Secrets, deceit, betrayal – and revelation, truth and loyalty: these are the themes that underpin my Andalucían Nights trilogy.
In the final book in the series, Legacy, the heroine Luna has secrets that she is keeping from Ruy, the hero, and top of the list is the fact that she has come to work at his clinic not simply, as he thinks, to support his work but actually to write an exposé of his complementary cancer treatments for a major American journal. She is, in fact, a traitor in the midst. But the more she falls in love with Ruy, the more that secret weighs heavily upon her, until some particular words of wisdom come to mind:
‘I love you, and because I love you, I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies.’
So true, don’t you think, and noble and heroic and pure… and yet these words of wisdom were penned not by a gentle soul, but by one of the most colourful characters of the Italian Renaissance, Pietro Aretino (1492–1556). Here are five things to know about this influential figure:
* He had an inauspicious start for the time – born out of wedlock to a shoemaker and poorly educated. His response: to leave home and make his own way in the world, first painting and then writing, and to lie and tell people he was the son of a nobleman and was named Aretine (his real name is unknown).
* He built a name for himself as a daring and insolent satirist, ‘the scourge of princes’, which earned him a lot of attention – frequently of the dangerous kind; he had to flee Rome due to death threats and an assassination attempt by a man he had torn apart with his pen.
* Aretino didn’t stop at mere written criticism; when he settled in Venice, which he called the ‘city of vices’, he used his position to blackmail the rich and powerful. The result: he became superbly wealthy, thanks to pay-offs from nobles and kings, his sharp tongue earning him fame and fortune until his dying day. He was the man everyone wanted to know and nobody wanted to cross!
* He became firm friends with the painter Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), of the Venetian school. Aretino would help Titian to sell paintings, most notably to the King of France, and Titian painted Aretino three times. The first portrait is my favourite, because there’s such a sensitivity in his face (it was painted well before he went to Venice):
Aretino tried to get close to Michelangelo too, and when that failed he turned on the painter and criticised his new work, The Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel. One of his criticisms was the amount of nudity in this public work, which is ironic given Aretino’s own creative projects…
* Aretino was a homosexual, and was entirely open about this. In some of his creative writing – poems and plays – he wrote what was considered by many to be ‘obscene’ material. In fact, he was one of the pioneers of erotic literature, and he wrote the first ‘whore dialogues’; crassly named, I know, but a recognised literary genre of the Renaissance. Even today his writing has the power to shock: back in 2008 Aretino’s ‘Lust Songs’ were performed at Cadogan Hall, London, and the programmes in which the poems were printed had to be withdrawn because some people were offended by the language.
Certainly, then, Aretino ruffled feathers through his words. In his comedy La cortigiana, he offers a lesson on how to be a courtier: learn how to be vain, how to flatter and, crucially, how to deceive. Deception, he tells us, is inherent in power. And yet, it ought not to be in matters of the heart:
‘I love you, and because I love you, I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies.’
Given Aretino’s colourful history, these words stand out starkly. Deception has no place in love, only truth – as Luna and Ruy, who carries his own secrets, must learn in Legacy.
What became of the Italian scourge of princes? He died, so the story goes, of suffocation caused by mirth; he laughed himself to death. A colourful character indeed!
Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights; Anna Sewell – Black Beauty; Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind; Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago; JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye; Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man; Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar…
What do these authors have in common? They published only one novel. One book whose style and substance has resonated for readers ever since.
Was one book enough for these authors? In some cases, it seems that is the case – to write only one novel was a choice. In other cases, it may be that life intervened; might Margaret Mitchell have published a second novel, after the Pulitzer success of Gone with the Wind, had she not been hit by a car and killed? If we can take anything from the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee it is that authors can surprise you with a new work, and it is never too late to publish again.
