“A brilliant portrait of a family whose blood runs ‘thick with ambition and determination’ . . . The Machiavellian atmosphere—hedonism, lust, political intrigue—is magnetic. With so much drama, readers won’t want the era of Borgia rule to end.” —People (four stars)
A Q&A with Sarah Dunant
Utterly Seduced by the Past
(Originally ran on Shelf Awareness)
Q: Blood and Beauty is so well written that it appears effortless, but many readers may be unaware of just how much research and inspiration goes into crafting quality historical fiction. Can you share a little of your process?
A: Ah—this is a very interesting question. Because, of course, if people were aware of the effort that a book takes, then the final experience—reading it—wouldn’t be working for them.
But you’re right. The easier the read, the more work has been done. And I think that is particularly true of writing within history. Because the more truthful and accurate you are to the actual experience of the Borgia history—and by that I don’t just mean what happened, but the larger, deeper world and culture that explains why those things happened—the more authentic and rich you can make the journey—the time travel—for your reader. But of course getting it “right” takes a huge amount of research and time.
Having said that, the work is also wonderful. Because it is the time when I get happily lost in history. I find it so exciting as the picture of the past starts to deepen, as the more I read, the more I start making connections, feeling the characters move and grow like animated sculpture coming out of a block of marble.
My process is decidedly pre-technological. I sit for months in libraries with notebooks and work my way through stacks of research books covering everything, from politics to herbs, literature to music, weapons of war to theology, education and medicine—anything from the period that I can lay my hands on. Gradually I fill up six or seven notebooks with facts, quotes, images, thoughts and ideas. Then as the story (for the story is always in there) starts to blossom, I can adorn it with all manner of truths and accuracies that you, the reader, don’t notice, but I do. It gives me not just all the colors and shades of paint I need for the canvas I am painting, but also the confidence to apply them. Then when I can sit no longer at a desk, I go traveling. I visit the places to get a feel of them. In the case of Blood and Beauty, there is a huge amount still to be seen, albeit some of it ruined or changed by history: Cesare’s campaigns can be followed, town to town, fortress to fortress, across northeastern Italy.
But the final pleasure is when the book is out and people say, “Oh, that bit when . . .” whatever it is that has caught their imagination—“how did you think of that?” And it is always something that was there in history. But it has gone through the alchemy of fiction so that it feels juicy with atmosphere and color, rather than dry fact. That is my job. And how I love it. However much effort it takes.
Q: What was the most surprising fact or aspect of the Borgias that you discovered in the course of your research for this novel?
A: If I am truthful it was about a disease. I’d had an inkling during the writing of The Birth of Venus that the arrival of sexual plague, which would later be known as syphilis, was a powerful moment in Italian history. But it was only when I got my teeth into the Borgias, when I watched an invading army take over Naples and loiter there, having sex with the local prostitutes, and realized that some of those soldiers were back from the New World with Columbus and had contracted and carried this new disease home with them, that I understood just what an extraordinary history this was. And then Cesare gets infected. . . . And oh, what a horror! The agony, the shame and the public disfigurement. It was perfect: a literal metaphor for the world of Renaissance corruption. I think that was the moment when I knew the book was going to be richer and deeper than just a story of fantastic events.
Q: There seems to be renewed interest of late in all things Borgia. To what do you attribute this fascination?
A: In an era when we are obsessed by celebrity, it was inevitable that history would start to provide us with new ones. And once we had squeezed the Tudors dry, the Borgias stand out as perfect fodder. They have all the ingredients: glamour, beauty, tribal loyalty, sexual misdemeanor, power, corruption, and high-octane emotional drama. The trick is to sort out what is fact and what has grown up from layers of gossip and slander (just as it is with today’s celebrity); to strip it away to get to the truth. Which, as ever, is actually stranger than any fiction you could make up.
Q: On a related note, what, if any, are the parallels you see between the social and political machinations of the Borgias and today’s sociopolitical arena?
