If you’re joining us today, I’m interviewing a historical novelist who has earned rave reviews for her debut. It features the glittering court of Ferrara, and the type of intrigue one might expect whenever the Medicis and Borgias mix. (Find Part I here. You can also find a helpful Q&A on conflict Elizabeth did with me on Writer Unboxed here.)
Jan: You’ve had some exciting news in the last week, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth: Yes. It’s now confirmed that The Second Duchess will be one of several books featured in a Barnes and Noble/Nookcolor sweepstakes built around the new Showtime miniseries The Borgias. Television commercials promoting the sweepstakes — win a fabulous trip to Rome! — will run nationally at the beginning of Showtime shows throughout the months of April and May. In addition, Barnes and Noble will promote the sweepstakes with in-store endcaps, which will also feature The Second Duchess.
Congratulations. I hope this brings you many more readers. Now, back to our regular programming.
A theme within The Second Duchess is that Barbara’s curiosity – or her “disquisitiveness”, as termed by Alfonso – comes with a steep cost. In a way, her quest for the truth seems emblematic of the battle I associate with the Renaissance: that of intellectualism and science versus the Church. Any thoughts on that?
Well, it was certainly not conscious on my part! But it’s true that the story takes place in the midst of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the rise of Humanism. Barbara was fortunate enough, because of her birth and position, to receive a good education. I think her semi-monastic upbringing, mostly secluded from her father’s and brother’s Imperial courts, contributed to her general character trait of curiosity. So much was going on, so close and yet so far away! As a girl, particularly a girl who was given books like Il Cortegiano, she was endlessly curious about the court she was allowed so little access to. The cookie you can’t reach is always the most delicious!
Another strong element in Barbara’s “disquisitiveness,” though, is her pride. She doesn’t set out to learn the truth about the first duchess out of sheer curiosity or willfulness. Her Habsburg pride — and the pride of the Habsburgs is legendary — is deeply wounded by Alfonso’s way of going about convincing her (I won’t go into detail so as not to spoil the story!) to stop asking questions. She is humiliated and frightened. She determines to learn the truth about Lucrezia’s death partly to strike back at Alfonso for his arrogance and cruelty, and partly to gain information she can hold over his head to prevent him from humiliating her again. I would say she is determined to blackmail him, but the word “blackmail” wasn’t in general use at the time.
You are the first cousin thirteen times removed of Bessie Blount, Henry VIII’s mistress. The fact that you know that and I don’t know my family tree back more than two generations implies certain things to me. So! If I were to survey your life through anthropologic eyes, what other clues would I find that you’d grow up to be a historical novelist? Precisely how does a parent “grow” one, anyway?