Of course, plenty of authors write more than a single book (some, indeed, become known for being prolific). They write for either or both of the following reasons:
1) A desire to be read (the more books you write, the more you are read)
2) A need to write
The first reason may ebb and flow through a writer’s lifetime, or indeed dissipate entirely if the experience of publishing novels does not marry with expectations. But the latter reason is something entirely different …
It was an article about the author AS Byatt, entitled ‘I Have Not Yet Written Enough’, that made me ponder the question of when enough is enough. The interview asks:
‘Do you feel you’ve written enough?’
To which Byatt, who has been suffering ill health, replies: ‘No… I’ve got this great big book… I shall go on writing it as though I shall live long enough to write it well enough for me to finish it. And if I don’t, I won’t know. There is that.’
She talks also about times in her life when she did not write – for several years after losing her son, for example. But her answer to ‘Have you written enough?’ is a resounding ‘No’.
My feeling is that once you have opened the door to writing, to publishing novels, then that is not a door that is easily closed again. For periods of time, when life intervenes or you need time to reflect and rest and read, the door is ajar. But for most authors, closing the door entirely, and then locking it and throwing away the key – that is like sucking all the oxygen from the room and expecting still to breathe.
I am reminded here of Anaïs Nin’s words: ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ We writers do breathe out in writing. When writing is part of who you are, there is no ‘enough’, there is only the desire to keep breathing, keep writing.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most world’s most prolific writers; he wrote or edited more than 500 books. When asked in an interview, ‘What would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?’ he replied, ‘Type faster.’
My own answer to that question would be different, I know – time with family matters more to me than words. But still, I would try to finish my work in progress, to infuse it with the very last of my mortal spirit so that it stands, along with my other books, as a legacy to my family.
As AS Byatt puts it so beautifully in her novel Possession:
‘I am a creature of my pen. My pen is the best of me.’
There are so many different ways to express that you love someone; often, though, it can be hard to find the words to encapsulate all the emotion within.
When it comes to declarations of love, however, the words you write in your Valentine’s card need not be entirely your own; over the centuries so many writers and poets have made art of sentiment.
I am a ‘quodophile’: I collect quotes that strike a chord with me, noting them down in a book. For this Valentine’s Day, I am sharing with you my favourite ten love quotations from my collection. I hope these put you in the mood for romance today, and inspire you to tell that special someone how you feel.
If, like me, you love quotations, do follow me on Twitter, where I share my favourite quotes on love, life and the arts each day.
‘Choose an author as you would a friend.’ So wrote English poet Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon (circa 1633–1685), in his ‘Essay on Translated Verse’:
Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;
Then, seek a Poet who your way does bend,
and choose an Author as you choose a Friend.
(Spellings adapted from medieval English.)
This quotation sprang to mind recently when I was discussing with a friend who loves reading what makes her choose to read a book. Together we came up with this list:
1. Recommendation from a trusted source, whether someone you know or a review on Goodreads
2. The appeal of the ‘package’ – the cover, the strapline, the blurb
We discussed other factors, like pricing and discovering the book through a news story or advert, but ultimately we agreed that our list should be this short.
It struck me that what we are really looking for as readers is to find affinity with the writer of the work – their style, outlook and subject matter; we want to connect with the writer, so that we know that we will enjoy this book, and possibly their other titles too. The package conveys crucial information that the reader uses to judge – often quickly – whether they will ‘get on’ with this writer. And the recommendations? They help the reader get a clear sense of who this writer is, and whether the author’s work is a good fit for their tastes.
In seeking a new book to read, the reader has something very valuable to consider: trust. When they begin a new book, they need to be able to trust that the promise of the package will be delivered; that the writer will take them on an interesting and engaging journey and leave them satisfied when they read the final words. It is very difficult for a reader to give that trust, to try a new author, because too often their trust has been broken: a book has not delivered and has been disappointing. (I am reminded of a novel I read recently that was packaged as beautiful romance, but ended with the death of the hero – I was heartbroken!)
How much easier it is to read the new book from an author whose work you know and love than to try a book from an undiscovered writer. And yet if you only ever stick with tried-and-tested authors, reading becomes boring – you miss the thrill of discovering a new book that you just adore. It is necessary then, sometimes at least, to be brave and try new authors, and then you’ll do well to follow Wentworth Dillon’s advice: Choose an author as you would a friend.
