Monday, September 10, 2007

An Interview with Christopher Grey, author of Leonardo's Shadow

This year I had the unexpected pleasure of reviewing Christopher Grey's LEONARDO'S SHADOW, or The Astonishing Life of Leonardo da Vinci's Servant for the Historical Novels Reviews. I bid on it as one of my three selections, as required by the HNR editors, and wasn't sure which of the three books I would receive. When it arrived I was taken in by the sumptuous publication: beautiful jacket art, with a case bound cover featuring a wrap-around picture of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. This, however, was my first YA book, and I approached its interior with some trepidation. The moment I started reading, I was bowled over. Christopher's language, wit and formidable ability to draw us into the Renaissance chaos of Leonardo's world is nothing short of entrancing. This is a wonderful book, as accessible to adults as it is to young people. Christopher has also brought Leonardo back to his roots as a painter and visionary, but most of all, as a human being. And the character who 'shadows' him, the lively, curious Giacomo, is delightful.

So, without further ado, I give you Christopher Grey:

1. First off, congratulations on the publication of LEONARDO"S SHADOW. It's a wonderful novel that both adults and young readers can enjoy. What inspired you to transform the events surrounding Leonardo da Vinci's work on "The Last Supper" into fiction? What did you find particularly appealing about this era?

Thank you for the kind words, Christopher. I am grateful for your enthusiasm.

The genesis of the book was a visit I made some dozen years ago to see the Last Supper at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan; this was before the recent restoration, and you could only see half the wall, but nonetheless it had a profound effect on me. I went away thinking and hoping that I could write something about it and Leonardo. But I couldn’t get started. Well, that’s not true: I started hundreds of times. And stopped the same amount. The whole subject just seemed too big for me to grasp. Or perhaps I should say that my mistake, as an inexperienced writer, was in trying to grasp such a big subject in the first place. In the end it was with the little details that I found my way into the story. Two things, specifically, caught my eye: The first was the rapid deterioration of the work after Leonardo had finished it; the second was the Duke’s impatience with Leonardo’s endless procrastinations. The two factors came together to kick-start my story.

Like so many of us, I find the European Renaissance fascinating: the artistry, the style, the politics, the personalities. Then again, all eras have those qualities to a greater or lesser extent. More than all that, the Renaissance is the crossroads between the classical and the modern: the time when men and women start to take the future into their own hands, instead of leaving it up to God. It is, in effect, the dawning of the individual as a force in society. And you could say that in our time we have arrived at the late afternoon.

2. In your novel, Giacomo, a youth serving in Leonardo's home, doesn't know anything about his past. This is a time-honored characterization technique which Dickens and other classic writers employed to great effect. Did you intend to "play" with this tradition or was it coincidental? Tell us, as well, about how you made choices regarding the wonderful secondary cast of characters surrounding Giacomo.

The inspiration for Giacomo’s hidden past came directly from the Notebooks: he suddenly appears—without any explanation—and it gave me the idea that he and Leonardo met each other unexpectedly and miraculously. And it seemed logical, given that Leonardo continues in his writings to say nothing of Giacomo’s past, to make him a boy without a past. In fact, Giacomo is referred to only rarely—and then often cryptically—in the Notebooks, although he lived with the great man for almost all his life.

I confess the whole story was written without irony, and any literary games that took place on the page were strictly for the benefit of the reader, not me.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the rest of the cast. I constructed their personalities, as I expect any author does, from a combination of other characters I admire, or am drawn to (real and fictional), and the necessity of inserting certain personality traits into the story to illustrate themes I was interested in and which I wanted Giacomo to be exposed to. While writing the Duke I occasionally thought of the Hollywood producer so hilariously portrayed in one of my favorite films, Barton Fink; Caterina’s character—that combination of lovingness, courage, wisdom, and garrulity—was based on my mother and a cross-section of older women I have met and remembered fondly. And so on.

3. The Renaissance is often explored in historical fiction, as is Leonardo da Vinci. But you show us the artist as a human being with foibles, debts and a temper. As seen through Giacomo's eyes, Da Vinci is both formidable and helplessly chaotic when it comes to managing his business affairs. How did you as a writer slip into this brash but sensitive youth's frame of mind? Can you tell us about any methods you used to make him, and Da Vinci, so realistic?

