Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Guest post from Laurel Corona, author of THE MAPMAKER'S DAUGHTER

I'm delighted to welcome Laurel Corona, a friend and colleague whose latest novel THE MAPMAKER'S DAUGHTER is now available. Set in 15th-century Spain, this beautiful and vivid novel explores the forgotten women of the Spanish Inquisition, as seen through the eyes of Amalia Riba, a converso forced to hide her religion from the outside world, She is the last in a long line of Jewish mapmakers, whose services to the court were so valuable that their religion had been tolerated by Muslims and Christians alike.

But times have changed. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquer Granada, the last holdout of Muslim rule in Spain, they issue an order expelling all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. As Amalia looks back on her eventful life, we witness history in the making—the bustling court of Henry the Navigator, great discoveries in science and art, the fall of Muslim Granada, the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. And we watch as Amalia decides whether to relinquish what’s left of her true self, or risk her life preserving it. This is a sweeping saga of faith, family and identity that shows how the past shapes our map of life.

Please join me in welcoming Laurel Corona, who offers us this interesting perspective on the famous Henry the Navigator.

Henry the Navigator and his “Gay Company”

When I was in grade school I always thought Henry the Navigator was the coolest figure in the Age of Exploration, but there were a number of things my teachers didn’t share, or didn’t know, about him. He was the first to kidnap Africans for economic gain and and bring them as slaves to Europe. He also never navigated, staying on dry land the entire time his ships went off to discover the world.  And one last thing: he was almost certainly gay. Researching Henry for my new novel, THE MAPMAKER’S DAUGHTER, I ran across an early historian who said that the prince “spent his whole life in pure chastity, and went to his grave as a virgin.” Another said that "he did not wish to marry because of his great chastity." A third added that "he always lived so virtuously and chastely that he never knew a woman."

Of course “chaste” does not equal gay, so let’s dig a little further.

What might his brother, King Duarte, have meant when he wrote Henry to say he should avoid "giving pleasure to men" beyond what he could do in a "virtuous manner"? What does one contemporaneous historian mean when he describes Henry’s household as “habituated to the gay and spontaneous company of his servants,” adding that, “he was very attached to them”? This archaic use of the word “gay” always brings a smile to modern lips, but the point about Henry’s preferences is not contained in that word.

What does it mean that most of those Henry gave the chance to conduct highly lucrative slave raids in West Africa were young men raised from youth in his "c├ómara"? When his early biographers used this word, its most common meaning was bedroom, or by extension the private quarters of his palace, where it is apparent from the sources that many young men (and never a woman) were free to come and go in a manner befitting a prince’s most intimate friends.

In The Mapmaker's Daughter, Diogo Marques is one of Henry’s handsome young favorites who subsequently receives a commission to go slaving.  My protagonist Amalia, not yet in her teens when she goes to Henry’s court with her father, wonders about this absence of females in the palace.  Though later she will pay for her naivete, at the time she simply grumbles that if there were women around, someone might notice she had outgrown her clothes.
Biographers during his lifetime and the century afterward tiptoed delicately around the subject of Henry’s personal life for good reason.  Sodomy was a grievous sin and a crime punishable by death.  To make the heinousness even clearer, after execution (or as a means of it) the body of the accused had to be so thoroughly destroyed by fire that no trace remained.  It was common to exhume the dead to desecrate their bodies if offenses of this and other sorts were discovered later.  Obvious, honesty both during and after Henry’s lifetime was not consistent with building him into the national hero of Portugal, so biographers kept their silence. 

And then there’s very phallic personal crest Henry designed, which would raise the eyebrows of anyone who has ever heard of Freud. It seems there is much more to Henry than the well-dressed prince looking to sea with a model ship in his hand.

Thank you, Laurel. To find out more about Laurel and her work, please visit her website.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Interview with C.J. Samson, author of DOMINION

I'm honored and delighted to welcome C.J. Sansom, whose new novel DOMINION is now out in the UK and the US. An international bestselling author who is well known for his Matthew Shardlake mysteries set in Tudor England. C.J. is also the author of the evocative bestseller, Winter In Madrid, set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and is one of my favorite novels about that tumultuous and tragic period.

