Red Room Library sat down with Sarah Dunant, international bestselling novelist of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan after her talk at the Margaret Mitchell House on Tuesday, July 28. Her latest novel, Sacred Hearts, also set in Renaissance Italy, hits stores this month.
For Sarah Dunant, history begins with stories. She came to historical fiction early, but admits that what she read when she was in her teens was mostly the light, romantic stuff. Her interest in the past brought her to Cambridge, where she read history for three years and “the romance was beaten out” of her, though she admits it was a very pleasurable experience. Her training in historical method would come to good use years later when she began to write historical fiction. However, it would be a few decades and six novels, three of which are crime thrillers, before Dunant began her Renaissance trilogy. One could say she was inspired by Italy.
Dunant’s first trip to Florence was eye-opening, but when she started to explain the beauty and mystery of old Italy to her two daughters, she realized that all of the people she would mention were men. This observation prompted her to think about where women were in the Renaissance story. Her inquiry brought her to the archives and libraries of England and Italy, where she studied for a year before beginning The Birth of Venus. In total, she has spent 9 years researching the Renaissance. (She has become such an expert in this period that she will teach a Freshman seminar titled The Birth of Venus--Inside Renaissance Florence, Venice, and Rome at Washington University in St. Louis this fall.) Though her research is critically important to her work, she interestingly puts it aside when she begins to write her novels “lest the historian in her pull at her too much.” The notebooks are opened again when she needs to polish her prose with historical details.
Though her books are based in history, Dunant is adamant that these are stories only based in fact. She is quick to mention that few “actual people” turn up in her novels. Here, the historian in her pulls too much. She finds it difficult to create what cannot be substantiated by historical record, and writing about real people poses too many problems: “Who’s to say that they know exactly what Anne Boleyn was thinking on a certain day at a certain time. I certainly don’t. No one does.” However, she has been forced – twice – to include real people because the story demanded it. She was able to minimize the fact stretching by making one character, the Renaissance painter Titan, drunk in one scene (clearly little ability to talk coherently here) and painting in the other (again, little ability to talk). For the other character, a lesser known Renaissance satirist, she was able to make educated guesses about what he might say and think after sifting through piles of his letters. Laughingly, she admits, “I was very relieved to find that he was such a prolific letter writer. I was able to get a good sense of his voice and motivations through those. The job would have been very difficult otherwise.”