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  • Writer's pictureChristine Sneed

Q & A with Grace Tiffany, novelist and Shakespearean scholar, about her novel PAIN T

Tell us a little about your novel.

The story’s based on the life of Emilia Bassano Lanier, an Anglo-Italian woman who some think was the Dark Lady Shakespeare praised (when not insulting her) in his sonnets. Bassano Lanier was a poet, too. In fact, she was the first female commoner in England to get her poetry published. By “commoner” I don’t mean she was common, though she’s been called that, and worse, especially by cranky mid-century Shakespeare scholars. She lived a colorful life.

You write what's often classified as historical fiction, but it's literary fiction (i.e. character-driven), I think, as much as anything else. Nonetheless, you've set Paint and other novels you've published in the Elizabethan era. What are the pleasures and challenges of writing fiction about people who lived during Shakespeare's, Marlowe's and Queen Elizabeth's time?

It’s fun to follow playwrights around early modern London, and to watch them drawing swords on each other, especially when, as a long-time scholar of Renaissance drama, I think I know what they’re fighting about. And even Queen Liz appears briefly in my novel about Shakespeare, Will, and again (an older version of her) in Paint. But most of my historical fiction, including Paint, moves from Elizabeth’s time into the subsequent, Jacobean era, meaning the time of King James Stuart, Elizabeth’s successor.

I chose the Stuart period partly because the Tudor regime, especially the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, is over-written-about, and partly because the early seventeenth century was full of fascinating danger: poets being thrown in jail for their free public speech, clashes between the decadent royal court and the Puritan Reformers of the city, speculators getting fabulously rich off New World tobacco and adventuring, and, of course, Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies – Macbeth, King Lear, Othello – hitting the stage for the first time. I like to imagine what was happening backstage, and in the taverns, and in the dirty streets. Paint takes place mostly there, in the streets and houses of London in the early seventeenth century, where Emilia is struggling to live independently of a wastrel husband, arguing with printers, having an affair or two.

What other novels informed or inspired the writing of Paint?

I love Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books. I admire first her ability to put a sentence together, and second her ability to show the sixteenth century’s strangeness, rather than simply to tell a modern story peopled by folks dressed up in doublets and farthingales. I admire Anthony Burgess’s ear for Elizabethan-sounding prose in Nothing Like the Sun and A Dead Man in Deptford (though I find his characters nasty). And I’ve been influenced by all Umberto Eco’s novels. His knowledge of his field of expertise, the late medieval period, goes very deep, and I love his craftsmanship and his humor. When I read Baudolino I was laughing out loud. I’m influenced, or try to be, by all writers who write plainly and truthfully, not pretentiously and affectedly. Elizabeth Stroutt’s Olive Kitteridge is one recent book whose brilliance and beauty made me cry. She reminds me of Tobias Wolff. I’m struck by the power and simplicity of Wolff’s short stories (for example, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”). He has my boundless admiration for his clear religious vision, his compassion, and his spare, clear prose. His stories are about something. I wrote him a fan letter.  

What are you working on now, if you don't mind telling us?

I’m just finishing a novel set, again, in that wild Jacobean period, this time focusing on the twelve men and a handful of women involved in the Gunpowder Plot, by which Catholic zealots attempted to blow up the House of Lords when the Protestant king James was in attendance. My main focus is on the relationship between the two chief plotters, Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby. In my view – or, anyway, in my book – they’re driven by nostalgia (or what we might call “medievalism”). The Gunpowder group deeply resists the early modern world, and wants to turn the clock back to Robin Hood’s time, before the Reformation, before Francis Bacon and the dawning Enlightenment. But they’re willing to use some scary modern technology to do it.

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