As we do on Fridays, when we have an interview, we take a break from the Regency Personality series. It shall of course return. As early as tomorrow.
Today we are fortunate to have with us Tinney Sue Heath, who writes historical fiction set in Dante’s Italy.
What moved you to become an author?
I’ve always had a fascination with Florence and the Renaissance, but when I read Dante, I woke up to the fascinating history of Florence in the centuries before the Medici, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Brunelleschi’s dome. While the Renaissance has been lavishly treated in books, film, and television, there is precious little about these earlier times, and yet they are the underpinnings for Florence’s later greatness. And once I started reading the 13th and 14th century chronicles, I was hooked. Talk about living in interesting times! (It’s also a wonderful excuse to travel to Italy.)
Tell us about your current novel.
Florence, 1216: The noble families of Florence hold great power, but they do not share it easily. Tensions simmer just below the surface. When Corrado the Jester’s prank-for-hire goes wrong, a brawl erupts between two rival factions. Florence reels on the brink of civil war. One side makes the traditional offer of a marriage to restore peace, but that fragile peace crumbles under the pressure of a woman’s interference, an unforgivable insult, and an outraged cry for revenge.
Corrado is pressed into unwilling service as messenger by both sides. Sworn to secrecy, he watches in horror as the headstrong knight Buondelmonte violates every code of honor to possess the woman he wants, while another woman, rejected and enraged, schemes to destroy him.
Corrado already knows too much for his own safety. Will Buondelmonte’s reckless act set off a full-scale vendetta? And if it does, will even the Jester’s famous wit and ingenuity be enough to keep himself alive and protect those dear to him?
This is Corrado’s story, but it is also the story of three fiercely determined women in a society that allows them little initiative: Selvaggia, the spurned bride; Gualdrada, the noblewoman who both tempts Buondelmonte and goads him; and Ghisola, Corrado’s great-hearted friend. From behind the scenes they will do what they must to achieve their goals—to avenge, to prevail, to survive.
How did the story begin to develop in your mind?
I had seen this incident in Dante, and in numerous histories. People writing about it in the 13th and 14th centuries all seemed to agree on its importance. Yet there were more than a few things about it that seemed strange to me: why did they do this, how could he think that, what made them decide to do what they did? And so I set to work trying to figure it out, like a gigantic and very colorful puzzle.
What did you find most challenging about this book?
This is embarrassing, but I thought it was just going to be a short story about the vendetta against the knight Buondelmonte. But it kept growing, and growing, and the Jester became more and more important, until finally, Pinocchio-like, it turned into a Real Book, and a book about the Jester at that. So that was all a bit surprising, but it worked out.
How did you choose your publishing method?
Agents kept telling me that they couldn’t sell anything that didn’t have (1) a female protagonist, and (2) a marquee name. (Yes, I know, we can all think of exceptions.) My problem was that I’ve been reading about these people for so long that I thought they were marquee names. Alas, apparently they are not, unless you’re Italian. (Not yet, anyway…) So I approached the people at Fireship Press, having heard lots of good things about them, and was delighted when they offered me a contract. They’ve been a real pleasure to work with.
Tell us a little about yourself?
I play a lot of late medieval and Renaissance music on replicas of early instruments, and I spent many years involved in medieval reenactment, so I guess you could say I’ve been involved with this time period (and been Dantecentric) for a good part of my life. Fortunately my husband shares my enthusiasm – we play music together, and he enjoys our research trips as much as I do. We live in Madison, Wisconsin, in a swath of restored prairie we share with coyotes, hawks, eagles, sandhill cranes, deer… the list goes on and on. And we’re within the city limits!
What is your next work, and beyond that, what do you want to work on?
