestinians. Throw in the Muslims and their "infidels" and you've got a world full of hatred and bigotry. Nothing upsets me more about the way things are than the violence engendered by religious intolerance. There will never be peace on earth until that ends.
As you can clearly see, Ms. Maxwell is incredibly interesting, as is her latest novel SIGNORA DA VINCI. I just happen to have two copies to giveaway courtesy of Penguin. To enter the contest, leave a comment (with your e-mail address) telling me what historical period you find the most interesting. To double your chances, blog about this contest with a link back to this post. If you want three entries, twitter about this giveaway. The contest will be open until Friday, February 13th (UGH!) at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will announce the two winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!