Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Presenting Samuel Black . . . And don't miss the giveaway!

Tomorrow is the last day to sign up to win a copy of The Ground is Burning by Samuel Black. Don't miss out! In the meantime, here's your chance to "meet" the author.

Samuel Black is a debut historical fiction novelist who was born in London and raised in France. In The Ground is Burning, set in Renaissance Italy, Black weaves a gripping story out of the intertwining lives of Cesare Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. I'm proud to announce that I've scored an interview with the author, so sit back and enjoy while I pick Mr. Black's brain.

Who wouldn't want to be this
scruffy-looking nerf-herder?
First, let's get to know you a little bit better. If you were a character in Star Wars, who would you be and why?

Han Solo, because he gets to be a hero without acting like a choirboy. And he gets Princess Leia, of course.

OK, I'll ignore the fact that you've just given the most common and un-original answer to that question, because I know you've written an uncommonly original book. What initially sparked your interest and led you to write The Ground is Burning?

Leonardo da Vinci:
The Original Renaissance Man
I was reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Charles Nicholl. At the time I’d begun writing a different novel, but I was struggling with it. I was reading about Leonardo purely out of curiosity, but then I came upon a short chapter that described a little-known moment in the artist’s life when he shared a series of castles with, among others, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia. I remember being astounded by this – I hadn’t even known the three men were contemporaries. Better still, the story had a classic narrative arc, ending in two bloody climaxes on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It even had a beautiful young noblewoman, who’d been kidnapped by Borgia. It was just like a novel! To my amazement, however, I discovered that nobody had written a novel on this subject. So I decided to do it myself. I gave up on the other novel I was writing that very day, and began this one instead.

You enjoy reading. Is your choice of reading material reflected in what you've written?

Yes and no. I do love some historical fiction – Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety is one of my favourite novels of any kind – but a lot of it, as with most genres, is fairly clichéd and dull. So I certainly read a lot of fiction which appears to have nothing to do with what I’ve written in this book. Then again, appearances can be deceptive: the voice of Cesare Borgia, for instance, was partly influenced by James Ellroy’s prose in The Cold Six Thousand, while the overall feel of my story owes as much to Coppola’s Godfather movies as to anything more overtly historical.

Tell us about the research you did for The Ground is Burning.

Senigallia, Italy: Setting of the novel's climactic scene
Photo by Samuel Black
I spent a whole year reading every secondhand book I could find on the subject and the period – including the books that my heroes read themselves (Dante, Livy, Plutarch, Lucretius, Julius Caesar etc). In retrospect, I probably overdid this, although I figure it’ll come in useful one day. The best part of the research, by a long way, was a three-week trip round Italy that I took in October 2008, following in the footsteps of my characters: that really made the history come alive for me.

Of your three main characters, who do you identify with most strongly? (Keeping my fingers crossed that you don't say Cesare. He was awful. My guess is Machiavelli.) Did you have a favorite character?

Cesare Borgia: Not a nice guy
I wrote from the perspective of all three of the major characters, and to do that you obviously have to identify with them. This was admittedly easier with Leonardo and Machiavelli, who were both essentially decent human beings, than it was with Cesare Borgia. But I must confess I quite enjoyed inhabiting the Evil One. He was clearly a monster, but he had a certain style.

Machiavelli certainly seemed admiring of Cesare Borgia in spite of (sometimes even because of) Borgia's brutality, and yet you managed to make Machiavelli's admiration palatable. What was behind your decision to downplay Machaivelli's cold-bloodedness and enhance his appeal?

Machiavelli: Not the man you
know by reputation
I don’t think it’s a question of downplaying Machiavelli’s cold-bloodedness, but of writing about the man rather than extrapolating from his most famous work, The Prince. If you read his plays, his poetry and particularly his letters, it’s obvious that Machiavelli was not cold-blooded at all: he was very funny, he loved his family, he was loyal to his friends, and he fell in love easily and frequently. All of that is against his reputation, but that’s because his reputation is wrong.

How historically accurate is your book? Where did you take the greatest liberties?

All of the essential events and circumstances are true, all of the characters are real people, and many of the smaller details are based on historical fact as well. Obviously I have imagined/invented the characters’ thoughts and relationships and dialogue, but I have contradicted history only once in any notable way – and that was one of the central plot lines, which just fell flat when I wrote it in a historically accurate way. It is a work of fiction, so I make no apologies for changing that, but at the same time the original story was so dramatic and novel-like that it seemed perverse to make up more than I needed to. There’s a historical note at the end of the book explaining what is factual and what invented.

Do you have any future projects in the works?

The mysterious Marlowe
Yes, my next book will be about the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in London in 1593. I think it’s going to be a detective novel, although I haven’t begun writing it yet: I’m still at the research stage.

I can't wait to read it! No rush or anything, but hurry every chance you get. One last question for you: Would you rather be on the team that wins the 2014 World Cup but afterwards lose your eyesight for the rest of your life, OR be a famous detective who lives in the arctic every winter?

Ha, what a cruel question! Much as I’d love to be a famous detective, there is no way I could live in the Arctic every winter for the rest of my life. I really don’t like long, cold, dark winters. Give me blindness in a warm climate to an unending vision of bleak whiteness any day!

There he is, folks. Samuel Black. His first novel, The Ground is Burning, will be released on February 3 (that's Thursday!) by Faber & Faber, and can be pre-ordered from now. Meanwhile, check out this related article Mr. Black wrote about the sort of fame that lasts for centuries.


Kay said...

I'm looking forward to reading THE GROUND IS BURNING soon. Have entered the giveaway.

What a question, Kathy, about the World Cup or the Arctic! I'm with Samuel, don't want those cold winters. Texas girl here. LOL

Kathy said...

Hey, Kay, it's good to see you back! I'm sorry you didn't win the giveaway, but I do hope you get your hands on a copy of the book.

P.S. What do you think of the weather in Texas right now? I'm ready to hibernate!!

Amanda said...

Wait, did you really interview him? I thought it was something you found and pasted in. If you did, what was the significance of the Star Wars question??

Kathy said...

Haha! Yeah, I really did interview him! How impressed are ya now? ;) Of course it was just by email, not in person or anything. There was no amazing significance to the Star Wars question. Just trying to get a feel for his personality, and to inject a little humor.

Amanda said...

I am totally impressed with all your connections!!

Let me say that I enjoyed the interview and I look forward to reading the book. And I figured it was a break the ice question, but then I thought who else would he pick, Chewbacca? Heck, I'd want to be Han Solo too!

'Course my son would pick Anakin, what does that say for our future!?

Kathy said...

Don't underestimate the power of Darth Vader. He was a badass.