So far I have considered the reader’s point of view. But of course I am not only a reader; I am a writer, which means it is my job to be a friend to my readers.
Surely the most fundamental quality one looks for in a friend is that they are trustworthy. That, then, in essence is what an author must be, I believe. An author must give the reader what they except to read based on the package and the genre conventions. That is not to say we writers may not employ plot twists – we must; but there is a strong need to keep the reader secure as they read. Reading is an escape within safe confines.
Publishing my novel, Burning Embers, was a wonderful adventure. But because it was my debut novel, every reader had to take something of a leap of faith with me as the author. Now, with each book I publish, I am so happy to be building a little library of my own. With each additional book I release, new readers can more easily get a feel for who I am as a writer and whether they may find a friend in me; but also, I am giving those readers who have already found affinity with me more pleasure, I hope.
My little library, pictured below, is five-strong, and will continue to grow as I take the readers who trust in me on new adventures in beautiful settings. I hope, if you have not already chosen me as an author, you may have found some reason to do so through this blog post. As the 13th-centry Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.’
Have you ever had a melody, or a line of poetry, or a quotation stuck in your mind? It happens to me quite often, especially with quotations from literature. I can be weeding in the garden whispering, ‘She was lost in her longing to understand’ (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); I can be stirring soup on the stove thinking, ‘At the still point, there the dance is’ (T.S. Eliot); I can be walking along the beach to the rhythm of, ‘He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life’ (James Joyce).
Sometimes, a quotation haunts me, creeping up on me at unexpected times, pushing itself to the forefront of my mind with an emotional insistence. Since I began writing, this has happened more and more, and I have learnt to stop and listen to the words, to consider them carefully – and then, to be inspired by them; because it is always my creative subconscious that has delivered to me these words, read once and then, often, half-forgotten.
While I was writing my new novel Legacy, the third and final book in my Andalucian Nights trilogy, I found myself pulled to Shakespeare. This is unusual for me; when it comes to classic literature, I most often gravitate toward French works, such as those by Stendhal and Flaubert and Hugo, which were the focus of my degree studies. The fact that I had Shakespeare on the mind intrigued me: I decided to explore.
These were the lines that haunted me:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
(As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)
I was particularly puzzled by the Macbeth quotation; I write romance, after all, and Macbeth is a dark play.
With these quotes still echoing, I carried on researching and outlining my novel Legacy. Finally, still having done nothing with these lines and yet ‘lost in my longing to understand’, I began writing the book. And then I found myself writing the following exchange in my novel between the hero, Ruy, and his friend, Chico:
‘But if the night is romantic, who knows, ey? La luna, las estrellas y el amor.’ Chico sighed and winked at Ruy, the expression on his face full of innuendo.
‘I’ve told you before, Chico, romance is in the heart, everything else is theatre.’
As I read back the words, a warmth spread through me. Finally, I understood. The Shakespearean quotes were reminders of the metaphor of life as a stage: of the parts we play, sometimes willingly, sometimes without choice, sometimes in keeping with our own true character, sometimes acting indeed. Life can be dramatic, impassioned, full of ‘sound and fury’ – but it all signifies nothing; it is theatre, not truth.
In Legacy, Ruy understands that ‘all the world’s a stage’, and he has no intention of strutting and fretting on that stage as a player. He knows that while romantic gestures can be lovely, they are unimportant: ‘romance is in the heart’. And there: into my mind flies another Shakespeare quotation: Hamlet’s dying words: ‘The rest is silence’. Ruy faces silence unafraid with Luna, because he knows, to revisit T.S. Eliot’s words, ‘At the still point, there the dance is’.
I write romance, I love romance, but I agree entirely with Ruy: it is not lavish gifts or meals in fancy restaurants or nights out at the theatre (to play a part while watching others play their parts). Romance is two people alone in a moment, melting into each other. Romance is a single look, a touch of a hand, a word on the lips, a light in the eyes.
Romance is in the heart, everything else is theatre.