Friday, May 13, 2016

Interview with Mary Sharratt, author of The Dark Lady's Mask

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Mary Sharratt to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her novel, The Dark Lady's Mask.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Mary. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Dark Lady’s Mask.
Thank you, Erin! It’s a pleasure to be here.

The Dark Lady’s Mask is drawn from the dramatic life of the groundbreaking Renaissance poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanier (also spelled Lanyer)—England’s first professional woman writer.

Aemilia was the highly cultured daughter of an Italian court musician, a man believed to have been a Marrano, or a secret Jew forced to live under the guise of a Christian. Aemilia was one of the most educated women in Tudor and Jacobean England and her 1611 epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews) is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse. She may have also been Shakespeare’s mistress—the mysterious, musical Dark Lady of his sonnets.

My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in her essay A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart?  

In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I explore what happens when a struggling young Shakespeare meets a struggling young woman poet of equal genius and passion.

Without giving anything away, what can you tell us about Aemilia Bassano Lanier? What kind of woman is she? 
Highly intelligent, beautiful, brave, accomplished, passionate, free spoken, with a strong sense of adventure. She is fiercely loyal to those she loves. She’s a keen horsewoman, and in my novel she’s intrepid enough to crossdress to gain the freedoms only men enjoy. But because of her position as an ambitious woman in Renaissance England, a woman of Jewish roots trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage, she’s forced to wear a mask—a whole series of masks throughout her life—to survive and gain a foothold in an unjust world while keeping her true and best self hidden. Only when she finds her voice as a poet does the mask come off.  

What kind of man do you imagine William to be and what does Aemilia see in him? 
When Aemilia first meets Will in 1593, he’s not yet famous. Just a distractingly handsome and brilliant young poet with faraway hazel eyes, filled with yearning intensity. He’s somewhat ragged and down on his luck, and is on the verge of giving up his literary ambitions in London to work as a schoolmaster in the provinces. But Aemilia strikes a literary bargain with him. These two outsiders agree to secretly write comedies together. 

As a novelist, what drew you to this particular period?
As the world is busy celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, my question is, “What about the women?” Why is it that so many people—including very smart and literate people—struggle to name a single woman writer before Jane Austen? My research into the hidden histories of Renaissance women led me to Aemilia, a literary pioneer who deserves a much bigger audience. The Dark Lady’s Mask is my humble attempt to redress the balance. I wanted to write Aemilia back into history, give her a voice, and make her life and work accessible. 

What sort of research went into The Dark Lady’s Mask? What sources did find most valuable? 
I traveled to all locations mentioned in The Dark Lady’s Mask, from Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire where Aemilia was educated, to all the Shakespeare sites in Stratford, and to the various places in greater London mentioned in the novel. 

Shakespeare’s Globe in London was a fantastic resource, not just for Shakespeare’s plays but his entire world. Spending a midsummer night watching the Globe’s performance of As You Like It was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. I was also very inspired by the British Museum’s 2012 exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, which was absolutely riveting.

I made a pilgrimage to Bassano del Grappa and to Venice to explore Aemilia’s ancestral roots. The Jewish Museum in Venice proved indispensable for my research into her father Battista Bassano’s buried history as a Marrano. 

I am deeply indebted to the scholarship of Susanne Woods, whose books Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet and The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum were key texts, both for my research into the documented facts of Lanier’s life and in my appreciation of her poetry. I was also hugely inspired by the work of Lanier scholars Barbara K. Lewalski and Lynette McGrath.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Aemilia, dressed in the guise of a young man, steals away to visit the young Earl of Southampton in his house on a moon-drenched midsummer night’s eve. Will Shakespeare is there, too—a struggling poet desperate for win the Earl’s favor. Aemilia sings and plays the virginals, while Will, both intrigued and bewildered by this accomplished young woman in breeches, seeks to impress the Earl with his epic poem, Venus and Adonis. But the capricious young Earl is more interested in amusing himself by pitting Aemilia and Will against each other. Aemilia and Will are both scalded by his cruelty and find themselves becoming unlikely allies. 

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
I found it very challenging to write the scenes between Aemilia and her husband, Alfonso Lanier. The primary sources suggest it was not the happiest of marriages—Aemilia went to her astrologer complaining how unhappy she was in the relationship. Alfonso married her for her income which he then proceeded to squander, dragging them both into poverty. But I didn’t want to portray him as a one-dimensional tyrant or brute. It took a lot of finessing to find the right balance. Because he was younger than Aemilia, I decided that his insecurity was the root of the problem and that he secretly loved her deep down, but didn’t know how to properly express it. 

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
I wish I could have spent a lot longer with Aemilia when she was living in Cookham Manor with her beloved friend and patron, Margaret Clifford, and Margaret’s daughter, Anne, who was Aemilia’s young pupil. Margaret, more than anyone else, gave Aemilia the courage to become a published poet. This sense of female friendship and solidarity they shared, immortalized in Aemilia’s poetry, is so beautiful and inspiring. Margaret was Aemilia’s Muse. 

