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Conjuring Venice – Writing historical fiction with all five senses

Written by Gilbert Reid, co-author with Jacqueline Park (1925-2018) of Son of Two Fathers. 

I may be old-fashioned, but I believe that bodily, visceral energies are essential for writing fiction.

When I was asked to complete the late Jackie Park’s historical novel Son of Two Fathers, I had a few chapters she had written and some ideas she had sketched and discussed with me.

Jacqueline (Jackie) Park - bold explorer of Renaissance Italy

But, with Jackie gone, I had the challenge of finding an arc for the whole book, a beginning, a middle, and an end, with plot points, character arcs, reversals, revelations, denouements, ironies, and action and tragedy and perhaps a bit of comedy. In short, I had to figure out all the things the writing advice books — and Aristotle — talk about, all the complex intellectualized apparatus of what might be called the structural engineering approach to writing. 

You are building a suspension bridge across a perilous void; its cables, struts, beams, and rivets must carry the reader safely from the very first words to the very last. 

But, let’s throw away our engineering hat.

The high-wire act of writing fiction is also like being a juggler, actor, or improviser; you must throw yourself into the role — you must, in part at least, abandon yourself, and become Isabella d’Este, or Veronica Libero, or Miriamne Hazan. 

Even if, technically, you are seeing her from the outside, you must, for a time, adopt her voice, her thoughts, her body, her gestures. You have to feel the rain against her face, and you have to see the facade of a church through her eyes. You have to capture the style — the phenomenology, if you like — of her gaze: how does she see that bit of gothic tracery, and what does she think and feel when she sees it?  

And as all actors and improvisers know, props and settings are critical. In writing Son of Two Fathers, I had an advantage. I knew the settings and I had, in memory at least, the props.

Son of Two Fathers takes place in Italy between 1536 and 1544 at the height of the late Renaissance, during a period of extraordinary violence, mayhem, beauty, paranoia, panic, and creativity. 

I lived in Italy for twenty-four years. I knew, and I think I still have a visceral sense of, the "personality" of the local places and cultures: the suave courtesy of Venetians, their patience and worldliness, their tolerance, their openness. My ear became attuned to the gentle cadences of their language, and my senses were alive to the smells of the lagoon, to the way sounds — footsteps, voices, the lapping of water, church bells, the splashing and swirling motion of oarsecho in the alleyways, the narrow canals, and in the squares. And then there is Venetian civic pride. Venice was a Republic, haughty and powerful, for almost one thousand years.  

Venice, a typical canal scene. Photo by: iStock.com / tunart

Rome, where I lived for eighteen years, is an entirely different matter: Rome, in 1536, was recovering the from the Sack of Rome of 1527, when the Spanish and Germany army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V went berserk and attacked the Eternal City, raping, pillaging, and burning their way through the city. My office for eleven years in Rome was in an ancient palazzo which, I was told by the owners, had been ransacked and partially burned, in that horrible year, 1527. Each day, on the monumental staircase, I felt that my footsteps were echoing where rape and murder and pillage had left their bloodstains and the stigmata of fire.

Romans are world-weary, cynical, and all-knowing in a rather different way from the sophisticated Venetians of the Most Serene Republic. Romans have lived with the Vatican for more than a thousand years, and it shows. 

Exploring the "personality" of local places and cultures - Gilbert (Reid) at Termini Station, Rome, mid-1970s, with friends Alison and Philip Wigley.

So, I was able to draw on physical memories, visceral experiences, and a range of real-life personalities, to build up my picture of sixteenth-century Italy, and, with all these memories available, to attempt to plunge into each role I had to play.  

It’s easy to forget but experience is what life is. The second-by-second, minute-by-minute sensations, thoughts, emotions, reveries, perceptions, hopes, fears . . .

The people of the sixteenth century certainly experienced things; they were just as alive as we are, and perhaps, dare I say, more so. For them, life was full of discoveries, catastrophes, unrestrained passions, new sensations. They were amazingly open: writers and painters and sculptors and architects and navigators were each day discovering what were, for Europeans, new worlds. 

So, by going back into my own days, sunny days, foggy days, winter days, summer days, in Venice and Rome and in the Po Valley, or in Bologna or Florence or Milan, I was able, I hope, to realize Jackie’s vision for “Son of Two Fathers,” and to recreate the dynamism, heroism, romance, and passions of that wonderfully vibrant world of almost five hundred years ago, a world which, essentially, gave birth to the world we live in today.

Son of Two Fathers by Jacqueline Park and Gilbert Reid will be available wherever books are sold on April 2, 2019. 


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