A: Oh, so many. Italy and all of its city-states (which I liken in the novel to a bag of spitting cats) are a perfect illustration of how warring political factions operate, the likes of which we have everywhere today. They tell such a modern story—of the lengths people will go to take and keep power; of the way alliances are made, kept, and broken based on pragmatism rather than idealism. The truth is that modern politics were born in this era. That is why Machiavelli writes The Prince about Cesare Borgia. It is a consummate study of how power works and how it corrupts. And how the end defines the means.
And then there is modern Italy: full of corruption still, with north and south in opposition to each other and a mafia presence based on family loyalties with a fat old charismatic politician, Berlusconi, still managing to control the show by ducking and weaving, and even having “bunga bunga” parties with prostitutes. I see images of Berlusconi and I think of Rodrigo Borgia. Except I rather like Rodrigo better! And then there is the Catholic Church, with its hidden sexual scandals and male-dominated power structure. I mean it is Blood and Beauty! The parallels are so powerful they make your eyes water.
But the other thing that is amazingly modern is the subversive power of gossip and the media. There was no direct media at the time of the Borgias, but there was a network of diplomacy by which gossip flourished and flowed through the pens of ambassadors and chroniclers. So you can trace slander against the Borgias emerging from one conversation and then sliding like slime into the public domain. Think of all the celebrity gossip you have ever read and how the more shocking it is, the more you remember it. Think about the fact that later you may find out it wasn’t true—just selling newspapers or fodder for celebrity TV channels—but that once said, it cannot be unsaid. Well, the Borgias’ history was like that. Mud sticks. I am not saying they weren’t at times brutal and corrupt. They were. But then so were the times in which they lived. My job is to allow you to put them in context. To enjoy the drama, yes, but also see through the propaganda.
Q: As an author who has written both contemporary and historical fiction, do you find one genre more challenging (and, conversely, rewarding) than the other?
A: There is no contest here. I have been utterly seduced by the past: the imaginative challenge of sinking deep into history and re-creating an essentially alien wild world that the reader can see, touch, smell, hear, sink into, and experience. It is a bit like writing good science fiction backwards: everything in the world you create has to make sense. With the added wonder—if you do your research—that it was actually happened.
And then, of course, you can say so many things about the present (I hope my answers above have shown that). But you can say it subtly, so that it enters the imagination of the reader on a different level. While I suppose one should never say “never,” I cannot imagine ever wanting to write a novel set in the present again. Everything I want to say about human behavior, sexuality, power, politics, and the endless emotional complexity of being alive—all of it can be said through the past. And while I am saying it, my head is busting with facts, places, ideas, and an ever-growing cast of outrageous characters. Even when I am in despair that I cannot do them justice, I am in awe of their presence.
“Clear your schedule for an addicting read. Then and Always is a twisty, romantic, keep-you-guessing story about the kind of love you never forget.”—National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti, author of He’s Gone
Looking for your next book club read? We have advance reader’s copies of THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins for you to enjoy before the trade paperback original hits bookshelves in May.
For fans of One Day, What Alice Forgot, and the hit film Sliding Doors, comes an absorbing and surprising debut novel about a young woman who, after an accident, gets a second chance at life…just not in one she remembers.
Rachel Wiltshire has everything she’s ever wanted: a close group of friends, a handsome boyfriend, and acceptance to the journalism program at her top-choice college. But one fateful evening, tragedy tears her world apart.
Five years later, Rachel returns home for the first time to celebrate her best friend’s wedding. Still coping with her grief, she can’t stop thinking about the bright future she almost had, if only that one night had gone differently. But when a sudden fall lands her in the hospital, Rachel wakes to find that her life has completely changed. Now she has her dream job as a writer and a stylish apartment, but the people she loves most are not the way she remembers them. Unable to trust her own recollections, Rachel tries to piece together what really happened, and not even she can predict the astonishing truth.
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For readers of Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot, Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is an engrossing novel of passion, friendship, betrayal, and class—and their reverberations across generations.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Compare the changes in Murray Cantowitz’s neighborhood and in Fishers Island throughout the four parts of the novel. Why is this difference important? How does this dichotomy relate to larger themes of the book?
