Sarah Dunant Interview

Sarah DunantThe Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is a work of historical fiction set in 15th Century Florence, a time of enormous political, religious and artistic upheaval. This is an unforgettable story that reads like a thriller and contains a “goldmine” of discussion topics for your book club. The following interview with Ms. Dunant was conducted by Kate Larson, who coordinates Book Clubs at Book Passage. 

Book Passage: How did you choose 15th Century Florence as the setting for The Birth of Venus?

Sarah Dunant: Actually it was the other way around: the city chose me. While I had known and loved Florence for many years, three years ago as a result of a rather traumatic end to a love affair (it ended in a restaurant just off of Piazza Santa Croce) I decided to buy a small apartment there where I could stay sometimes and write. Over the next few months as I visited and walked and read more I began to imagine what it must have been like to live in Florence during that extraordinary moment in the 15th century when the city was ruled by the magnificent and ruthless Medici family, whose wealth and patronage brought in a new era of learning and art. It was a moment which gave Europe some of her greatest painters, sculptors, and architects and laid some of the philosophic foundations of the modern world. But it was also a moment of high fashion, outrageous wealth, deadly power politics and religious persecution. All in all it was the stuff of a great novel—if only one could find the right way to tell it.

B.P.: I loved Alessandra's sometimes "cheeky" attitude and felt great compassion and fear for her. How did her character evolve for you? Did you always envision her as a frustrated artist?

Sarah Dunant: No. She grew originally out of something more personal, something closer to me. During that first summer I spent in Florence when I was reading and walking the streets my daughters came out to join me. They were aged 10 and 13 at the time. As I walked through the streets of Florence with one on each arm I realized there was something missing in all this history I had been reading. And that something was women. Where in all this creativity and fame and hot house of learning were they? And so Alessandra was born, created as a kind of homage to my daughters and all those women who didn't make it into history. It was my attempt to imagine life for them 500 years ago; how young women of intelligence, wit, education (because women of good breeding were educated then) and talent might have tried to make their way as artists in what was, par excellence, a man's world. The challenge was to make my Alessandra believable to a modern audience without making her a modern girl. To envisage what it would be like to live in a world circumscribed by God and family and duty, but to also yearn for something more, while having no way of achieving it.

B.P.: I had planned to ask how you managed to sustain a sense of danger, suspense and menace throughout the book but then I learned that you are an award-winning thriller writer. How did this major change of direction come about?

Sarah Dunant:
I think for a while I had been frustrated with the thriller form. While I absolutely love it's compulsive nature—how a good thriller picks you up on the first page and refuses to put you down till the last, often the grip is so tight that you read too fast and there is not enough room for subtlety or ambiguity and complexity, all of which make up life. The last two novels I had written before this, Transgressions and Mapping The Edge, while technically thrillers, had both in their own way been pushing at the envelope, trying to do something different. I knew when I finished the last that I had to try something new. I just didn't know what. For a while I got anxious I would never write again. Then came Florence and the floodgates of my imagination opened. But I also want to say the skills I learned from thrillers, how to construct a compelling story, how to hold the reader, how to play with them, how to not let you want to put the book down, all these have not deserted me; they have I hope, simply been used on a bigger canvas.

B.P.: The prologue to "The Birth of Venus" is shocking and unforgettable. At what point did you envision this scene?

Sarah Dunant:
Oh this is a great question, and the answer will sound unbelievable, but it's true. I wrote the prologue to convince myself that I could write the book. I had by then done so much research, so much thinking, so much structuring. I thought I knew my characters and some of their journeys, but I was simply too scared to start. I had never written about the past and wasn't sure I could do it. So one night—my kids were away—and I had a whole weekend to myself, I sat down and wrote this portrait of a nun in a convent at the end of her life. The more I wrote the more gothic it became. The more exciting. And by the time I had finished it and I had the image of the snake with the human head (which comes straight out of a number of religious paintings) I knew that I could write about the past and that I had one hell of a great beginning (that's the thriller writer in me coming out, I suspect).

There are so many rich discussion topics in this book. Could you narrow it down for our book clubs by posing a few discussion points?

Sarah Dunant: I suspect the book gives some idea of the things that fascinated me most:

I questioned how women could have found satisfaction in moments of history where they had no power. How one could imagine being a woman in such an age. How convents (the one in the book is based on research, an amalgam of many stories I read) though they might look restrictive, could actually have been a kind of haven for women's creativity and self-determination.

Equally the position of gay people is fascinating. There was something very interesting going on in the past. At one level the church rules everything: sets out what is acceptable and what isn't; defines sin, threatens hell. But at another level many people "sin" a great deal. They live their lives knowing they are risking hell, yet they continue. I am very interested in how they did this. It seems to me that sin was as much a part of life as God was. And somehow they lived side by side. Interestingly, the Florentine State policed homosexuality very leniently in the 15th century. And the very fact that the priests rail about it, makes one realize how relatively common it was. In fact, of course, the church needs sin as much as sinners do. Just in a different way!