Giacomo, at his most basic, is me, aged about fifteen. I wasn’t quite as witty at that age, I’ll grant you, and I also wasn’t as courageous or determined. I did however have his lesser qualities (OK, faults): impatience, obstinacy, pride, and cockiness. And I was desperate for a mentor, which I never found. Giacomo is everything I was, was not, and might have been. I love him, actually, more than I have ever managed to love myself.

Leonardo’s character comes directly from some of the surprisingly personal things he wrote in his Notebooks. It seemed to me that he was acutely conscious of his superiority in almost all matters relating to art and thought—yet he suffered variously from doubt, fear, and assorted niggling anxieties. At times he seemed, in our modern parlance, bipolar. I have no doubt that he was deeply conflicted on various personal issues. (He would have made a fascinating subject for psychoanalysis—in fact Freud wrote an amazing piece on him.) Leonardo is also me: as I am now and will be some years hence—minus the artistic and scientific genius, of course.

4. Your novel is set in early 15th century Milan, and Giacomo knows the city intimately. How did you go about recreating Milan in the past?

I hunted forever in the hope of finding contemporary and in-depth accounts of the city. No luck. I did, however, find a book in Italian that had a few maps of 15th century Milan (one very sketchy page by Leonardo, in fact). From these, and my visits to the city, I created the basic geography. Most of the detail was done in my head.

5. Historical fiction is considered a predominantly female genre, with a larger percentage of women readers and writers. Male historical fiction writers are therefore often classified within the adventure/epic subgenres. Though LEONARDO's SHADOW features a male protagonist in the first person, the female characters are rendered with great sensitivity and understanding of the different challenges that women faced in those days. With the popularity of such female YA authors as Carolyn Myers working in this genre, however, did you encounter difficulties during the process of finding a publisher that you think might be attributed to your gender? Do you think male historical fiction writers working in the YA market need to make an extra effort in order to reach their intended audience?

I did try to make believable, distinctive female characters, and I am glad you found them lifelike. If publishers did object to me as a male writer, I did not hear of it; those who were interested in the book seemed to be so because of its literary merits (or, perhaps more accurately at that stage, its potential). As for having to make an extra effort, I cannot think that any writer today dares to give less than his or her best in every sentence. There are too many books being published and publishers don’t have the resources to support all their deserving books (they are happy to spend money promoting books that are already successful, something I am at a loss to understand; it seems the reverse of sensible business practice). In addition, the supply of readers is shrinking (unless you happen to be a writer of religious self-help books, in which case your market has never looked more lucrative).

I don’t mind in which category the book is placed, as long as people get to read it. Getting the book in front of willing readers is the hard part. Once they are reading, I become progressively more confident.

6. How does your novel speaks to today's reader, given that teens are so inundated with a variety of media distractions?

I don’t think there is any story more important than that of trying to find out who you are and why you are here. Perhaps most of us don’t face the odds Giacomo does in trying to find his answers, but we have all experienced the trials and terrors of growing up—of knowing that you are capable of doing something and having to prove yourself to skeptical older people like parents and teachers, and of striving to believe in yourself, of secretly hoping that you are somebody better than everybody thinks, and that one day you will be discovered as the person you know you really are inside.

I don’t think any video game can reward the user with quite the same experience. And if it can, then writing is finished, done with, over. I’ll retrain as a bricklayer.

7. Can you tell us about your next project?

For the past year I have been working on a very different kind of book, but I am pledged to secrecy because my name will not be on the cover. I did it to prove I could, and I believe I have. My next personal project is another book set in the Renaissance. The hero is a gravedigger. A rather special fellow. I’ll say no more. I’m terrified he’ll run away from me if I talk too much.

7. Anything you would like to add for our readers?

Apart from “Please buy my book, it’s rather brilliant?” Well, I’ll leave you to say that, Christopher! But thanks for interviewing me, and thanks to anybody who still reads and believes that books are the cornerstone of civilization. When the last reader has gone, probably less than a hundred years from now, the real dark ages will begin.
You can visit Christopher at:

1 comment:

Susan Higginbotham said...

Sounds like a great book! I'll have to check it out.