2. Discuss Connie’s role in the novel. What does she symbolize for Ed? Why is she important?
3. How are Rebecca and Vivi similar to their parents? How are they different? Does their resemblance to their parents remind you of anyone in your life?
4. Photography is a recurring theme throughout the novel. How does it connect the characters? What else connects the characters throughout the generations in the story?
5. Why is the scene where Hugh cuts o! his “ngers so striking for Rebecca? What do you think about their relationship?
6. There are a few points throughout the novel where Ed realizes that, depending on his actions, his entire life could have evolved differently. What are these points? Do life-changing moments exist in your life?
7. On page 33, the president of the club tells Hugh “man is tribal.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
8. For years, Ed continues to love Helen despite all odds. Do you think this type of prolonged unrequited love is possible? What does it mean that Ed is able to cut Hugh out of his life, but not his love for Helen?
9. At the end of the novel, we learn that Rebecca and Vivi have found out about Ed and Helen’s relationship. Do you think that Hugh ever learns the truth?
10. How different are Hugh and Ed from the beginning to the end of the novel? How do they change, if at all?
11. If you had to write a sequel, what would happen next?
12. Of all the themes in the novel— friendship, upbringing, family, love, etc.— which resonates the most with you? Why?
13. After reading this novel, how important do you think inheritance is? What are your thoughts on dual inheritance theory? Have Ed and Hugh challenged your understanding?
Yiyun Li, author of KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, shares her top 5 favorite books that she likes to reread. Are any of these on your reread list? Share your top 5 with us on Facebook!
Five Books that I Reread
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
There are so many reasons to read War and Peace, and the only reason not to read it is that it is long and requires patience. However, the payoff is incredible. For instance, Tolstoy never said a word about the winter’s approaching or the French being unprepared. Rather, he described a young French drummer sticking his hands into his pockets when he exited the camp. And the readers feel the chill of death coming to the French army.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
In a letter Hemingway said The old Man and the Sea can be read as an epilogue of all the books he’d written. And it is a perfect novella, not an extra word included.
Reading Turgenev by William Trevor
It is a novel about reading and how reading preserves people’s imagination and integrity in the direst moment of life.
The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
This is not Bowen’s favorite novel; she even called it an inflated short story, but I think she might be wrong. It is a domestic novel, without a war or a physical struggle but in the end the battleground in a house may be more devastating.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre seems a good novel to be reread every five years or ten years. It is accessible to readers of different ages, and at different age we learn different things. This recent reading, I noticed that there were passages about how time passed, which I had missed as a younger reader.
Perfect for fans of Kristin Hannah and Susan Wiggs—Barbara O’Neal’s new novel of food, friendship, and the freedom to grow your dreams brings together four very different women longing to savor the true taste of happiness.
Popular blogger and foodie queen Lavender Wills reigns over Lavender Honey Farms, a serene slice of organic heaven nestled in Oregon wine country. Lavender is determined to keep her legacy from falling into the profit-driven hands of uncaring relatives, and she wants an heir to sustain her life’s work after she’s gone. So she invites her three closest online friends—fellow food bloggers, women of varied ages and backgrounds—out to her farm. She hopes to choose one of them to inherit it—but who?
There’s Ginny, the freckle-faced Kansas cake baker whose online writing is about to lead her out of a broken marriage and into a world of sensual delights. And Ruby, young, pregnant, devoted to the organic movement, who’s looking for roots—and the perfect recipe to heal a shattered heart. Finally, Val, smart and sophisticated, a wine enthusiast who needs a fresh start for her teenage daughter after tragedy has rocked their lives. Coming together will change the Foodie Four in ways they could never have imagined, uniting them in love and a common purpose. As they realize that life doesn’t always offer a perfect recipe for happiness, they also discover that the moments worth savoring are flavored with some tears, a few surprises, and generous helping of joy.