I’m working on a book inspired by the life of a woman known to history as La Compiuta Donzella (the Accomplished Maiden), a 13th-century Florentine poet. Only three of her works survive. In the nineteenth century, some scholars even denied that she had ever existed. She must have been a construct of male poets, they reasoned; surely no medieval woman could have been known for her writing. (Christine de Pizan, anyone?) But it was hard to ignore correspondence addressed to her, not to mention the poems themselves, so these days most people do believe she existed. But no one knows a thing about her life, even exactly when in the 13th century she lived. At any point in that century, she would have had to cope with the nasty squabbling between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. First one side would be on top (and busily exiling the other guys and destroying their property), and then the tables would turn and roles reversed. It was a turbulent time, and there are a few hints in the lady’s surviving poems that I am turning into a story of what her life might have been like, but it’s all quite speculative.
Beyond that, I hope to write about Dante’s wife, Gemma Donati, who lived in scarcely less turbulent times. That places the three books in three successive generations in Florence, all in the 13th century, though Gemma’s tale will spill over into the 14th. (I also hope to write some fantasy stories involving the Etruscans, just for a change of pace.)
In the current work, is there an excerpt to share? Your favorite scene, a part of your life that you put into the work and think it came out exceptionally well that you would like to share.
When I write fiction, it’s always dialogue that comes to me first. But when I looked for a bit of dialogue to quote here, I discovered that almost all of it contains spoilers – which, I suppose, means it’s doing its job and furthering the plot. Instead, I’ve chosen the very beginning of the book, a sort of prologue:
It was a fool that began it, but it took a woman to turn it murderous.
Pride and lust, spite, greed, and folly split Florence down the middle in that harsh spring. By late March, when the Feast of the Incarnation gave birth to Christ’s year 1216, the damage was done.
Our city by then had rent herself into two warring parties. She split, like a stone splits when the stonecutter drives his wedge into a crack and sunders the rock into jagged pieces, never to be whole again.
Ask any Florentine how the rift began. He’ll tell you it started with a banquet, a fight, a man hurt. A marriage offered to make peace. A woman’s interference, a betrayal–maybe more than one–and a cry for vengeance.
He’ll tell you, in wonder, that the great strife began at that banquet with nothing more than a fool’s jest.
He might even tell you that the fool played his prank, collected his purse, and danced away, not caring what he had set in motion.
He would be wrong.
All that he’s told you will be true until that last. True, but incomplete. There’s nothing in his account of blackmail, nothing of secrets, nothing of the bitterness of a rejected woman. Nothing of loyalty bought and sold. And most of all, nothing of violent conflict coldly planned and set in motion for political gain.
A fool began it; that much is true. I should know, for I am that fool, fool by profession and more fool by my actions. But before you judge me, know that the rift, like the crack in the stone, was already there.
Who do you think influenced your writing, this work, and who do you think you write like?
One of those silly online games tells me I write like Dan Brown. I deny it. I think I’ve probably been influenced by everyone whose work I’ve read, which is way too many writers to list.
Who do you read? What are the things that a reader can identify with that you have grounded yourself in.
I’ve read everything Dorothy Dunnett wrote. While historical fiction is my desert-island genre, fantasy would be just offshore, treading water. Thus, Guy Gavriel Kay, George R.R. Martin, and Ursula LeGuin can count on me to read whatever they produce. The commonality here, as I see it, is that all four of these writers create complex worlds with intricate politics, complete with moral dilemmas and imperfect characters, and they write about times of rapid and often cataclysmic social change.
When writing, what is your routine?
What is this routine of which you speak?? When the writing is not flowing, I’m staggering along, laboriously pushing my project in front of me. When it does flow, I’m running as fast as I can trying to keep up (or sometimes to keep from getting run over). It’s hard to get a routine out of that.
Do you think of yourself as an artist, or as a craftsman, a blend of both?
I think one has to be both. An artist can’t succeed without the skills of a craftsman; a craftsman can have at best limited success without artistry. It’s debatable how much of the skill of writing can be learned, but Kim Rendfeld, in a recent interview in this space, pointed out that craftsmanship applies to research, and it is therefore essential for any historical novelist.
Where should we look for your work?