In his latest novel, Dominion, C.J. offers a chillingly realistic portrayal of alternate history, positing what might have happened had the Third Reich invaded and conquered the UK. Set in 1952, twelve years have passed since Britain has surrendered to Nazi Germany and the British people find themselves under increasingly authoritarian rule. But Churchill’s Resistance is not vanquished and as the defiance grows, whispers circulate of a secret that could alter the balance of the global struggle. The keeper of that secret is Scientist Frank Muncaster, who languishes in a Birmingham mental hospital.

Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, a spy for the Resistance and University friend of Frank’s, is given the mission to rescue Frank. Hard on his heels is Gestapo agent, Gunther Hoth, a brilliant and implacable hunter of men, who soon has Frank and David’s wife, Sarah, in his sights. This is a spellbinding novel in the vein of Graham Greene that dares to explore how in moments of crisis, history can turn on the decisions of a few brave men and women – the secrets they choose to keep and the bonds they share. 

Please join me in welcoming C.J. Sansom.

Please could you tell us about your inspiration for writing Dominion.
Everyone who studies history seriously considers counter-factuals – if a particular event, or decision, had gone differently, what would the effects on history have been.  And of course one intriguing theme is, what would have happened if Britain had been defeated or surrendered in 1940.

 What drew you to the particular era that your book depicts?  What are some of the challenges and/or delights about writing about this time?
As well as the Tudor era, I have always been very interested in European and British history before, during and after the Second World War, and Winter in Madrid is also set within this broad period.  Dominion, is setting in Britain in 1952, the year I was born.  Although it is an alternate history and many things are different, I try to catch the atmosphere of 1950s Britain in such things as the general drabness, the intense social conservatism, but also the importance of personal integrity as epitomised in characters like David and Sarah.  It was very interesting to create characters rooted in a time which I can just remember, as well as little details like the fact that everybody smoked, and it was routine for dogs to do their business in the street!  One of the challenges, which I would have had even writing about the real world rather than on alternate history, is that events and political figures are still, just, within range of memory, as are the political ideas.  I knew I would get criticism for my portrayal of how some political figures and political parties respond to defeat, but I believe these to be plausible, or would not have protrude as I have.

You are very well-known for your Shardlake mysteries set in Tutor England, as well as a previous novel set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Winter in Madrid.  What promises did you use to transport yourself (and readers) to another time period?  How do you go about research and incorporating it into fiction?

That is the $64,000 question for a historical novelist.  I am fortunate in that I am a historical nerd, and have spent much of the last forty years reading and thinking about history.  I don't have the knowledge of a professional academic, but think I am fairly well-rooted in the mid-sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.  Whenever I have chosen the exact topic I'm going to write about, I always research the particular subject as carefully as I can, including looking at original documentation from the period wherever possible.  This takes 2 to 3 months and I'm sure that much of each novel is written in my subconscious during that time.  Then when I write, I always try to strike that essential balance between burdening the reader with a mass of historical facts, and giving the flavour of the time.  That's the key thing, having the character and stories integrated with "the world of the piece."

 Do you believe your historical fiction conveys a message or theme relevant to our world today?  If so, what do you think it is?  If not, how do you think readers can find common ground with the characters in your story?
Everyone, I think, who writes historical novels – or, for that matter, factual books, does so from the perspective of their own time.  I don't think there is such a thing as a general "message" or "theme" in historical fiction – everyone writes from the point of view of their own ideas, conscious or unconscious.  I am sure my own books reflect my own position on the democratic left.  The only book where I have deliberately conveyed a message is Dominion, where the message is how easy, and how dangerous it is to fall into politics defined by nationalism.  As for common ground with the characters, their to a difficult balance has to be drawn, between someone intelligible to the modern world but with the different mindset of another time.  This is much easier for the 1940s than the 1540s!

Can you tell us about your next project?
I am going back to Tudor England and the Shardlake series, with a book called Lamentation which will be set around the jockeying for power between religious and political factions at the court of the dying Henry VIII, and which will prominently feature his last wife, Catherine Parr.  It will be the last in the series set during the reign of Henry VIII, but I hope to to continue it under his successors.

Thank you, C.J. To learn more about C.J. and his work, please visit his website. C.J. is also on virtual tour through the blog world until March 14.