Please join me in welcoming Donna Russo Morin.
I consider myself extraordinarily blessed that my profession allows me the indulgence of historical research. Self-confessed nerd, I happily spend hours, days, weeks, months with my nose stuck firmly in centuries old public records, estate accounts, and paper-and-ink-pungent text books, pouring over account after account of any one man or woman’s life. A sketch is rendered, it’s given dates of birth and death and momentous moments, its clothed in activities and choices and consequence. But it is a flat translation, so like the paper dolls I played with as a child, with little consideration of emotional motivation. Perhaps it is my own sensitive nature, perhaps it is the psychology degree I obtained by accident, but as I lay the clunky antiseptic tomes aside, lean my head back, and close my eyes, my mind—and my muse—ruminate on the emotions—the elation and the torment—that is the true essence of any human life.
In my first book, The Courtier’s Secret (2009) it was the Sun King, Louis XIV, who intrigued me the most. The charismatic, libidinous man dedicated his life to the puppet-master manipulation of his nobles, creating ritual after ritual, requirement heaped upon requirement—many of such convolution that few could wade through the depths and succeed in finding his favor. In truth, none would ever truly have it, for the man who would be the longest ruling sovereign in France’s history hated all nobles with caustic venom. His life would be forever imprinted by the fear such nobles had infused in him when, as a child, they threatened his life and that of his mother in the rebellion known as the Fronde. It was a childhood trauma—as devastating and long-lasting as any abuse. Heedless of the child in their midst, the blue-bloods of the age came at his home with weapons and anger, vicious hate upon their tongues. From the moment he reached his majority, from beneath the guise of rule, Louis would make them pay for their violent disloyalty for the rest of his life. And yet it was these very actions—his dedication to be the most privileged king of all—which would lead to the destruction of his progeny, a heart-rending vicious circle of emotional flotsam, the thick, gooey stuff that pronounces us as humans, not just a compendium of dates.
Genius, fanatical curiosity, profound religious beliefs crashing against scientific fervor…all this and much more percolated beneath the surface of Galileo Galilei. But perhaps the most formidable undercurrent of his life was the haunting command of survivor’s guilt. As portrayed in my 2010 release, The Secret of the Glass, Galileo was the only man to survive a bizarre encounter from which others were not so fortunate. While on a walking tour of the Tuscan region, thirty-eight-year-old Galileo and a few of his migliori amici, his most beloved friends, were inadvertently exposed to the noxious vapors festering from out of the Caves of Costozza. Each one died, save Galileo. Though he too was stricken with illness, an auto-immune-like condition that would plague him the rest of his days, it was his guilt as the sole survivor that impelled him to make his life—the only spared on that fatal day—worthy of the gift. It kept him resolute, even as the Vatican itself did its utmost to grind him and his heretical scientific work to a halt. Galileo’s deep and abiding need, one too powerful to be denied, coupled with his beliefs, would allow no such obstruction, no matter the cost.
My latest release, To Serve a King, is based on nothing if not the proposition that with true remorse, one may find true redemption. It is true of my main fictional character; it is true of the king that haunts her so. François I is forever portrayed as a cruel and lecherous hedonist, and justifiably so. But little is said of him in his years of decline. When writing François I, I was not unmindful or blind to his brutish youth, however I was deeply aware of the personal hardships he had encountered—the loss of spouse, the loss of beloved children, the slow torture of watching his own power diminish as he aged. In the major biographies read during my research, I found a great dichotomy between his early years and those of his latter days. I was struck by the notion, and the hope, that we have the ability to become truly conscious beings and in the clarity of vision such consciousness affords, we can look back and see the road behind us with all its potholes and wrong turns. It is distasteful to have regrets—the acidity sticks in the craw and repeats offensively—but if conscious of their power, the enlightened can use them to find remorse, and it is in remorse that we are redeemed. Thus was how I found François; it is how I wrote him. I can say with certainty there was a wish in such a rendering.
I’ve lately just finished my next book, the first where I base a main character on the life of an actual person. But in this, The King’s Agent, as in my others, the true question will not be what he did—the illegal procurement of precious works of art—but why he did it.
I was recently asked in an interview what it was that most intrigued me about historical fiction and I answered…the human experience, that which is found deep within every one that shares this existence… human experiences that are unchanged whether ten days or ten centuries apart. It is that resounding repetition that I seek to uncover as I immerse myself—happily, readily—to those hours, days, weeks, and months of research.
Thank you, Donna! To learn more about Donna and her work, please visit her website.