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Dark Lady’s Mask and if so, what did you alter? 
I played around a bit with the dates, particularly the date of Aemilia’s first visit to Simon Forman, her astrologer. There’s no historical evidence that Aemilia ever crossdressed, but I have her doing so in my fiction because it was so much fun to style her like Shakespeare’s free-wheeling heroine Rosalind in As You Like It. Most controversially, I have Aemilia and Will collaborating on early versions of his early comedies. While this might upset some bardolators, Stratfordian scholars concede that Shakespeare sometimes worked with collaborators. So why not a beautiful woman collaborator who happened to be his lover? What else was he supposed to be doing during his lost years? 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? 
Definitely Aemilia. I spent four years trying to live inside her skin, so there would be no greater joy than to join her on a starlit, midsummer eve and share a flagon of good Veneto wine with her while listening to her regale me with her many tales. 

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Dark Lady’s Mask, who would you hire?
For Aemilia I’m torn between British indie actresses Andrea Riseborough and Kaya Scodelario (Kaya gets bonus points for having Italian heritage), or someone with the sensual but smart presence of Eva Green of Penny Dreadful fame. For Will, I could cast an up and coming heart throb like the achingly handsome Christian Cooke. But my personal favorite for Will is actor Gwilym Lee, best known to British audiences from the Midsomer Murders series. Gwilym is tall and lean enough to make me think of a yearning young Shakespeare who’s not famous yet. 

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
My new work-in-progress, Ecstasy: A Novel of Alma Mahler, is about another accomplished, creative woman who was overshadowed by the men in her life. Once an aspiring young composer, Alma Schindler was celebrated as the most beautiful girl in Vienna. The great Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight, but it was Mahler’s demand that Alma give up composing as a condition of their marriage that gave rise to her shocking and radical transformation into a woman who insisted on living life on her own terms, her own woman to the last.

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“An exquisite portrait of a Renaissance woman pursuing her artistic destiny in England and Italy, who may — or may not — be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.”
— Margaret George, internationally bestselling author of Elizabeth I 

“The Dark Lady’s Mask is a richly imagined, intensely romantic and meticulously researched homage to lauded poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer. . . Sharratt unfolds a captivating tale, a compelling ‘what if ’ scenario, of a secret union that fed the creative fires of England’s greatest poet and playwright.”
— Kathleen Kent, bestselling author of The Heretic’s Daughter

“Perfectly chosen details and masterful characterization bring to life this swiftly moving, elegant story. As atmospheric and compelling as it is wise, The Dark Lady’s Mask is a gem not to be missed.”
— Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End

“Mary Sharratt is a magician. This novel transports the reader to Elizabethan England with a tale of the bard and his love that is nothing short of amazing. Absorbing, emotional, historically fascinating. A work of marvelous ingenuity!”
— M.J. Rose, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch of Painted Sorrows 

“I enjoyed this exciting fantasy of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady.’ There was adventure, betrayal, resilience, and above all, the fun notion that Shakespeare might have had far more than a muse to help him create his wonderful plays.”
—Karleen Koen, bestselling author of Dark Angels and Before Versailles

“The Dark Lady’s Mask beautifully depicts the exhilaration and pitfalls of subterfuge, a gifted woman’s precarious reliance on the desires of powerful men, and the toll paid by unrecognized artistic collaborators. Resonant and moving.”
—Mitchell James Kaplan, author of By Fire, By Water

“Romantic, heart-breaking, and rich in vivid historical detail and teeming Elizabethan life, the novel forms an elegant tapestry of the complexities, joys, and sorrows of being both a female and an artist.”
—Karen Essex, author of Leonardo’s Swans and Dracula in Love

“Mary Sharratt has created an enchanting Elizabethan heroine, a musician, the orphaned daughter of a Jewish Italian refugee who must hide her heritage for her safety. . . Aemilia has wit and daring and poetry inside her that will make her a match for young Will Shakespeare himself.”
—Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

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Mary Sharratt’s explorations into the hidden histories of Renaissance women compelled her to write her most recent work, THE DARK LADY’S MASK (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016), based on the dramatic life of the ground-breaking poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanier.

Born in Minnesota, Mary now lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers.

Previously she lived for twelve years in Germany. This, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write her award-winning ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, which explores the dramatic life of the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, polymath, and powerfrau.

Winner of the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award, the 2005 WILLA Literary Award, and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, Mary has also written the novels SUMMIT AVENUE, THE REAL MINERVA, THE VANISHING POINT, and co-edited the subversive fiction anthology BITCH LIT, which celebrates female anti-heroes–strong women who break all the rules. Her short fiction has been published in Twin Cities Noir and elsewhere.

She is currently at work on ECSTASY: A NOVEL OF ALMA MAHLER, exploring the life of one of the most intriguing women of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Mary’s articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, Minnesota Magazine, and Historical Novels Review. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually riding her spirited Welsh mare through the Lancashire countryside.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  GoodreadsBlog

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